New Normal: Elected Autocrats Are Killing Democracies

Democracies were no longer dying at the hands of men with guns with elected governments having caused most breakdowns of democracy through democratic backsliding since the end of the Cold War

Democracies were no longer dying at the hands of men with guns

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

For years, Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt researched forms of authoritarianism globally and how democracies die. They knew democracies are fragile but thought their native United States (US) somehow managed to defy gravity.

Levitsky and Ziblatt believed the American Constitution, their national creed of freedom and equality, historically robust middle class, high levels of wealth and education, and large, and diversified private sector should inoculate the US from any democratic breakdown.

Is American democracy in danger was a question they felt they would never be asking. This changed when precursors of democratic crisis in other places began emerging in their country. Politicians began increasingly treating their rivals as enemies and started intimidating the free press. They threatened to reject the election result and sought to weaken the buffers of democracy such as the courts and intelligence services.

Levitsky and Ziblatt felt dread like many Americans. But they tried to reassure themselves that things cannot be really that bad even as American states, whom jurist Louis Brandeis once praised as ‘laboratories of democracy, were in danger of becoming labs of authoritarianism. Those in power sought to rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure their victory.

The worst fears of many came true when Donald Trump was elected as the president in 2016. Trump was the first person to be elected to the top post without any experience of holding a public office in American history. He was not really known to have much commitment to constitutional rights and showed authoritarian tendencies.

What did all this mean? Were they living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies? These questions prompted Levitsky and Ziblatt to write the international bestseller How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future (Crown, 2018).

The book shows how democracies were no longer dying at the hands of men with guns. Coups d’état accounted for nearly three out of every four democratic breakdowns during the Cold War. This is how democracies in places such as Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay died.

During the last decade, military coups toppled President Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt (2013) and that of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand the following years 2014 through power and coercion.

Levitsky and Ziblatt highlight how since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused by elected governments through democratic backsliding. Constitutions and democratic institutions may remain in place, people may vote but elected autocrats undermine the substance of democracy while maintaining its veneer.

Levitsky and Ziblatt show how subversion of democracy may be made to appear legal as the legislature may sanction and the courts may accept it and even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy. Often this subversion is made in the name of making the judiciary more efficient, combating corruption, or cleaning up the electoral process. Newspapers may still publish but be bought off or bullied into self-censorship.

Levitsky and Ziblatt write citizens continue to criticise the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. People often do not realise what is happening and may continue to believe they living under a democracy.

The book is a must-read for those who seek to understand the warning signs and the fateful missteps that have wrecked democracies globally. It cites examples of citizens rising to avert democratic crises by overcoming divisions.

History, the authors underline, does not repeat itself; it rhymes. They say the promise of history, and the hope of this book is that they can find the rhymes before it is too late. It may not be too late in the case of the US but certainly via-a-vis India.

The kind of democratic backsliding that kills democracy, which the book focuses on, appears similar to what India has also faced over the last eight years. The book should help one understand why the crisis in India may be irreversible as the foundation of Indian democracy may never have been strong enough.

For Instance, mutual toleration, the idea that political opponents accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, which relates to politicians exercising restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives, have secured American democracy. They have all but disappeared in the Indian context, highlighting how democracy may no longer have the basis it needs to survive in its truest sense.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide

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