“Prevention is better than cure” Key lessons from: Levitsky A. & Ziblatt D. (2018). How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future

Of late we have seen democracies being put under threat in various parts of the world. Even the USA, which has been considered the “guardian of democracy”, is facing a similar problem with the 2016 elections results.

The Cold War in early 1990s brought about high hopes on liberal ideals including the spread of Democracy. With much excitement that blurred his long distance vision, Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history”. Like a contagious virus, countries in the Global South including African countries amended their constitutions to allow multi party and other liberal policies. My country, Tanzania, is one example with the 1992 constitutional amendments.   With similar excitement as Fukuyama’s but with probably a better view, Samuel Huntington termed the trend “the third wave of democratization”.

It is sad that hardly 30 years after, democracies are being attacked by an apparent wave of authoritarianism. Larry Diamond argues the world has entered into a period of democratic recession. Of course, a little way back scholars had started to note the feeble foundations in new democracies leading to terms such as “competitive authoritarians”. However, new evidence shows that there is more to the emerging threats than the weak foundations. Democracies are actually dying! Mmmmh how do we save them? To help us understand what is happening as well as preventing dictators from arising, Levitsky & Ziblatt present a historical and systematic account of “soft weapons” – not guns – that kill democracies. In recent times, democracies are not being killed by coup d’ état or military overthrows. They are killed by elected leaders in socio-political environments where democratic norms are compromised and/or not observed. When issues of personal interests and partisan become more important than national democratic interests, it gets very easy for an authoritarian to get into power.

Without getting into academic complexity of a book review, I would like to summarize (in bullets) some of the key takeaways from the book:

  • A number of authoritarians came into power by accident (i.e. they were not members of the “establishment”) – e.g. Mussolini (Italy), Hitler (Germany) and Chavez (Venuzuela). This has also reminded of a documentary in BBC 2018 that shows how Putin (Russia) came into power by accident. Even Trump, is by and large, an accident – a man who was not considered of the establishment as well as he had never had a position in any public office before. We have many other examples of such.
  • There are four signs that can help to detect an authoritarian leader. Even one of them is enough to prove one will be an authoritarian:
    • Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
    • Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
    • Toleration or encouragement of violence
    • Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including media
  • Two assumptions that can lead to ignoring the above signs are:
    • Misguided belief that an authoritarian can be controlled or tamed
    • “ideological collusion” – i.e. the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of the mainstream politicians that he becomes preferable to the alternatives. (HERE IT IS IMPORTANT TO KNOW THAT LOSING DEMOCRACY IS FAR WORSE THAN LOSING AN ELECTION).
  • One thing that separates contemporary autocrats from democratic leaders is their intolerance of criticism, and their readiness to use power to punish those- in the opposition, media, or civil society- who criticize them.
  • Almost all autocrats associate opposition leaders either with dangerous threats such as criminals, terrorists, drug traffickers, treason etc – to have justification for authoritarian measures against them.
  • The responsibility for filtering out authoritarians lies with political parties and party leaders. i.e. Political Parties and Party Leaders MUST be democracy’s gatekeepers.
  • Two democratic norms that all democratic leaders possess and that they should be protected in all countries are:
    • Mutual toleration – toleration of opponents and different views. Protection of opposition
    • Forbearance –patient self-control; restraint and tolerance, or action of restraining from exercising legal rights.

Now, how do we save democracy?

  • Muscular opposition but that which seek to preserve, rather than violate, democratic rules and norms
  • Public protest, which is a constitutional right in most democracies and an important activity- should be done with the aim of defending rights and institutions rather than destroying them.
  • Progressive alliance to protect democratic rights- this should include businesses, religious organizations, etc. Members should overlook their differences to find common moral ground of protecting democracy

Well to sum up – Prevention is better than cure. Whoever is responsible for putting a politician in a leadership/power position MUST do his/her part NOT to allow a demagogue/dictator/autocrat into power. This starts with the citizens, political parties, political leaders- and others who are behind the scene (those who hold the establishment). Let’s use the signs to test these personalities before we give them power. Dictators are devils on human flesh.

NOTE: This is a summary or a simple reflection and not a review. A review would have involved critical analysis of the argument as well as other aspects such as methodologies. The aim here is to provide a summary of key arguments in the book as I think these can help many citizens of the world who are trying to save their countries out of autocrats.

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