Social scientists' review history and conclude US polarization is a flashing light danger to democracy

Historians in the News
tags: polarization

The weakening and sometimes collapse of liberal democracies around the world has long been a focus of research for Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, but the Harvard professors of government only recently felt compelled to turn their analysis to this country.

In their new book “How Democracies Die” (Crown), Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that democracy in the United States faces threats that parallel those that led to its diminishment and demise in other nations. While the ascent of President Trump is a particular focus now, the authors argue that the nation’s drift toward authoritarianism, including the breakdown of political norms, predates his rise to power.

The Gazette spoke to Levitsky and Ziblatt about what triggered their concerns about American democracy, what is behind the perceived dangers, and how people alarmed by the shift can best respond.

Q&A Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt

GAZETTE: What are some examples of countries where democracy has disappeared or markedly declined?

LEVITSKY: Few well-established democracies — fully democratic regimes that are more than, say, 25 years old — have ever collapsed. Most are in Latin America: Uruguay and Chile in the 1970s, Venezuela in the 2000s. Other democracies that have collapsed were younger, Germany and Spain in the 1930s, for example. Recently, Hungary and perhaps Poland are cases of fully democratic regimes that have backslid into some kind of hybrid regime, a  type I call “competitive authoritarian.”  You might add contemporary Turkey to that list, although it wasn’t fully democratic for very long.  Another case to consider is the United States.  The U.S. in the 1860s did suffer a temporary breakdown.

One factor that underlies most of these breakdowns is extreme polarization. That’s what worries us about the contemporary United States.  We are obviously not at the level of polarization of, say, Spain in the 1930s or Chile in the 1970s. But partisan polarization in the U.S. has reached levels not seen in more than a century. According to 2016 exit polls, nearly a quarter of Trump voters viewed him as unfit for office and yet still preferred him to the Democrats.  And according to recent Gallup surveys, Republicans have a more favorable view of Russian leader Vladimir Putin than of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. That is a troubling level of polarization.

ZIBLATT: And, bolstering Steve’s point, there is actually pretty solid empirical evidence saying the older a democracy, the higher the likelihood of democratic survival.

GAZETTE: After studying the demise of democracies in other parts of the world, at what point did you conclude it was time to turn your analysis to this country?

ZIBLATT: We began thinking about this during the 2016 campaign. During the course of the campaign, you got to watch candidate Trump threatening violence, threatening to lock up his opponents, criticizing the media so blatantly, things that we’ve seen in other countries in other places in other times, and so it was kind of this recurring dream. We realized this was something we needed to start thinking about from a comparative perspective because the United States was suddenly looking a lot more like other parts of the world than we ever had thought possible....

Read entire article at Harvard Gazette

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