Voters in Sweden this month gave a leading role to a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots. Italy is also on the cusp of putting a party in power that has fascist origins. And, of course, in the United States, one party has increasingly embraced election denialism and attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process.
To try to understand exactly what is happening, I talked with Barbara Walter, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego who studies democracies worldwide. Her book “How Civil Wars Start” has become a bestseller. Rather than talk about the prospects for political violence, we discussed why many democracies are retrenching and how the U.S. stands alone — and not in a good way.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you walk through the vital signs of democracy that you and other political scientists have been tracking and trending the wrong way in the U.S. and elsewhere?
So there are probably five big data sets that measure the quality of democracy and countries worldwide. They all measure democracy slightly differently. But every single one of them has shown that democracies worldwide are in decline. And not just the fledgling democracies but sacrosanct liberal democracies in Sweden, the U.K., and the United States.
These indices are like vital signs, but instead of for your body, it’s for our body politic. What are the most important ones?
So, empirically, we can’t rank or order them. But we know what the good things are, and if you start attacking them, you’re attacking the vital organs.
One is constraints on executive power. You want lots of checks and balances on the executive branch. Here in the United States, you want to ensure that the legislative branch is strong, independent, and willing to check presidential power. You want to know that the judicial branch is the same. Another one would be the rule of law. Is the rule of law respected? Is it uncorrupted? You don’t want a system where certain individuals are above the law. If you want to become Orban 2.0, you place loyalists in the Justice Department who are beholden to you and not to the rule of law.
You also want a free and open press so that your citizens can get high-quality information and make good decisions. Another one is you really want a competitive political environment, so there’s a level playing field for people competing for power. You could make a very uneven playing field by the party. So you can restrict the vote and make voting more difficult.
So these are all vital: Do you have constraints on the executive? Do you have the rule of law so that there’s accountability? Do you have a level playing field so there can be popular participation?
Another warning sign you’ve discussed is when a party becomes less about policy and more about identity, a shift one can see in the Republican Party in recent years. Can you talk about it?
The Republicans have always had a challenge that they were the party of wealthy Americans and businesses. The problem is that wealthy Americans will always be a very small minority. So wealthy Americans must convince some nonwealthy Americans to support their platform. How do you do that? Well, you do it with issues of identity, their sense of threat, fear, and the sense that the world is changing and “I’m being left behind.” It’s very effective.
I want to understand why these dynamics play out across so many countries. You cite three dynamics. One is that the dominant caste in many nations, white people, is trending toward minority status. Another is increasing wealth concentration, where rural areas are often losing out. And then there’s a new medium that has risen unregulated and unmediated: social media.
On No. 3, the new medium, I would state it is stronger than that. It’s not that it’s unregulated per se. It’s that it’s being driven by algorithms that selectively push out the more extreme incendiary messages.
You also wrote about another concept I hadn’t heard of before: ethnic entrepreneurs. These are politicians like Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian strongman, who recognize an opportunity to appeal to a particular group’s fears.
Yep. He was not a nationalist. He was a straight-up Communist. And again, that gets back to the difference between a political party based on ideology and one based on ethnicity. He became the leader of the Serb party.
So he saw which way the wind was blowing, and he put up a sail. And that’s what an ethnic entrepreneur does?
Yes, but it can also be more strategic than that. Milosevic had a problem in that communism was over. And if he wanted to stay in power, he would have to compete in elections. How is he going to get elected? And then he’s like, “Oh, like the largest ethnic group, and in this country are Serbs. I’m Serb!” If I can convince the Serbs during this time of change, insecurity, and uncertainty when everyone’s a little bit on edge that unless they support a Serb, the Croats are going to kill them, then I can catapult myself to power. That’s classic ethnic entrepreneurship.
I want to ask you the last question I’ve been thinking about a lot myself. Like several news organizations, we’ve created a team devoted to covering threats to democracy. But after I read your book, I stopped referring to it as that because it occurred to me that the term threats to democracy reinforce a story that we Americans tell ourselves: that we already have a true democracy, the best darn one in the world, and we just need to protect it.
Our American democracy, even when we were happy with it and thought it was doing well, it already had a whole series of undemocratic natures that no other healthy liberal democracy has.
Our electoral college, nobody has that. That was a compromise with rural states. We have the fact that partisan agents run our elections. No other healthy liberal democracy has that. Canada, this enormous country, has an independent electoral commission that runs all of the elections. Whether you vote in Prince Edward Island or the Yukon, every ballot is the same. Or that we allow so much money to be injected into our system. Nobody else has this.
So we have these undemocratic features and a whole number of vulnerabilities. If you did want to cement minority rule, you could do this legally. So in many ways, we have a terrible system ripe to be exploited.