I read a very interesting and insightful book called How Democracies Die. Levitsky & Ziblatt (the authors) have analysed democracies across the globe to understand when a leader turns authoritarian, often leading to collapse of democracy. The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.
Let me share this chart for you to get a sense of how fragile a democratic system can really be.
Let me quickly explain the three terms mentioned in the above table – a. ‘capturing referees’, b. ‘sidelining players’ and c. ‘changing rules’.
A. CAPTURING REFEREES
It means hijacking institutions that hold the govt. accountable (intelligence agencies, courts). It offers a powerful weapon, allowing the government to selectively enforce the law, punishing opponents while protecting allies.
By default, the judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies are designed to serve as neutral arbiters. But if such agencies are controlled by loyalists, they could serve a would-be dictator’s aims.
Tax authorities may be used to target rival politicians, businesses, and media outlets. The police can crack down on opposition protest while tolerating acts of violence by pro-government thugs.
B. SIDELINING PLAYERS
Most contemporary autocracies do not wipe out all traces of dissent, as Mussolini did in fascist Italy or Fidel Castro did in communist Cuba. What they usually do is – ensure that key players – anyone capable of really hurting the government – are sidelined, hobbled, or bribed into throwing the game.
Key players might include opposition politicians, business leaders who finance the opposition, major media outlets, and in some cases, religious or other cultural figures who enjoy a certain public moral standing.
The Fujimori government in Peru was masterful at buying off its critics, particularly those in media. By the late 1990s, every major television network, several daily newspapers, and popular tabloid papers were on the government’s payroll.
Players who cannot be bought must be weakened. Whereas old-school dictators often jailed, exiled, or even killed their rivals, contemporary autocrats tend to hide their repression behind a veneer of legality.
Under Perón (Argentina), opposition leader Ricardo Balbín was imprisoned for “disrespecting” the president during an election campaign. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used a politically loyal police force and a packed judiciary to investigate, arrest, and imprison his leading rival, Anwar Ibrahim, on sodomy charges in the late 1990s.
Governments may also use their control of referees to legally sidline the opposition media, often through libel or defamation suits.
In Russia, after Vladimir Gusinsky’s independent NTV television network earned a reputation as a “pain in the neck,” the Putin government unleashed the tax authorities on Gusinsky, arresting him for “financial misappropriation.” Gusinsky was offered “a deal straight out of a bad Mafia movie: give up NTV in exchange for freedom.” He took the deal, turned NTV over to the giant government-controlled energy company, Gazprom, and fled the country.
As key media outlets are assaulted, others grow wary and begin to practice self-censorship. When the Chávez government stepped up its attacks in the mid-2000s, one of the country’s largest television networks, Venevisión, decided to stop covering politics. Morning talk shows were replaced with astrology programs, and soap operas took precedence over evening news programs.
Finally, elected autocrats often try to silence cultural figures – artists, intellectuals, pop stars, athletes. Usually, however, governments prefer to co-opt popular cultural figures or reach a mutual accommodation with them, allowing them to continue their work as long as they stay out of politics.
C. CHANGING RULES
This essentially means somehow changing the Constitution itself. Authoritarians seeking to consolidate their power often reform the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantage or weaken the opposition, in effect tilting the playing field against their rivals. These reforms are often carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favor of incumbents. And guess what helps them most – a crisis situation.
For demagogues hemmed in by constitutional constraints, a crisis represents an opportunity to begin to dismantle the inconvenient and sometimes threatening checks and balances that come with democratic politics.
Elected autocrats often need crises – external threats offer them a chance to break free, both swiftly and, very often, “legally”.
Crisis are hard to predict, but their political consequences are not. They facilitate the concentration, and very often, abuse of power. Given that we have a crisis situation right now, had Modi been like Hitler, the damage to democracy could have been much worse.
Major security crises – wars or large-scale terrorist attacks – are political game changers. Almost invariably, they increase support for the government. Citizens become more likely to tolerate, and even endorse, authoritarian measures when they fear for their security. In the aftermath of September 11, President Bush saw his approval rating soar from 53% to 90%. Citizens are also more likely to tolerate – and even support – authoritarian measures when they fear their own safety.
The book – How Democracies Die – also talks about 4 litmus tests that can hep identify any authoritarian leader.
As per the authors, we should worry when a politician
- rejects, in words or actions, the democratic rules of the game (and this is why Modi is not like Hitler)
- denies the legitimacy of opponents
- tolerates or encourages violence (this is where if not Modi himself, his party is mildly like Hitler)
- indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media (again – why BJP is like Hitler).
A politician who meets even one of these criteria is a cause for concern.
Let me also share five more insights that the book offers (have contextualized it with Indian political examples, where I could).
1. Most authoritarians leaders are popular rank outsiders who have little patience with democracy.
In Latin America, of all 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012, five were populist outsiders: Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Lucio Gutiérrez and Rafael Correa. All five ended up weakening democratic institutions.
When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions.
Democracy is grinding work – it requires negotiation, compromise and concessions. But would-be authoritarians have little patience with the day-to-day politics of the democracy (and in this regard, Modi is unlike Hitler; the BJP doesn’t only understand the politics that it needs to play but works towards it diligently).
