Steven Levitsky, a professor at Harvard University and co-author of the 2018 book “How Democracies Die,” visited LMU on Thursday to discuss the book and the contemporary status of democracy. The event was organized by the Global Policy Institute (GPI), which presented the book with the 2019 Global Policy Book Award, as well as the political science and international relations department.
“How Democracies Die” shows exactly why college students need to be attentive to what’s going on with global democracy and provides a guide on how American democracy can be restored.
In his speech, Levitsky identified two factors to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and forbearance.
"Mutual toleration," as Levitsky explains in his book, "refers to the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have a right to exist, compete for power, and govern." Essentially, Republicans and Democrats don't view each other as threats to the government or Constitution so much as colleagues from two different parties.
That toleration slowed and was eventually killed during the 1990s under then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA). As detailed in the Atlantic, Gingrich led the way for bending and breaking democratic traditions, from the 1995-1996 government shutdown to the Clinton impeachment.
This ties into the idea of forbearance, or "patient self control," as written in the book. This basically means that leaders don't intentionally go beyond their boundaries for a quick political victory and exercise some level of self-restraint.
Levitsky elaborated in his speech on how the weaponization of other government processes by the GOP, most infamously refusing to organize a vote on the Merrick Garland nomination to the Supreme Court, are not anomalies of U.S. democracy —they're the new norm.
Levitsky also emphasized that the notion of democracies only dying due to violent coups isn't so much the case in recent history. As I've written previously for the Loyolan, there are plenty of dictatorial leaders like Alberto Fujimori and Hugo Chávez were democratically elected before stripping democratic powers away from their citizens and checks and balances.
Levitsky stressed that U.S. institutions have been strong enough to hold Trump back from becoming as authoritarian as someone like Viktor Orbán and the 2018 midterms show that Americans are invested enough to fight back against populism. However, anti-democratic efforts from an older and whiter party to hinder voter turnout among minorities, as explained by the Washington Post, are still something we need to be on alert for.
Here on campus, there are plenty of opportunities for students to learn more about democracy and get involved with democratic policy, even if they aren't a political science major. Through the GPI, LMU students can work an internship and develop research projects with other GPI fellows and faculty.
Outside of strictly academic research, students can also raise awareness about oppressive attacks on democracy at home and abroad by joining or supporting RSOs related to these issues. LMU's South Asian Student Association, for instance, has changed its Instagram profile picture to solid red and hosted an event in September to raise awareness about Kashmir.
Across the globe, we're seeing college students leading democracy movements and fighting back against growing authoritarianism in Hungary, Sudan, Venezuela and Hong Kong. LMU students ought to stand in solidarity with our friends overseas in anyway we can, whether it's the minimum of sharing their stories through social media or launching demonstrations on campus to get people talking about challenges even when they aren't in the news cycle.
And of course, we have to be on alert during our own test with democracy with the Trump administration and the upcoming 2020 election. Whether or not the next president of the United States will form undemocratic allegiances, circumvent compromise and attack crucial institutions like the media or courts is going to be important.
This isn't about party lines. Polarization is what got the U.S. into this situation in the first place. We've had anti-democratic populists attack their opponents and the media and reject norms from both the right, with Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich, and from the left, with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI). If the Democratic Party follows the Republicans' lead and fights dirty, we all lose.
"How Democracies Die" is essential reading for the contemporary chaos we're dealing with in our government and international system. The more we know about the symptoms of democratic backsliding, the more we'll be able recognize when they occur and how to fight back.
This is the opinion of Cristobal Spielmann, a sophomore environmental science major from Brentwood, Tennessee. Tweet comments @LALoyolan or email email@example.com.