A Survival Guide for Democracies
Over the past seven months, Donald Trump has attacked what for many are the pillars of American democracy. He’s blasted the news media, sowed distrust in the election process, and fired the FBI director for apparently political reasons. He has torn at the U.S.’s racial fabric, perhaps to embolden his base. Political scientists, historians, and other experts have been trying to gauge how much damage he’s inflicting on democracy. The New Yorker wondered if the U.S. might be on the verge of a new civil war.
Damaging the American political process has global ramifications. But an examination of other countries’ experiences shows that Trump may not be as successful in destroying U.S. norms and institutions as media coverage fearfully suggests. In many ways, he isn’t unique. A wave of authoritarian-leaning populists has swept the globe in the past 15 years—Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, many others—who share his disdain for institutions, the media, and politics as usual. Yet from Italy to Argentina, some countries that have elected these types of leaders not only survived them but also rebuilt their democracies—they were battered but not destroyed.
To be sure, Trump’s presidency is less than a year old, and it’s premature to declare American democracy safe. The BrightLine Watch survey, which regularly questions political scientists about the state of U.S. democracy, found in May that “American democracy remains healthy, but its health under Trump has worsened for the first time in recent history,” according to the New York Times. There are signs that his leadership is exacerbating partisanship and reducing trust in the media and other institutions.
As Yascha Mounk of Harvard notes, decimating a democracy can take time. Early in their careers, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban also seemed like they might be constrained. “A few years after Erdogan, Orban, and Chávez took power, smart people also warned of ‘excessive worry about democratic breakdown,’ ” he wrote.
Yet democracy is proving stronger under stress in the U.S. than it is in such places as Turkey, and Trump is a less effective populist than Erdogan or Chávez. Instead of America’s 1860s, the Trump and post-Trump era might look far more like Italy and Argentina in the 21st century.
In Italy, Berlusconi dominated politics from 1994 until 2011. He blended business and politics like Trump, undermined the media, attacked the judiciary, and oversaw an erosion of democracy that left a legacy of popular mistrust of institutions. Berlusconi’s approach hurt Italy’s economy as well—it was one of the worst-performing in the world during his time at the top.
But Italy’s democrats ultimately prevailed, calling on the country’s relatively strong democratic institutions and culture and—slowly—learning to offer policy solutions rather than just blasting the leader. Anti-Berlusconi Italians protested his rule throughout his tenure. Although he controlled much of the broadcast media, dogged reporters continued to probe his scandals. Prosecutors charged him with alleged crimes even as Berlusconi oversaw passage of legislation that shielded him from charges. Eventually, prosecutors won a conviction against him for tax fraud. Politicians who once had been allied with him eventually turned against him as his reckless and pseudo-dictatorial style—and inability to solve problems—drove a wedge in his coalition in 2010 and 2011.
Since 2011, Italy has held multiple free elections, and its once-battered press has regained some of its vibrancy. Judges and prosecutors protect their hard-won independence, perhaps even more so in the wake of Berlusconi’s attempts to immunize himself from the law. Many civil society groups that had taken some progress for granted before Berlusconi became energized by his time in office. The allure of a one-man fix for the country was tarnished, although the legacy of popular mistrust of institutions remains a major problem. As the journalist Alexander Stille wrote in the New Republic, Berlusconi “failed because his megalomania led him to self-destruct and because of his rank incompetence in tending to the country’s business.”
A similar political dynamic occurred in Argentina. From 2003 to 2015, Néstor Kirchner and his wife and successor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, ruled—and damaged Argentine democracy in similar ways that Berlusconi damaged Italy. They attacked courts, the bureaucracy, and the media, and they tried to rule through orders instead of working through the legislature. They also tried to undermine basic factual knowledge: They’d so politicized the government’s important Indec statistics agency that it became discredited by the time Fernández de Kirchner left office. Like Berlusconi, the couple did lasting damage to the economy.
But Argentina’s democracy survived as well, and in many ways it’s reviving. As Shannon O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations writes, in several Latin American nations, including Argentina, citizens have turned against populism over time, tired of chaotic politics and poor governance. Latin American citizens, she notes, have used massive public protests to shame corrupt officials and back democracy. They’ve formed citizens’ movements, pushed to pass laws cementing separation of powers, and increasingly elected middle-of-the-road candidates. In Argentina, exhaustion with populism led to electing the moderate Mauricio Macri in 2015. He has tried to restore the independence of government agencies from presidential dominance and stop the habit of presidents amassing more and more power.
On the other hand, some countries haven’t recovered from authoritarian-leaning populism. Thailand had less history with democracy than Italy, and its institutions were incapable of or uninterested in standing up to an authoritarian populist such as former Prime Minister Thaksin. The middle classes often responded not by trying to strengthen democratic institutions but by abandoning them. Many opinion leaders supported military coups—which occurred in 2006 and 2014—as means of ousting a populist. Thailand also exists in a region where autocracies are the norm, and other countries did little to sanction Thaksin during his time as prime minister. In contrast, Italy and Argentina belong to regional communities of democracies that are willing to condemn and punish leaders who subvert rights and freedoms.
Realizing that countries with weaker institutions and norms survived authoritarian populists doesn’t mean all is fine in the U.S. Like Italy, it could suffer damage without a complete meltdown. Although Americans are losing faith in many institutions, those institutions are performing relatively well right now. So far, the judicial system has repeatedly checked potential attempts to undermine the rule of law. The media has hardly been cowed. The U.S. military’s leadership has pushed back against Trump rhetoric without suggesting a breach in civilian control: After his comments on Charlottesville, leaders of many military branches issued messages affirming the importance of tolerance. And, as Josh Chafetz of Cornell Law School notes, “Congress is providing a check on Trump’s powers. It may not be happening as swiftly or as comprehensively as some Democrats might like, but the legislative branch is making its weight felt in the Trump era in a manner that, if it continues, bids fair to leave Trump with a reputation as an extraordinarily weak modern president.”
When every day seems to bring more outrageous Trump statements, it’s difficult to believe any checks are still working. And winding up like a much bigger, wealthier post-Berlusconi Italy may come as cold comfort. Americans invested in protecting democracy must remain vigilant: supporting fact-based media, pushing lawmakers to pass legislation curtailing presidential power rather than relying on aged democratic norms to constrain the chief, and addressing structural factors such as inequality that helped facilitate Trump’s rise. But a Caracas-on-the-Potomac future as yet seems unlikely.
Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.