Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt
Crown, 2018, 320 pp., $26
The ironic march in the third movement of Mahler’s First “Titan” Symphony is for a funeral procession of forest animals who bury the hunter. Similarly ironic, perhaps, is the procession of American political scientists who have studied authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and their aftermaths, using American liberal democracy as the gold standard, who now turn their gaze back on America, applying what they have learned from studying politics abroad to U.S. politics, whose gold standard may be turning to dross.
There was always something artificial and even condescending about what Thomas Carothers called in a 2002 article the “transition paradigm.” The collapse of non-democratic regimes in Southern Europe, Latin America, and finally Eastern Europe in the last quarter of the 20th century, which Samuel Huntington dubbed the Third Wave of democratization, did not warrant the inference that those regime changes had a common cause, affected one another, or, least of all, shared a common destiny. Certainly Huntington never argued as much, but un-self-aware American ideology surfed the wave as a predictive explanation of the phenomena. Reality, however, eventually spited ideology, and before long Harvard government professor Steven Levitsky and University of Toronto political scientist Lucan Way published Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (2010) to explain the failure of this ideology.
Levitsky and Way offered an alternative to the democratic transition paradigm. It turned on the observation that many of the regimes that collapsed in the last quarter of the 20th century evolved not into liberal democracies, but into hybrid authoritarian regimes that combined authoritarian features with limited political competition and deliberately unfair elections. They did so—and here was the punch line—not because their tenured political elites could not manage their way to liberal democracy, but because they did not want to go there. Not every political culture wants to be like the one captured in America’s mythic self-image. Arguably one must be guilty of insular thinking to suppose otherwise.
Competitive Authoritarianism is already a classic of the disillusioned political zeitgeist of the second decade of the 21st century—much as Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan’s Problems of Democratic Transitions and Consolidation (1996), embodies the optimistic political spirit of the 1990s. The two books form a nice glass-half-empty, glass-half-full couplet for future generations to argue about, if they can agree on the shape of the glass to begin with.
Now Levitsky, with a new co-author, Daniel Ziblatt, also a Harvard government professor, is back in the saddle for another journey around the global commons, this time including the United States. In How Democracies Die they contend that the rise of America’s illiberal presidency has proved that American politics are not as exceptional as some have wished: “If, twenty-five years ago, someone had described to you a country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach Presidents and steal Supreme Court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. You probably would not have thought of the United States.” Just as it is possible for some formerly authoritarian political cultures to move toward democratic forms without embracing fully democratic and especially liberal substance, it is possible for liberal democracies to decay, maintaining “a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance”—and even to become authoritarian.
Using metaphors from competitive team sports, Levitsky and Ziblatt highlight three mutually reinforcing processes that gradually transform democracies into hybrid authoritarian regimes: Illiberal governments come to control the “referees” of the political game, especially the judiciary; they weaken their opponents by taking the most competitive “players” for other teams out of the political arena; and, finally, they change the rules of the political “game” to ensure that they will continue to win apparently pluralistic and free elections.
Capturing the judiciary and law enforcement functions protects the hybrid authoritarian regime and can be used to attack its opponents. For example, in Hungary, the prosecution, state audit office, ombudsman, statistical office and the Constitutional Court were used both to shield Fidesz’s corruption and to harass the opposition. Ruling illiberal democratic parties do not eliminate political opposition, but rather weaken and harass it, and sometimes bribe competitive political alternatives into division and ultimate submission. The same “bully or bribe” tactics are then applied to politically relevant sectors of civil society: the media, non-governmental organizations, and wealthy, powerful, or otherwise influential individuals. Once post-democratic regimes manage to control the constitution, its judicial interpretation, and the electoral system, they can prolong their tenure indefinitely.
Transition from democracy is usually a gradual process that takes years. Elected leaders, legislatures, and the courts must work together to dismantle checks and balances, pack the courts, buy or intimidate the media and harass political opponents. There is no single revolutionary event, no storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace, no burning of the Reichstag.
