My subject is the dire condition of American politics. My starting place is the book, “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two Harvard professors who’ve spent much of their careers tracing the rise of totalitarianism and authoritarianism all over the world—Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Chile under Pinochet, Peru under Fujimori, Chavez in Venezuela, Erdogan in Turkey, and Viktor Orban in Hungary.
There’s a pattern that occurs over and over—and the authors think (as do I) that America is on it right now. It begins with the extreme polarization of the population. Two dominant, hostile groups and the political parties that represent them—based sometimes on haves versus have-nots, or religion, race, ideology or tribe—stop regarding each other as mere rivals and begin to think of the other side as mortal enemies whose coming to power will constitute an existential threat to them, and the nation.
The bitter rivalry means that nothing gets done to solve the country’s problems. The public at large starts to think democracy doesn’t work. Then up pops a demagogue who claims he and he alone can make the country right. Then come the enablers. Sometimes, one of the parties thinks it can co-opt him, only to have him take over. Then, once in power, he begins to break down the formal and informal guardrails of democracy—civility, institutions like the free press, the courts, law enforcement, intelligence agencies, legislative and election rules. Most of the time, this tyrant makes a hash of governing and ruins the country.
So where are we on this fatal spiral? There’s no question that America is now deeply polarized. On one side is the Blue tribe—dominated by minorities, young people, religious secularists and mainline believers, urbanites and inner-suburbanites, people with college degrees, and people with liberal attitudes on economics, social values and the role of government. The Democratic party. On the other side of this widening divide is the Red tribe—overwhelmingly white, evangelical Christians, rurals and exurbanites, older people (at least till this year), people without college degrees, social traditionalists, and economic conservatives. Republicans.
Until recent years, the Republicans and Democrats might disagree vigorously on issues and fight fiercely at election time. But they accepted losses, were generally civil and followed the rules. Both parties had liberals, moderates, and conservatives in them, which made crossover coalitions more common. They were rivals, not enemies. That’s radically changed. The two parties disagree on practically every issue–climate change, immigration, attitudes on racial bias in policing–all the way to wearing masks in a pandemic.
Polling by the Pew Research Center and PPRI have tracked increasingly hostile attitudes by members of the two parties toward each other. In 2019, PPRI found that 94 percent ofRepublicans think their party is dedicated to protecting the American way of life against outside threats, But 80 percent of Democrats think the Republican party is dominated by racists.
Meantime, 83 percent of Democrats say their party is dedicated to making capitalism work for average Americans. But 82 percent of Republicans think socialists have taken over the Democratic Party. A big new poll just out from the Knight Foundation shows that over 60 percent of people in both parties think that the other party is a threat to the United States and its people.
Practically the only time significant legislation gets passed by Congress is when both houses are controlled by the same party. The votes tend to be party-line and subject to reversal when power changes hands. So America’s major problems—climate change, immigration, economic inequality, health care affordability, the enormous national debt—not one has been solved.
As a result, only 20 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing all or most of the time. The Knight poll found that only 50 percent of Americans think that democracy in America is working. Meanwhile, 32 percent of young people ages 18-29 think a non-democracy might be preferable.
In 2016, the demagogue anticipated by Levitsky and Ziblatt did emerge, claiming only he could solve the country’s problems and “Make America Great Again.” He has come to almost completely dominate the Republican party. And Donald Trump has broken down one guardrail of democracy after another. To say the least, he is not civil.
He declares his political opponents should be in jail. He has claimed in court that a president is absolutely immune not only from criminal prosecution, but investigation. (That idea fortunately was struck down by the Supreme Court.) He has involved the US military in putting down civil unrest.
He demands personal loyalty (not loyalty to the Constitution) from key appointees. He’s gotten subservience from the supposedly even-handed Justice Department, which has launched criminal investigations of his adversaries—which, so far, have come to nothing. He mercilessly attacks the media and US intelligence services. America’s leading immunologists are not immune.
But the biggest breakdown of all is that Trump is questioning the integrity of American elections—declaring that if he loses, it will be because of massive fraud. And he won’t guarantee, if he loses, that he will peacefully relinquish his office. Trump and Republicans repeatedly try to suppress voting by people likely to vote Democratic. Texas’s governor’s ordered that ballot dropoff sites limited to one per county regardless of size. Harris County (Houston) has nearly 5 million people and is almost the size of Delaware. In other states where Republicans dominate, they limit voting hours, polling places and time to get all mail-in ballots counted.
But the danger is that Trump will contrive to steal the election one of these ways:
- if Trump is ahead on election night but loses as mail-in ballots come in, he declares massive fraud in key states, contests the results, and the case goes to the Supreme Court, which decides in his favor.
- What really worries Democrats is that Republican state legislators in seven key swing states where they dominate statehouses (PA, MI, OH, NC, AZ, FL, WI) will disregard the popular vote and appoint Trump electors. Then the Supreme Court finds that constitutional, citing language that says it’s up to state legislatures to decide how electors are selected.
- The Electoral College ends up in a tie or in so much litigation that the decision goes to the House, where each state has one vote and Rs lead 26-23.
- Armed conflict between right wing militias and left-wing extremists—the kind of chaos that afflicted many of the countries where democracy died, as in Weimar Germany.
Lots to worry about, given the direction of the fatal downward spiral from extreme polarization to authoritarianism. It keeps me worrying through the night, and hoping for a reversal, starting on Election Day.
Editor’s note: The following is adapted from a speech the author gave this week to the Bainbridge Island Rotary Club.