How Democ­ra­cies Die

Smith Journal - - Contents - As told to Taz Liff­man

Har­vard pro­fes­sor Steven Le­vit­sky has a wor­ri­some prog­no­sis for the state of democ­racy.

BE­FORE THE END OF THE COLD WAR, MOST DEMOC­RA­CIES DIED BY THE GUN. FROM PINOCHET’S CHILE TO FRANCO’S SPAIN, AROUND THREE OF EV­ERY FOUR DEMO­CRATIC BREAK­DOWNS TRAN­SPIRED WITH THE MIL­I­TARY SEIZ­ING POWER.

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It was pretty black and white, and what hap­pened next was fore­see­able: the con­sti­tu­tion would be dis­solved, the elected gov­ern­ment dis­pensed with, and the demo­crat­i­cally in­stalled leader jailed, ex­iled or killed.

But since the end of the Cold War, democ­ra­cies have tended to be killed from within rather than with­out – and their ex­e­cu­tion­ers have usu­ally been the lead­ers elected by these very demo­cratic pro­cesses. It’s more ef­fec­tive to dis­man­tle a democ­racy than over­throw it, be­cause work­ing within democ­racy’s ar­chi­tec­ture lets you cus­tomise your power. Done subtly, the pop­u­lace won’t even no­tice what’s hap­pen­ing un­til it’s too late. For in­stance, as late as 2012, over a decade af­ter Chávez was first elected, most Venezue­lans still be­lieved their coun­try to be a democ­racy.

You can’t al­ways iden­tify an as­pir­ing au­to­crat in ad­vance, but there are four warn­ing signs to look for. The first is that a leader look­ing to es­tab­lish au­thor­i­tar­ian rule tends to ques­tion the rules of the game. They might say they’ll not ac­cept the out­come of an elec­tion, for ex­am­ple. The next is that they’ll of­ten state their in­tent to vi­o­late ba­sic civil lib­er­ties, promis­ing to lock up their po­lit­i­cal ri­vals or con­trary jour­nal­ists. The third sign is the pro­mo­tion, ac­cep­tance or con­don­ing of vi­o­lence on the cam­paign trail. Fourth is their open de­nial of their po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent’s right to run for of­fice. A fun­da­men­tal norm of democ­racy is ac­cept­ing the le­git­i­macy of one’s ri­val, so deny­ing that in a cam­paign is a se­ri­ous over­step.

Of re­cent elected lead­ers, Chávez and Trump have ticked boxes on all of these counts, and Turkey’s Er­do­gan would qual­ify on some of them. It’s not a hard­boiled rule – Hun­gary’s Or­bán is a tougher case, as he started off on a fairly lib­eral path – but most au­to­crats show signs of au­thor­i­tar­ian in­tent be­fore be­ing demo­crat­i­cally elected. Cor­rea in Ecuador and Or­tega in Nicaragua are other ex­am­ples. Indira Gandhi is vir­tu­ally the only ex­am­ple of an au­to­crat­i­cally in­clined woman.

Once in power, al­most all of these lead­ers make an ef­fort to ‘cap­ture the ref­er­ees’. That is, they try to make the in­sti­tu­tions of law – the courts, the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, the law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties – an­swer­able to them. This is a great strat­egy for a tyrant, be­cause if you con­trol the state’s in­ves­tiga­tive bod­ies, you and your gov­ern­ment have ef­fec­tively se­cured le­gal pro­tec­tion. It also means you have the law as a weapon to use against your ri­vals. In the era of in­ter­na­tional scru­tiny and NGO sur­veil­lance, it’s more valu­able to have a judge in your pocket than a gen­eral.

It can be very tempt­ing to re­gard such men as lit­tle more than power-hun­gry, self-serv­ing despots, but we can never re­ally know the mix that’s in any­body’s heart – and that goes for tyrants too. Some re­cent lead­ers have ended up au­thor­i­tar­ian be­cause they were po­lit­i­cally in­ex­pe­ri­enced, felt be­sieged and weren’t overly com­mit­ted to democ­racy (Fu­ji­mori of Peru and Trump would fit this model). But there is also a chance they do gen­uinely be­lieve that what they’re do­ing is in the na­tional in­ter­est. If you look at the cur­rent suite of au­to­crats, ev­ery one of them has pre­sented them­selves as pur­su­ing the pub­lic good. They might claim to be pack­ing the courts be­cause the courts are cor­rupt, re-jig­ging the elec­toral sys­tem be­cause it’s flawed, ar­rest­ing the me­dia be­cause they lie or go­ing af­ter cer­tain folk be­cause they’re ter­ror­ists.

Ques­tion­able as these claims may be, it’s im­por­tant to recog­nise that sub­stan­tial com­po­nents of the pop­u­la­tion have bought in to them. Be­cause, like it or not, these lead­ers have been elected, and for that to hap­pen, vot­ers must first have grown dis­il­lu­sioned with the sta­tus quo. It could be dis­con­tent with the way democ­racy is work­ing, dis­con­tent with the po­lit­i­cal par­ties or dis­con­tent with the econ­omy. A pop­ulist leader de­tects and feeds off this dis­con­tent, promis­ing to take a wreck­ing ball to the sys­tem as a means of solv­ing these prob­lems. Which, in­vari­ably, pop­ulism is not equipped to do. And that’s when the real trou­bles start. •

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