Can It Happen Here?

Author: Gary Hart

The social and political glue that holds democracies, especially large-scale, diverse democracies, together are institutions and laws, particularly where they are enumerated in a written Constitution.  But there are also unwritten rules or norms that guide the conduct of those elected and appointed to operate our government on a daily basis.

“…two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.”  This conclusion is reached by two authorities on democratic government, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in How Democracies Die, a deeply disturbing and sobering recent book.

They attribute America’s political stability through a civil war, depressions, and many setbacks to the willingness of our two major parties to respect these unwritten rules.  But, they conclude, the process of racial inclusion begun after World War II and culminating in civil rights legislation in the mid-1960 began the process of political polarization that have led us to the greatest challenge to established norms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction and, ultimately, to the age of Trump.

The results are not just political, they are also personal.  Acquaintances increasingly report personal divisions in the workplace and even within families over whether you are for or against Trump.  Few dispute that civility is at a low ebb.  It is a commonplace these days to observe that the United States Government is dysfunctional.

Some take courage from the fact that Trump’s approval rating has never reached 50%, that his uninhibited authoritarianism, attacks on a free press, conflicts with the judiciary, law enforcement, and intelligence communities have consistently been resisted by a majority of Americans.  Others of us remain stunned that a consistent third of our society supports his every excess, choosing to believe his incivilities are necessary to restore a national greatness that has never, until he came along, been in doubt.

Our democratic form of government is underwritten by our society.   Though we have rarely if ever considered what might happen if our society tired of a democracy dependent on toleration and forbearance and chose instead to move, albeit gradually, toward centralized power in an executive, supported obsequiously by a rubberstamp legislature, and an ideologically stacked judicial system.

How Democracies Die provides multiple examples of democracies that transitioned gradually but unchecked into authoritarian oligarchies.  Opposition protests and resistance occurred but were systematically confined, then eliminated.  Democracies do die, but rarely overnight.  Their deaths are the result of insufficient oxygen.

The oxygen of democracies is open debate and discussion, receptivity to ideas, concurrence on facts, protection against perversion of language, and most of all mutual respect and tolerance for the views of others.  The road toward authoritarianism leads away from all these.

With the advent of Democratic party leadership on civil rights legislation, something called “movement conservatism” sprang up.  It went beyond traditional conservative ideology into an almost religious doctrine.  Everything and anything that frustrated and defeated liberalism became legitimate.  Traditional Republicanism gave way to a new coalition of evangelical Christians, the NRA and gun owners, marginal right-wing groups, and frustrated white middle Americans angered by foreign trade competition, coastal liberal elites, and immigrants.

Democrats became the enemy.  Years of planning went into gerrymandering Congressional districts, purging of voter rolls, voter documentation and claims of massive voting frauds, and purging of moderate Republicans.  Levitsky and Ziblatt show how these and similar practices were systematically repeated in democracies en route to authoritarianism.

After decades of this, Democrats and broader civil society have begun to awaken to the need for resistance.  Voting rights laws need to be strengthened.  Congressional districting must be done by non-aligned citizen groups.  Threats against reporters and the press should receive vociferous citizen condemnation.  The cure for the ails of democracy is more, not less, democracy.

How Democracies Die concludes with this: “Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic.  That is our challenge.  It is also our opportunity.  If we meet it, American will truly be exceptional.”

7 Responses to “Can It Happen Here?”

  1. Paul G Says:


    “Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic. That is our challenge. It is also our opportunity. If we meet it, American will truly be exceptional.” – How Democracies Die.

    Some public figures operate with the complicity of billionaire special interests who view large democratic numbers as a direct threat to their necessarily fewer (wealthier) numbers; to be melded and conquered.

    But our Constitution allows us to be a salad bowl. To be truly exceptional we have to accept that we’re a society of fundamentally equals in spirit; less a melting pot dominated by a single spice than a bowl of exceptional salad.

  2. Brian McCarthy Says:


    Speaker Pelosi has never been among my favorite Democrats but I do salute her discretion in taking down impeachment talk today. A futile and one-sided march towards impeachment, without broad bipartisan and popular support, would only cut the legs out from under us and further weaken the democracy that is already under attack. There is. I realistic scenario, at this point, that would have the Senate unseat him by a 2/3 vote or anything close to it. The only route to removing Trump from office—that would not further the democracy-eroding trend—is to put up the best available candidate against him and let the voters decide.


