How Democracies Die, a book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, has been garnering much attention in recent weeks. The book warns about the possibility of a slide into American authoritarianism and draws lessons from the collapse of democracies around the world. This new release is part of an ongoing debate on whether Donald Trump is a grave danger to American democracy. Levitsky and Ziblatt are noted political scientists, with decades of important scholarship on democratic and authoritarian regimes. While the global review of cases of democratic decline is thorough and accurate, the comparisons they draw with the American case is part of an increasingly hysterical discourse on American politics by liberal commentators. The cases Levitsky and Ziblatt employ shed little light on current developments in American politics, and they neglect to identify the crucial international shifts leading to democratic decline in vulnerable countries. The United States is a long-standing, consolidated democracy and is not in immediate danger of collapse. However, pointing out the global climate of democratic decline and accurately identifying its causes is an important task.
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By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
The 30-page indictment of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign manager, outlines the illicit schemes he used to launder the proceeds of his political consultancy firm. It outlines the financial tools he used to avoid taxes, and accuses Manafort of failing to register as foreign agent, despite making millions lobbying for a variety of foreign governments, including the now deposed pro-Russian former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. While it is unclear how the revelations in the indictment will affect Special Council Robert Mueller’s larger investigation into Russian meddling in US politics, the Manafort scandal brings to light the type of high-level transnational corruption that is not only common, but rather the cost of doing business in most former communist countries of East Central Europe and beyond. Ultimately, the revelations raise questions about the penetration of transnational corruption into US politics, and on how well equipped American institutions are to curb it.
What differs however from the types of scandals common not only to Ukrainian politics but also Russian, Hungarian and beyond, is the fact that Manafort and Gates have been indicted, not because of volatile and retaliatory politics, but rather because of rule of law processes and institutions. How this case is handled will have very interesting implications for the question of what happens when this type of high-level transnational corruption reaches the West. Of course, US politics is not untouched by corruption—US campaign finance is in need of profound restructuring, and there is systemic corruption in government procurements—but the type of transnational corruption linking foreign governments to the highest level of US elected office is not business as usual in the US political system. While many in Trump’s base do not seem bothered by Russia’s meddling in our presidential elections, or by the implication that Manafort worked with Russian agents and oligarchs to help elect a pro-Moscow Ukrainian president, all Americans should be profoundly disturbed that this type of kleptocratic politics has reached Washington.
The Manafort indictment should be crucial reading for those seeking a better understanding of post-Soviet politics and their implications for global security, foreign policy, and now US domestic politics. The allegations detail in depth the various strategies and tools employed by powerful and wealthy individuals (oligarchs) to enrich themselves in terms of both money and power. The proliferation of new tools of financial globalization including shell companies, complex acquisitions, and off-shore tax havens have made it increasingly easy for wealthy and powerful individuals to profit off of the state and ignore sovereign borders. Moreover, these schemes highlight a disturbing consequence of this concentration of power: a lack of institutions and processes to regulate and oversee this type of behavior leads to profound political corruption that inhibits and stunts democracy.
Manafort’s involvement in Ukraine is a perfect example of the dangers of this type of behavior. Through byzantine dealings with a Ukrainian energy oligarch that had links to the Kremlin, Manafort helped secure a $10b loan from bankers connected to Putin to finance the presidential campaign of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych. Ukrainian politics, captured by oligarchs from almost the moment of independence, did not have the institutional strength to prevent this type of meddling. Moreover, while corruption scandals at the highest level are common in Ukrainian politics, impartial and apolitical arrests are uncommon. The fact that Manafort was indicted by an impartial special council highlights a fundamental difference between East and West: Western institutions are stronger and therefore may be better able to regulate transnational corruption.
Of course, the surprising election of Donald Trump and his disregard for inconvenient institutions raise concerns over whether the Trump era is bringing Eastern style power politics into the US mainstream. So far there are signs in both directions. Trump’s connections to people like Manafort along with the many unanswered questions in the Russia investigation are indeed troubling. There are legitimate concerns that any Trump infrastructure projects will be financed and procured á la Russe: enriching those close to the Trump regime on the taxpayer’s dime. On the other hand, recent investigations have shown that Trump’s presidency has complicated rather than facilitated business dealings for his son in law Jared Kushner. Certainly, Trump’s unwillingness to disaggregate his personal business dealings from his elected office as well as his reluctance to adhere to norms such as making public his tax returns shows at the very least a sympathy to the norms of the Eastern oligarchy.
