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Opinion: How Democracies Die and How the U.S. Democracy is No Exception

Photo of U.S. Flag. Image courtesy of Matthis Volquardsen.

Political scientist and Harvard University professor, Dr. Steven Levitsky, recently presented his research on international cases of eroding democracy at the opening of the Center for Journalism and Democracy (CJD) at Howard University, arguing that American democracy is wavering.

The Democracy Summit, which took place on Nov. 15, was a day-long event where attendees deliberated over the future of democracy in America and the world at large and issues such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and other civil and human rights liberties. At the summit, Levitsky discussed how, in the past, the fall of democratic societies was triggered by militaries and acts of warfare. However, in modern-day society, the demise of democracies is initiated via political decisions by international politicians and policymakers.

Levitsky referenced the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill, calling the events an attempt at a coup d’état, or. The implications of the Jan. 6 insurrection continue to be a topic of discussion as participants and Oath Keepers members face guilty verdicts and the House Select Committee investigation continues. 

Levitsky likened such political activities to the 1880-1912 period in American history, where the political response to the growing concern over multiracialism in America led to Black Americans receiving voter disenfranchisement. In 1865, the U.S. formally freed enslaved people, creating several political responses by white Americans who resisted integration with emancipated Africans. Many Southern whites worked to limit the civil, political, economic, and social rights of Blacks in America – including the right to vote.

“[Prior to writing the book in 2017], we didn’t anticipate that the entire GOP would turn away from democracy. We’ve got an entire political party with a dubious commitment to democracy. This puts us in a more precarious place than we were five years ago,” Levitsky said.

Considering the international rise in authoritarian regimes, some believe the current juncture of U.S. and international politics and world affairs is critical. Although many media narratives indict the Republican party for threatening democracy in the U.S., Dr. Noam Chomsky, a political activist, laureate professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona and Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, echoed how important it is to hold the Democratic party accountable for the status quo and other threats to democracy such as fascism.

The Republican Party, to its credit, has been frank and open about its plans to turn the U.S. into an ‘illiberal democracy’ – that is, a formal but not functioning democracy – in the style of its current hero, Viktor Orban, who has substantially achieved that goal in Hungary.  The Democrats have contributed by lack of meaningful opposition and often cooperation in the project,” Dr. Chomsky said.

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“The background is 40 years of savage, one-sided class war, framed in misleading rhetoric about ‘markets’ and ‘freedom,’ which has been highly successful in concentrating wealth in a few hands and enhancing corporate power, with the obvious impact of undermining democratic institutions,” Chomsky said of the media’s role in promoting democracy.

Levitsky argues that the “U.S. became a democracy with the advent of the Civil Rights Bill in 1965,” making true or legitimate democracy in America only about 57 years old. Some members of the international community believe the U.S. has democratic processes but can do more to uphold the notion of democracy, while others reference civic engagement. 

“There are many ways to think about democracy. I believe it’s a political system in which there are free and fair elections, where all adults can vote and citizens have civil liberties,” Levitsky said.

Faith Okani, a senior biology major and chemistry and Japanese double minor from Oakland, California, believes democracy is not on full display in the U.S.

“As a student that attends an HBCU in the capital of the United States, democracy should be more in its direct form, where people have a direct say in what laws should be implemented instead of depending on politicians who don’t always have your best interest at heart,” Okani said.

“Democracy is not fully displayed in the United States. Even with the Civil Rights bill, true democracy does not exist.  ‘Shelby County vs Holder’ has caused many states to create unjust voter restrictions, which has caused Black and brown people to have longer wait times than white people,” she continued, sharing her thoughts about how democracy is depicted in the U.S.

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Regardless of how democracy is applied in 2022 and beyond, Chomsky believes the implications of democracy in Western civilization are clear based on its origin. 

“The gold standard of scholarship on the making of the constitution is entitled ‘The Framers’ Coup.’ The term refers to the coup carried out by a small group of distinguished, (mostly) white male slave owners against popular demands for democracy,” Chomsky said.  

“In the early days of modern state capitalism, Adam Smith observed that the ‘masters of mankind’ – the owners of the economy – are the principal architects of government policy. Much has changed in 250 years. Much remains the same,” he continued.

Copy edited by Alana Matthew

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