Levitsky and Ziblatt base their theoretical framework on a core of Latin American cases, Chávez’s Venezuela, Fujimori’s Peru, and Peron’s Argentina, democracies with weak institutions and polarized partly illiberal or authoritarian-minded electorates. Hungary and Poland share much with this group, though they are post-totalitarian with politically weak militaries and civil societies, weak rule of law and independent institutions, were closed from the world for more than a generation, have had strong net migration outflows, and courtesy of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have suffered from ethnic and cultural homogeneity for two generations. Yet Levitsky and Ziblatt also include in the group of dead and dying democracies authoritarian regimes that attempted to use some veneer of legality and democracy but have never been true democracies: Russia, Turkey, Malaysia, post-Reconstruction U.S. states in the South, and so on.
Lumping all these different cases together can be misleading. Russia was an imperialist totalitarian dictatorship that imploded. In the 1990s, the state became very weak and consequently an unregulated space emerged spontaneously for political pluralism and civil society, such as they were, as well as for crime and corruption. But Russia has never had the liberal institutions that underlie democracy. With Putin’s restoration the old secret police elite reasserted its control over a stronger, though still weak, state. Russian democracy did not die; it was stillborn.
Turkey is an entirely different story. A decades-long power struggle between, on the one hand, a secular and modernizing yet authoritarian military-backed political elite and, on the other, an Islamist populist social movement imitating a political party ended recently after the suppression of a feeble military coup, which the AKP government used as a pretext to crush most political opposition and trash the constitution to lock in an authoritarian regime in all but name. During this struggle, the Islamists used their democratic popularity against the military, but they never constructed liberal institutions; nor has there been much of a constituency for liberal democracy in Turkey outside of Istanbul and a few other cities. So Erdogan’s post-coup consolidation of power and suppression of political opponents is at most the death of a hybrid democracy, because there had never been a liberal democracy in Turkey. It is probably more useful and accurate to say that recent developments signal the end of the institutional independence of the military, and its submission to the state.
After the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, the occupying North forced both abolition and democracy but eventually stopped enforcing the latter, which led to undemocratic single-party rule. One cannot exactly say that democracy died in the South; democracy must be alive and self-sustaining before it can die. In the case of the former Confederate states, democracy merely ceased to be externally enforced. Authoritarian regime permutations do not count.
In short, it is not clear that the “democracies” of Russia, Turkey, and the post-Confederate South have ever been sufficiently alive to deserve to be buried with full honors in the same cemetery as democracies that had a full life before they expired. Yet, some scholars are even now digging new plots in that cemetery in anticipation of new decedents. Alas, political scholars and their reading publics prefer clear historical teleological patterns to messy, complex and difficult to generalize or predict political phenomena that happen without a preordained direction for many different causes, some common and global and some unique and local. So, as many once imagined that all states were trending to democracy in some glorious “end of history,” others now think that they are trending away from democracy. A crop of new books by Yascha Mounck, David Frum, Tim Snyder, and a new anthology edited by Cass Sunstein, attempt to analyze from different perspectives the reasons for the acute if not terminal apparent crisis of democracy.
Levitsky and Ziblatt do not subscribe to a democracy-to-authoritarianism transition paradigm. Their book is about how democracies die; it is not about prophesying a global democratic extinction event. They emphasize that democratic backsliders are balanced by democracies that have stabilized, such that the overall number of democracies has not changed much since 2005. Carothers agrees: He co-authored a Foreign Affairs essay a year ago entitled “Democracy Is Not Dying: Seeing Through the Doom and Gloom.” So How Democracies Die is not another in the dreary series of breathless “end of” books and essays we have come lately to expect. Let us bless small mercies.
Levitsky and Ziblatt are right that in trying to understand the crisis of American democracy we do need to look at how other democracies died in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Yet how they go about this task may leave something to be desired. The most important chapter of How Democracies Die compares Donald Trump’s conduct during his first year in office with other illiberal authoritarians. Trump has attacked the “guardrails,” “the referees,” and the checks and balances on presidential powers: the media, the judiciary, and local and state government. He has also attacked law enforcement and intelligence agencies, firing James Comey from the FBI and Preet Bharara from the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan (and reportedly wanted to fire Jeff Sessions and Robert Mueller as well). Trump has mused about changing libel laws and using licensing and anti-trust laws to muzzle the media. By an objective definition, he is as authoritarian as the worst of the illiberal strongmen.
