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Review of “Crises of Democracy”: Can we predict the fall of democratic institutions?

Book cover of Crises of Democracy by Adam Przeworski

Crises of Democracy written by Professor of Politics, Adam Przeworski could not have been written at a more critical moment in our contemporary political climate. All around the world, it seems that large political shifts are occurring, the results and effects of which we are yet to learn. Whether it is the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the volatile riots and inequality in Chile, or Trumpism in the U.S.A., it seems that a shift towards right-wing and extremist politics is in motion. Even if I look to my own homeland Australia, and the government’s refusal to listen to the Australian people concerning refugees or climate issues (just to name a few issues) shows there is a disconnection and discontentment with democratic practices. But what does this mean really for us? Sadly, Przeworski is no mystic. He cannot predict the future political outcomes of our times, but he can ask us to think critically about our political climates on a local and global scale.

Przeworski asks his readers to think critically about the current socio-economic-political climate. Furthermore, he asks his readers to contextualise current political trends with previous political outcomes from the fall of the Weimar Republic in Germany to Chile’s dictatorship. History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Before looking at how Przeworski unpacks past political crises concerning the present, it is first important to briefly address how he defines both ‘crisis’ and ‘democracy’. He keeps his definitions simple and tries not to add adjectives to his definition of democracy for fear of overcomplicating the term, and for the purpose of his academic exploration, I believe he is right. “Democracy,” Przeworski states, “is a political arrangement in which people select governments through elections and have a reasonable possibility of removing incumbent governments they don’t like.” To add to this, “democracy is a mechanism for processing conflicts. Political institutions manage conflicts in an orderly way by structuring the way social antagonisms are organized politically, absorbing whatever conflicts may threaten public order, and regulating them according to some rules.” Democracy is based on fair elections through the votes of civilians. However, what happens if there are cataclysmic differences between the values of those voting?

The word ‘crisis’ stems from ancient Greek meaning ‘decision’. Some crises are chronic, and others are acute. Some institutes, capitalism, for example, is considered impervious to crises in the sense that it is a self-correcting systems. A crisis in regards to politics is a breakdown of the traditional and generally accepted definitions and rules of that institution. A crisis forces people to make decisions that will change the direction and outcomes of thing being impacted. Crises in democracy occur when there is a break down in democratic practices, namely when voting is compromised, when governments cannot function and/or absorb public conflict productively, and/or when a person or group takes over politically which disables the country from overthrowing them through safe non-confrontational means.

“The specter that haunts us today, I believe, is the last possibility: a gradual, almost imperceptible erosion of democratic institutions and norms, subversion of democracy by stealth, the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends.”

History is sadly a treasure-trove of democracies in crises. Przeworski gives a few major examples of democracies that have been in crisis, some of which were able to recover and avoid major catastrophe, and others that were not so lucky. What is always important to remember about historical discussions of political crises is that it is very easy to see ‘how’ everything went wrong afterwards. Hindsight is always 20/20.

One of the most common ways for democracy to find itself in crisis is through a coup. Other ways are ‘backsliding’ which is a slow erosion of democratic rights are achieved through democratic channels. Presidential democracies are, according to Przeworski, more brittle and are the least stable in times of crises. Democracies with stable and strong economies are less likely to have crises, and if they do, these crises are usually solved peacefully. Inequality and power corruptions mixed with weak economies, however, are a recipe for crisis. With these in mind, let’s look at how democracies have fallen into crisis.

The most classic and obvious example Przeworski gives is the fall of the Weimar Republic in Germany and the rise of Nazism and Hitler. Hitler rose to power legally and democratically. He was able to exploit political policy flaws within the Weimar Republic, and his effects on German and world history echo to this day. Chile’s democratic fall came about after the leader, Allende, was not able to rule effectively and democratically. The military takeover, seen as a way to stop Allende from further political blunders turned into something more toxic and horrific than could have been predicted. And if we turn to current events in Chile, it is the fear and pain from Chile’s dictator past that is partly fuelling the events that are unfolding today.

France’s crisis from 1954 to 1968 was brought on by the Algerian war, or ‘Algerian Events’ as it was referred to in France. De Gaulle was elected in 1958, and he wanted to maintain Algeria as a colony of France. De Gaulle restricted press, the war created protests and conflicts on the street. However, Przeworski suggests that it was De Gaulle’s personality that prevented him from becoming a dictator. De Gaulle stated: “Would one believe that, at the age of 67, I will begin a career of a dictator?” In the end, the French government was able to come together and act decisively in the face of disaster, which resulted in the fifth French Republic was born.

The period of 1964-1976 in the U.S. was extremely volatile. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing, the Vietnam war was dividing the country, and the political assassinations of Martin Luther King and Kennedy destabilised democracy. The Watergate scandal with President Nixon and his administration was the peak of the crisis point for the U.S. at that time. Nixon’s administration tried to defend its power by all means possible: “sixty-nine of his supporters were eventually charged, and forty-eight were convicted of illegal acts related to the Watergate scandal, including two attorney generals, the chief of staff, three White House staffers, the Secretary of Commerce, and Nixon’s personal lawyer.” The system that was in place in the U.S. meant that the president couldn’t abuse his power for too long. Although, as Przeworski rightly asks: “the obvious counterfactual question is whether the institutional system would have counteracted the abuse of power by the president had Republicans controlled both houses of Congress.” Nixon resigned before he was impeached.

What is perhaps an overarching conclusion that we can make about these examples is that “conditions do not determine outcomes; actions of people under the conditions do.” The divide that we are seeing between right-wing and right-wing extremism and the left is concerning. When we have drastic differences in ideological notions regarding race, gender, and nationalism, it can lead to political crises. Other contributing factors to crises are the “decline of growth rates of the already developed countries; increase in income inequality among individuals and households and declining labor share in manufacturing; and decline of employment in industry and rise of the service sector, particularly of low-paying service jobs.” All of these factors impact each other in their own ways. For example, high immigration and low-income rates affect right-wing tendencies.

While it might seem alarmist to suggest we are heading towards a crisis, but looking at these examples from Przeworski, one can see a reason to pay attention and watch political developments closely. Although democracy is a pillar of our political world now, it is still extremely fragile. It isn’t something we should take for granted. As citizens, we cannot let disenfranchisement dictate how we vote or participate politically. While Przeworksi’s book is more academic, and I do believe that it has accessible themes and notions that are not impossible for non-academic readers to appreciate and understand. As always, share the reading love.

Note: this novel was accessed through Netgalley for review purposes.