How democracies really die

I found on my bookshelf by chance yesterday the 2018 jeremiad by two Harvard University professors (of government and the “science of government” no less!), Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die: What History Reveals about our Future. It was a book that created something of a sensation at the time as the ruling castes of our distressed republic panicked about their imminent displacement by the combined shock of Brexit, new illiberal democrats like Victor Orban, and of course, Donald Trump. I bought it, read it quickly, and discarded it in disappointment (or greater wisdom about what history really reveals about the future) in a dusty corner of my bookshelf.

It made the claim that Donald Trump’s first year in office showed his “authoritarian instincts” and his conformity to the model of the new authoritarians or illiberal democrats these academics had discerned in Fujimori, Chavez and Erdogan. The first year report card highlighted how this scythe cutting down the institutions of democracy did so through lies, displays of disrespect for the media, attacks on his opponents and the judicial system, a lack of forebearance, attempts to sideline key players like CNN or the resistance within his own government, and a plague of antidemocratic initiatives, of which the most prominent were the firing of James Comey, Director of the FBI, and Trump’s resentment of the Michael Flynn investigation, the Mueller probe and the whole RussiaGate theatre.

Still, like patronising academics, Levitsky and Ziblatt assess that the President, who said in his Inaugural Address, presumably with reference to such fine democratic orators as Clinton and Barack Obama,

“We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action ā€“ constantly complaining but never doing anything about it. The time for empty talk is over. Now arrives the hour of action.”

Donald Trump Inaugural Address

this same President Trump was more talk than action. So far, after one year in office, the professors of the science of government concluded that President Trump, despite launching a thousand faux scholarly tomes on the end of democracy:

“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.”

Levitsky and Zablitt, How Democracies Die (2018), p. 187

I wondered what these defenders of democratic norms make of the culmination of the rolling series of revelations about the RussiaGate hoax, the misconduct of the FBI and CIA, and an apparent coup in the shadows orchestrated by the law enforcement and intelligence agencies alongside scions of the Democratic Party of the United States. After all these events – detailed here in relation to the Flynn case – are as close to a coup d’etat in a modern democratic state as I can recall. I thought they might be shamed into silence. I thought they might be remorseful. I thought they might have with contrition corrected some of their prior claims about James Comey.

But, no. Sadly and disturbingly for the health of democracy, no. Professor Ziblatt – now apparently a legal scholar, even an armchair judge, not only a professor in the science of government tweeted about the withdrawal of the outrageously unfair prosecution of Michael Flynn:

“Capture the referees. Then use them as a shield to protect yourself and your friends and a weapon to persecute your opponents. I read that somewhere…. And let’s remember: he pleaded guilty.”

Professor Ziblatt, @dziblatt, 8 May

Perhaps in his defence it might be said that this little piece of self-promotion on the back of gross injustice was made on a news report that the errant prosecutor leading the case had withdrawn, not after the revelation of all the documents which showed how the case was a set-up from the get-go.

But let’s be clear here. Many academics, media celebrities, politicians, lawyers, all sorts of figures in the culture and the general public have perversely taken the wrong side of our modern Dreyfus Case. They have become so deranged in their distaste for Donald Trump and the deplorables, so maddened that democracies could make choices different to their own, that they now sabotage their own institutions, ethos and principles. They have become the cheer-leaders for the true antidemocratic actions of 2016, 2017 and beyond. They have become antidemocratic progressives. This is how democracies truly die – a thought I will return to in another post.

I also read James Comey’s 2018 book, A Higher Loyalty, and found it enigmatic and puzzling. I always found his declared reaction to his elected President asking him for loyalty odd – it was like an active misinterpretation of Trump’s whispered greeting. As he said in his book, “I was preoccupied about keeping a healthy distance from Trump.” In fact, preoccupation turned to unhealthy obsession, and before long he was organising an unmerited investigational conspiracy of questionable legality. His book was very much an attempt to build his profile, and to profit from his resistance to Trump. One really wonders if one day scholars will produce a critical edition that compares the claims in this book to the now heavily documented evidence of Comey’s malfeasance and misstatements.

This statement from the end of Comey’s book now reads with distressing dramatic irony:

“Whatever your politics, it is wrong to dismiss the damage to the norms and traditions that have guided the presidency and our public life for decades or, in many cases, since the republic was founded. It is also wrong to stand idly by, or worse to stay silent when you know better, while a president brazenly seeks to undermine public confidence in law enforcement institutions that were established to keep our leaders in check. Every organization has its flaws, but the career prosecutors and agents at the Justice Department and the FBI are there for a reason – to rise above partisanship and do what’s right for the country, regardless of their own political views. Without these checks on our leaders, without those institutions vigorously standing against abuses of power, our country cannot sustain itself as a functioning democracy.”

Comey, A higher loyalty (2018), p. 276.

How much worse for a functioning democracy when the spies, cops and guys with the guns get to decide who should lead and how? Pompously, Comey claimed his book would help those “living among the flames who are thinking about what comes next… to pursue ethical leadership” (p. 278, the final sentences of the book) In truth, he has shown himself to be Lucifer who challenged God, and found himself condemned to eternal torment in the flames.

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