Ciboski: Even Healthy Democracies Have Extremist Demagogues

Jun 12, 2019

We know from history that extremist demagogues emerge at times in all societies, even in healthy democracies. We have had our share of them in the United States. Among them are Henry Ford, Senators Huey Long and Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama who was a leading contender for the 1972 Democratic nomination for president before he was severely wounded in an assassination attempt.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, have identified key indicators of authoritarian behavior. Do candidates reject the Constitution and show a possible willingness to violate it? Are they willing to undermine the legitimacy of elections? Donald Trump refused to say during the 2016 campaign that he would accept the result if he lost. Does a candidate describe their partisan rivals as criminals? Trump posted the slogan, “Help me defeat crooked Hillary,” and encouraged his audiences to chant, “Lock her up!” He said he planned to investigate Hillary Clinton after the election and that she should be in prison.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt say, “One thing that separates contemporary autocrats from democratic leaders is their intolerance of criticism, and their readiness to punish those in the opposition, in the media, or civil society who criticize them.” Trump has said the media is the most dishonest group of people he’s ever met and argued they could be sued for what he called “disgraceful hit pieces.”

So what can we expect of Trump if he is elected for a second term? Will our civil liberties remain intact, and will our system of government be maintained? As a political scientist, I am not so sure, and I think Ziblatt and Levitsky are not so sure either.