Why autocrats love emergencies

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write:

Crises are a time-tested means of subverting democracy.

From Getúlio Vargas and other better-known dictators in the 1930s to Indira Gandhi and Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and on to Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan more recently, autocratic-minded leaders have long used national emergencies — some real, some fabricated — to claim extraordinary powers. One of our greatest concerns about Donald Trump’s presidency has always been that he would exploit (or invent) a crisis in order to justify an abuse of power. Recent events have given this concern new immediacy.

Authoritarian leaders often chafe under the constraints of constitutional rule. Democratic politics is, after all, grinding work. Family businesses and army units may be ruled by fiat, but democracies require negotiation and concessions. Setbacks are inevitable; victories always partial. A president’s most cherished policy initiatives may be savaged in the media, derailed by Congress or struck down by the courts.

President Bill Clinton, who was elected on a promise of health care reform, devoted the first two years of his administration to a universal health insurance bill only to see it die in Congress. President George W. Bush claimed a mandate to reform Social Security after his 2004 re-election, but the initiative went nowhere. All presidents suffer such defeats. In a democracy, presidents must have patience and thick skin. They must be able to compromise. And crucially, they must be able to lose.

Autocratic-minded leaders, by contrast, find democratic politics intolerably frustrating. Most lack the skills or the temperament for the give-and-take of everyday politics. They are allergic to criticism and compromise. They have little patience for the intricacies of the legislative process. [Continue reading…]

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