Book Review of “How Democracies Die” – Guardians at the Gate

how democracies die

“The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”

In my last post, I discussed how authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, show how certain democracies have failed worldwide (e.g. those in Germany, Italy, and Venezuela).  Some countries, however, have successfully prevented democratic decay when threatened by authoritarianism.

Belgium is one. In the economically depressed 1930s, Belgium resisted an urge to swing toward fascism. Two far-right parties, the Rex Party and the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, surged in Belgian polls. (The leader of the Rex Party later collaborated with the Nazis.) Belgian centrist parties appeared to be in retreat. The mainstream Catholic Party was partly sympathetic with the popular Rexists, and could have joined with them. Instead, it went in the opposite direction.

The Catholics weeded out pro-Rexist candidates.  They also employed Rexist-style propaganda techniques, and created an anti-Rexist “Catholic Youth Front.” Their most effective gatekeeping technique, however, was to ally with the Belgian Socialist Party and Liberal Party behind leader Paul van Zeeland, to create a robust coalition that sidelined the Rexists. (At least, until the Nazis invaded Belgium.)

Similar gatekeeping occurred in Finland, when an extreme-right Lapua Movement surfaced in 1929. Finland’s more moderate conservatives pulled together to snuff out this “brief burst of fascism.”

More recently, in 2016 in Austria, the main center-right party (Austrian People’s Party) had an opportunity, but refused to ally with the ideologically similar but anti-immigrant, radical-right Freedom Party of Austria, ultimately defeating it.

(Notice how these various right-wing extremists were all toppled, not by their ideological opposites – liberals and socialists – but by moderates and fellow conservatives who were ideologically similar.)


Emblem of Finnish Lapua Movement

And America has its own laudable record of squelching extremists. Henry Ford, radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace were all enormously popular with certain segments of America. But Ford, Coughlin, and Lindbergh were virulent anti-Semites, Wallace was a Southern racist and segregationist, and McCarthy was a rabid and reckless Red-baiter. (Long was assassinated, but some historians claim the “Kingfish,” who claimed he was the Constitution, had all the characteristics of a demagogue.) All of these men had political ambitions, and some succeeded at the state level. None, however, were able to progress beyond their current stations, chiefly due to a strong U.S. party system that prevented it.  (McCarthy was ultimately censured and disgraced. He began drinking heavily, became addicted to heroin, and died at age 48.)

As mentioned earlier, America’s best gatekeepers are our political parties. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that, ironically, the oft-citicized “smoke-filled room” of party bosses serves to weed out extremists that otherwise might threaten democracy. They say there’s always a tension between “will of the people” (which Alexander Hamilton warned about, and which has resulted in figures like Long, Wallace, and Trump) and too much gatekeeping, such as elite party leaders.

But democratic gatekeepers aren’t limited to political parties; they also include political institutions and non-political figures. To illustrate this, the authors draw parallels between democracy and a soccer game. A fair soccer game involves referees, rules, and equal opponents. When any one of these gatekeepers is debilitated, the game can tilt.

Referees: Who are the referees in politics? The judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Without strong referees, the authors argue, “The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured.” He can buy off opponents (including those in the media), pack the courts, and threaten impeachment of justices.


Anti-Semitic radio host Father Charles Coughlin (photo Detroit Free Press)

Opponents: Once referees are in tow, autocrats then turn to their opponents. However, the authors say that most contemporary autocrats don’t wipe out all dissent, such as Mussolini or Castro did, but merely sideline “key players” opposed to their government. These players include opposition politicians, business leaders, and cultural or religious figures who have good standing with the populace.

Rules: To entrench power, autocrats must also change the rules of the game, such as altering constitutions and electoral systems to tilt the playing field against opponents. Example: post-Reconstruction Southern states. To circumvent the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Southern white Democrats used anti-democratic poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent blacks from voting, which consolidated white power in the South for a hundred years.

“Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled—even as it happens before their eyes.”

How Democracies Die points out that autocrats often take advantage of national crises, which allow them to break free from democratic institutions, often legally. Defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.

Example 1: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, was an outright subversion of democracy, and a black mark in an otherwise exemplary presidency.

Example 2: after 911, the controversial USA Patriot Act, signed into law by George W. Bush, “never would have passed had the September 11 attacks not occurred the previous month.” But Americans, including a bipartisan Congress, gave Bush a pass.

