How Democracies Die: One Small Change to Normalcy at a Time

The following is an excerpt from the new book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Crown, January 2018), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound:


Even if President Trump does not directly dismantle democratic institutions, his norm breaking is almost certain to corrode them. President Trump has, as David Brooks has written, “smashed through the behavior standards that once governed public life.” His party rewarded him for it by nominating him for president. In office, his continued norm violation has expanded the zone of acceptable presidential behavior, giving tactics that were once considered aberrant and inadmissible, such as lying, cheating, and bullying, a prominent place in politicians’ tool kits.

Presidential norm breaking is not inherently bad. Many violations are innocuous. In January 1977, Jimmy Carter surprised the police, the press, and the 250,000 Americans gathered to watch his inauguration when he and his wife walked the mile and a half from the Capitol to the White House. The New York Daily News described the Carters’ decision to abandon the “closed and armored limousine” as an “unprecedented departure from custom.” Ever since, it has become what the New York Times called “an informal custom” for the president-elect to at least step out of his protected limousine during the inaugural parade to show that he is “the people’s president.”

Norm breaking can also be democratizing: In the 1840 presidential election, William Henry Harrison broke tradition by going out and campaigning among voters. The previous norm had been for candidates to avoid campaigning, preserving a Cincinnatus-like fiction that they harbored no personal ambition for power—but limiting voters’ ability to get to know them.

Or take another example: In 1901, a routine White House press release was issued on behalf of new president Theodore Roosevelt headlined, “Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee, Alabama, dined with the President last evening.” While prominent black political leaders had visited the White House before, a dinner with a leading African American political figure was, as one historian has described it, a violation of “the prevailing social etiquette of white domination.” The response was immediate and vicious. One newspaper described it as “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Senator William Jennings Bryan commented, “It is hoped that both of them [Roosevelt and Washington] will upon reflection, realize the wisdom of abandoning their purpose to wipe out race lines.” In the face of the uproar, the White House’s press operation first denied the event happened, later said it had “merely” been a lunch, and then defended it by saying that at least no women had been present.

Because societal values change over time, a degree of presidential norm breaking is inevitable—even desirable. But Donald Trump’s norm violations in his first year of office differed fundamentally from those of his predecessors. For one, he was a serial norm breaker. Never has a president flouted so many unwritten rules so quickly. Many of the transgressions were trivial—President Trump broke a 150-year White House tradition by not having a pet. Others were more ominous. Trump’s first inaugural address, for example, was darker than such addresses typically are (he spoke, for example, of “American carnage”), leading former President George W. Bush to observe: “That was some weird shit.”

But where President Trump really stands out from his predecessors is in his willingness to challenge unwritten rules of greater consequence, including norms that are essential to the health of democracy. Among these are long-standing norms of separating private and public affairs, such as those governing nepotism. Existing legislation, which prohibits presidents from appointing family members to the cabinet or agency positions, does not include White House staff positions. So Trump’s appointment of his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to high-level advisory posts was technically legal—but it flouted the spirit of the law.

There were also norms regulating presidential conflicts of interest. Because presidents must not use public office for private enrichment, those who own businesses must separate themselves from these enterprises before they take office. Yet the laws governing such separation are surprisingly lax. Government officials are not technically required to divest themselves of their holdings, but only to recuse themselves from decisions that affect their interests. It has become standard practice for government officials to simply divest themselves, however, to avoid even the appearance of a wrongdoing. President Trump exercised no such forbearance, despite his unprecedented conflicts of interest. He granted his sons control over his business holdings, in a move deemed vastly insufficient by government ethics officials. The Office of Government Ethics reported receiving 39,105 public complaints involving Trump administration conflicts of interest between October 1, 2016, and March 31, 2017, a massive increase over the same period in 2008–2009 (when President Obama took office), when just 733 complaints were recorded.

Trump also violated core democratic norms when he openly challenged the legitimacy of elections. Although his claim of “millions” of illegal voters was rejected by fact checkers, repudiated by politicians from both parties, and dismissed as baseless by social scientists, the new president repeated it in public and in private. No major politician in more than a century had questioned the integrity of the American electoral process—not even Al Gore, who lost one of the closest elections in history at the hands of the Supreme Court.