The difference is that in the context of the American constitutional order, Presidents are not strong enough to get their way in most such matters. The libel laws have not been changed, nor have most filibuster rules in Congress. Since How Democracies Die went into print the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (known by its critics as the voter suppression committee) has been disbanded. The President’s authoritarian bark has been worse than his anti-constitutional bite:
President Trump repeatedly scraped up against the guardrails, like a reckless driver, but he did not break through them. Despite clear causes for concern, little actual backsliding occurred in 2017. We did not cross the line into authoritarianism. It is still early, however. The backsliding of democracy is often gradual, its effects unfolding slowly over time.
Levitsky and Ziblatt compare the Trump Administration’s first year to that of other would-be authoritarian regimes according to their three sporting metaphors criteria (capturing referees, sidelining competitive players, and changing the rules). Leaving aside for the moment where they started, Hungary, Peru, and Turkey were no further on the road to authoritarianism than the United States after one year of rule by democratically elected illiberal demagogues. As the man who fell off a skyscraper told himself half way down, “so far, so good.” The question is how did American democracy come to its current trajectory?
Since the election of Donald Trump as President with a substantial minority of the votes was a very close contest, many contingencies combined to produce the result. What if fewer Democratic-inclined voters had taken Clinton’s victory for granted? What if the Obama Administration had not been asleep at the wheel while Russia hacked the DNC and trolled social media? What if Clinton had actually campaigned in the Midwest? And so on and so forth. It could have easily ended differently.
Historians, lawyers, and social scientists often distinguish conditions from causes. For example, a discarded match caused the forest fire but the existence of the sufficiently parched woods was a necessary condition. One major criterion for distinguishing causes from conditions is manipulability: We can do nothing about dry forests, but we can expect people to be careful with matches. (Other criteria for distinguishing causes from conditions need not be examined here.) When scientists test hypotheses by conducting comparative studies, they attempt to hold the conditions constant. For example, they assume that all forests have combustible wood and ask for the percentage of forest fires that were caused by discarded matches. If that percentage is significant, then Smokey the Bear has good reason to warn that “only you can prevent forest fires.”
Levitsky and Ziblatt chose to consider authoritarian-minded electorates as constant conditions for, rather than causes of, democratic demise. They assume that the authoritarian base of support for authoritarian demagogues in the United States is historically roughly constant at about 40 percent, and so discuss other causes for Trump’s ascendance. But though there have indeed always been populist demagogues in American politics, it is not clear how to empirically estimate the ebbs and flows of authoritarian electorates throughout history. Authoritarians often abstain from participation in elections. In the 2016 elections, when they obviously made it to the polling booths, the percentage of politically apathetic Americans who could not be bothered to vote was almost as high as the combined percentages of Clinton and Trump voters.
From a comparative perspective, for twenty years (1990-2010) elections in Hungary and Poland resulted in mostly conventional European parliaments, with anti-systemic demagogues only at the margins. The main post-Communist anomaly was the occasional success of reformed Communist parties that attempted to present themselves as social democrats, and so did not challenge new liberal democratic institutions but rather sought to subvert them for their own corrupt ends. The decline in the fortunes of post-Communist as well as other center-Left parties coincided with the rise of right-wing illiberal parties. But it is not clear to what extent these shifts can be attributed to the same electorate, and whether that electorate can be characterized as illiberal, protesting, resentful of urban educated and cosmopolitan elites, reactionary in the sense of resistant to any change, or something else.
A static view of any “characteristic” electorate seems a methodological stretch. By considering demographic authoritarian proclivities as constant conditions, Levitsky and Ziblatt exclude the interesting question about what caused their sudden political emergence since 2010 across different countries. In other words, they seem to bracket off the really interesting questions of causality. Instead, they concentrate on the United States and apply a version of the “betrayal of the elites” theoretical framework to explain the democratic backslide because it works better for their purposes.
Social scientists have noted that regimes rarely collapse before some of their elites defect to facilitate a smooth, sometimes even continuously seamless and apparently legal, transfer of power. This generalization holds in both directions of regime change, for transition from authoritarianism to democracy as in South Africa, Argentina, and Hungary, and for transition from democracy to authoritarianism as in the Roman Republic or Latin America. Democratic politicians defect to the authoritarian dark side and facilitate an authoritarian takeover without a struggle when they believe that they can control, contain, or coopt the authoritarian leadership and use it against what they consider greater political evils like socialism, and prevent a civil war which elites can only lose: case in point, the reasoning of members of the Conservative and Monarchist Weimar political elites in handing over the chancellorship to Adolph Hitler in January 1933 that the lucky among them lived to regret. Levitsky and Ziblatt accuse the Republican Party elite of hating the Democratic Party more than they love democracy, and consequently of betraying democracy in their failure to disown the Republican presidential candidate and support Hillary Clinton as a lesser evil. They unfavorably compare the Republican elite with conservative elites who supported the liberal-democratic candidates in the presidential elections in Austria and France.
