Fundamentally, the most significant difference between Democracies and Dictatorships is the concept of the separation of powers, as defined by a nation’s system of political “checks and balances” on executive authority. In observing the process of democratic breakdown within once-democratic nations throughout history, it is clear that the ability of each nation to curtail the power of would-be authoritarians is founded in the strength of these balancing systems.
Conventional wisdom with regards to America’s political system has long held that the very nature of its Constitution protects against authoritarian rule, by dividing its political power into three separate, equal parts, those being the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches.
While it is certainly true that America’s Constitution does more to inoculate it against authoritarian rule than perhaps any democracy on earth, it is still worth examining the ways in which the American system differs from those of democracies that have given way to dictatorial governance.
For this, I’d like to turn to a paragraph in Steve Levitsky and David Ziblatt’s 2018 book, How Democracies Die, which offers us a play-by-play of the recent democratic erosion in Turkey. Excerpts in bold will be discussed later in terms of their likelihood of being carried out successfully in the United States. Below:
“Most recently, the Erdogan government in Turkey used security crisis to justify his tightening grip on power. After the AKP lost its parliamentary majority in June 2015, a series of ISIS terrorist attacks enabled Erdogan to use the rally-’round-the-flag effect to call snap elections and regain control of parliament just five months later. Even more consequential was the July 2016 coup attempt, which provided justification for a wide-ranging crackdown. Erdogan responded to the coup by declaring a state of emergency and launching a massive wave of repression that included a purge of some 100,000 public officials, the closure of several newspapers, and more than 50,000 arrests – including hundreds of judges and prosecutors, 144 journalists, and even two members of the Constitutional Court. Erdogan also used the coup attempt as a window of opportunity to make the case for new executive powers. The power grab culminated in the April 2017 passage [by way of a national referendum] of a constitutional amendment that demolished checks on presidential authority.” (Levitsky & Ziblatt, pp. 96).
Unfortunately for Turkey, which had for years been seen as a relatively stable democratic state, it’s pillars of democracy were flawed enough to provide an opening for authoritarian rule. Let’s go down the list of the determining factors, and compare them to the system employed by the United States:
1. The ability of the executive to call for snap elections
This ostensibly democratic executive tool is, in my opinion, one of the major weaknesses of parliamentary systems that is not shared by America’s presidential system. It allows the executive to exploit domestic crisis to an outrageous extent, and also grants them power to take their opposition parties by surprise. What’s to stop the executive from calling snap elections in the midst of an opposition scandal, or taking advantage of some temporary boost in their approval rating? Because the American political system doesn’t extend such power to the executive branch, the problems related to snap elections are of no concern to us.
2. The ability of the executive to “purge” the opposition members
The most extreme examples of executives asserting this power include the dissolving of their National Assemblies (i.e. Congress), arresting opposition leaders, and degrading or even abolishing their national judiciaries. Obviously, the American President does not have the Constitutional authority to dissolve Congress, arbitrarily arrest political rivals, or shutter all the courts within the justice system. That being said, there are many stops between complete tolerance of opposition members and extreme events like purges, and the President enjoys extensive power over staffing in executive departments. To some extent, there is a “purging” of one’s predecessor’s officials after every American election, but this is usually confined to the traditional replacement of Cabinet Secretaries and high-ranking government officials.
President Donald Trump has broken with this tradition by replacing an usually high number of the previous administration’s officials, and this is definitely cause for concern. One example from The New Republic:
“Late on Friday afternoon… the Department of Justice ordered 46 U.S. state attorneys, including anti-corruption crusader Preet Bharara of New York, to resign.
…as with many things in the Trump administration, this deviates from precedent in key ways. It’s traditional for new administrations to ask for resignations at the start of the term—today was Trump’s 50th day in office. And the affected attorneys appear to have been given very little warning.'”
I am quite sure that there are many other examples of this type of behavior coming from the Trump administration (recent calls from Republicans for a “purge” of the FBI come to mind), and taken together, they surely constitute a red-flag for democracy’s defenders.
3. Ability of the executive to degrade the freedom/independence of the press
While the current President’s musings about our nation’s Fourth Estate expose a deeply dictatorial streak, the reality is that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution will almost certainly continue to stand between his tantrums and the freedom of America’s press corps. Unlike many younger, weaker democracies, freedom of speech and association in the United States has been and will continue to be, both legally and culturally, its most unassailable civil liberty. The dangers posed by an individual like Donald Trump stem more from his willingness to 1) use the bully pulpit to attack and attempt to delegitimize unfriendly media organizations, and 2) use the power of his office to reward friendly media, by gifting them with primetime interviews, corporate mergers, or White House press credentials. Though he has threatened to “crack down” on libel laws, that is almost certainly a bluff, as despite his accusations of fraudulent reporting on the part of the media, he is almost certainly aware of the fact that libel suits are virtually impossible to win in the United States.
4. Ability of the ruling party to initiate national referendums
As Levitsky and Ziblatt explain, it was the 2017 national referendum that delivered the coup de grace to democracy in Turkey. Among other things, the majority vote in favor of the referendum significantly consolidated executive authority and marginalized the Parliament, effectively enshrining Erdogan’s status as a dictator. Therein lies the fundamental (and highly paradoxical) danger of the national referendum: that authoritarian ends can be achieved via democratic means. The purpose of a nation’s constitution is to establish the rules of the game, so to speak. The problem with allowing referendums to alter the foundational rules of the game is threefold: 1) referendums are decided by average citizens, rather than elected representatives with a better understanding of the referendum’s implications, 2) laws created through referendums can circumvent judicial review, and 3) similar to snap elections, the ruling party can exploit crisis and employ government resources to tilt the playing field to their advantage.
Thankfully, the U.S. President does not have the power to call referendums, and cannot unilaterally make changes to the U.S. Constitution. The process of making such changes is actually quite arduous in the U.S., as detailed by Article 5 of its Constitution.
In short, the American political system is significantly better equipped than other types of democratic systems in dealing with potential authoritarians, particularly systems which rely too much on “direct democracy”, i.e. referendums, as well as those with young, relatively weak institutions. That being said, the case of Turkey is but one of many examples of how democratic breakdown can occur.
If the question is, as posed in the title of this post, “Is America Immune To Dictatorship?”, I would say that my conclusion is threefold: The first conclusion is “no, it isn’t immune”; the second is “but its more immune than other systems”, and the third is that “no system can ever be completely immune, but it is clear that certain versions of democracy mitigate the risk of democratic erosion more effectively than others.”
One thing I am certain of, however, is that post-WW2 American democracy has never seen a threat like the one being posed by the current executive’s administration.