False charges of fraud can undermine public confidence in elections—and when citizens do not trust the electoral process, they often lose faith in democracy itself. In Mexico, after the losing presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, insisted that the 2006 election was stolen from him, confidence in Mexico’s electoral system declined. A poll taken prior to the 2012 presidential election found that 71 percent of Mexicans believed that fraud could be in play. In the United States, the figures were even more dramatic. In a survey carried out prior to the 2016 election, 84 percent of Republican voters said they believed a “meaningful amount” of fraud occurred in American elections, and nearly 60 percent of Republican voters said they believed illegal immigrants would “vote in meaningful amounts” in November. These doubts persisted after the election. According to a July 2017 Morning Consult/Politico poll, 47 percent of Republicans believed that Trump won the popular vote, compared to 40 percent who believed Hillary Clinton won. In other words, about half of self-identified Republicans said they believe that American elections are massively rigged. Such beliefs may be consequential. A survey conducted in June 2017 asked, “If Donald Trump were to say that the 2020 presidential election should be postponed until the country can make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote, would you support or oppose postponing the election?” Fifty-two percent of Republicans said they would support postponement.

President Trump also abandoned basic rules of political civility. He broke with norms of postelection reconciliation by continuing to attack Hillary Clinton. He also violated the unwritten rule that sitting presidents should not attack their predecessor. At 6:35 a.m. on March 4, 2017, President Trump tweeted, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” He followed up half an hour later with: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Perhaps President Trump’s most notorious norm-breaking behavior has been lying. The idea that presidents should tell the truth in public is uncontroversial in American politics. As Republican consultant Whit Ayers likes to tell his clients, candidates seeking credibility must “never deny the undeniable” and “never lie.” Given this norm, politicians typically avoid lying by changing the topic of debate, reframing difficult questions, or only partly answering them. President Trump’s routine, brazen fabrications are unprecedented. His tendencies were manifest during the 2016 campaign. PolitiFact classified 69 percent of his public statements as “mostly false” (21 percent), “false” (33 percent), or “pants on fire” (15 percent). Only 17 percent were coded as “true” or “mostly true.”

Trump continued to lie as president. Tracing all the president’s public statements since taking office, the New York Times showed that even using a conservative metric—demonstrably false statements, as opposed to merely dubious ones—President Trump “achieved something remarkable”: He made at least one false or misleading public statement every single day of his first forty days in office. No lie is too obvious. President Trump claimed the largest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan (in fact, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama all won by larger margins than he did); he claimed to have signed more bills in his first six months than any other president (he was well behind several presidents, including George H. W. Bush and Clinton). In July 2017, he bragged that the head of the Boy Scouts told him he had “made the greatest speech ever made to them,” only to have the claim disputed immediately by the Boy Scouts organization itself.

President Trump himself did not pay much of a price for his lies. In a political and media environment in which engaged citizens increasingly filter events through their own partisan lenses, his supporters did not come to view him as dishonest during the first year of his presidency. For our political system, however, the consequences of his dishonesty are devastating. Citizens have a basic right to information in a democracy. Without credible information about what our elected leaders do, we cannot effectively exercise our right to vote. When the president of the United States lies to the public, our access to credible information is jeopardized, and trust in government is eroded (how could it not be?). When citizens do not believe their elected leaders, the foundations of representative democracy weaken. The value of elections is diminished when citizens have no faith in the leaders they elect.

Exacerbating this loss of faith is President Trump’s abandonment of basic norms of respect for the media. An independent press is a bulwark of democratic institutions; no democracy can live without it. Every American president since Washington has done battle with the media. Many of them privately despised it. But with few exceptions, U.S. presidents have recognized the media’s centrality as a democratic institution and respected its place in the political system. Even presidents who scorned the media in private treated it with a certain minimum of respect and civility in public. This basic norm gave rise to a host of unwritten rules governing the president’s relationship with the press. Some of these norms—such as waving to the press corps before boarding Air Force One—were superficial, but others, such as holding press conferences accessible to all members of the White House press corps, were more significant.

President Trump’s public insults of media outlets and even individual journalists were without precedent in modern U.S. history. He described the media as “among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” and repeatedly accused such critical news outlets as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN of lying or delivering “fake news.” Trump was not above personal attacks. In June 2017, he went after television host Mika Brzezinski and her cohost Joe Scarborough in a uniquely vitriolic tweetstorm:

I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came...

...to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!

