I'm reading a book How Democracies Die by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt. They use historical examples from Europe and South America to show how many dictators start out as populists who are democratically elected, before they veer off into authoritarianism. To protect against extremists democracies need gatekeepers -- such as local, regional or opposing political powers -- to rein them in or steer them out of politics entirely.
How do we predict which politicians will
become power hungry after they're elected? The authors develop certain indicators, such as denying the legitimacy of
opponents by calling them subversive or claiming they’re criminals, showing a willingness to curtail liberties by trying to restrict protest or threatening to take legal action against critics, or encouraging violence in any way.
They then argue that Donald Trump is guilty of many of the
indicators, if not in action at least in word. (Remember his veiled threat against Hillary Clinton: "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks ... although the second Amendment people -- maybe there is."). They also conclude that the Republican establishment has made some effort to contain Trump's authoritarian impulses -- but not all Republicans, and those who have tried have not done enough.
But before you write off these authors as hopeless liberals, consider that they also criticize FDR for trying to pack the supreme court (which was stopped by responsible politicians in both parties), and his breaking the two-term custom by running and winning for not only a third term but a fourth term as well, when his health was obviously declining and he was literally at death's door.
So even if the two professors have a liberal bias, they are not anti-conservative so much as they are anti-extremist, concluding:
"Polarization can destroy democratic norms. When socio-economic, racial or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose views are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain. Some polarization is healthy -- even necessary -- for democracy. But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs, rejecting democracy's rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble."
I guess I like what these guys have to say because I think of myself as a responsible, reasonable, sensible, moderate person. But regardless, do you think perhaps one problem is that social media exacerbates the political divide? Honestly, I don't understand why the media hangs on every twitter word uttered by Donald Trump -- or Elon Musk or celebrities in general for that matter. Are we supposed to think that we're getting any kind of thoughtful, informative idea in 140 characters or less?
Maybe it's a good sign that a lot of my friends seem to have found themselves tuning out of twitter, and facebook too. Just possibly it means that people are starting to get bored focusing almost exclusively on economic, political, racial and religious differences.
Honestly, I pretty much ignore my twitter feed, since it seems to comprise a long list of irrelevancies from people I hardly know. I read recently that something like 40% of the tweets that get forwarded are forwarded without the person even reading them!
As for facebook, I like keeping up with my daughter who occasionally posts a photo of something she's doing. But how many times do I have to see a photo of an old friend who's taking yet another hike in yet another park? Or yet another photo of my nephew's 18-month-old baby? And honestly, I've "hidden" a few friends and relatives who post three or four items a day espousing either their extreme left-wing views, or their extreme right-wing views. What they say is so predictable. It's no longer provocative. It's just boring.
Am I starting to sound like an old curmudgeon? I don't mean to. In fact, my outlook took a positive turn this weekend because B and I went to have lunch and spend the afternoon with friends from our old hometown. We sat down and talked face to face. We didn't talk politics. We talked about our homes, our kids, our lives.
And it dawned on me. A real social life brings people together, and is so much more informative, and so much more humane, than the divisive life we lead on social media.