The comparison is imperfect because the support for Alexander Van der Bellen in Austria and Emanuel Macron in France came in the second of two election rounds, after the conservative parties’ candidates were eliminated. Worse, after publication of the book, the Austrian center-Right formed a coalition with the neo-fascist, Russian-bankrolled Freedom Party and gave it the Defense, Interior, and Foreign ministries. In countries with multiparty political systems like Austria, one calculation motivating the attempt to coopt authoritarian, anti-democratic, or populist movements (which Levitsky and Ziblatt do not mention) is that, without consistent, credible realistic policies or even coherent ideologies, they may just amount to protest movements. Theoretically, coopting protest movements into the establishment and having them share responsibility for policies should discredit them.
This strategy works sometimes. For example, Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party accepted an invitation to join a coalition government with the center-Right in 2000, and then experienced electoral decline and disintegration. Austria’s new Chancellor, the 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz—who is in his own estimation the greatest German-speaking statesman since von Papen and Hindenburg—has attempted to re-enact that achievement. Obviously, the wild-eyed extremist simpletons of the Freedom Party are oblivious to these sophisticated maneuvers. They will, however, be surprised when they realize how the clever Kurz outwitted them by giving them control over Austria’s security forces and foreign relations.
Back in the United States, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that, had the Bush family and other members of the Republican traditional leadership publicly called on their supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton, history would have spared us President Trump. It is a difficult counterfactual to parse. On the one hand, the Never Trumpers made themselves heard among Republicans, and the Bush magic was thoroughly spent, as Jeb’s woeful fate tells us. On the other hand, the gap in the crucial states was so small that even minor causes and effects could have reversed the results. Indeed, it is equally true that had the leadership of the tiny Green Party called on its supporters to vote for Clinton, she could have won just as well. At the time, however, it seemed unnecessary to further split the Republican Party to stop a Trump presidency because the received wisdom was that he would lose, and lose badly.
Ultimately, the relevant consideration here may not be political or social-scientific but moral. Ethicists debate whether we should act to bring about the best consequences or whether we should fulfil our absolute moral duties regardless of the consequences. The consequentialists and Kantian deontologists will probably continue this debate forever, but, at least in situations where it is impossible to compute the probable results of our actions in complex situations, we may agree that we should just do the right thing. The Republican elite did not do the right thing.
Levitsky and Ziblatt hold political parties to be democracy’s gatekeepers and blame the Republican Party for failing to fulfil this role. They attribute this failure to open primaries that replaced elections controlled by party insiders in “smoke-filled rooms”—a historically fitting metaphor, as the decline in party control happens to coincide with the decline in consumption of tobacco products. Since the book was published, the Democratic Party has announced its intention to revise its primary system to eliminate some of the “super delegates” that prevented a Bernie Sanders-led populist takeover of the party. The Democrats have now joined the Republicans (and Britain’s Labor Party) in surrendering their gatekeeper role over the electoral process to the activists, who tend to be more extreme than those who cannot be bothered to vote in primaries.
Levitsky and Ziblatt detect a deeper weakening of political parties, but it is not clear if their package of reasons is complete. They do have at least one thing down pat—something that has changed America politics significantly in the past few decades: changes in the flow of money.
Traditionally, candidates in democratic systems depended financially on their parties; now multimillionaires like Berlusconi, Babiš, Trump, and others can run their own campaigns, and underwrite the campaigns of others without any help or say-so from party elites. The shift in the flow of money has long since inflected American national politics, weakening party leaderships and congressional processes. More recently, crowd-funding has allowed other candidates like Bernie Sanders to raise small amounts from numerous sources directly. A third source of money that Levitsky and Ziblatt do not mention is, of course, Russia, which has been openly financing the political extremes in many European countries, if not also in the United States.
