Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are experts in what makes democracies healthy — and what leads to their collapse. They warn that American democracy is in trouble.
.. And you note that there have been figures in American political history that could be regarded as dangerous demagogues and that they’ve been kept out of major positions of power because we’ve had gatekeepers – people who somehow controlled who got access to the top positions of power – presidential nominations, for example. You want to give us some examples of this?
LEVISKY: Sure. Henry Ford was an extremist, somebody who was actually written about favorably in “Mein Kampf.” He flirted with a presidential bid in 1923, thinking about the 1924 race, and had a lot of support, particularly in the Midwest. Huey Long obviously never had the chance to run for president. He was assassinated before that.
DAVIES: He was the governor of Louisiana, right?
LEVISKY: Governor of Louisiana, senator and a major national figure – probably rivaled really only by Roosevelt at the end of his life in terms of popularity. George Wallace in 1968, and again in 1972 before he was shot, had levels of public support and public approval that are not different – not much different from Donald Trump. So throughout the 20th century, we’ve had a number of figures who had 35, 38, 40 percent public support, who were demagogues, who didn’t have a strong commitment to democratic institutions, in some cases were quite antidemocratic, but who were kept out of mainstream politics by the parties themselves.
The parties never even came close to nominating any of these figures for president. What was different about 2016 was not that Trump was new or that he would get a lot of support but that he was nominated by major party. That’s what was new.
.. And so our behavior needs to be guided by informal rules, by norms. And we focus on two of them in particular – what we call mutual toleration, which is really, really fundamental in any democracy, which is simply that among the major parties, there’s an acceptance that their rivals are legitimate, that we may disagree with the other side. We may really dislike the other side. But at the end of the day, we recognize publicly – and we tell this to our followers – that the other side is equally patriotic, and that it can govern legitimately. That’s one.
The other one is what we call forbearance, which is restraint in the exercise of power. And that’s a little bit counterintuitive. We don’t usually think about forbearance in politics, but it’s absolutely central. Think about what the president can do under the Constitution. The president can pardon anybody he wants at any time. The president can pack the Supreme Court. If the president has a majority in Congress – which many presidents do – and the president doesn’t like the makeup of the Supreme Court, he could pass a law expanding the court to 11 or 13 and fill with allies – again, he needs a legislative majority – but can do it. FDR tried.
The president can, in many respects, rule by decree. If Congress is blocking his agenda, he can use a series of proclamations or executive orders to make policy at the margins of Congress. What it takes for those institutions to work properly is restraint on the part of politicians. Politicians have to underutilize their power. And most of our politicians – most of our leaders have done exactly that. That’s not written down in the Constitution.
.. You know, it’s interesting. I think one of the things that people say when people warn that Donald Trump or someone else could undermine American democracy and lead us to an authoritarian state is we’re different from other countries in the strength of our commitment to democratic institutions. And I’m interested to what extent you think that’s true.
.. The creed to which Daniel refers and the initial establishment of strong democratic norms in this country was founded in a homogeneous society, a racially and culturally homogeneous society. It was founded in an era of racial exclusion. And the challenge is that we have now become a much more ethnically, culturally diverse society, taken major steps towards racial equality, and the challenge is making those norms stick in this new context.
.. this is this great paradox – tragic paradox, really – that we recount in the book, which is that the consolidation of these norms, which we think are so important to democratic life of mutual toleration and forbearance, were re-established, really, at the price of racial exclusion. I mean, there was a way in which the end of Reconstruction – when Reconstruction was a great democratic effort and experiment – and it was a moment of democratic breakthrough for the United States where voting rights were extended to African-Americans. At the end of Reconstruction throughout the U.S. South, states implemented a variety of reforms to reduce the right to vote – essentially, to eliminate the right to vote for African-Americans. And so after the 1870s, American democracy was by no means actually really a full democracy. And we really think that American democracy came – really, it was a consolidated democracy really only after 1965.
.. It’s difficult to find a precise date. But we look at the 1990s and, particularly, the rise of the Gingrich Republicans. Newt Gingrich really advocated and taught his fellow Republicans how to use language that begins to sort of call into question mutual toleration, using language like betrayal and sick and pathetic and antifamily and anti-American to describe their rivals.
And Gingrich also introduced an era or helped introduce – it was not just Newt Gingrich – an era of unprecedented, at least during that period in the century, hardball politics. So you saw a couple of major government shutdowns for the first time in the 1990s and, of course, the partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton, which was one of the first major acts – I mean, that is not forbearance. That is the failure to use restraint.
.. DAVIES: And did Democrats react in ways that accelerated the erosion of the norms?
LEVISKY: Sure. In Congress, there was a sort of tit-for-tat escalation in which, you know, one party begins to employ the filibuster. For decades, the filibuster was a very, very little-used tool. It was almost never used. It was used, on average, one or two times per Congressional session, per Congressional period – two-year period – so once a year. And then it gradually increased in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s.
.. It was both parties. So one party starts to play by new rules, and the other party response. So it’s a spiraling effect, an escalation in which each party became more and more obstructionist in Congress. Each party did – took additional steps either to block legislation, because it could, or to block appointments, particularly judicial appointments. You know, Harry Reid and the Democrats played a role in this in George W. Bush’s presidency – really sort of stepped up obstructionism.
.. So there’s this kind of spiral, you know, which is really ominous, where one side plays hardball by holding up nominations, holding up legislation in Congress, and there’s a kind of stalemate. And so the other side feels justified in using executive orders and presidential memos and so on. These also are – you know, have been utilized by Barack Obama. So there’s a way in which politicians, on both sides, are confronted with a real dilemma, which is, you know, if one side seems to be breaking the rules, and so why shouldn’t we? If we don’t, we’re kind of being the sucker here.
