Democratic backsliding: the perils of polarization


If democratic backsliding were to occur in the United States, it would not take the form of a coup d’état; there would be no declaration of martial law or imposition of single-party rule, according to analysts Robert MickeySteven Levitsky, and Lucan Ahmad Way. Rather, the experience of most contemporary autocracies suggests that it would take place through a series of little-noticed, incremental steps, most of which are legal and many of which appear innocuous. Taken together, however, they would tilt the playing field in favor of the ruling party, they write for Foreign Affairs:

  • The first type of abuse entails politicizing state institutions and deploying them against the opposition. Modern states possess a variety of bodies that can investigate and punish wrongdoing by public officials or private citizens—the courts; public prosecutors; legislative oversight committees; and law enforcement, intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Because these organs are designed to serve as neutral arbiters, they present both a challenge and an opportunity for would-be authoritarians.…
  • The second way elected autocrats may tilt the playing field is by neutralizing key parts of civil society. Few contemporary autocracies seek to eliminate opposition outright. Rather, they attempt to coopt, silence, or hobble groups that can mobilize it: media outlets, business leaders, labor unions, religious associations, and so on. The easiest route is cooptation. Thus, most authoritarian governments offer perks or outright bribes to major media, business, and religious figures.…..
  • Finally, elected autocrats often rewrite the rules of the political game—reforming the constitution, the electoral system, or other institutions—to make it harder for their rivals to compete. Such reforms are often justified on the grounds of combating corruption, cleaning up elections, or strengthening democracy, but their true aim is more sinister. In Ecuador, for example, an electoral reform pushed through by the government of President Rafael Correa in 2012 heavily restricted private campaign contributions, ostensibly to reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics. But in reality, the reform benefited Correa’s governing party, whose unregulated access to government resources gave it a massive advantage.

Democracies work best when there is a reasonable degree of consensus and voters are willing to accept defeat for their own side as legitimate. But that is harder when the ideological divisions are sharp and electoral systems deliver “winner takes all” results, The Economist notes:

This is likely to result in more radical political changes, of the type that markets do find unsettling. The general drift is towards more authoritarian, more nationalistic policies that appeal to voters whose living standards have stagnated.

Perils of polarization

“Scholars have long identified political polarization as a central factor behind democratic breakdown,” analysts Mickey, et al, add. “Extreme polarization leads politicians and their supporters to view their rivals as illegitimate and, in some cases, as an existential threat. Often, democratic norms weaken as politicians become willing to break the rules, cooperate with antidemocratic extremists, and even tolerate or encourage violence in order to keep their rivals out of power. Few democracies can survive for long under such conditions.” RTWT

“Polarization is affective as well as cognitive. Today, for the first time in the history of modern survey research, majorities of partisans have not only an unfavorable but a deeply unfavorable view of the other party,” adds William A. Galston, the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and College Park Professor at the University of Maryland.

Most Americans would likely have a hard time believing that their democracy is at risk of “deconsolidation,” and they have centuries of history on their side, he writes for the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.

“What is more, the greatest challenges to constitutional democracy have always come during major wars or national emergencies, and current circumstances, however worrisome, do not rise to this level,” he adds. But…

Events at home and abroad have delivered a salutary warning against progressivist complacency. History does not have an end, nor does it necessarily arc toward justice. Liberal democracy is not self-sustaining. It is a human achievement, not a historical inevitability. Like every human creation, it can be weakened from within, when those who support it fail to rally to its cause.


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