The Guardrails of a Fragile Democracy

Photo by Noe Bojorge

By María Isabel Puerta Riera

A Fragile Democracy

As we approach the midterm elections, I find myself reflecting on what almost brought the American experiment to its knees just a few years ago. First off I strongly believe historical context matters. We are simply shortsighted unless we consider the long-term causes of democracy’s fragility. The rise of the extreme right and left is a symptom of the profound political disaffection of our times. It may even represent the depletion of an entire political paradigm. The tension between individual freedoms and equity has intensified as a reaction to identity politics. However, this does not fully explain the incursion and consolidation of the fringes into mainstream politics.

Nonetheless, the struggle is not a new one. Democracy was always vulnerable due to a civil agreement reached because the experiences of fascism and totalitarianism were untenable. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that democracy relies on the values and principles people hold for the system while dismissing the possibility of supporting authoritarian (illiberal) forces. Still, the threat democracy faces -especially in recent years- originates from within and throughout democratic institutions.

Furthermore, Levitsky and Ziblatt present the cases of the rise to power of Hitler and Chavez, among other examples, as fateful alliances. The authors argue that in the case of Chavez that there was little evidence Venezuelans were looking for a strongman. However, an opposing view is Caudillismo has been a historical feature of the South American nation. The search for strongmen has become not just a pretext but a purpose in political preferences. The unexpected candidacy of Donald Trump unleashed the desire for strongmen here in the United States as well.

The Warning Signs

However, the warning signs were already there even though they remained overlooked. Failed coups are characteristic of fragile or underdeveloped political systems. This subtle realization makes the recent experience in the United States more traumatic. The unprecedented assault on the Capitol on January 6th, 2020 has added the United States to a group that was previously unimaginable. Obviously, predicting any coup is still difficult, but the signs of autocratic behavior were present. Based on the criteria developed by Levitsky and Ziblatt, we can identify those traits following four indicators:

  1. Rejection of democratic rules
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Encouragement of violence
  4. Curtailment of civil liberties of opponents and the media

The assault on the Capitol as well as the general refusal to accept electoral defeat align with the rejection of democratic rules. The pervasive discrediting of opposition candidates, labeling them as socialists, is consistent with the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents. The organized armed militias that assaulted the Capitol even have members arguing in court that they were following orders from the President and invitations to attend the January 6th rally. Many considered both as signals and even encouragement for violence. Finally, since the beginning of his initial presidential bid and throughout his term, the former President continuously labeled the media as an enemy.

The Guardrails Failed

When I think back on the rise of Donald Trump, I find disturbing similarities to the rise of Hugo Chavez in my home country. Both were political outsiders. Indeed, the appeal of an outsider candidate is a symptom of an exhausted electorate convinced that a political upset could shake things up. In weak systems like Venezuela, a united Opposition was not enough to stop Chavez. Similarly, in the United States, the Republican Party gave in. The guardrails failed.

Since then the Republican Party has embraced the role of surrogate for a nationalist platform as it has abandoned its most basic principles. The reward was significant: A completely reshaped judiciary. In Venezuela, the judicial branch legitimized the destruction of Venezuelan democracy. In the 2020 election the Republican Party did not even present a platform. It was not necessary. As Mitch McConnell admitted, there was only ever one goal: Power. The American people are approaching the midterm elections as if they were regular elections. The outcome will influence not only the 2024 presidential election but will have a profound impact on the entire democratic system. The opportunity for an illiberal congress is here. It is up to the people to decide.

María Isabel Puerta Riera is a Political Scientist teaching U. S. Government in Florida. Interested in U. S. and Latin American Politics. 

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