Even Richard Nixon, who privately viewed the media as “the enemy,” never made such public attacks. To find comparable behavior in this hemisphere one must look at Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela or Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

The Trump administration also broke established norms by selectively excluding reporters from press events. On February 24, 2017, Press Secretary Sean Spicer barred reporters from the New York Times, CNN, Politico, BuzzFeed, and the Los Angeles Times from attending an untelevised press “gaggle,” while handpicking journalists from smaller but sympathetic outlets such as the Washington Times and One America News Network to round out the pool. The only modern precedent for such a move was Nixon’s decision to bar the Washington Post from the White House after it broke the Watergate scandal.

In 1993, New York’s Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former social scientist, made an incisive observation: Humans have a limited ability to cope with people behaving in ways that depart from shared standards. When unwritten rules are violated over and over, Moynihan observed, societies have a tendency to “define deviancy down”—to shift the standard. What was once seen as abnormal becomes normal.

Moynihan applied this insight, controversially, to America’s growing social tolerance for single-parent families, high murder rates, and mental illness. Today it can be applied to American democracy. Although political deviance—the violation of unwritten rules of civility, of respect for the press, of not lying—did not originate with Donald Trump, his presidency is accelerating it. Under President Trump, America has been defining political deviancy down. The president’s routine use of personal insult, bullying, lying, and cheating has, inevitably, helped to normalize such practices. Trump’s tweets may trigger outrage from the media, Democrats, and some Republicans, but the effectiveness of their responses is limited by the sheer quantity of violations. As Moynihan observed, in the face of widespread deviance, we become overwhelmed—and then desensitized. We grow accustomed to what we previously thought to be scandalous.

Furthermore, Trump’s deviance has been tolerated by the Republican Party, which has helped make it acceptable to much of the Republican electorate. To be sure, many Republicans have condemned Trump’s most egregious behavior. But these one-off statements are not very punitive. All but one Republican senator voted with President Trump at least 85 percent of the time during his first seven months in office. Even Senators Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Jeff Flake of Arizona, who often strongly condemned the president’s norm violations, voted with him 94 percent of the time. There is no “containment” strategy for an endless stream of offensive tweets. Unwilling to pay the political price of breaking with their own president, Republicans find themselves with little alternative but to constantly redefine what is and isn’t tolerable.

This will have terrible consequences for our democracy.

President Trump’s assault on basic norms has expanded the bounds of acceptable political behavior. We may already be seeing some of the consequences. In May 2017, Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate in a special election for Congress, body-slammed a reporter from the Guardian who was asking him about health care reform. Gianforte was charged with misdemeanor assault—but he won the election. More generally, a YouGov poll carried out for the Economist in mid-2017 revealed a striking level of intolerance toward the media, especially among Republicans. When asked whether or not they favored permitting the courts to shut down media outlets for presenting information that is “biased or inaccurate,” 45 percent of Republicans who were polled said they favored it, whereas only 20 percent were opposed. More than 50 percent of Republicans supported the idea of imposing fines for biased or inaccurate reporting. In other words, a majority of Republican voters said they support the kind of media repression seen in recent years in Ecuador, Turkey, and Venezuela.

Two National Rifle Association recruiting videos were released in the summer of 2017. In the first video, NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch speaks about Democrats and the use of force:

They use their schools to teach children that their president is another Hitler. They use their movie stars and singers and comedy shows and award shows to repeat their narrative over and over again. And then they use their ex-president to endorse the “resistance.” All to make them march, to make them protest, to make them scream racism and sexism and xenophobia and homophobia. To smash windows, to burn cars, to shut down interstates and airports, bully and terrorize the law-abiding, until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness. And when that happens, they use it as an excuse for their outrage. The only way we stop this, the only way we save our country and our freedom, is to fight the violence of lies with the clenched fist of truth.

In the second video, Loesch issues a not-so-subtle warning of violence against the New York Times:

We’ve had it with your pretentious... assertion that you are in any way truth- or fact-based journalism. Consider this the shot across your proverbial bow. ... In short, we’re coming for you.

The NRA is not a small, fringe organization. It claims five million members and is closely tied to the Republican Party—Donald Trump and Sarah Palin are lifetime members. Yet it now uses words that in the past we would have regarded as dangerously politically deviant. Norms are the soft guardrails of democracy; as they break down, the zone of acceptable political behavior expands, giving rise to discourse and action that could imperil democracy. Behavior that was once considered unthinkable in American politics is becoming thinkable. Even if Donald Trump does not break the hard guardrails of our constitutional democracy, he has increased the likelihood that a future president will.

This has been an excerpt from the new book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Crown, January 2018), available for purchase from Amazon and IndieBound.

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