With their historic declaration that “All Men are created equal,” their revolt against the British Empire and their subsequent writing of a constitution that aimed to “promote the general Welfare,” the Founders of this nation created the world’s first prototype of a modern democracy.
They did not intend it to be a real democracy, and even today it has numerous well-known shortcomings. Indeed, The Economist’s Democracy Index rates the United States no better than a “Flawed Democracy.”
As increasing numbers of political scientists have noted, however, even that status is now in serious jeopardy. Four years of autocratic presidential rule abetted by an obsequious political party has undermined democracy in this country like never before, to the point where it may not survive.
Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have done decades of research into how democracy has failed in various countries ranging from Weimar Germany to modern Venezuela. Their 2018 book, “How Democracies Die,” lays out the steps by which such collapses happen:
1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.
2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents.
3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.
This erosion of democratic guardrails can occur in such a subtle manner that many citizens fail to take it seriously. This is what happened when Germany, one of the world’s most advanced democracies, fell under the spell of a charlatan who promised, in effect, to “make Germany great again.”
Hitler and his fellow Nazis used all four of the steps outlined above. They (1) rejected democracy by persuading von Hindenburg to accept the autocratic Enabling Order; (2) they accused their political opponents of being traitors, “the enemy within”; (3) they encouraged violence from their Brownshirt supporters; and (4) they curtailed their opponents’ civil liberties, including putting many in jail.
Despite all this, many ordinary Germans were not alarmed. Indeed, Hitler’s and the Nazi Party’s popularity increased significantly during their first five years in power, due mainly to Hitler’s resuscitation of the economy and an extensive propaganda campaign. Even after Hitler launched the calamitous Second World War, his popularity at home continued at a high level. As long as Germany was “winning,” that’s all that seemed to matter to the average German.
Is America now following in Germany’s footsteps? The two situations are of course very different. Still, there are worrisome parallels. In particular, during Donald Trump’s brief time in power, we saw all four of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s steps on full display:
1. Rejection of democratic rules of the game. Prominent examples include Trump’s refusal, backed by 147 Republican members of Congress, to accept the 2020 election results, and his inciting of the Jan. 6 insurrection meant to block the election’s certification.
2. Denial of political opponents’ legitimacy. Examples: Trump’s false accusations about Barack Obama’s birth; his many tweets accusing Hillary Clinton of operating a satanic pedophile ring; other QAnon conspiracies.
3. Toleration or encouragement of violence. Examples: Trump’s praise of Nazis at Charlottesville, his incitement of violence on Jan. 6, and his courting of heavily armed militias.
4. Curtailment of opponents’ civil liberties. Examples: Trump’s campaign threats to put Clinton in jail; his calling the press “the enemy of the people”; his praise of other autocrats.
Trump and his followers are not going away. They continue to peddle Trumpian grievances and QAnon conspiracy theories while a servile GOP establishment enacts voter-suppression measures in one red state after another. We are thus facing a national crisis, one that will only get worse if we fail to confront it.
Tom Huckin is a concerned American, husband, father, and grandfather. He lives in Salt Lake City.