While the indictment of Manafort is a sign that perhaps American oversight institutions are functioning, it is unlikely that Manafort would have been caught if he had not become entangled with Trump. This raises the question: how many more Manafort’s are out there, and are any of them dealing in American politics on behalf of foreign governments? Unfortunately, given the stake that Russia has in undermining American democracy, it is likely that Manafort is not unique. A close reading of the indictment shows a defiant and brazen attitude: it is clear that Manafort was not worried about covering his tracks. Perhaps because in comparison to the oligarchs he dealt with in the post-Soviet space, the FBI is relatively benign.
It is difficult to assess what the future holds for Manafort, and if his indictment is a signal that this type of high-level corruption is not tolerable in the American political sphere, the larger problem however, is that the deep endemic kleptocracy connected with a rise in right-wing populism is exceedingly difficult to contain. The case of contemporary Hungary shows the shocking speed with which democratic institutions can be dismantled in favor of rules that protect oligarchic interests. Ukraine offers a truly tragic tale of the dangers of endemic corruption that ultimately led to disintegration of the state itself. American institutions have a far longer liberal democratic tradition, but only time will tell if American institutions are strong enough to stand up to the powerful global force of transnational corruption.
By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
Last week the Israeli Minister of Education introduced an academic ethics code that introduced certain limitations on expressing political views in the classroom. At first glance the code does not seem expressly harmful, it sets allows for the expression of political views and the discussion of controversial issues as part of the course syllabus. But certain aspects of the code are troubling to Israeli academics and students and led to much protest. The code is intended to “protect” students from the political views of professors, and sets up ethics councils where students can complain about the conduct of their professors. This sets up an atmosphere of suspicion and encourages professors to self-censor their treatment of controversial and political issues that are at the heart of many academic fields.
The introduction of this code comes with other measures that seek to limit civil society and track the funding of NGOs. Attempting to bring civil society and academia under the control of the government is part of a broader worldwide phenomenon that is connected to populism. Academia has been a central part of the liberal democratic world order for decades. Since the 1930s academics fled Europe for the US, creating what we now know as American academia and setting up the intellectual basis for post-war liberalism.
The new global populism aims to upend this order, both politically and ideologically. Practically speaking, populist leaders take measure to bring academia under their ideological control by limiting the academic freedom of previous generations and hiring new a generation of state-sponsored ideologues. In many countries academia is funded by the government, and so tactics that would be difficult in the US are much more successful in other societies.
One prominent example is the legislative attempt by Hungarian authorities to close the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest. The bill targeted foreign universities without a primary campus in their home country, but practically affected only CEU. While most Hungarian academia is already under the control of the government, CEU is independently funded and was designed as a beacon of liberalism in the region. As such, it was construed as an enemy of Viktor Orbán’s populist government and now may have to leave Hungary.
A far more extreme case is that of Turkey, where academics have been detained, suspended, and purged in one of the most brutal instances of curbing academic freedom and eliminating the role of academic freedom in society.
All of this is happening in an environment of increased nationalism and closing borders in the Western world. Traditionally, academia has been an extremely cosmopolitan sector. In many places, employment is not based on nationality but on expertise alone. As a result American academia served as a sanctuary for academics from around the world during difficult periods, in particular before and during World War II. The concern is that more stringent visa policies limit the choices available to academics and so would force them to comply with their home countries new academic guidelines. This joins a variety of policies that are breaking down the liberal world order, both materially and intellectually. While professors are often characterized as detached from the real world in ivory towers, academics have a fundamental role in shaping the ideational foundation of society.
By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
In his inaugural speech last week, President Donald Trump blazed a clear path for his regime. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land, from this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.” This was not the first time in recent weeks that Trump has displayed his vision for American protectionism and isolationism, breaking from the traditional world order set by the United States after World War II. In an interview with the Times of London on January 16, Trump expressed disinterest in the future of the European Union, stating, “I don’t think it matters much for the United States.”
For Europe, the new direction of American foreign policy is extremely consequential. Previously, a large part of Europe’s ability to act as a single bloc was the strength of its alliance of interests and institutions with the United States. The US-European alliance together pursued a global platform of democratization, liberal economic policies, multilateral action on issues of security and war, and recently even on environmental policies. This alliance defined the liberal world order as we knew it--until Friday. That is what makes the aspiration of the Trump presidency so radical.
