Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt recently published an important work called How Demcoracies Die. The title is more than dramatic. It is over the top. It gives the reader a mistaken impression their work is simply meant to scare readers and sell books. This is completely wrong. These are serious political scientists with significant ideas. This book might be the most significant within the past few years about the decline of democracy.
Their work emphasizes how norms and traditions have a greater role than constitutions or laws in democracies. While the rule of law and constitutional protections are fundamental, there are essential unwritten rules that are necessary for the success of democracy. This idea strikes home when we realize the respect for the Supreme Court and the Independence of the Judiciary is a democratic norm. Democracies break down when executive power or the military ignore the authority of rival political institutions.
The book details how democratic norms have decayed in the American political system. There is room for disagreement in their account. But their core idea changes the traditional approach to democracy and government. The most important rules are unwritten. The law may establish rules but respect for the law is another political norm we take for granted. Donald Trump has erased many democratic norms in his Presidential Campaign. But the most dangerous was his refusal to accept the results of the election in the case he lost. A dark cloud hovers over the next Presidential election in 2020. What happens when a sitting President refuses to accept electoral defeat?
Democratic norms lay out a cultural foundation for the preservation of democracy. This contrasts with the structural accounts most political scientists provide. Seymour Martin Lipsett’s paper “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy” tied economic development to political development. This idea has a strong hold on political science to this day. Scholars Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi took this idea to the next level in their paper “Modernization: Theory and Facts” when they gave an approximate GNP per capita necessary for democratization.
Samuel Huntington took a different approach when he argued the success of democratization was based on strong political institutions. Juan Linz critiqued Presidential systems in his landmark paper “The Perils of Presidentialism.”
These theories are all structural approaches to democracy. Debates between proportional representation and single member district systems are based on a structural approach. They all miss a fundamental insight. Democracy depends on the people. The people determine the success of democracy. This is why an examination of democratic norms is critical. The norms and traditions of the people are more important than the form or structure of the government.
Yet I am disappointed in the explanation Levitsky and Ziblatt provide for the decay of norms in the United States. They trace trends to the Civil Rights Movement. This represented the origins of a gradual realignment of the American electorate as the South transitioned from the Democratic Party to become Republican. This account fails to identify Eisenhower as a President who reinforced democratic norms. His Presidency represented an opportunity for the Republican Party to rollback the New Deal. Instead, he retained their programs. He disappointed Republicans because he valued a balanced budget over tax cuts. And his administration provided a key amicus brief in Brown vs Board of Education that encouraged the court to overturn the doctrine of separate but equal.
The administration of Eisenhower was committed to democratic norms. It was an extremely conservative administration. But in the United States, the tradition of civil liberties, the constitution and a Republican form of government cause conservatives to become strong advocates of democratic norms. But there were periods of democratic decay before the 1960s. Roosevelt threatened to pack the Supreme Court in the 1930s and ignored the two-term limit for the Presidency. World War II led to the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in internment camps. And Joseph McCarthy violated the freedoms of association and speech in his pursuit of communists. Eisenhower is not given enough credit for his role in restoring democratic norms. This is the Democracy Paradox.
jmk, carmel, Indiana, email@example.com