“When political rivals began to see themselves as enemies rather than competitors”

From a New York Times article, by Nicholas Casey, titled “The Democracy Doomsayers Consider 2020”:

The consensus among the scholars is that modern America has never produced a president like Mr. Trump, but that other countries have. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela pioneered using Twitter to attack his enemies and hosted a TV show called “Alo, Presidente.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s current strongman, used the term “deep state” decades before Mr. Trump did.

The field of comparative politics—a discipline that contrasts the formation and fall of political systems around the globe—has long been an obscure realm of the ivory tower. But now it is selling books and has become fodder on cable news, and scholars say they’ve found themselves explaining American political upheaval to bemused diplomats of foreign embassies.

Though these scholars do paint a grim picture for the future of democracy, no one sees an American dictatorship in the offing. Many point to the 2018 midterm elections as signs that the Democrats—known in academic lingo as “the opposition” in these scenarios—remain a potent force. In this view, impeachment itself shows American checks and balances are still intact.

“Today democracies don’t die at the hands of generals, but at the hands of elected leaders—presidents, prime ministers,” began Mr. Levitsky in front of a packed lecture hall at Cornell last week. “Many citizens are not fully aware of what’s happening until it’s too late.”

For democracy to work, in Mr. Levitsky’s view, it’s best to see the system as a kind of a game in which both sides’ ultimate goal is to keep playing for indefinite rounds. While everyone wishes to win, it’s more important that neither side is ever completely defeated or has demoralized its opponents to the point that they no longer want to play. . . .

A key turning point for many democracies was the moment when political rivals began to see themselves as enemies rather than competitors, losing a key norm Mr. Levitsky calls “mutual toleration.” In his opinion, American politics lost that early in the Trump era when the president referred to his rivals as “traitors” and “scum.” . . .

Not all scholars agree with that the United States is seeing this kind of breakdown. Hadas Aron, a faculty fellow at New York University, said she admired Mr. Levitsky’s work and even teaches it to students, but said there were large differences between the democratic crises in countries like Hungary or Poland and what is going on in the United States. Those countries were far more polarized to begin with, she said.

“Democracy dies when there is no support for democracy, when people don’t believe in it,” she said. “Here, Trump is meeting with resistance by institutions at every step.”


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