The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why liberal democracy only dies when conservatives help

(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Liberal democracy is not dead, but it's not well. From Hungary to Poland to even the United States, far-right populists have won power, and, in a few cases, are busy consolidating it.

In some sense, it shouldn't be too surprising that the worst economic crisis since the 1930s has led to the worst political crisis within liberal democracies since the 1930s. At the same time, though, it's not as if right-wing nationalists are winning everywhere. Just in the last six months, they've come up short in Austria, the Netherlands and now France. So why is it that these abundant raw materials for a far right — stagnant incomes and increased immigration — haven't always turned into a far right that wins elections?

I talked to Harvard's Daniel Ziblatt, whose new book “Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy" traces the history of how the center-right often determines whether democracy lives or dies, about what's behind our populist moment and just how close a parallel we're running to some of history's darkest episodes. His answer: It depends. In countries where the center-right is willing to quarantine the far-right, undemocratic forces should be politically neutralized. But when the center-right gives in to the temptation to try to use the far-right because it thinks that's the only way it can win, then their Faustian bargain can end up like they all do: not as they expected. Mainstream conservatives might find out that they, and not the radicals, were the ones being manipulated. That they weren't appeasing the far-right, but empowering it.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I wanted to start out by talking about why it is that conservative parties seem to matter so much more for either saving or killing democracy. What's going on here?

Historically, at least, the real threat to democracy has come from the groups that conservative parties represent. They were the opponents of democracy, the potential saboteurs who were trying to block it before it was adopted and then undermine it afterwards. So how you get these guys to buy in is critical. Back in the 1800s, we're talking about landed elites and aristocrats and so on. Those who have the most to lose and the most resources at their disposal, these are the ones we have to pay attention to.

Is it any different today? When you look at the populist wave across the world, what do you think is behind it?

Well, there are forces pushing for it, which have to do with slowed economic growth, globalization, and immigration, but, if you look cross-nationally, there is variation in how successful populists are. So what determines that variation are the features of the political system.

To me, the thing that really plays a major role is the structure of and the strategies of the center-right. In particular, whether they distance themselves from, or ally with the far-right. But there's a third answer: they can try to come up with better arguments. That's the hardest path. That's the liberal democratic path. To come up with better arguments and better solutions to win the political debate. When the center-right can do that, it limits the potential for the far-right in the first place.

That sounds like a pretty good description of what happened in France's presidential election last week.

It does. I think there are two big points there. The first is this. When the center-left fell apart in France, you got Emmanuel Macron. But when the center-right fell apart, you got Marine Le Pen. So there seems to be this asymmetry, because, whatever you think of Macron, he's not a major threat to democracy.

The second point is the role of the center-right candidate Fillon in stopping the far-right Le Pen. Fillon got knocked out in the first round of voting, but kind of crossed the ideological aisle to endorse Macron in the second round. And if you look at the polls of how people voted, a significant portion of his party did in fact support Macron. It may have made the difference in the election.

The ability of the center-right to distance itself from the far-right was critical. We see that happening in France. We see that happening in Austria as well, where some Catholic Party members supported the Green Party in the presidential election. But we don't see that in the U.S., in the sense that a lot of Republicans who don't like Trump nonetheless supported him. Looking back historically, the center-right in Britain, I would argue, sometimes played with real extremists like Ulster nationalists, yet, at the end of the day, still tried to distance themselves from them. The German Conservatives, on the other hand, tried to use these far-right actors, but didn't distance themselves from them as part of this myth that they could contain them.

That's a perfect segue to what I wanted to talk about next. There are a couple moments in the book that jumped out at me, where obviously there's some recency bias kicking in, but it sounded to me like you were describing Trump and the Republican Party. Am I reading too much into that?

I think you're referring to the descriptions of the Weimar Republic. This is the curious thing about writing this book. I've been working on it for 8 years, long before Trump was anything but a guy on a TV show that I didn't really pay much attention to, and it was really a book about a historical period. I thought I had identified this more general problem, because I'm a political scientist, and this more general problem seemed to be reoccurring throughout the world in different times. That was the relationship of the moderate center-right that plays a small-D democratic game, and the extremist elements on the far-right that do not. So as events in the U.S. unfolded the last two years, I felt like this was an illustration of that general dynamic. It's not something that's unique to the U.S., it's not unique to Trump, it's not unique to the Republican Party, this is a more general pattern.

What are the big parts of that pattern?

