The 20th century has shown us that there are many reasons for democracies to experience backsliding. Many of the reasons for backsliding are preventable, yet they still happen. The results of democratic backsliding range from a stronger democracy to authoritarianism. How do we get to the point of authoritarianism from a stable democracy, and what steps are common for nations experiencing democratic backsliding to encounter?
Democratic erosion is a common phenomenon observed in democracies around the world. The idea of democratic erosion and democratic backsliding is not something new. Time has shown that the ways democracies erode has changed, as it is more common now to see democracies slowly fall apart rather than one big eruption that concludes a democracy. But what is the reasoning for this corrosion? What are some common factors between nations now and in the past, which have first-hand experienced backsliding within their democracy? The two elements, changing democratic laws and lack of mutual toleration, will help to explain the reasons democracies succumb to backsliding.
Another common phenomenon among examples of democratic backsliding is when political leaders begin to move the political needle by changing things such as electoral laws. Examples of this would be when countries move the goalposts of politics and change the judicial and legislative laws around electoral practices. In other words, they alter constitutional laws so that opposing leaders cannot gain the power that they might rightfully win or not allow for them to win at all costs. Leaders will change voter laws, reorganize courts to their advantage, and limit freedom of the press.
One significant example of anti-democratic leaders meddling with national policies is in Venezuela. Venezuela had been a powerful economic nation in Latin America, but after Nicolas Maduro won the presidential elections in 2013, the nation’s democracy took a turn for the worst. Maduro’s victory was a change in pace for a country with substantial economic resources, such as its abundance of oil. Maduro quickly began moving, changing rules, making it tremendously difficult for the opposition to come into power. The Washington Post states, “The lame-duck national assembly eliminated congressional oversight over the central bank, replaced 12 Supreme Court justices to prevent the opposition-controlled congress from filling vacancies, and approved a government spending package.” These changes have made it so Nicolas Maduro retains as much power as he wants and can fight the opposing political parties’ wants through so-called “legal reasoning.”
The Venezuela example shows how certain leaders can use anti-democratic changes to their advantage and turn a democracy into something that it’s not very quickly. Maduro has shifted what is necessary to make policy changes by taking the laws embedded in the Venezuelan democracy and changing them for his own good.
Democratic erosion frequently occurs when a nation loses its ability to see its political adversaries as respectable and valuable for healthy competition (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). This is known as a lack of mutual toleration and forbearance (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). Mutual toleration is the idea that one political party will see another and its constituents as formidable, reasonable, and most of all human beings living in the same nation. When people forget that their political opponents are also trying to make their country great, we see an attack on the democracy designed to assist all people in a nation.
As defined in The Guardrails of Democracy, mutual toleration is “the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern” (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). This idea of mutual toleration allows for opposing sides with different opinions to understand that their opposition has the same right to govern their nation as they do. Without this understanding, political opponents become more than just political opponents but mortal enemies. Individuals arguing over what is best for a specific nation should not be mortal enemies because they both have the same end goal in mind, which is what’s in the best interest of a nation.
One example of a lack of mutual toleration leading to democratic erosion is Spain during the early 1930s. This was when the nation was undergoing democratic changes and needed the left-leaning and right-leaning sides to tolerate one another. This was not the case as the two sides fought for years and did not see one another as legitimate parties able to govern over Spain. When the right-wing CEDA won the 1933 elections, the nation burst open with anger, and a revolution ensued (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018).
This example shows that when two sides do not see the other as a legitimate way for democracy to be practiced, there is likely failure in democracy looming. The example of Spain is one where individuals were jailed and killed for simply having opposing political beliefs. Even though this revolution saw an eventual positive outcome with a strong democracy in the country, it is not always the case with a lack of mutual toleration. The Guardrails of Democracy says that not agreeing with opposition views is one thing, but once those views become intolerable to another side, problems start to arise.
There are often common themes in democracies experiencing backsliding. Anti-democratic leaders changing laws and lack of mutual toleration are two that frequently occur across history. These two common phenomena are exemplified with Venezuela and the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s. Each nation showed that a well-off democracy could slowly fade and give rise to hunger, unemployment, and violence. Changing laws and lack of mutual toleration are some of the most common reasons democracies crumble.