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Democracy Off the Rails

North Carolina achieved a dubious honor earlier this year. Two Harvard professors named the state an example of what America in the post-Trump era may look like — a place of politics without guardrails.

In a book titled “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine how democracies unravel and point out that in the 21st century they rarely end in swift bloody coups. More often they die slowly at the hands of autocratic elected leaders determined to retain power.

Two norms have undergirded American democracy and helped it avoid the partisan fight to the death that has destroyed democracies elsewhere in the world, they write. Those norms are toleration (competing parties accepting one another as legitimate rivals) and restraint (the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives). These have served as the soft guardrails of American democracy. But today, Levitsky and Ziblatt say, those guardrails are weakening.

“American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press and threaten to reject the results of elections,” they write. “They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as ‘Laboratories of democracy,’ are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose.” Though lawmakers in other states are guilty too, North Carolina’s legislature, in their view, represents the best example of this.

North Carolina Republican lawmakers have tried to intimidate and undermine state courts, take control of the elections board, gerrymander districts for the express purpose of electing as many Republicans as possible and diminish the power of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Their efforts represent exactly the kind of behavior that Levitsky and Ziblatt write about, the autocratic impulse to sacrifice democracy in order to hold on to power.

The North Carolina Republican in charge of drawing new district maps, Rep. David Lewis, justified the Congressional maps that were rejected by a three-judge federal panel in January by saying, “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

In a democracy, it is not Rep. Lewis’ prerogative to decide what is better for the citizens of North Carolina. That would be the voters’ prerogative.

Lewis freely admitted that he ordered the districts drawn to elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats because he did not believe they could be drawn in such a way to elect 11 Republicans and two Democrats — this in a state where 38.9 percent of voters are registered Democrats, 30.3 percent are registered unaffiliated, and 30.3 percent are registered Republican.

Lewis’ comment suggests a lawmaker who does not see Democrats as legitimate rivals, but as enemies that must be defeated even if that means gaming the system.

GOP lawmakers’ efforts to undermine state courts are perhaps even more treacherous. Already, they have made non-partisan judicial elections partisan and reduced the size of the Court of Appeals from 15 to 12, depriving Gov. Cooper of the opportunity to replace three retiring members. A new raft of bills aimed at intimidating judges includes one that would reduce all judicial terms to two years and one to redraw district and superior court judicial districts in a way that, according to analyses by NC Policy Watch and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, would disproportionately harm voters of color and Democrats.

As Americans, we believe that our democracy is different from those in Venezuela, Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine — countries written about by Levitsky and Ziblatt, where elected leaders subverted democratic institutions. But we see the kind of tactics those autocratic leaders used on display here as courts and other institutions that function as checks and balances are intimidated or undermined.

Though Democrats also have tested the guardrails, Levitsky and Ziblatt say the current win-at-all-costs era began with the hardball tactics of Georgia Republican Newt Gingrich who schooled fellow Republicans that they were fighting a war for power and used over-the-top rhetoric calling his opponents “corrupt,” “sick,” “anti-American” and “anti-family.” It also is true that rapidly changing technology, demographics and economic trends have contributed to the two underlying forces that Levitsky and Ziblatt believe are driving American polarization: racial and religious realignment and growing economic inequality.

Autocrats can exploit these forces to their advantage in their quest to become ever more powerful. If we, as citizens, hope to preserve our freedoms and our say over who holds power in our state and country, we can’t sit on the sidelines. Finding solutions to the challenges we face won’t be easy, but we should be wary of deploying the tactics that have brought us to this place.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt point out, hardball practices like refusing to consider the nomination of a qualified Supreme Court candidate as the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate did when President Obama nominated Merrick Garland, foster tit-for-tat behavior that leads to dysfunction and stalemate.

Democracy is about compromise. But in our polarized atmosphere, we seem to have forgotten that.

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