Whether it is in the best interest of the US to preserve the historic policy of the liberal order including European integration, Bretton Woods, NATO and the United Nations is debatable. But the question arises: who benefits from destroying this order? When looking at Russian foreign policy in Europe over the past decade a pattern emerges. Moscow has consistently pursued a policy of “divide and conquer”—pursuing negotiations with individual states rather than face Europe as a single bloc. This strategy weakened Europe as an adversary and allowed Russia to pursue a number of strategic interests with relatively little resistance. Of course, part of the reason for Moscow’s success was not only its aggressive grand strategy also but the inability of the European Union to act coherently. But the outcome has been that Russia has been very successful in pursuing both its economic and security interests by dividing Europe into discreet units.
Russia was particularly successful in thwarting European Union efforts to create a union-level energy policy, which would have placed Europe in a much better negotiation position vis-à-vis Russia. Although Russia provides one third of Europe’s total energy needs, the degree to which states are dependent on Russian commodities and the price they pay for them varies widely, even between neighboring states. Moscow gives preferential treatment to some states in order to create a divergence of interest, breaking down cooperation across states. As a result, each country in Europe deals independently instead of as a union, which weakens their bargaining leverage and gives Russia a comparative advantage. A recent example was Germany’s refusal to comply with a Brussels initiative to increase transparency in natural gas contracts with Russia. Gazprom, Russia’s state owned gas conglomerate, charges German companies up to 2/3 less than it does neighboring Poland, which was in favor of the initiative.
On a political level, Russia has been sponsoring far right movements that promote Euro-skepticism and opposition to a single monetary zone. Part of the reason these parties disrupt European unity is that a large part of their electoral success is in the European parliament, where political competition is weaker and turnout is lower. Russia’s real foreign policy coup was that these parties, small as they may be, led to a rise in populism across the political spectrum. Leaders including Hungary’s Victor Orban, France’s Marine Le Pen and others support Russia’s worldview and seek increased economic and political ties. The rise of far right parties in Europe has also been associated with a rise in crony capitalism: a system that Russia fostered because it helps Moscow retain its economic and political foothold in former satellite states.
Unsurprisingly, these leaders also support Donald Trump. After hearing Trump’s speech, Orban heralded the “end of multilateralism” and said Hungary had “received permission from, if you like, the highest position in the world so we can now also put ourselves in first place.” This aligns perfectly with the rhetoric of leaders like Orban and Le Pen who depict their own countries history as a struggle for independence from foreign imperial powers. Trump and Orban’s speeches are Moscow’s greatest coup to date: breaking down the historic ties between the United States and Europe creates a system in which each country fends for itself and heralds the end of the “West” as we know it. In such a world, Russia is the big winner. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lacked strong alliances and was persistently challenged by the West. Now, with the help of Donald Trump, a predatory country can legitimately prey on the weak.
Trump is often labeled as a Manchurian Candidate operated by Russia, but it is not only his business and alleged personal ties with Vladimir Putin that endanger American interests. Trump’s address shows that Russia’s divide and conquer strategy has found an ally in the White House. This has grave consequences not only for Europe, but also for the United States. It is naïve to think that Europe is the sole beneficiary of its alliance with the United States. Because of its once powerful alliance, the US set the terms for global trade and security for many years. Evidence from Europe shows that once countries are divided, they lose their power, and they lose it to Russia.
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By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
This seemingly unending election cycle has unleashed a demon upon us all. Of course, Trump is partly to blame for dragging politics into the gutter, but the malaise associated with the 2016 election is not unique. In fact, it is a global phenomenon. Throughout the developed world, people are experiencing democratic anxieties manifesting in racist, exclusionary and nativist rhetoric. Ordinary citizens are consuming the fear spread by leaders and the outcome is a troubled, restless time.
This is of course not the first time in history that the United States or other regions have experienced deep public divisions and unrest. The demon is always present, but only gets unleashed every once in a while. The reasons underlying high political tensions are numerous, and we will briefly review them here. Eventually, however, the demon always retreats back into the box and life goes back to relative normal. But the way unrest eases is almost never pleasant, and in the process no one gets exactly what they set out for.
