The History of Democracy: Contemporary Threats to Democracy

Nov 9, 2020

In the next installment of Tracy Ross and Dr. David Pizzo's "History of Democracy," Pizzo outlines major threats to contemporary democracy, including useless constitutional safeguards, paramilitary violence, and a worldwide shift to authoritarianism. Pizzo draws comparisons between these present-day threats and similar threats found throughout the last 100 years of US history. 

Murray State professor of history, Dr. David Pizzo, outlines five contemporary threats to democracy in the United States and around the world. Those five threats include:

1. The intersection of the established right and far-right ideology 

"One thing that really strikes me that I don't think I had anticipated four years ago was the degree to which the established right would rally around and both attempt to use and be used by the far-right," Pizzo begins. "The two-party system we have really conceals some of those fault lines and the different kinds of right-wing political movements America has."

"I don't think necessarily the far-right captured the established right, but they definitely formed an alliance, which to me -- and I'm not the first person to make this comparison -- is every bit as cynical as what happened in Weimar. The elite acting and handing them power. I think a lot of people would be surprised about the guardrails or constitutional safeguards that haven't really managed to stop any of what the country feels like we're watching."

2. Constitutional safeguards disregarded by the acting regime

"Weimar -- and that constitution was very carefully designed looking at our constitution, among others -- did not anticipate a situation where the [chancellor], prime minister, and the Reichstag's largest party would all collaborate and cooperate to dismantle [the constitution]," Pizzo says. "I don't want to engage in hyperbole, but I think similarly, our framers did not anticipate we would have a party structure [in which] that party is captured by what many in America feel is a would-be tyrant. It's very striking to watch."

3. The cult of personality

"The cult of personality thing we're watching is impressive and, as far as I can tell, it's kind of shaping into a death cult a little bit. That also happened in some of the other periods and situations we've talked about -- this demand for polite obedience, telling your believers to ignore evidence of their own eyes and ears, the notion of sacrifice for the greater good."

"Whether that greater good is the economy," Pizzo continues, "which I think we're living through right now. This whole 'herd immunity theory' [is] predicated on an enormous amount of us dying so accumulation could continue. Mussolini certainly made an argument like this and created a culture like this."

"By far, the most catastrophic example I've ever seen and is a cautionary tale of how a seemingly-sane nation could just march off a cliff [is the Third Reich]. Hitler and the people around him basically drove that entire nation into a vast collective suicide -- Jim Jones on a much bigger scale. There are almost no other examples in history of a regime fighting almost to the last person the way they did. Even Japan surrendered. When the armistice was declared in Berlin, that day alone, 50,000 national socialists killed themselves."

3. Paramilitary violence and stochastic terrorism

"In Weimar, there was this wave of Fememorde -- essentially taking vengeance on outsiders to protect the community," Pizzo explains. "These are right-wing murders of political figures, of Jews, of the people who signed the Versailles Treaty. The political right in Germany was encouraging this but sort of washing their hands of it by essentially just encouraging it and not doing it."

"I feel like we've definitely seen some of that in the last few years in terms of literal murders being committed and either total silence or rhetoric about both sides. We haven't even gotten close to the levels of 1968 in terms of violence yet. You look at the arc of assassinations -- King Jr., JFK -- '68, in particular, is incredibly violent. I'm glad we're not there yet, but we've been there before."

4. A return of 1920's trends -- and not the Charleston or flapper dresses

"The fourth thing I've been watching is this new 1920s thing we're doing. This is not a flattering comparison," Pizzo says. "Whether it's the nativism or the immigration quotas, the KKK as a political force (or what I would say is KKK-adjacent movements), lynch law and Jim Crow in the South, and voter suppression. Of course, that's not going anywhere -- if anything, [voter suppression] came back with a vengeance since 2012. Race riots."

"All that was happening not only in the context of white supremacy, but also this cult of unrestrained accumulation of wealth generationally, which may have come to a screeching halt because of COVID. COVID might have ruined that party, but before we entered our new 1930's-style depression, we definitely had a 1920's style nativist outburst of xenophobia."

5. A global authoritarian movement

"We're part of this global authoritarian movement, what political scientists have called liberal democracies. The mechanisms are still there, voting is still happening, people are going through the motions, but ultimately, democracy has been hollowed out of its content or corrupted. Most recently, you're seeing that in Poland, Hungary, Russia, Belarus, Turkey, India, Brazil, to a lesser degree but still noticeably in the UK and Italy."

"This is a moment we're living in right now that's pretty hostile to democracy," he continues. "I'm not counting down and out yet, but man. Tons of scholars have pointed out and argued and modeled that when democracies...lose meaningful accountability or transparency or cease to become meaningful democracies, it almost never goes back in the other direction. It's usually just done. So everybody vote -- I don't care who you vote for. But people unplugging from this process is the worst possible outcome."

This installment of "History of Democracy" was recorded ahead of Election Day 2020. When asked about the possibility of an unpeaceful transfer of power, Pizzo says, "no matter what, they're going to subvert things to break it as hard as possible for the succeeding regime. I think that's started already. I feel like watching the Senate Republicans and the republican establishment generally acting like they lost this one. I don't think they're going to win, and they're deliberately hampering attempts at stimulus and attempts to not engage in austerity. No matter what, I think sabotage is occurring before our very eyes."

"In terms of cheating to stay in power," Pizzo continues, "I don't think a lot is off-limits. The issue in our elections is the margins are so razor-thin. In 2000, more people got coronavirus yesterday than the margin by which [George W. Bush] won. Anybody who lived through Bush v. Gore knows how that might turn out. To avoid that path, the margin's going to have to be pretty big. I don't know if it's going to be big in the right places. Polling was right in 2016; it just wasn't in the right places. What was it, 12,000 [votes] in Wisconsin? It was a tiny margin."

"It's a really harsh lesson in that a relatively small number of people can make a huge difference. These margins are in the thousands. No matter what happens on Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday...you can't just shut off and go back home. I think that's what happened...in 2008 -- that deliverance election that brought in the Obama administration -- I think a lot of the mass-energy really dissipated that was angry about the war and was demanding changes."

"Very little changed after that, so one of my concerns is ultimately, the challenger wins, and we tell ourselves everything is fine. In some ways, we have to move past it to live together, but man, do I not want to see another round of that. We do need very real structural challenges. Some of the hardest struggles may be if Biden wins, and people have to say, 'what can we install in this apparatus to prevent some of this from happening again in terms of corruption, the anti-democratic impulses, the xenophobia -- can this thing be fixed?' I think it can be, but it's going to take will, and it's going to take pressuring whoever is in charge," Pizzo concludes. 

Click here to find previous installments of "The History of Democracy."