How Democracies Collapse

How Democracies Collapse

While Donald Trump is a good example of American voter dissatisfaction with the political system, his brand of authoritarianism is a dangerous direction for this country.  We are heading in the direction of authoritarian leadership similar to that experienced in Latin American democracies and even here in America in the 1860s when President Lincoln firmly shut down his opposition and steered this country through and beyond a distructive civil war. Or when Teddy Roosevelt tried to suppress opposition by machine gunning coal miners and jailing journalists and opposition politicians.

William Falk said it well when he wrote the following opinion piece in The Week on Facebook:

Juan Linz told us this might happen. The late Yale political scientist spent his life studying political systems around the world, and in a celebrated 1990 essay warned that presidential democracies like ours are inherently unstable and prone to paralysis and collapse. In parliamentary systems, Linz explained in “The Perils of Presidentialism,” the legislature and the prime minister, are of the same party and govern jointly. If they lose popular support, they can be ousted in early elections. But in presidential systems, the president and the legislature (Congress) are elected separately; when they’re controlled by opposing parties with acute differences, Linz said, both branches insist they represent the will of the people, and “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which [the power struggle] can be resolved.” Presidents then often abuse their powers. The legislature responds with abuses of its own. A coup or civil war can ensue, with democracy giving way to Latin American authoritarianism.

We are not yet Argentina or Chile (or America in 1860), but our democracy is headed toward a dangerous place. Linz always said the U.S. presidential system had been an exception to his rule only because of its “moderate consensus” — a middle ground on which both major parties met in civil compromise. That middle ground is gone. As Jonathan Chait points out this week in New York magazine, the “social norms” that once kept a divided government functioning are disintegrating; for the first time in history, the Senate is refusing to consider anyone the president might nominate to fill a vacant Supreme Court seat. Elections sometimes end stalemates like this one — but after November, the crisis could get much worse. Just imagine what a President Trump might do if “total losers” in Congress block his appointments, or try to stop him from deporting millions of people or bombing the hell out of a nation that has insulted him. Do cry for us, Argentina.

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