Much has been written about the losers of globalization, the ones who are left behind while the rest of the world has moved on. These are unskilled workers who lost both their job security and their identity as the heart of American society. This pertains mostly to the white working class in formerly industrial areas, but increasingly includes the poor more generally. For these groups, traditional politicians have failed to respond to their crisis and thus populist leaders found a fertile ground on which to mobilize. The result of this failure is anti-elitism, nativism, exclusionary views, the rejection of mainstream politics and of course, Trump.
But our troubled, divided times are not unique in American history. The most obvious example is of course the Civil War, but other examples include the interwar period, McCarthyism, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War. All of these periods were characterized by civil unrest, heightened political activism, and even violence. But another thing they have in common is that eventually they all ended. Although they did not necessarily create a better American society, they did usher in a more subdued one. What lessons can we draw from past periods of unrest and how they ended?
1. The Civil War: The most divided period in American history ended in a bloody war. Not a good sign for things to come. Of course, at the time America was a young, fragile nation with more profound divisions. That said, the war did not actually mend the divisions between north and south. To achieve their goals, the north occupied the south and implemented reconstruction, which rather than a great transformation, was instead a great compromise. Reconstruction ended and ushered in the Jim Crowe era, which calmed the anxieties of the white south, at least for a while. For African Americans, this was a disastrous outcome and it demonstrates that period of unrest often end with a little progress and a lot of regression. Similarly, in Europe in 1848, Kings were overthrown and monarchies felled, but a year later the ancien régime was at least partly reinstated.
2. The Interwar Era is characterized by a period of deep democratic anxiety. In the United States, one of the consequences of this anxiety was the tremendous success of the Ku Klux Klan, which at its height had a membership of 5 million people across the country. Much of the unrest centered on issues of immigration and ethnic cleavages between Catholics and Protestants. When the government passed the 1924 Immigration Act, which instated quotas for immigration according to country of origin, much of the unrest died down. In this case the unrest was reactionary and the partial success of nativist groups led to a normalization of exclusionary politics. For many, this is not a desirable outcome but it is one that has the effect of calming anxieties for some populations. We can view Brexit as one example of this type of outcome, although it is too soon to judge whether it will have the same effect on British politics in the years to come.
3. The Civil Rights Movement had more complicated outcomes. The protests of the early 1960s ended in partial success with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. This achievement led to a split within the movement. The more radical element continued to struggle, sometimes violently. Part of the unrest of the period was also channeled into the anti-Vietnam protests and so the contention did not really end but rather spread to a broader audience. Eventually this troubled period produced an enormous conservative backlash, ushering “law and order” Richard Nixon into office and with him a quieter and more conservative period.
Although all of these periods led to an in immediate conservative reaction, they ultimately led to slow processes of progress for minorities. As the once the Rolling Stone’s and now Donald Trump’s campaign song says, “You can’t always get what you want,” but even a reactionary period is never fixed or complete. Once ideas are released into the public discourse they leave a mark on citizens and shape their demands and expectations. In sum, we should not expect anything good to come out of these incredibly divided times in the near term. But participation in politics in and of itself is not a bad thing, and bringing people into the political process has slow and diffuse benefits.
By Emily Holland and Hadas Aron
“You can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb on the ninth month on the final day.” Donald Trump’s visceral characterization of abortion during the most recent presidential debate elicited strong emotions from both pro-life and pro-choice supporters. Since the 1970s the American religious right has strategically mobilized political support around abortion. Evangelical leaders discovered the potential political power of abortion as salient issue after Roe v. Wade in 1973 and turned it into their central message. The issue quickly became extremely divisive, eliciting strong reactions from Christians who believe that life begins at conception and those, mostly women, who believe in a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions.
The latest phase of abortion mobilization has again been getting strong reactions across the globe. In Poland, tens of thousands of women took to the streets of Warsaw to protest against a proposed law that would entirely criminalize and penalize abortion at any stage, for any reason. The right wing populist government was forced to pull back the legislation. Poland is a highly Catholic country and already has the strictest laws on abortion in Europe. Mobilization on religious issues has a long record of success in Poland, but this last attempt was a step too far for women. A popular rallying cry at the protests called, “Save women, not a step further.”