And then there are those leaders that invent crisis, like Adolf Hitler. No one knows for certain whether, as Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels claimed, a communist Dutchman set fire to the Reichstag on February 27, 1933. Some historians believe the Nazis did it themselves. Nonetheless, it ushered in a thunderstorm of Nazi barbarism that didn’t end until a dozen years later.

(To be continued)


Burning of the German Reichstag


Edward Snowden vs. NSA: Nobody’s Right if Everybody’s Wrong


For the past month we’ve seen a showdown between the U.S. government and a whistleblower named Edward Snowden.  Snowden is now on the lam and enjoying the benevolent protection of that citadel of human rights… Russia.  He skipped there not long after being a guest of honor in Hong Kong.  Now he’s looking for sanctuary in whatever country will take him – at this stage, possibly Venezuela.

Snowden is the U.S. government intelligence contractor who quit his job at Booz Allen Hamilton and fled to Hong Kong with loads of top-secret files tucked under his arm.  The 30-year-old went on a one-man crusade to expose how the National Security Agency (NSA) is amassing loads of personal information on American citizens; the NSA’s stated goal being to stifle potential acts of terrorism.  Snowden thinks the government’s massive surveillance has gone too far.  A boisterous Greek chorus is joining him.

This news story is interesting to me, because for the first time in a while, partisan lines are blurred.  Snowden’s defenders include a motley mix of anti-government, Obama-hating Republican-Libertarians, and free-speech, pro-democracy civil liberty groups.  His critics, on the other hand, include both the Obama White House and Republican hawks in Congress.  I’m just not used to seeing Sen. Lindsay Graham holding hands with President Obama.  This isn’t the way Washington typically works.

The story is also puzzling because, although a lot of Americans are now appalled at the 60-year-old NSA’s invasion of privacy, their elected leaders in Congress gave the green light years ago for domestic collection of information (not many people, including me, watch C-Span).  And many seemingly outraged citizens have no problem sharing their birthday, phone number, family photos, employment, education, religious and political affiliation, shopping preferences, etc. on Facebook.

After 9/11, Americans were very indulgent with the executive branch.  Congress granted the Bush White House broad powers, through the Patriot Act, to fight terrorism.  One byproduct of this was the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken after the start of the invasion showed 62 percent of the country in favor of Bush and Congress’s decision to go to war (which only shows that a majority in a democracy can be wrong).  Another byproduct was the use of torture on terrorist suspects. snowden2

Yet another was a warrantless domestic wiretapping program.  It wasn’t until 2007, after 40 lawsuits were filed, that this program supposedly ceased, resulting in amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).  Then came the election of 2008.  While President Obama opposed the Iraqi invasion, and condemns the use of torture, the NSA’s collection of information on Americans has continued under him.

Snowden may indeed have a point.  Maybe the NSA has become too intrusive.  Maybe it shouldn’t be digging into our phone and internet records and should stick to foreign communications only, which is what was originally intended.  We Americans want government to protect us, but not at the expense of our civil liberties…  I guess.  Isn’t electronic frisking at the airport a violation of a civil liberty?

I can’t help but think that Snowden is merely, as Bob Schieffer of “Face the Nation” bluntly put it in a recent commentary, “a narcissistic young man who thinks he knows more than the rest of us.”  I think Snowden’s apologists are too hasty to paint him as a hero.  Schieffer lauded Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, heroes to many, who spoke out against institutional injustice, but who were also unafraid to suffer the consequences (King served time behind bars and lived in constant fear of being shot… he was eventually assassinated in 1968).

Edward Scissorhands, on the other hand, absconded with government secrets – an act of treason – and now complains he’s being hounded by the government he betrayed…while in Moscow.  Talk about entitlement.

Snowden’s apologists see him as bravely taking on big government and taking a blow in defense of our (perceived) civil liberties.  That may be true.  But his methods leave a lot to be desired.  If Snowden were sincerely concerned about his country, and what the government is doing to its citizens, he would have used the Whistleblower Protection Act, rather than jumping on a slippery soapbox and jeopardizing other Americans’ security.  And instead of his “cut and run” to China, Russia, or whatever other country might offer him a cave to hide in, he’d show some backbone, return to the country he’s so concerned about, and suffer the consequences.


(Note: my last blog post featured a quiz to commemorate 150 years since the Battle of Gettysburg.  The answers to the quiz are as follows: 1. a  2. b  3. c  4. d  5. d  6. b  7. a  8. c  9. c  10. a.  The only one who got all ten questions correct was David Rasico of Goshen, Ohio.  Congratulations, Dave!  Stick around, in another 50 years you can defend your title during the bicentennial)