Beyond the money flow, social media has allowed political leaders, including demagogues, to connect directly with their base, bypassing parties and the legacy media. Consequently, illiberal and populist leaders can take over existing political parties, as Orban and Trump did, or when traditional political parties are weak and do not have a “tribal” base, start their own parties, as Fujimori, Berlusconi, the Kaczyńskis, Babiš, and also Macron did.
The super-rich can now control or own traditional media outlets, pushing them to become highly partisan. Levitsky and Ziblatt focus on FOX and talk radio. Yet a comparison with non-American media is instructive: European print media has often been partisan in the sense that it argued mostly for a set of policies. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Times has argued for different policies than the Guardian, as Le Figaro and l’Humanite did in France, and readers knew that if they wanted to be exposed to alternative arguments they should buy more than one daily. When the Independent daily was founded by former Daily Telegraph editors in the United Kingdom, its innovative gimmick was non-partisanship.
Media partisanship is neither new nor dangerous. Dangerous partisanship operates on a different level by manipulating strong passions instead of appealing to interests and ideals through arguments. The media business model of appealing to passionate irrationalities, chiefly scaring and seducing, xenophobia and pornography, was pioneered by Rupert Murdoch in Australia but gradually took off throughout the globe. As the English joke goes, the Times is read by the people who run the country. The liberal Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who own the country. The Communist Party’s Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country. The Conservative Daily Telegraph is read by the people who think it already is. The Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.
If we assemble only these elements of change—and ignore for now other reasons for party weakness that Levitsky and Ziblatt do not raise—we recognize elements of a very old rather than a new regime: direct democracy. Ancient direct democracy was prone to demagoguery and self-destruction, which is why Aristotle, Plato, and others distrusted it to no small extent. Modern constitutional representative democracies, especially in the United States, were designed to curb that self-destructiveness. Some modern checks and balances have ceased to work effectively, however, and others are now under constant pressure. Consequently, we are to some extent back in 4th-century BCE Athens.
Levitsky and Ziblatt wisely do not attempt to predict the future of democracy. They suggest possible scenarios. Like other commentators, they warn against a “Burning Reichstag” scenario, whereby Trump would use a security crisis to silence the opposition, rally public opinion, and facilitate a gradual authoritarian takeover. Such a crisis may happen, as it did on 9/11. Trump may also cause one unintentionally, or even intentionally—for example, by waging a war against Iran or North Korea.
Such a security crisis does not even have to be real. The Hungarian and Polish authoritarian leaders have used the fictional threat of Jewish financiers paying Muslim and African refugee hordes to invade Europe to manipulate ignorant, bigoted, and paranoid citizens into voting for them. Trump may bungle a provocation, or pervasive levels of distrust in his leadership may prevent him from using a “burning Reichstag” effectively. Yet he may still succeed in making America more like contemporary Hungary or Peron’s Argentina, establishing illiberal democracy with permanent white majorities, voter suppression, and a subservient judiciary.
Levitsky and Ziblatt consider such a scenario unlikely but nevertheless not inconceivable, because “it is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities gave up their dominant status without a fight”—for example, the South after Reconstruction, or Lebanon. The truth of this generalization depends on the meanings of “ethnic” and “fight,” and the time frame. The initial Anglo-Scottish-Dutch Protestant dominance in the United States was gradually diluted and then overwhelmed by other European ethnicities like the Irish, Poles and Italians, who had been treated no better than Mexicans are today, with comparatively little friction. In Israel, the early Ashkenazi dominance over oriental Jews, who immigrated to Israel mostly after its founding, is largely in the past. In history, the Macedonian Empire, its successor Diadochi states, and the later Roman Empire ceased being ethnically Macedonian, Greek, or Roman and became ethnically universal and culturally syncretic for centuries. The multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire maintained Austrian dominance and harbored tensions between its ethnic groups, but by the later 19th century it offered Slavs, Magyars, and especially Jews unprecedented opportunities for upward mobility. Had it not been for the folly of the World War, it is not inconceivable that the Habsburgs would have been successful in forging a multinational empire without a dominant ethnic group. Finally, what can be called the “Brazilian Dream” of post-ethnic national identity that appealed so much to quintessential Austro-Hungarians like Stephen Zweig can and did happen without civil wars.
