Two political scientists specializing in how democracies decay and die have compiled four warning signs to determine if a political leader is a dangerous authoritarian.
- The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules.
- He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents.
- He or she tolerates violence.
- He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.
“A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors at Harvard, write in their important new book.
“With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these criteria over the last century,” they say, which is reassuring. Unfortunately, they have one update: “Barack Obama met them all.”
The four paragraphs above are a direct quote from a Nicholas Kristof (New York Times) column except for one thing: I substituted Barack Obama for Donald Trump.
I did that because when I read the four points the person who came to mind was Barack Obama.
I contacted one of the authors and asked for an interview. Steven Levitsky replied promptly and asked if I had read the book. I told him that I was making an exception of contacting an author prior to reading his book. I told him having read Kristof’s column, I was writing my own column based on that. Levitsky agreed to the interview and had his book shipped to me (which I have since read).
Before the interview, I read the many reviews and interviews the authors gave to prepare for release of the book. This book garnered a tremendous amount of attention since two scholarly individuals from America’s premier educational institution were providing a supposed scientific analysis of Trump -- the bogeyman of so many.
Levitsky is a very cordial and civil man. He informed me they had written the book after being solicited by a book agent based on a New York Times column they had written just after Trump had won the presidency. They based their four criteria on the works of Juan Linz’s book The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes.
Levitsky kept insisting that the four points were criteria for a candidate. The idea that during the candidacy of such a person of questionable intentions, he would be stopped in the primary election process prior to getting close to being elected. I suggested to Levitsky that may have been his intention, but the reviewers were talking as if it were not campaign rhetoric, but elected official behavior.
He also insisted the book was very much a historical treatise where readers could learn about challenges throughout the globe to established democracies. Having read the book, I agree with him on that point.
This is when I spoke to him about my belief that the points were directed at President Obama. The only exception may be point three, unless you subscribe to Obama’s endorsement of Black Lives Matters or the people outside Philadelphia voting stations in 2008 who threaten people, but were never charged. Levitsky argued that since the points were about one’s candidacy then it would not apply to Obama.
This is where I invoked Jewish law as I understand it. One is held responsible for his actions. Obama may have spoken in flowing tones while a candidate, but his actions in office clearly crossed the line on points 1, 2 and 4 above. I will not delineate those here because that would be five pages and not germane to the column.
On the other hand, even if you accept the premise that Trump broke all four points while campaigning, what had he actually done in office? I asked Levitsky the question that none of his 20 or so interviewers had deemed to ask: Has Trump broken any of the four points while in office? Levitsky replied, “He has not crossed the line while in office.”
If we can address point 2 above, Trump has been taken to task for questioning Hillary Clinton’s legitimacy during the campaign. That is a fair statement that he may have done such and may even have been the first. Here is the hitch – Clinton was the first major party candidate under investigation by the FBI and Justice Department during the campaign. Accusing Trump of crossing a line here is very rich.
As for the book, it is quite a good read, but you have to accept that comes with a perspective. Levitsky told me Trump did not begin the decline of our democracy. He cited the impeachment of Bill Clinton as a pivotal point. I immediately thought any Republican would choose as the pivotal point the destruction of Robert Bork during his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court by Senator Ted Kennedy and his crew. That significantly changed the working relationships in Washington and happened over a decade before the Clinton impeachment.
Here is another example in the book. In the first couple of chapters a bias comes through. The authors continued the canard that the Nazis were on the right despite being the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The Left has attempted in the worst way to disavow the Nazis and blame them on the right, but the name stands. That seems pretty Left to me. In chapter two the authors refer to Huey Long who states “I can take this Roosevelt. I can out-promise him. And he knows it.” Yet with this and other actions of Long they never refer to him as a socialist which he was.
Levitsky and Ziblatt have done a service by defining these issues. The problem is the coloring by the Trump haters and the use of their work against Republicans. It could have been so much more helpful.