Over the years, I’ve noticed a recurring pattern in the emails I receive from readers about my columns on authoritarianism, far-right populism, democratic backsliding and related topics: a very similar type of shock at the news, and a very similar type of concern about what that might mean for the future.
These messages tend to follow a rough structure: Shock at the news, but most prominently surprise because the event seems to clash with the apparent rules of political success that, as many people understood them, should have made such politicians unelectable.
And then comes concern about the future: If those rules did not apply, the readers wondered, what other outcomes might then be possible?
So, for instance, when Donald Trump won the 2016 election in the United States, many people emailed to express their shock that it was possible for a candidate to win an election after publicly referring to Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” or saying that a federal judge could not be impartial because of his Mexican American heritage, and wondered what that might mean for the future of American democracy.
And I’ve heard similar, if less frequent, sentiments from readers about the rising popularity of the far right in Europe, including confusion about how the perceived rules of the broader political system, which seemed to make such ideas taboo for decades, had or had not applied.
I’ve thought a lot about what might be behind the concerns expressed, in part out of a responsibility to the readers who wrote, and in part because I’ve at times felt similar confusion myself. So much so that I’ve learned to catch myself when “that just couldn’t happen” pops into mind, and to stop to consider what the consequences might be if it did.
There’s something important among these concerns that hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves. Namely, that a lot of what once looked like political “rules” were actually norms about the behavior of powerful people in politics, business, media and other areas. Those elites have lost the power they once had to enforce norms, or they have decided to change their own behavior. We’re only just starting to understand the consequences of that shift.
That began to crystallize for me during a conversation with Steven Levitsky, the Harvard political scientist who co-wrote the book “How Democracies Die.” When political parties, major media organizations and prominent pressure groups were strong enough to act as gatekeepers in politics, the norms of those elites were the norms of politics, he said.
“If you go back 40, 60, 80 years in any democracy, politicians seeking to get elected and sustain a political career depended so heavily on the political establishment that they had to conform to certain norms and policy parameters that the establishment imposed,” he told me.
In those days, it really was almost impossible for a politician to get elected after violating mainstream norms, because their political party could cut off access to money and media, crushing a campaign.
“That had a moderating effect,” he said. “Politicians obviously had to pursue votes and give the voters what they wanted. But always within parameters set by the establishment, certain normative lines of behavior. You know, how you talked, the policies you proposed, how you treated other politicians, how you treated the media. There were certain codes of conduct and policy parameters that could only be crossed at great cost.”
But now, charismatic politicians can reach voters directly via social media, and the political establishment has lost a lot of its ability to police those norms. So in 2016, although some Republican Party leaders condemned many of Trump’s comments, that didn’t stop him from winning the presidential nomination. In Brazil in 2018, mainstream candidates like Geraldo Alckmin had the backing of the political establishment and more access to mainstream media, but Jair Bolsonaro could spread his message via YouTube and WhatsApp.
In some ways, this is the same point that Pavithra Suryanarayan, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, made when I spoke with her a few weeks ago. Political parties’ main job is to keep extremists out of their parties, she said, but they’re failing to do so.
The consequence of that might be most noticeable when an outsider politician wins an election. But amid weakening gatekeepers, the unpredictability of politics affects mainstream candidates and policies too.
“This has always been the problem of places like India, the weakness of parties,” she told me recently. “A whole bunch of the out-of-the-norm kind of politics that happens in those places can be explained by the organizational weakness of parties. But now we have come full circle where the same sort of affliction is spreading to the West.”
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