The History of Democracy: How Democracies Die

Sep 14, 2020

Tracy Ross and Murray State professor of history, Dr. David Pizzo, continue their discussion series, The History of Democracy, with "How Democracies Die." Pizzo uses multiple literary and historical references to illustrate the tendencies of fallen democracies to transition into more authoritarian regimes and to discuss the warning signs of political systems on the cusp of change. 

Dr. David Pizzo references several recent publications in this discussion, including:

"Lots of people have written about [fascism and the fall of democracy], but there's been a slew of books lately because I think we are in this moment of what many political scientists, historians, and sociologists perceive to be a sort of democratic collapse or decline," Pizzo begins. "I think one of the things that is hard for Americans [is] we tend to buy into this whiggish notion of a history of progress going in one direction."

"We have trouble processing mentally and emotionally that democratic systems can be reversed," he continues. "Those things can be dismantled. One of the things that's been hardest to grasp for people, and this has been really emphasized in [Applebaum's book], is that we're in a year now where democracy is so universally accepted that dictators (or would-be dictators) essentially have figured out how to kill [democracy] without actually destroying its form."

Pizzo explains that throughout all of the aforementioned literature, there are four key indicators of authoritarian governmental behavior. These include "rejection of or recommitment to democratic rules of the regime; denial of the legitimacy of political opponents (demonizing them); toleration or encouragement of violence; and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media."

Pizzo points out that historians and sociologists are particularly concerned that the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening these already-present key indicators. "Epidemics have historically tended to give a lot more power to the state, and you can argue that that's necessary on a certain level to fight...whatever you're dealing with, but governments seldom let that power go. A lot of people...are worried that we're in this...global authoritarian moment [that] has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Eating away at social solidarity. Even the machinery of elections itself has been so undermined, particularly in the American case."

Although not always the case, Pizzo explains that "almost every single example I can think of when democracy died...[that government] has invariably [made way to] a more authoritarian system...even if they maintain democratic norms for some people. Even if it is not always as obvious." This includes Jim Crow-era regimes of the American South and, Pizzo adds, "that's certainly how apartheid South Africa worked. It was a quasi-one-party state in which Afrikaners...and English-speaking whites...were fully participating in the system, protected, and privileged. But for the Black majority...and people of mixed descent, they were completely disenfranchised." 

The transition from a democracy to an authoritarian regime still seems a bit far-fetched in the American zeitgeist. The phrase 'it can't happen here' is a "common refrain," Pizzo says. "People said it in the '30s. I've heard people say it as recently as this week. 'This is America.' I think that's a well-meaning manifestation of this notion of American exceptionalism, where we're a city on the hill where things work differently, and it can't happen here. I think that's a natural impulse everybody has. I'd like to point out that is absolutely what Germans thought -- many of them." 

Pizzo references a Benjamin Carter Hett book cited in previous History of Democracy discussions. In pre-Nazi Weimar, the established political behavior of Germany (albeit not always democratic), combined with Germany's own notions of its constitutionality and legality, made it difficult for German opposition to "imagine a situation not only in which an authoritarian regime came into power, but one in which a plurality -- then probably a majority -- of their citizens would allow themselves to literally be disappeared. Many people have said that 'it could not happen to us.'"

"All this literature basically points out that...a lot of what makes democracies work isn't really rules or constitutions. Those written rules are not enough. Ultimately, it has to do with norms, and culture, and all kinds of guardrails created by agreements to a certain extent between elites, but also between different factors of the political system accepting each other as legitimate," Pizzo explains. "In the case of America, what I will say to get a bit more specific is yes, our founders -- however flawed they were -- thought about this stuff a lot."

Alexander Hamilton and James Madison acted as guardrails [a term regularly used by Levitsky and Ziblatt in How Democracies Die] to prevent "authoritarianism or would-be monarchists coming to power," Pizzo explains. "They did a lot of that. I think those mechanisms have worked to a certain degree, but I think they were more dependent on norms and culture and gentlemanly agreements than I think we have perceived." 

The guardrails established in the late 18th century have proved to be ineffective when preventing unconstitutionality in present-day politics. "I think to some degree -- and I know I'll make some listeners mad -- is that kind of happened with [former governor] Bevin a little bit," Pizzo says. "I think Bevin literally went shopping for a state in which there are few restraints on a governor's power, other than cultural ones. However you feel about him, he was not democratically inclined in terms of his behavior."

Pizzo also references the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, which took place earlier this year. "The framers did not and could not imagine a situation where a would-be authoritarian -- and I am willing to die on this hill that I think that's what he is -- [is in power, and] where half the legislature would be complicit in that authoritarianism. Our system has no answer for that. Because ultimately, in our system, rules only mean something if they're enforced."

"I would say the same thing about the Hatch Act. These laws...prevent using your office to get your office again and to maintain power. Thousands of Hatch Act violations were committed a couple weeks ago at the [Republican National Convention]. A stunning amount. Literally everyone who worked on that convention broke federal law. But if nobody is willing to enforce that law, it becomes meaningless."

"I still hear people say, 'oh, well as bad as it is, that couldn't happen here because we have this law and that law.' I'm not sure any of that matters. Laws are not the hand of God, some external force that imposes its will. It's what are people able to do, willing to do, and what can they get away with? I think we're learning that all over again. Democracy's not a thing. It's not a monument. It's a process. It's a living, breathing, and right now, maybe dying thing that, if you don't fight for it and maintain it literally every day, no amount of paper or precedent or institution will stop [its fall]," Pizzo concludes.