Michelle Wang/Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Steven Levitsky spoke Thursday evening on the perils of American democracy in a hyper-partisan age.

November 8, 2019

As American Politics Sputters, Harvard Professor Warns of Creeping Authoritarianism

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Amidst frenzied talks of impeachment and stiffening partisan warfare, public trust in government has reached a near all-time low. But according to Prof. Steven Levitsky, government, Harvard University, while there are reasons to sound the alarm, American democracy is here to stay.

“Political science has uncovered two pretty rock-solid facts about democracies,” Levitsky said in a lecture on Thursday. “First of all, old democracies never died, and secondly, rich democracies never die. In fact, no democracies as even remotely as rich or as old as America’s has ever broken down.”

But although Levitsky pointed out that America’s democracy is, historically speaking, on solid footing, he pointed to three reasons why the nation has “entered uncharted territory” — an unprecedented confluence of economic and demographic factors that is “clearly cause for concern.”

Two of these reasons include the rising income inequality “unseen since before the Great Depression,” as well as a transition of the country into a stage where “a previously dominant ethical group loses its majority status.”

“And third, of course, Americans have elected a president who’s visibly authoritarian,” Levitsky said.

Those trends, Levitsky said, have contributed to an environment of vulnerability and will work to erode democracy in inconspicuous ways.

“Today democracies die in much more subtle fashions; they die not at the hands of generals, but of elected leaders — presidents, prime ministers who use the very institutions of democracy, to then subvert,” Levitsky said, adding that, paradoxically, it is democracy itself that is best primed to bring about its own downfall.

In fact, historically, Levitsky pointed out, “elected authoritarians very rarely … come to power on their own … almost invariably, they get at hand from at least one of the mainstream political parties,” highlighting that underlying contradiction.

In the past, establishments, such as political parties, have played a crucial role as democracy’s gatekeepers, acting as a sort of safety valve on bad-actors turning to demagoguery or authoritarianism.

But as animosity and extremism grows, that traditionally strong layer of protection has gradually withered: According to Levitsky, the two aspects core to parties’ well-functioning — respect for political adversaries and constitutional norms — are slowly breaking down, giving way to a win-at-all-costs mentality.

While America’s constitutional structure has been successful in removing demagogues — successfully putting “sometimes even abusive presidents … Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR” in their place, respect for the “spirit of the law” has proved shakier, according to Levitsky.

“Politicians can exploit the letter of the Constitution in ways that totally eviscerate its spirit or in other words, using the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law,” Levitsky said, noting that in service of scoring short-term victories, politicians increasingly do things that, while legal, are also in violation of the constitutional norms.

But in an age of Twitter warfare and uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners, Levitsky said that the best way to stop the decline of democracy is respect and understanding.

“Mutual toleration — simply accepting the legitimacy of our partisan opponents — means that no matter how much we … personally dislike our rival, we recognize … that they love the country as much as we do and have an equal, legitimate right to exist, to do politics, to compete, and, if they win, to govern,” said Levitsky.

In other words, America must return to a time when parties saw each other as opponents — not enemies.

“Democracy requires parties that know how to lose,” Levitsky said. “That means we lose an election. We accept defeat. We go home. We get drunk and the next day, and we play again”