Well, it wasn't the most fun reading I've ever done, not by a long shot, but today I finished "How Democracies Die" by two professors of government at Harvard, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
A basic message of the book is summarized in the final chapter:
When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted -- mutual tolerance and institutional forebearance. Treating rivals as legitimate contenders for power and underutilizing one's institutional prerogatives in the spirit of fair play are not written into the American Constitution. Yet without them, our constitutional checks and balances will not operate as we expect them to.
Trump, of course, is pushing hard against what Levitsky and Ziblatt call the "guardrails" of democracy.
He's notoriously prone to denigrating his political opponents, going so far as to threaten Hillary Clinton with jail time, which Trump's supporters applauded with cries of Lock her up!
And Trump not only ignores the forebearance of former presidents who acted in accord with historical precedent, he takes childish pride in behaving as unpresidential as possible, wrongly viewing this as some sort of authenticity rather than as what it is -- boorish behavior.
After reading the scarily cogent descriptions of how Trump is acting like other authoritarian national leaders, I was fully prepared for the Saving Democracy chapter to be full of hard-hitting advice about how to resist the dangers of Trumpism.
I wasn't disappointed. However, I was surprised.
Probably I shouldn't have been, since what Levitsky and Ziblatt call for in that chapter is fully commensurate with the tone of their entire book. I guess it was my own desire to give Trump and his GOP enablers a taste of their own medicine that caused me to anticipate a harder-edged tone regarding how our democracy is to be saved.
In short, to do what Trump should be doing, but isn't: engage in mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. Here's some passages from the Saving Democracy chapter on this subject.
In our view, the idea that Democrats should "fight like Republicans" is misguided. First of all, evidence from other countries suggests that such a strategy often plays directly into the hands of authoritarians. Scorched-earth tactics often erode support for the opposition by scaring off moderates.
And they unify pro-government forces, as even dissidents within the incumbent party close ranks in the face of an uncompromising opposition. And when the opposition fights dirty, it provides the government with justification for cracking down.
...Even if Democrats were to succeed in weakening or removing President Trump via hardball tactics, their victory would be Pyrrhic -- for they would inherit a democracy stripped of its remaining protective guardrails.
If the Trump administration were brought to its knees by obstructionism, or if President Trump were impeached without a strong bipartisan consensus, the effect would be to reinforce -- and perhaps hasten -- the dynamics of partisan antipathy and norm erosion that helped bring Trump to power to begin with.
As much as a third of the country would likely view Trump's impeachment as the machinations of a vast left-wing conspiracy -- maybe even as a coup. American politics would be left dangerously unmoored.
And here's a passage that resonates particularly true given yesterday's marvelous win of Democrat Conor Lamb over his Republican opponent in a Pennsylvania special election for a House seat. Lamb took some positions at odds with liberal orthodoxy, but that's what was needed to win in a district that had voted Republican for many years.
Building coalitions that extend beyond our natural allies is difficult. It requires a willingness to set aside, for the moment, issues we care deeply about.
If progressives make positions on issues such as abortion rights or single-payer health care a "litmus test" for coalition membership, the chances for building a coalition that includes evangelicals and Republican business executives will be nil.
We must lengthen our time horizons, swallow hard, and make tough concessions. This does not mean abandoning the causes that matter to us. It means temporarily overlooking disagreements in order to find common moral ground.