Update #1: How Democracies Die

This project was initially inspired by not only my study of revolutions and regime changes while at William and Mary, but also the 2016 election and the subsequent issues that have risen concerning how our government is run and the overall state of the United States’ democracy. I decided to study something that has applied to both of these areas of study: populism. One source that aims to explain and describe these events and the election of Donald Trump is How Democracies Die by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

To begin, the authors describe specific instances in which democracies have broken down in less obvious ways than revolution or coup d’etats. They focus on characters who subvert democracy by breaking down the very processes and institutions that put them in power — Hitler, Mussolini, and Chavez were all democratically elected or placed into a position of power within the frameworks of mainstream politics in their countries, which was the first step to giving them authoritarian control. Levitsky and Ziblatt place Trump in a similar category of political outsiders who was able to amass great amounts of political power through seemingly democratic means and is now doing more to break down our traditional norms of democracy and change our political institutions. The authors show this by first explaining the “guardrails” of democracy that throughout our history have kept political outsiders out of office. These guardrails include party gatekeeping as well as the “unwritten rules” of democracy. Although this book is comprehensive in analyzing Trump as a political outsider and finds holes in our electoral system that allowed his election, it fails to recognize and discuss at length the larger economic and racial disparities within our democracy that reinforce systemic inequalities and injustices that have existed much longer than Trump has been president. Yes, Donald Trump was, in a textbook sense, a political outsider prior to his election, but he also inherited generational wealth and social privilege that allowed him to be elected president. I digress; I’m not sure if these thoughts will find a place in my project, but the idea that our democracy has always inherently benefitted the privileged since its founding is something I hope to look into more.

Anyways, this whole idea of democracies “dying” at the hands of elected individuals who become more authoritarian in nature and in rule intersects with populism in the sense that populists, anti-establishment politicians, are those most likely to follow this character arc. Trump is not the first to successfully run on the sentiment of “draining the swamp” in the United States. Former governor and senator of Louisiana Huey Long ran on a campaign targeting Standard Oil and those in Washington for the economic inequality in Louisiana and throughout the country. Long was able to grow his political power and wealth while still claiming to be a man of and for the working people. I am intrigued to keep learning about Long, as well as Father Charles Coughlin and George Wallace, other notable populists in American history and compare them and their applications of populism to that of Trump’s. I am also interested to learn of the other intersections with populism besides economic class, including race if those findings exist.