Democracy is threatened in Hungary, Venezuela and Turkey. Can the United States be next?


President Trump speaks to journalists from the White House South Lawn on Thursday. (Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post)

Famous social and historical scientists are discussing whether the United States could become authoritarian. Cass Sunstein's collection on the subject asks "Can it happen here?" Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe "Come Democracies Die." And the historian of Yale, Timothy Snyder, draws on the history of the two wars to outline "The Road to Unfreedom".

In a recent article on Perspectives on Politics, we assess these risks by looking at how elected leaders in Venezuela, Hungary and Turkey established autocratic control in countries that once seemed to be on the road to democracy.

Like President Trump, these leaders – the Venezuelan Hugo Chávez, the Hungarian Viktor Orban and the Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdogan – were chosen through free and fair elections. Once in office, however, they took advantage of their authority to weaken constitutional ties, reduce civil and political freedoms and shut down in power. Our research explores whether such a future could be possible in the United States.

The short answer: it is very unlikely. The United States is much richer than these three middle-income countries and academic research shows a strong relationship between wealth and stability of democratic domination. Moreover, US political institutions are much more ingrained.

However, we also see parallels that could compromise – perhaps profoundly – the quality of American democracy.

There are two important parallels between Trump and the average-income autocrats

Two similarities are particularly surprising. One is the political exploitation of the underlying social and economic divisions. Trump's appeals to racial and ethnic antagonisms within the electorate bear a strong resemblance to the right-wing populist strategies used by Erdogan and Orban. Meanwhile, although Chávez ran from the left, his populist campaign for the support of the working class voters wounded by the country's prolonged recession was parallel to Trump's promises of economic aid for workers threatened by automation and globalization.

In all these cases, the social polarization – partly fueled by the leaders themselves – has encouraged voters to frame their choices in clear and binary terms: between "the people" who supported the autocrats and political opponents who were labeled as elitists, criminals and traitors.

A second important parallel is the progressive weakening of controls over executive power. Authoritarianism did not come all at once, as in the coup. Rather, once in office, Chavez, Orban and Erdogan have gradually undermined the independence of the courts, turned the forces of order against their political enemies and threatened the printing of economic and legal sanctions. The removal of these controls has paved the way for unrestrained corruption, the protection of patron capitalists and a field of political action strongly oriented towards the leaders and their parties.

Trump did not go that far, but he threatened the actions from the authoritarian playbook. He has regularly attacked the integrity of the judges who reign over his initiatives; threatened to "block" political rivals without due process; and without stopping attacked the press as "enemies of the people".

These threats are all but empty. Just this month, the news emerged that Trump wanted to order the Justice Department to pursue former FBI director James B. Comey and former political rival Hillary Clinton. And in another recent move against critics in the media, the president tried to withdraw the credentials of the CNAC's Jim White House as a punishment for continued questions during a press conference.

But there is a third factor that the United States does not fully share

In our study of middle-income countries, we identify a third crucial factor for executive regression: large legislative majorities that have abandoned supervision and ratified the concentration of power in the hands of the president or prime minister.

Chávez undertook the most radical action of this kind: he simply created a new constituent assembly that replaced the existing congress. In Hungary and Turkey, the rules that convert citizens' votes into legislative seats have overestimated the major parties. As a result, both Orban and Erdogan obtained the impressive parliamentary majorities that substantially exceeded the percentage of votes cast in the ballot boxes.

The legislative victories of middle-income autocrats have also marginalized opposition parties, leaving them no way to block the transfer of power to the executive power. Chávez, Orban and Erdogan have capitalized on this opportunity to weaken institutional controls and balances, undermine civil liberties and even rewrite the constitutions of their countries.

The creeping authoritarianism thus advanced within an ambiguous legal framework, supported by a legislative majority, which made it difficult to challenge constitutional reasons.

Trump had a weaker congressional command during his tenure. Even with the partisan majorities that he enjoyed during his first two years, he was not able to get Congressional support for some key priorities, such as funding a border wall, easing sanctions against Russia o the implementation of the family separation policy at the border with Mexico.

Moreover, unlike Venezuela, Turkey and Hungary, the US Congress defended its constitutional prerogatives and refused to cede significant formal powers to the president.

But until the Democratic victory in the House of Representatives elections, there was at least the possibility that the majorities of the Republican Congress could succumb slowly to Trump's authoritarian tendencies. The results of the midterms have eliminated this possibility, at least for the short term. In contrast to what happened in middle-income countries, now there is a strong legislative opposition that can reject the abuses of presidential power by investigating the obstructions of justice, the use of weapons by the forces of the order and pervasive violations of civil rights.

This does not mean that the United States is safe from an erosion of its democracy

But democracy in the United States still faces many challenges similar to those that led to democratic decline in Venezuela, Hungary and Turkey. Mid-term elections continued to reflect a deep partisan division on practically all major political issues and may have exacerbated high levels of racial, ethnic and class polarization.

Even if the Republicans will no longer control the Assembly, the GOP Senate will continue to approve Trump's judicial candidates, redoing the judiciary into one that is even more partisan than before.

Moreover, regardless of the legislature and the courts, the president retains substantial unilateral authority that can deploy incrementally to limit the rights of minorities, immigrants and other vulnerable populations and to subvert the independence of the Department of Justice, # 39; Russia investigation of the special prosecution and other institutional controls within the same executive branch.

And so, if the United States escapes the autocratic fate of middle-income countries, its democracy risks being severely damaged even after the end of Trump's era.

Stephan Haggard is a distinguished professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California at San Diego.

Robert Kaufman is a distinguished professor in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers University.

Together they are the authors of "Dictators and Democrats: Elites, Masses and Regime Change" (2016).


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