The second scenario that Levitsky and Ziblatt consider is of a Democratic (party and regime) restoration, what I would call “the California Dream.” Trump could lose the 2020 elections or be impeached and convicted after losing Congress in the upcoming midterms. The political carnival, with its jester king, would end, and quiet, PG-13 political life would stabilize on the basis of a new liberal tolerant consensus. But Levitsky and Ziblatt consider a return to political consensus unlikely because of the long-term polarizing trends that began well before Trump.
The most likely scenario Levitsky and Ziblatt foresee is the “North Carolina-ization” of America. The guardrails of democracy will weaken in the context of increased polarization and political and cultural strife, gerrymandering, and surgical suppression of black and Hispanic votes.
It is tempting to imagine such a middling scenario between the “Hungarian” and “Californian” extreme scenarios. Yet the recent, admittedly short, history of neo-illiberal democracy in Europe and Latin America proves that it is an unstable regime. The constant scraping against the guardrails turns quickly into shoving matches in which one side or the other must give way. Illiberal democracy either overhauls the institutional guardrails to reach authoritarianism with manipulated majority acclaim, or a firm push back restores liberal democracy: There is no stable equilibrium that is neither liberal nor authoritarian. This is the cause of much of the “drama” that accompanies illiberal democracy, for it can only end with a Hungarian or Californian stable regime.
Levitsky and Ziblatt’s recommendations are fairly commonsensical: The Democratic Party should build a broad coalition and avoid extremism that may alienate businesses, religious groups, and centrist Republicans. Recent Democratic Party successes in Pennsylvania and even Alabama prove that occupying the center may be more effective than occupying Wall Street. Whether the results of future Democratic Party primaries allow the party to drift to the ruling center rather than to oppositional margins is still a mooted question. Levitsky and Ziblatt emphasize that Democrats should also resist the temptation to adopt populist positions against minorities and immigration to appeal to Trump’s voters and lose their own. To alleviate tensions between the white lower middle classes and the black poor that the Affordable Care Act made worse, they recommend universal rather than means-tested entitlements. “Republicans today must expel extremists from their ranks, break sharply with the Trump Administration’s authoritarian and white nationalist orientation, and find a way to broaden the party’s base beyond white Christians. The German CDU,” they argue, “may offer a model.”
This will just not fly. Trump is no Hitler, but today’s GOP is very short on “Adenauers” and long on “Von Papens.” Republicans still try to fence sit and wait for the plague to pass without having to take sides. As Yuval Levin noted in his Weekly Standard review of How Democracies Die, there is reason to worry, but not to panic, about Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Forgive me, but I cannot help associating this sangfroid wisdom with Kevin Bacon’s character at the end of National Lampoon’s Animal House, who instructs everybody to remain calm as the Deltas wreck the town.
Levitsky and Ziblatt are right to highlight the long-term deleterious effects of this presidency on civic virtue. Since the founding of the Republic, Federalists and Republicans have been debating whether its proper foundations are Jeffersonian civic virtues or well-designed constitutionally erected institutions. Illiberal attacks on institutions are visible; the corruption of civility by what Hannah Arendt called Radical Evil, the open advocacy of immorality, is less visible but it is more deleterious. The world imitates America. The next President may have to deal with Latin America replete with Trump clones and an America where people imitate the former President in how uncaringly cruel exploitative and disloyal they treat and manipulate each other and their families. A house divided in such a way cannot stand, and a house made of rotten bricks will collapse under its own weight even if it is built according to the best architectural constitutional design.
It is too easy for political theorists to forget that all political regimes exist in time, they are historical. No political form is eternal. Liberal democracy is no exception, but a historically hard-won achievement, something rare and built up only over a long time; it doesn’t have an “instant” formula that admirers can assemble in a quick do-it-yourself manner for export or import. Liberal democracies with young and brittle stems and shallower and weaker roots in a hard, dry, and unforgiving historical soil as in Hungary and Poland can be uprooted and blow away when the economic winds change. Democracies with the deepest roots, as in Britain and its former colonies, where institutions and attitudes have come to align most closely, are the most difficult to uproot. Demagogues can shake them, yet they remain rooted. It is useful to compare the prospects of American liberal democracy with the modern experiences of Latin American countries, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and so on, noting some general forms of democratic demise. But painting all political pictures with the same brush without attention to different path dependencies can lead to misleading comparisons. Vice versa, assuming ahistorically that there is an authoritarian electoral constant or near constant may obscure the global anti-democratic or rather democratic self-destructive factors at work that can be compared between countries with different histories.