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How America’s Democracy Is “Ripe to be Exploited”

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Swedish voters this month gave a leading role to the far right, which has neo-Nazi roots. Italy is also bringing to power a party with fascist origins. And of course, in the US, one party has increasingly embraced election denial and attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process.

To try to understand what exactly is going on, I spoke with Barbara Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who studies democracies around the world. His book “How Civil Wars Start” has become a bestseller. Instead of talking about the potential for political violence, we discussed why many democracies are in decline and how the United States is alone – and not in a good way.

This discussion 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 that are going the wrong way in the US and elsewhere?

So there are probably five major data sets that measure the quality of democracy and countries around the world. They all measure democracy in a slightly different way. But each of them has shown that democracies around the world are in decline. And not just the young democracies, but also the hallowed liberal democracies of Sweden, Great Britain and the United States.

These indices are like vital signs, but instead of your body, they are for our body politic. What are the most important?

So empirically we cannot put them in order. But we know what the good things are, and if you start attacking them, you’re attacking vital organs.

One of them is the limitations of executive power. You want a lot of checks and balances in the executive branch. Here in the United States, you want to make sure that the legislature is strong and independent and willing to check the power of the president. You want to know that the judiciary is the same. Another option would be the rule of law. Is the rule of law really followed? Is it uncorrupted? You don’t want a system where certain individuals are above the law. If you want to become, for example, Orban 2.0, you invest loyalists in the Ministry of Justice who are owned by you and not by the rule of law.

You also want a free and open press so that citizens get quality information and can make good decisions. The second is that you want a truly competitive political environment so that there is a level playing field for people competing for power. You can make a very uneven playing field by party. So you can limit voting, you can make voting more difficult.

So these are all vital: Do you have a limit on the lead? Do you have the rule of law, so there is responsibility? Do you have a level playing field so that the public can really participate?

Another warning sign you’ve talked about is that the party is becoming less about politics and more about identity. The change can be seen in the Republican Party in recent years. Can you talk about it?

Republicans have always had the challenge of being the party of wealthy Americans and business. The problem is that wealthy Americans are always a very small minority of Americans. So wealthy Americans must convince at least some non-wealthy Americans to support their platform. How do you do that? Well, you do it with identity issues, their sense of threat, their fear, their worldview changing and “I’m being left behind.” It is very effective.

I want to understand why we see this dynamic occurring in so many countries. You mention three dynamics. One is that the ruling caste of many nations, the white people, is moving towards minority status. Another is the increasing concentration of wealth, with rural areas often disappearing. And then a new media has emerged that is unregulated and immediate: social media.

Well. 3, new media, I would say it more strongly. It’s not that it’s unregulated per se. That’s because it’s driven by algorithms that selectively push out the more extreme inflammatory posts.

You also wrote about another concept I hadn’t heard before: ethnic entrepreneurs. These are politicians, such as Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian strongman, who recognize the possibility of appealing to the fears of a particular group.

Yup. He was not a nationalist. He was an outright communist. And again, it goes back to the difference between a political party based on ideology and a party based on ethnicity. He became the leader of the Serbian party.

So he saw which way the wind was blowing and raised the sail. And Is that what an ethnic entrepreneur does?

Yes, but it can also be more strategic. Milosevic really had a problem with communism being over. And if he wanted to stay in power, he had to contest elections. How does he get elected? And then he says, “Oh, like the biggest ethnic group, and there are Serbs in this country. I’m a Serb!” If I can convince the Serbs in this time of change and uncertainty and uncertainty, when everyone is a little on the sidelines, that if they don’t support the Serbs, the Croats will kill them, then I can catapult myself into power. It’s classic ethnic entrepreneurship.

I want to ask you one last question that I have been thinking about a lot myself. Like many news organizations, we have created a team dedicated to addressing threats to democracy. But after reading your book, I no longer refer to it because it occurred to me that the term threat to democracy reinforces the story we Americans tell ourselves: that we already have a real democracy, the best democracy in the world. and we just have to protect it.

Our American democracy, although we were happy with it and thought it worked really well, already had a number of undemocratic characteristics that no other healthy liberal democracy has.

No one in our electoral college has that. It was a compromise for rural states. We have the fact that party agents operate in our elections. It does not exist in any other healthy liberal democracy. Canada, this huge country, has an independent electoral commission that presides over all elections. Each ballot is the same regardless of whether you are voting in Prince Edward Island or the Yukon. Or that we allow so much money to be injected into our system. No one else has this.

So we don’t just have these undemocratic features, but a whole bunch of vulnerabilities that if you really wanted to somehow strengthen minority rule, you could do this legally. So in many ways we have a terrible system that is ripe for exploitation.

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