I have this idea that conservative parties, originally as well as today, often have this dilemma: they rely on an activist base that tends to be more extreme than the party leaders themselves. The question, then, is who has the upper hand in that relationship. If you have a strong conservative party, one that has what I call organizational firewalls that can mobilize voters and mobilize activists while allowing the leaders to keep control of the party, then democracy can be stable. But if you have a party that is weakly organized, and in some ways porous almost like a holding company of different groups and interests, where the leadership doesn't have a monopoly on financing and selection of candidates, then it's much more prone to radicalism.

That's really the parallel. The political parties I looked at were the contrasting cases of Britain and Germany. And if there's one thing to take away here, it's this: I think political parties are a great invention we sometimes don't fully appreciate. Now, in Britain, the Conservatives historically had a well-institutionalized party with party professionals. It's really a coherent organization that has members and activists. At election time, the party leaders are able to turn these guys out to vote, but then after election time, they would calm back down and play the democratic game. The party leaders, in other words, were steering the ship.

The German Conservative Party, on the other hand, is one that for a variety of reasons was weak and fragmentary and the party leaders never really had control over the activists. Eventually there was a rebellion of the activists, and they took over the party. And it's that relationship between the grassroots and the leadership within conservative parties that ends up having reverberations for the whole political system.

That makes me wonder about effect the internet has had on politics. We tend to think it's a good thing that it's easier for activists to exert influence on parties, in terms of raising money and pressuring candidates. But is there a downside as well? Has this increase in democracy made democracy less stable?

I think that's right. I think of what I'm describing, if we're giving it a label, as the conservative dilemma. This is something that's latent, or is present and becomes more activated in certain places, and I think one of the things that has exacerbated this for the Republican Party are things like the transformation of media. What this does is it diminishes the party's control over its own message.

A provocative point that I think comes out of this is that in order to have a stable national democracy, maybe political parties have to be organized in somewhat undemocratic ways. If you think of the Democratic Party with the superdelegates, this is a way of keeping pretty moderate forces in control. It's a double-edged sword, because it keeps maybe some real grassroots reformers out, but it also keeps extremists out. The larger point, though, is that social media does democratize the party, but there is a cost to that. The gatekeeping function of the party is diminished.

What about the rise of cable news—especially the influence Fox News seems to exert on the Republican Party? There were a lot of uncomfortable parallels for me between that and the story you tell about Germany's big media mogul of the 1920s, Alfred Hugenberg, taking their Conservative Party over and pushing it far to the right.

Absolutely. We tend to think that the media technological revolutions we're living through now are the first ones ever, but similar kinds of revolutions took place in the past. And the guys who were at the forefront of those could deploy them for political purposes. So in Weimar Germany, the equivalent kind of media revolution was the emergence of the news wire. That let Hugenberg create a common message across a bunch of newspapers throughout the country, and integrate this right-wing radical message into one. He owned these, and then also took over the party.

The Republican media-industrial complex is a similar thing. I think it's an indicator of the degree to which the party is weak, that you have these outside forces shaping the message of the party and putting real pressure on it. And, again, I can imagine people saying, “Oh, that's so elitist to say that the party should have control over the message,” and I think in some sense that maybe it is. But I'm just trying to point out that there's a cost to this fragmentation.

What about the other big piece of this puzzle: campaign finance?

Well, as the party has lost its monopoly over money, this means that other groups can shape the agenda in a way. Parties are coalitions, and they hold together diverse groups, but once you lose control over the money, then the groups can assert their own interests much more narrowly. That can generate this populist style of politics.

Another thing that stood out to me was when you talked about how Britain's Conservatives almost triggered a democratic breakdown in the early 1900s. Part of that was over Irish Home Rule, but to me the more interesting part was their reaction to the introduction of the welfare state. They thought this had changed everything, and that they wouldn't be able to win on their own terms ever again.

It made me think of the GOP's response to the 2012 election—in particular, to Obamacare and the Obama coalition. They thought that Obamacare had changed the social contract in a way that they couldn't live with, and that the Obama coalition was proof that there was this younger, nonwhite group of people that, if they wanted to reach out to, then they'd have to change their positions—but they didn't want to change their positions.

So they kind of saw this as their last chance. You could see that in the way they were talking about “makers” and “takers,” and about the "47 percent” who were supposedly bringing us to a tipping point where the poorer majority would be able to vote for whatever they wanted from the richer minority. And so in the last couple of years, at the state level, Republicans tried passing a lot of voter ID laws and other ways to restrict the franchise. Instead of persuading people, they're trying to keep their opponents from voting in the first place. Am I overreacting?

No, I think that's right. I see that parallel too. The second part of the conservative dilemma is that if they represent at their base the well-off in society, then how do they win democratic elections? Because the high end of the income distribution aren't the majority of the population. That, in some ways, is the heart of all this: how do you participate in democratic politics when the people who are your core constituency aren't the majority?

