Tracking Troubling Threats Against Democracy

Friday, June 8, 2018
Sitka, Alaska


Tracking Troubling Threats Against Democracy

Frightening news warning of democracy’s collapse appears with unprecedented rapidity.

One just need read news headlines any time to find ample evidence.

It’s hard to keep up with it.

Levitsky and Ziblatt, two Harvard political scientists, just released a book, How Democracies Die, raising even further alarms about these troubling trends. They used historical precedent, studying democratic processes falling apart in Peru, Argentina, Germany, Uruguay, Pakistan, and other countries, to propose four easily-observed themes.

These key indicators of authoritarian behaviors typically lead to democratic governments deteriorating, and they consist of:

1. Rejecting democratic rules of the game by, for example, refusing to accept credible electoral results;  

2. Denying the legitimacy of political opponents through, for example, considering them subversive, threats to national security, or allied with a foreign government; 

3. Tolerating or encouraging violence like Trump did during his campaign where, in the midst of large rallies, he suggested attendees attack individuals protesting against him, and;

4. Curtailing civil liberties by, for example, threatening to restrict the free press or “lock up” rivals.

As I write on this lovely Saturday afternoon in Alaska (!), a random sampling of current New York Times reports suggests at least three of these trends occur at this precise moment.

I copy the headlines and follow them with comments on their democracy-eroding meaning:

Anger Flares as G-7 Heads to Quebec

Why the anger?

Because Trump’s “America First” program has alienated most of our closest allies. Further, he suggests Russia—which our own national security agencies agree hacked the 2016 presidential election—should join the G-7.

This headline exemplifies point 1. It shows corruption in the “democratic rules of the game” by abandoning long-term allies and colluding with a foreign power known to have interfered with our own elections.

White House Analysis Finds Tariffs Will Hurt Growth

The wanton, infantile nature of Trump’s imposition of tariffs also demonstrates point 1 by violating established norms in his bullying, me-first manner.

It also demonstrate point 2 in that it deals with political opponents, such as members of the European Union who favored the Iranian nuclear deal, without sufficient dialogue or consideration. Again, Trump impulsively bullies. He then (perhaps) worries about the implications later. By the way, this is another common theme found in authoritarian rulers.

Fox News Analyst Calls It A ‘Destructive Propaganda Machine’

This headline directly demonstrates point 4 regarding restrictions to free press. Some 60 percent of Americans rely on Fox News as their primary source of information. In fairness, CNN and CNBC report mostly gossip; they lean way to much to the left.

However, several news agencies—BBC, the Economist, NPR, and the New York Times to name a few—adhere to strong ethical guidelines for journalism. They at least strive to tell the truth; they are not propaganda machines.

Trump’s frequent proclamations of fake news—a terrific irony considering his life-long history of pathological lying—reveal a conscious, deliberate effort to spread misinformation. His behavior, as well as the distinctly propaganda-behaviors of media like Fox News, depressingly show how the media can be manipulated in support of an authoritarian leader.

Facebook Bug Changed Privacy Settings of 14 Million Users

FB’s recent behavior, and Mark Zuckerberg’s lame efforts to defend it, offer more examples of point 4. Violating the privacy of individuals represents a direct attack on civil liberties. Further, and as demonstrated in the Cambridge Analytics case, the stolen, personal information can be used to effect electoral outcomes, another example of point 1.

What’s my point?

Trying to relax for a few days here in Alaska, it took me all of 30 seconds to find those headlines.

They identify three of the four points Levitsky and Ziblatt make.

The fourth one, namely tolerating or encouraging violence in political settings, will appear in headlines soon enough.

Perhaps at the next Trump rally?

Perhaps if Mueller indicts a few more White House officials?

I fully understand the fear, grief, anger, and other painful emotions gripping many in our country. I joked the week of the election that, because of how often patients complained of such feelings, I could have billed the White House for psychotherapy sessions that week.

But fear, grief, and anger will do little or nothing to change the worrisome, four trends noted above. Instead, they can and should fuel efforts to restore democratic norms to our nation.




Levitsky, S. & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How democracies die: What history reveals about our future. New York: Penguin.



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