A political science professor at Yale named Milan Svolik is an expert on authoritarian rule. In a recent publication on polarization and democracy, he asks, “When can we realistically expect ordinary people to check the authoritarian ambitions of elected politicians?” He then adds that the answer to this question is key to understanding the most prominent development in the dynamic of democratic survival since the end of the Cold War.
Svolik examines what he calls “executive takeovers,” or the subversion of democracy by democratically elected officials, which he says has been the modal form of democratic subversion for the past 45 years. He finds that democratic breakdowns almost always come in one of two forms—either executive takeovers or military coups—and that executive takeovers occurred in a plurality of cases.
The rise of executive takeovers challenges our understanding of democratic stability. Politicians must first gain enough popular support to capture the executive by democratic means. Svolik also finds that in most cases, they also need enough electoral strength to take control of another branch of government, which is usually the legislature. The complicity of the legislature is necessary to carry out the changes that facilitate the subversion of democracy. The subjugation of the judiciary is also necessary.
Svolik found it remarkable that many incumbents enjoy support even while subverting a democracy, and some remain popular after. Vladimir Putin’s popularity was around 80 percent in early 2015.
Others note crises are more likely to occur in a political system with little consensus, deep cleavages, and suspicion between leaders. To avoid this fate, we need political leaders who can unify the people and build consensus for important policy goals and the delivery of goods and services for the benefit of the body politic and for the keeping of our democracy.
President Trump, are you listening?