Conservatives throughout history have had different ways of responding to that reoccurring dilemma. One way is, if you don't think you can compete, then you come up with ways of evading fair competition by essentially cheating or changing the rules. There's a clear distinction between those types of strategies, which are highly undemocratic, to ways that can actually facilitate democracy. That's finding issues to compete on. You may or may not like the stances they take on particular issues, they may even be racist or nationalistic or defending cultural values that you don't like, but at least they're playing the democratic game.

The British Conservative Party faced the same challenge in the first part of the 20th century of perceiving themselves on the losing end of history. One of their leaders Lord Salisbury called this the catastrophic theory of politics: you assume that everything is going terribly, history is moving against you, and you're fighting this rearguard action. What ended up happening, though, is because they had effective politicians and an effective political party, they searched around for issues, forged coalitions, and came up with ways of competing. But it's worth emphasizing that in order for that to happen, they needed an effective organization. You had to have people in charge of the party who were highly qualified politicians, and who knew which issues worked. In some way, the modern equivalent would be having pollsters and the “ground game” to not only tap into but also mobilize the voting blocs you're trying to reach.

The modern-day Republican Party certainly is doing well electorally, but, in some ways, we're beginning to witness an undemocratic game beginning to unfold. We're at the tail end of this process. And I don't know if it can be restored. The party has already moved to the far-right, so then the question is how do you put the conservative party back on track? In the cases that I've studied, once that happens, it's hard to do that.

I kind of see two contradictory parts to this. On the one hand, Republicans have been extremely successful on the sub-presidential level the last six years. But, on the other hand, you can understand their sense of despair despite that. It wasn't just economic issues that were moving against them, but also the cultural ones. Gay marriage had gone from being something they'd used to mobilize their base in 2004 to something they had the short end of the electoral stick of by 2012. I think there really was this apocalyptic sense among some of them that society had changed in ways they didn't understand, and what are our issues going to be?

For the last six years, that's just been running against Obamacare. But we might find out that only worked until they won. They don't really know what to do about it now that they have a chance to actually do something. It was the same sort of thing during the 2016 primaries. With Trump, it was more affect than anything else. It was about sticking it to everybody else and every other country. It's hard to see what the issues are there.

Here's the thing. I say that weak conservative parties are a threat to democracy, so somebody might say “well, the Republican Party is very strong right now, in what sense are they weak?” But I think we're witnessing the product of what happens when you have an increasingly desperate conservative party. It's a mistake to read strength off of electoral success. To me, a strong party is one that is organizationally strong, that isn't just a holding company for disparate interest groups, and that can win elections on issues, not on affect and populist leaders.

We're seeing the tail end of this process. I think the Tea Party, the big-money interest groups, organizations like ALEC at the state level, have all essentially hollowed out the Republican Party. The party is, metaphorically-speaking, a rotten house with a rotten door, even though they're winning elections.

You said that it's hard for conservative parties to get back on track. What would Republicans need to do to get back there?

I can tell you where they need to be. I don't know how to get there, though. The party needs to regain controls of its own money. It needs to be hierarchical instead of relying on outside sources of money. But that's a function of campaign finance laws. In some ways, I think that opening up the money has possibly led to the radicalization of the Republican Party. Look at their presidential primaries. Over the years, you've gotten increasingly strange collections of people who, as outsiders, have little chance of winning the nomination, but because they're financed by their own personal billionaire can keep going. In that sense, the party has lost control of the nomination process. This also has to do with media, but it's harder to do something about that.

To go back to the British Conservatives, the reason they did so well in the late 19th century is that guys like Lord Salisbury who were not particularly interested in democratic politics were able to hire people who could play the democratic game. These advisers were proto-political scientists running demographic studies and figuring out the details of election appeals, but, most of all, they were working for the party. These were not independent guys running their own companies. When the party has control over this, it can be more democratic. But maybe that's something that has disappeared into the past, and is no longer there.

The only time I've seen this restored is after great devastation, for example, the German Conservatives getting their act together after World War II. Presumably we don't want to have to go through something like that.

That's very uplifting!

Let me leave you with something slightly more optimistic. Politics and economics go through cycles. There are always moments of crisis, and all we can hope for is to get through it without destroying the political system. After that, we can try to figure out more robust institutions for the next time around. But there's no permanent solution that will solve this once and for all.

The alternative is to think that we're on this trajectory where the world is fundamentally different than it was in the past, and unless we come up with a way of solving the problems we face now, we're doomed. But actually the problems are not so different from previous eras. There's always a segment of the population that's very sympathetic to nondemocratic political parties, and when the economy's worse, that portion of the population grows. We've gotten through these crises before, and we can again.