We Americans tend to think our democracy is exceptional, it’s a bulwark, it’s resilient, and perhaps indestructible. But a democracy is an enormous institution based on human interdependence. Like any healthy relationship, its internal strength increases when it works hard at maintaining its core values. It’s more likely to thrives when it shares company with like-minded friends. For this reason, we might benefit by checking in on our democracy. How well is it holding up to the stress test it’s undergoing in a period of polarization, trauma after the pandemic, and the erosion of democracy world-wide.
Skeptical about claims of democracy’s vulnerability? In 2019, the Wall Street Journal published “The Global Crisis of Democracy.” While the world had eighty-six democracies in the year 2006, an explosion of sorts from the ten that existed in 1900. But one in six democracies failed in the last decade, reported WSJ’s Larry Diamond.
Democracy doesn’t tend to keel over. Death by coup is uncommon. It dies more like a tree, bit by bit, rotting from the inside, dehydrated, starved, assaulted by bugs, which is why Freedom House, an advocacy group for democracy, political rights and civil liberties, measures democracy by the number of civil liberties and freedoms a nation retains or surrenders.
As people, we know that all institutions require shared values, a vision, and mutual work. We read books on how to strengthen marriage or parent better, and we have an opportunity now to discuss and address the work we, citizens in a small town, can do to protect and strengthen our democracy. The Montgomery County Democrats is sponsoring a discussion on the book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt on May 24. Whether you join the discussion, the book is worth reading.
Levitsky and Ziblatt open it with a call for party gatekeepers to prevent candidates who use autocratic and authoritarian language and policies from gaining credibility. Most of us aren’t party gatekeepers. We are voters trying to live our lives and retain our liberties. Once the books first argument takes little time to finish before they move on to what is relevant for those of us on front porches and at kitchen tables.
What is in our locus of control? The two unwritten principles that Levitsky and Ziblatt say have preserved us - mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. We can realize that citizens hold competing values at times and that democracy is not a system of winner take all. Mutual tolerance means accepting we will make incremental change.
“Democracy is grinding work,” write the authors, that requires “negotiation, compromise, and concession. Setbacks are inevitable, victories always partial.” They acknowledge that these constraints are frustrating but those who are committed to democracy accept this way of governing. Mutual tolerance means putting away the language of war and making enemies of each other. If not, we may find ourselves, as Levitsky and Ziblatt write, in the place the US was after the Civil War with 600,000 dead and asking, “What could we have done to prevent this?”
In the decade after the Civil War, the US reeled with the loss and yet remained deeply divided. The book lays out how the division over slavery so polarized Americans that even Congress had given up on mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. There were over 125 incidents of violence in Congress in the three decades leading up to the war. That violence reads like a symbol as powerful as John Gottman’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Other symptoms of its internal sickness include increased use of executive powers, packing the courts, changing the rules of the game such as who can vote, silencing media, and weakening or buying out opponents, say the authors.
All of this is to enact a single-party system. Two parties barely represent the variety of values and goals in the US. This lack of mutual tolerance, by which we mean that “as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept they have a right to exist, compete for power, and govern.” It works with forbearance when we “exercise control, restraint, and tolerance” though we might have a legal right to do everything we can to destroy or undermine another. It’s the willingness to not resort to governing by executive orders, packing the court, or constantly resorting to a filibuster. It could mean much more, like not packing bills with unrelated legislation to play dirty on how a representative voted or achieved a win. All of these are tactics that either of America’s two parties have used more frequently in the past four decades.
The Civil War broke American democracy, the authors note. In the era after Reconstruction, southern states resorted to single-party systems because, as South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun wrote: “We (White Americans) would exchange conditions with them (Black Americans)” and our nation would become “the permanent abode of disorder, anarchy, poverty, misery and wretchedness.” The virulent discrimination is evidence of the deep polarization that prevented mutual tolerance and forbearance. Tragically tolerance only re-emerged after Rutherford B. Hayes ended the Reconstruction Act. The costs for Black Americans were radical: disenfranchisement from voting, subjugation to Jim Crow Laws, and segregation. It is difficult to witness that it took another century for the grinding work of democracy to turn around the losses for huge portions of our population. Yet, we persist, because we still believe democracy is the best tool we have for protecting and providing civil liberties.
The League of Women Voters supports non-partisan discussion. Join the discussion Tuesday, May 24th at Backstep Brewery from 6-8 pm. If you need a copy of the book, a few copies are left through Mike Reidy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.