Ladies and gentleman welcome, and welcome again Daniel Ziblatt. Forgive me for starting this introduction with a little story about myself. I know it´s not done, but sometimes temptation is just too strong. For the first thing that came to mind when asked to host this evening with Daniel Ziblatt on How Democracies Die was a documentary I made exactly ten years ago for VPRO´s future affairs format Backlight. It ran under the title ´After Democracy´, and yes, we were future affairs, and there was a morbid streak in our team that tended to look for the holes in the cheese, but to be honest: the title was meant to be provocative. I mean: Barack Obama was still in his first term, Poland was governed by Donald Tusk, Hungary had an administration of technocrats under Gordon Bajnai and Dmitri Medvedev was the president of Russia with vague hopes that he would turn the country back in the direction of liberal democracy.
And Britain was still firmly rooted in the EU.
And so I was surprised to find that the academics and political analysts I interviewed for the film, renowned historian of Democracy John Kean, Fareed Zakaria, expert on dictatorships William Dobson, to name a few, were all too eager to undertake the exploration of a future without democracy as we know it. They didn’t think at all that it was a provocative idea. They issued sharp warnings.
And of course there was something in the air. Public trust in politics and politicians was lower by the year, membership of political parties was running to an all time low, the rifts of inequality, the imbalanced effects of globalization and thirty years of free for all neo-liberalism were starting to take their toll.
But still. Who would have thought then that we would be where we are now. Well, and I regret post-factum not being aware of their scholarship then, maybe Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt would have. Because if they make one thing very clear in their description of the state of American democracy as we speak, it is that not Donald Trump, or maybe I should say Mitch McConnell, is the cause of the current situation in which, as they eloquently and convincingly explain in the book, the three main boxes of a political system on its way from democracy to autocracy can without hesitation be ticked for the USA of 2020.
I’m sure we’ll come to speak about these boxes, but the fact that all the worrying signs are there now, is the result of a process of decades, roughly starting with the appearance on the political stage of Newt Gingrich by the end of the seventies. And probably the roots go back even further in time.
And secondly Mr. Ziblatt and his co-author Steven Levitsky offer abundant proof for the fact that a decline of a democratic system in modern times, roughly the last two hundred years, into an autocracy or a dictatorship, is nothing new. From Mussolini to Hitler through Juan Peron to Alberto Fujimori and Hugo Chavez, to name but a few, it happened before modern democracies were destroyed from the inside. Not by a coup, but working through its own institutions. And as for the United States: the period after Reconstruction in the South of the USA and politicians like Huey Long and Father Coughlin in the thirties are presented as great big warning signs of anti-democratic tendencies that have always been present in the United States of America.
Philip Roth’s The Plot against America is only half fiction. Or maybe even less.
And there is so much more. And with all the analysis and answers there are in the book, there are so many questions that remain as to how the country, and the world, ended up where it is now. And what the prospects are for the future. And last but not least: what actions should we to take to prevent our liberal democracies sliding down that slope towards autocracy.
Two months ago I had the privilege of interviewing journalist George Packer for the John Adams, on his wonderful Richard Holbrooke biography, and he said: “If Donald Trump is a one term president, I think American democracy can restore itself. If he gets re-elected, I fear it will be damaged beyond repair.”
Mr. Ziblatt: we sure have something to talk about. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Daniel Ziblatt.