  3. Brian McCarthy Says:

    * there is no

  4. Paul G Says:


    Just as the fall of the Roman Republic was preceded by total corruption so appears to be the fate of our most heroic experiment – the American Republic; as voters have become increasingly distracted by entertaining tricksters.

    Foreign contamination of our Constitutional process – mainly by media tyrants across the pond who wouldn’t get elected dog-catcher in their own right but emotionally stampede voters to change UK governments at will – is killing US.

    Honest reporters who attempt to diagnose this cancer of corruption in our body politic – even superficially in a movie decades after the fact – are called traitors and ostracized by their mostly ignorant peers.

    Heroic students rose up in 1987 against what they described as the threat of “mediocracy” to our republic that made it virtually impossible for their incorruptible hero, Gary Hart, to communicate with voters on solution ideas to resolve America’s major needs. Few knew Nixon-era tricksters were active.

    The 80+ students’ “Let the voters decide” chant over 6 hours of bitter cold outside NH state convention, soon became Hart’s “Let the People decide!” Winning again for 7 of the remaining 9 weeks, a grossly exaggerated “finance” story misled voters (again) to a stampede away from their hero.

    Few if any of those students entered fields of government or journalism; but the lead surveillance reporter of gross exaggerations became university dean!

    An honest reporter’s attempt to tell the true story of the front runner in a movie by that title is commendable as it succeeds in bringing attention to a key part of the whole truth: something shockingly unprecedented, un-American with all the hallmarks of police-state “democracy in a dark alley” occurred.

    Decades later across the pond, one of the prime ministers who testified before a parliamentary committee about an octogenarian mogul’s abuses of the FCPA (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act); said it was stunning to him that “a foreigner who cannot vote in our country, changes our government at will.”

    Oblivious or uncaring of the censorship and cruelty against brave students or it’s implications for our republic’s future, the dean whines about his movie portrayal but ignores the recent major revelation international tricksters, Stone, Manafort, Black, Atwater; set-up our hero for ridicule and exile.

    But, like a cancer, if we’re not aware or don’t care; we get trumped by the leaders we’re left with. The lesson is as old as Caesar Augustus’ sage warning about how people’s anger at his tyranny was trumped by distraction: just start a war and people divide between his “patriots” and the “traitors.”

    Suddenly, “Let the voters decide!” blurred and buried by TV smirking anchors move us quickly to “our” tricksters’ republic of entertainment.

  5. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    “I second that emotion” Paul. Readers of your trenchant essay (and many others of similar eloquence in this space over the years) may understand and appreciate why I concluded my own (much longer-form) recent online writing on the same general topic and theme, with a salute to you.

    For those with the time and interest to re-visit in further considerable detail those fateful presidential election years (1984 and 1988) when the cancer of rightist Reaganism could and should have been extirpated from the American body politic and replaced with a revival of Kennedys and King idealism, see .

    (Abominably, Reaganism is now back with a vengeance!)

    As the host said in reference to all of his delegates and supporters in his 1984 Democratic National Convention speech (per Yeats): “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.”

    Not to slight anyone else but Paul G is first among equals.

  6. Paul G Says:


    Four days before the dean’s stakeout he quoted three experts urging him to “hunt a (tabloid fake quote) rumor to protect the community.” One “expert” was Atwater’s partner, Charles Black. The resulting ‘tipster associate’ advisor (a foreign national)was also a boat fixer and photo snapper. The fake quote (by the partnership’s client) was timed for weeks of denial mayhem.

    The Atlantic’s James Fallows recent report corroborates this irrefutable evidence long hidden in plain site; on the (colluding?) reporter’s paper.

  7. JD Kinnick Says:

    Paul G – thanks for posting the msnbc link on the deathbed confession of Lee Atwater. I believe Matt Bai’s book may have made reference or speculation to this theory. In his prime Atwater made Liddy, Segretti, and company look like the “junior varsity” of political dirty tricks. I was on the ground in Iowa as a county chair in ’87 and drove the Senator to an event a couple days before the story broke. At that time I assumed the likely culprit was one of our Iowa Caucus rivals (Gore,Dukakis,Babbitt) with likely assistance from a union boss or two that Sen. Hart wouldn’t pander to for support.

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