In India, the hyper liberals don’t get the difference between being a Hitler and Modi. Modi for one, is not a rank outsider. Bhakts (and even some centrists) on the other hand, fail to understand that just because Modi is not exactly like Hitler, does not mean he is all good. They take the comparison ‘literally’ and start pointing out the differences. What matters is the similarity – and that’s what is scary and that is what we should watch out for.
Let me make a quick note on most arguments around comparison of two people / entities / countries / anything.
Those who don’t like the comparison get obsessed with the difference and only want to focus on why the comparison doesn’t make sense (‘you are comparing apples with oranges’). Of course no two people / entities / countries / anything are ‘the same’. Apples and oranges are different and yet in many contexts, it makes sense to compare them. It’s unwise to willfully ignore the intent behind any comparison – which is to appreciate the similarity! When we try to see the similarity between Modi and Hitler (the short-code I am using to denote an authoritarian leader), we become better prepared to watch out for when the government ends up pushing things too far off the line where democracy ends. If we keep obsessing about how they are not the same, we won’t gain much (that is the job of Govt. mouthpieces like Arnab Goswami; not citizens).
Ok now, carrying on with four more insights from the book.
2. Politicians do not always reveal the full scale of their authoritarianism before reaching power.
Hungarian PM Viktor Orban (and his party) began as a liberal democrat in the late 1980s and in his first stint as PM (1998-2002) he governed democratically. His autocratic about face in 2010 was a genuine surprise. The 2011 constitutional changes enacted under his leadership were, in particular, accused of centralizing legislative and executive power, curbing civil liberties, restricting freedom of speech, and weakening the Constitutional Court and judiciary. He has been in power since then.
3. Democracy requires ‘gate-keepers’ to do their job.
We like to believe the fate of the government lies in the hands of its citizens. As per the authors, this view is wrong. Political parties are democracies’ gatekeepers.
Collective abdication – the transfer of authority to a leader who threatens democracy – usually flows from one of two sources.
- the misguided belief that an authoritarian can be controlled or tamed.
- ideological collusion – the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives.
Trump’s rise to presidency in 2016 is a good example of consequence of ineffective gatekeeping.
Some politicians did realize the problem and did their bit. For example, in March 2016, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave a high-profile speech describing Trump as a danger to both the Republican Party and the country. Echoing Ronald Reagan’s 1964 “A Time for Choosing” speech, Romney declared that Trump was a “fraud” who had “neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president.”
Other party elders, including 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, had warned against Trump too.
But the sad fact is that the #NeverTrump movement was always more talk than action. In reality, the primary system had left Republican leaders virtually weaponless to halt Trump’s rise (the book explains this in detail). The barrage of attacks had little impact and possibly even backfired where it counted: the voting booth.
4. Polarization can destroy democratic norms – the process often begins with words.
Fujinori (Peru) called his critics “enemies” and “traitors”. Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi attacked judges who ruled against him as “communist”.
Status anxiety – when a groups’ social status, identity, and sense of belonging are perceived to be under existential threat – leads to a style of politics that is “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic”. A demagogue’s initial rise to power tends to polarize society, creating a climate of panic, hostility, and mutual distrust (Modi is like Hiter in this aspect).
If the public comes to share the view that opponents are linked to terrorism and the media are spreading lies, it becomes easier to justify taking actions against them.
Some polarization is healthy – even necessary – for democracy. But when socioeconomic, racial, or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose worldviews are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance (see point 5 below) and try to win at all costs.
Because of polarization, Chileans who had long prided themselves on being South America’s most stable democracy, succumbed to dictatorship that lasted for seventeen years!
In the US, in 1798, the Federalists passed the Sedition Act, which, though purportedly criminalizing false statements against the government, was so vague that it virtually criminalized criticism of the government.
When norms of mutual toleration are weak, democracy is hard to sustain. If we view our rivals as a dangerous threat, we have much to fear if they are elected. We may decide to employ any means necessary to defeat them – and therein lies a justification for authoritarian measures. Politicians who are tagged as criminal or subversive may be jailed; governments deemed to pose a threat to the nation may be overthrown.
In just about every case of democratic breakdown we have studied, would-be authoritarians – from Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini in interwar Europe to Marcos, Castro, and Pinochet during the Cold War to Putin, Chávez, and Erdogan most recently – have justified their consolidation of power by labeling their opponents as an existential threat.How Democracies Die
5. ‘Forbearance’ – and why it matters
Much before Trump, the USA faced threat to democratic norms under President Roosevelt who subscribed to what he called the stewardship theory of the presidency – all executive actions are allowed unless expressly prohibited by law.
His use of executive orders – more than 3,000 during his presidency, averaging more than 300 a year – was unmatched at the time or since.
Forbearance is the exact opposite. It means “patient self-control; restraint and tolerance,” or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right.
Prior to the 1973 coup, Chile had been Latin America’s oldest and most successful democracy, sustained by vibrant democratic norms. It was lack of forbearance that lead to fall of democracy.
One may think of democracy as a game that we want to keep playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow. If one’s rivals quit, there can be no future games.
The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.
Hope you learnt something / gained some insights. And if this topic interests you, do pick up the book.