Poland is a country that is torn between the liberal project and long-standing religious traditions promoted by populist politicians. Sound familiar? There is no comparison between Poland’s short democratic experience and America’s 240 years of peaceful transition of power, so far. But the strong reactions against the politicization of abortion are not that different. After Trump’s horrific remarks, women, young and old, felt personally attacked and offended. For younger women, many who have taken for granted the right to choose, Trump’s words diminished personal experiences and those of friends and family who had to go through difficult and often traumatic experiences. Late term abortion is a choice made for medical reasons, when the life of the fetus or the mother is in danger. It is the most difficult and personal decision leading to prolonged grief. Presenting it as frivolous or even murderous was shocking and enraging to many women familiar with the situation. For older women who remember the time before Roe v. Wade, Trump’s words were a threat to turn back the clock on all the achievements they have seen for women throughout their lives. Hillary Clinton’s response was spot on: “Well, that is not what happens in these cases and using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate.”
This issue has been a salient one in politics since 1973 for both sides. But it seems that in today’s current political climate, populists are advocating a “nasty” rollback of women’s rights. This has not gone unnoticed by women voters. The hatred toward women coming from populist leaders is not only political. It shows that when feeling threatened, hegemonic men would do and say anything to preserve the dominant role of masculinity in western societies. It is difficult in modern western society to find overt discrimination against women, which is why the tangible wage gap has become such a salient issue even though there are many others. The populist rhetoric is making inequality politically tangible for women voters and that is probably its only silver lining. In the interest of being bi-partisan, we leave you with the words of Dr. Condoleeza Rice, “Can’t wait until November 9!”
By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
Those of us currently on the academic job market while trying to finish dissertations could comfortably be classified as suffering from high levels of stress. Our day-to-day consists of writing, applying, paying Interfolio, and banging our heads against computer keyboards. For the authors of this piece, our main source of relief comes in the form of the best Pilates class in the world. Every Thursday morning we lie down and work on our cores amongst the elderly ladies of the Upper West Side. Recently, our instructor, a former Broadway dancer, said in her magnificent husky voice: “Choose your own stretch ladies, this is a democratic Pilates” to which one of our class compatriots replied: “It’s safe to be democratic here, it’s the Upper West Side!”
Given the current political climate in American politics, with Donald Trump threatening to jail Hillary Clinton for example, the notion that it is unsafe to let “the masses” decide has become more prevalent. Sadly, it is not unique to these elections and has had appeal for certain actors on several occasions in history. This elite sense of entitlement is objectionable, unproductive and even dangerous. First, no one group in society has the power to grant suffrage. Wealthy and educated urban elites are no longer suffrage gatekeepers, and when they were, US politics was certainly not better or even necessarily more liberal.
Donald Trump characterizes inner cities as “hell”, and liberal elites often imagine Middle America as rural church-goers with limited access to dental care. Both characterizations are misinformed and offensive. If liberals want to include minorities in the American story, they cannot pick and choose only those minorities they find easiest to co-opt. That is not how multiculturalism works. Instead, the process requires including those groups you find most challenging to engage with. Over the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday several rabbis expressed disgust from these presidential elections, and admitted they felt dirty by participating in the political discussion. Many congregation members nodded in agreement. The current political discourse left many feeling sullied. But while Trump alone is responsible for the dirty words and deeds, he does not have a monopoly over dirty sentiments.
The type of exclusive liberalism that has surfaced during these elections is quite common in Europe, and is failing badly. Across Europe, urban elites are increasingly losing their hold on political power to the rise of populist parties. Amidst the challenges of globalization and immigration, liberals have not yet come up with convincing solutions. Populists do not have the answers either, but at the very least they tend not to patronize those who feel most threatened by a changing world. It is impossible to fight populism with elitism.. There were moments in this campaign that Hillary Clinton managed to reach out to those beyond her base. Her supporters and media should to do the same.
Anti-democratic ideas have been tossed around with alarming prevalence during this campaign. The most recent example is of course Trump’s gross threat to lock-up his opponent if he wins the election, but there is a pervasive perception that the other side, Democrat or Republican, is fundamentally un-American, and perhaps not deserving of a voice. This discourse is dangerous and damaging to American democracy. We live in an anti-democratic time with regimes around the world curtailing once-common liberal rights. Politically correct discourse has been abandoned in favor of hate speech. Democracy needs to be protected, not by limiting rights and restricting suffrage (or even lamenting universal suffrage), but by an honest attempt to increase social ties across groups and cleavages. Even on the Upper West Side.