Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than 20 years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America. Donald Trump’s presidency has raised a question that many Americans never thought they would be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Levitsky and Ziblatt believe that the answer is yes.
Democracy, they find, no longer ends with a military coup or a revolution. Instead, democracy is more likely to end with a slow weakening of long-standing political norms and institutions such as the judiciary and the press.
Ziblatt and Levitsky note that politicians are saying and doing things that are unprecedented in America, and are also the kinds of things that have led to democratic crises in other places.
Certainly, many Americans have thought that our Constitution, our emphasis on freedom and equality, the existence of a strong middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large and diverse private sector would keep us from experiencing the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.
Democracies work best when their written Constitutions are reinforced by unwritten norms. Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances. One is that competing political parties accept one another as legitimate rivals and exhibit mutual toleration. The second one is the notion that politicians should show self-restraint in the exercise of institutional prerogatives.
We do have reasons to be alarmed about the “health” of American democracy. We elected a demagogue in 2016, at a time when the norms that protected our democracy were becoming unmoored.
Today, these norms are weak, and one thing that’s clear is that extreme partisan polarization can kill democracies.
We must work to overcome extreme partisanship and to restore basic political norms that have served our democracy well in the past.