.. We think that the most egregious sort of pushing of the envelope began with Republicans, particularly in the 1990s and that the most egregious acts of hardball have taken place at the hands of Republicans. I’ll just list four –
- the partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton,
- the 2003 mid-district redistricting in Texas, which was pushed by Tom DeLay,
- the denial – essentially, the theft of a Supreme Court seat with the refusal to even take up the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 and
- the so-called legislative coup pulled off by the Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina in 2016.
.. there’s two real things that Donald – President Trump has done that make us worry. One is his politicization of the rule of law or of law enforcement intelligence. And so you know, we – in a democracy, law enforcement intelligence have to be neutral. And what he has tried to do with the FBI, with the attorney general’s office is to try to turn law enforcement into a kind of shield to protect him and a weapon to go after his opponents. And this is something that authoritarians always do. They try to transform neutral institutions into their favor. And you know, he’s had some success of it. There’s been lots of resistance as well, though, from – you know, from Congress and from society and media reporting on this and so on. But this is one worrying thing.
A second worrying thing is – that you just described as well is his effort to – his continued effort to delegitimize media and the election process. So he – so one of the things that we worried about a lot in the book was the setting up – and we describe how – the process by which this happened – the setting-up of electoral commission to investigate election fraud.
Mr. Lewis charged Mr. McCain and Sarah Palin with “sowing the seeds of hatred and division” in their fervently red-meat rallies, not unlike “a governor of the State of Alabama named George Wallace” whose race-bating rhetoric
.. Mr. Lewis’s authority to chastise Mr. McCain comes not from his Bloody Sunday stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, but rather from his subsequent record on the hustings. His mettle was tested not only in Selma but also in three tough campaigns, characterized by tactics of personal destruction.
.. Peaceful marchers found themselves shadowed by a volunteer bodyguard of shotgun-wielding black militants, and a group known as the Atlanta Separatists was demanding that all whites be expelled from the civil rights leadership.
.. Things came to a head at SNCC’s convention in May that year, when late-night, back-room maneuvering elevated Stokely Carmichael to the chairmanship, ousting Mr. Lewis. Whites were purged from the organization, and its longtime white supporters were vilified. Carmichael’s successor, H. Rap Brown, changed the group’s name to Student National Coordinating Committee and directly advocated violence.
.. In 1982, Mr. Lewis, along with other newly elected black Atlanta city councilmen, faced sound trucks rolling through their neighborhoods accusing them of race treason for not supporting a major road project favored by Mayor Andrew Young. Mr. Lewis stood his ground.
..In his first bid for Congress, in 1986 .. .. He fought his way into office by outworking his opponent and — eloquently enough — outdebating him. He brought to Congress not only a visceral understanding of what it’s like to be clubbed into unconsciousness, but also a deep familiarity with the damage inflicted by take-no-prisoners political campaigning.
.. As a circuit court judge in the 1950s, Wallace was respectful toward blacks, and as a legislator from 1947 to 1953, he was a moderate. In 1948, when Strom Thurmond led the Southern delegations out of the Democratic convention to protest the party’s pioneer civil rights plank, Wallace stayed in his seat. Though no fan of the plank, he was yet more Democrat than demagogue, and was instrumental in rallying the other Southern alternate delegates to save the convention’s quorum, and pass its platform.
.. He might have carried a tolerant message into the Alabama governor’s mansion in 1958, but he lost the race after spurning the support of the Ku Klux Klan (which then backed his primary opponent, John Patterson)
.. Sadly for Wallace’s state, his region, his nation and himself, he did not respond as John Lewis did after his defeat by Carmichael. Mr. Lewis, whenever confronted with calls to divisiveness, chose to redouble his commitment to reason and tolerance. After his loss to Mr. Patterson, Wallace is said to have turned to an aide and declared, “I was out-niggered … and I’ll never be out-niggered again.”
.. In the final debate of this presidential campaign, faced with John McCain’s demand that he repudiate Mr. Lewis’s analogy, Barack Obama said he didn’t think his opponent was another George Wallace, and that sounds reasonable if you assume Mr. Lewis was referring to Wallace the vile racist, not the more tragic Wallace, the one-time straight campaigner who bartered conviction for expedience when he thought a raw appeal to division could gain him crucial votes... Mr. Lewis might be deemed generous in wishing on no other member of his profession the harrowed look I witnessed in George Wallace’s eyes as he struggled up off the floor in Boston and beheld what a hell he’d wrought.
The fundamental reason Trump isn’t a Republican is far bigger than words or policies. He stands in opposition to the founding principle of our party — that of a united country.
.. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln, and our founding principle is our commitment to holding the nation together. This brought us into being just before the Civil War. The first resolution of the platform at the party’s first national convention states in part that “the union of the States must and shall be preserved.”
.. Now comes Trump, who is exactly what Republicans are not, who is exactly what we have opposed in our 160-year history. We are the party of the Union, and he is the most divisive president in our history. There hasn’t been a more divisive person in national politics since George Wallace.
.. It isn’t a matter of occasional asides, or indiscreet slips of the tongue uttered at unguarded moments. Trump is always eager to tell people that they don’t belong here, whether it’s Mexicans, Muslims, transgender people or another group. His message is, “You are not one of us,” the opposite of “e pluribus unum.” And when he has the opportunity to unite Americans, to inspire us, to call out the most hateful among us, the KKK and the neo-Nazis, he refuses.
.. But our party has been corrupted by this hateful man, and it is now in peril.
.. we Republicans must disassociate ourselves from Trump by expressing our opposition to his divisive tactics and by clearly and strongly insisting that he does not represent what it means to be a Republican.