William & Mary speaker to discuss strengthening democracy while listening to others’ beliefs – Daily Press
The late George Tayloe Ross, a friend of the College of William & Mary who endowed the annual George Tayloe Ross Address on International Peace administered by the Reves Center for International Studies, would be pleased.
The speakers are always top experts in their fields. Just as is the current speaker, Professor Daniel Ziblatt, the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, and the new director of the Transformations Democracy research unit of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center.
Ziblatt’s book, “How Democracies Die,” co-authored with fellow Harvard professor Steven Levitsky, was a New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 15 languages. His other book, “Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy,” an account on Europe’s historical democratization, won the American Political Science Association’s 2018 Woodrow Wilson Prize.
According to a Reves Center release, the annual George Tayloe Ross Address on International Peace was established to promote peace by exploring and investigating topics of current interest that affects relations among nations, ranging from international political matters to environmental questions.
I asked Professor Ziblatt what is the message he intends to convey to his audience at W&M.
“I am to convey the message that we can’t take for granted; we have to appreciate that the same risk that has killed democracies in other places and times — places that I have studied in my own work — are present in our own democracy. I want to discuss those risks. Yet, we shouldn’t be hopeless — there are strengths in our democracy and there are very specific things we can do to strengthen and bolster our democracy.”
In an NPR-Radio interview, Ziblatt, an expert on Europe from the 19th century to the present, was asked how relevant the typical Cold War era breakdowns of democracy are compared to what we are witnessing nowadays.
During a good part of the 20th century, democracies died in a hail of gunfire, Ziblatt explained. There were military coups, leaders were imprisoned or shot. But since the end of the Cold War, the primary way in which democracies have died is at the hands of elected leaders, at the hands of governments that were freely elected, who then used democratic institutions to weaken or destroy democracy.
It doesn’t happen overnight, as military coups happen, Ziblatt noted. The electoral authoritarians who come to power democratically have democratic legitimacy. Then they gradually chip away at the democratic institutions, tilting the playing field to the advantage of the incumbent. It becomes harder and harder to dislodge the incumbent through democratic means.
He used Turkey as an example. During the last 10 years, President Erdogan has entrenched himself in power, weakened the opposition and sets himself up as “president for life.” There may continue to be elections, but the elections are tilted in favor of the incumbent.
The same thing is taking place in Russia, Hungary and Poland. Through a variety of mechanisms, the president is able to stay in power and withstand criticism, although public support may not fully be there. There is a clampdown on media and the incumbent uses various institutional mechanisms to keep himself in power, Ziblatt explained.
A chapter in the book “How Democracies Die,” called “Fateful Alliances,” describes how populist demagogues, who turn out to be authoritarians, got help along the way from mainstream political figures or political parties.
During the First and Second World Wars in Europe, the most prominent cases of Democratic collapse took place in Italy and Germany. Mussolini, the fascist leader who had limited public support, managed to be put on the party list of the liberal Italian statesman Giovanni Giolitti and gained legitimacy.
According to Ziblatt, Hitler came to power in a similar alliance with mainstream conservative politicians who made him chancellor of Germany.
“In each instance, there is a kind of Faustian bargain,” Ziblatt said. “The statesmens think that they’re going to tap into this popular appeal of the demagogue and think that they can control them. This is an incredible miscalculation. It happens over and over.”
Henry Kissinger, while serving as chancellor of W&M, had a conversation with students at the Reves Center for International Studies. He told them the rule of Nazis in Germany, how Hitler gained power, is a good example what happens when democracy is destroyed: a national catastrophe that turned into a worldwide tragedy. It affected the lives of millions of families, all over Europe.
My family was a victim.
Most people believe our adherence to the Constitution makes America immune to violent power takeovers. But events on Jan. 6, at the U.S. Capitol, demonstrated it isn’t necessarily so.
“No country is immune to democratic decay,” Ziblatt said in an interview with the Gazette. “Being a relatively wealthy and old constitutional system certainly protects us. But January 6 teaches us that when politician talk, it has consequences: If powerful leaders tell their supporters that election results aren’t to be accepted, eventually voters believe them. A democracy can’t survive if voters don’t believe election results. January 6 is the direct result of that.”
The Democracy Initiative, launched under the co-chairmanship of Steve Hanson, W&M’s vice provost for academic and international affairs, and Carrie Cooper, dean of W&M Libraries, is an attempt to be a place where people can reflect deeply on how to combine things in democracy that are often antithetical.
Hanson said, “It’s imperative for the future of our republic that we learn to advocate for the beliefs we are passionate about, while having tolerance for perspectives we disagree with.”
He continued: “At the core, this initiative is about finding a path out of polarization through conversations that aren’t about division or anger but bridging gaps.”
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.
What: Daniel Ziblatt’s lecture
When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Tucker 127A.
Info: Registration is required at https://bit.ly/wmziblatt.