BY GAUTAM ADHIKARI
The masthead of the Washington Post carries an ominous warning these days: “Democracy Dies In Darkness”. Not a simple declaration like “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, which the New York Times carries in its masthead, or this newspaper’s “Let Truth Prevail”. The Post is asking its readers to watch out. Current trends may be a looming portent for democracy.
Several intellectuals and scholars in the US and across the world have in recent times written and spoken about an ongoing decay of democracy. Some are centrist liberals, others are moderate conservatives. They all warn that democracy in today’s political climate is less threatened by outright fascist dictators than by populist authoritarians who sap democracy stealthily while capturing power by working within the parameters of electoral democracy.
David Frum, a conservative who is alarmed by what’s happening to American democracy, shared his fears about democracy under Donald Trump at a seminar in the Brookings Institution last week. In his latest book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic, he points out that institutions or the rule of constitutional law may be insufficient bulwarks against creeping authoritarianism. “Constitutional democracy is founded on a commitment first and foremost to the rules of the game”. Those rules rely upon a consensual acceptance of a tradition of norms and conventions. Today’s authoritarian leaders and their enablers play by their own rules.
The liberal democratic structure is thus vulnerable to someone who deliberately subverts the system by ignoring or twisting norms and conventions. Two Harvard professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, outline how elected autocrats can subvert democracy. In their new book, How Democracies Die: What History Tells US About Our Future, they say institutions are not enough to rein in elected autocrats who pack the courts and other neutral agencies, buy off the media and private sector, and rewrite the rules of politics to tilt the field against opponents.
“The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it,” they write.
Would-be autocrats, however, don’t appear out of nowhere. They exploit enabling conditions that already exist by deftly using the system to expand a following, usually through misleading appeals to nationalism or religion, among an aggrieved base of the population. In the US, such enabling conditions now exist in at least two political spaces: campaign finance and the media.
Campaign funding in an age of increasingly expensive electoral contests has become almost unrestrained ever since a conservative-leaning Supreme Court gave its ‘Citizens United’ decision in 2010. It overturned laws that restricted campaign spending by corporations and other private groups. It turned moneyed interest groups into an influential elite that wields immense invisible power. The hard right has utilised this development far more successfully than the moderates or the left and Trump’s enablers are in the far right of the political spectrum. The president, even as he commands minority popular approval, can defy norms and behave with impunity with the support of a pliant Republican congress funded by wealthy special interests.
Another enabling space is offered by a significant section of the media. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News plus a network of talk radio stations owned by conservative corporations began a couple of decades ago to spin out an alternative take of the news of the day. Today, they work as virtual state-sponsored news and opinion outlets that spew not alternative takes but “alternative facts”, in the memorable words of White House official Kellyanne Conway. Meanwhile, the president himself does his best to delegitimise the mainstream media. This is to say nothing of what the Russians may be doing by infiltrating social media to delegitimise the democratic process itself.
All this is in keeping with the indicators of authoritarian behaviour that Levitsky and Ziblatt list in their book. Undermining the legitimacy of institutions and norms across the board to confuse the public is a tactical move to undermine democracy. Manipulating media by using one section of it against another, while continuously questioning its credibility, is a potent weapon of choice.
(The Times Of India)