Book Review: How Democracies Die

I picked up this slim volume last year in the midst of political crisis in the UK with an increasingly minority government sacking large numbers of ministers and MPs from its own party ranks, and thereby stymied on the main issue of the day – itself, of course, emblematic of a democracy that had been hijacked. It was, of course, eventually (and inexplicably) released from the pegs on which it was so expertly hanging itself and the rest is now history. Vote in haste; repent at leisure, we might think, not least when confronted with a government of all the talents featuring Matt ‘Telegraph’ Hancock in charge of health and Chris ‘ferries’ Grayling in charge of the, er, Commons Intelligence Committee.

My purchase was to try and come to some form of understanding of the threats to a mature democracy and, perhaps, the myriad links between them. This book – for all its scholarly nature (one-quarter of it is endnotes) – really isn’t the tool for this since, for all the generic nature of the title, the authors’ concern is not democracy in general but democracy in the US: the book’s focus is the US constitution and party system and the checks and balances these offer (or not) against the slide into authoritarianism. Particularly, therefore, the authors – both Harvard professors – are concerned with whether US democracy can survive Donald Trump; the authors are not certain that it can and, indeed, wisely observe that it is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere. When demagogues are in charge, how could it not be?

Now, ‘The fate of the great United States/ [Might well be] entwined in the fate of us all’ but, not being a particular expert on the US political system, I’m not that well placed to comment on the detail of the authors’ policy prescription given that this is substantially concerned with the US political system. (I do know a man who is, though.)

Given events in the UK, I was, however, attracted by the thought that polarisation is the main problem in the US and that, unless leaders find a way of addressing that issue, ‘democracy will die’ (p. 222). The drivers of polarisation in the US – religious and racial realignment and economic inequality – might be different to those in the UK (although clearly economic inequality needs to be tackled here, too) but we do of course have a highly polarised society in the wake of Brexit. Just how much this continues to affect UK democracy is as yet unknown but, given that Brexit is driving fresh support for the independence movement in Scotland, while the position of Northern Ireland remains uncertain given the government’s apparent lack of scruple over playing fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement, it is likely to do so for some time to come. A government whose response to crisis is to go absent and, otherwise, to give every sign of making it up as it goes along is singularly ill-equipped to undertake the ‘healing’ that a polarised society requires.

Brexit and Trump are, of course, inextricably linked in terms of rationales which explain the respective votes, the connections between Trump and Farage, and the financing of Brexit promoters in the UK and of Donald Trump by the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer. Brexit and Trump are, in both cases, the illegitimate offspring of climate change denialists and, for all that the ‘Russia Report’ does need to be released, the main failing of democracy in respect of Brexit is the extent to which Leave campaigns were funded by foreign interests. Further, there are parallels between the Tea Party in the US and the Brexit Party in the UK – and their implications for hollowed-out party organisation of the Republican Party, detailed by Levitsky and Ziblatt, and of the Conservative Party in Britain.

The main concern for Levitsky and Ziblatt is party organisation and the health and vitality of US political parties and the party political process. The authors do incorporate the issue of right-wing and partisan media and they also look at the impact of non-party campaigns, such as Americans for Tax Freedom and Americans for Prosperity (Koch vehicles, both) – and there are parallels in the UK here, too – but the focus is the potential for the takeover of moribund party organisations by extremists.

But, of course, democracies are more than just about political parties. Democracies also die when people no longer feel that their voices are being heard (and that’s as true where mass, peaceful street protests, from the Iraq War to anti-Brexit in the UK’s recent history, have little discernible impact on the political process) and where people’s democratic participation becomes limited to doing no more than casting a vote in a ballot box every so often. Citizens’ assemblies, currently one of the demands of Extinction Rebellion, have some things to offer here. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t deal with this particular threat and neither do they include in their analysis the threat posed, in a global world, to nation state democracies by internationally-led campaigns of misinformation whose aim is to distort the political process – back, coincidentally, in the news today – and the pervasive, intrusive power of Facebook (made all the more threatening by its apparently neutral, ‘technical’ face). If democracy is all about ‘government by the people’ – and clearly it quite literally is – then international interests funding the operations of domestic campaigns and providing misinformation and misdirection represents a clear threat to those democracies and, therefore, a clear potential source of democratic death.

The absence of Lincoln’s famous quote from a book dealing with the crisis in US democracy is curious but, more than that, a book focused on the issue of failing democracies needs to address threats more broadly than the simple failure of party organisation to prevent the rise to power, within the democratic system, of an authoritarian demagogue.

#ReleaseTheRussiaReport

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