Steven Levitsky, Harvard professor: “The American democracy is hard to kill, but there are worrying signs”

Steven Levitsky, Harvard professor: “The American democracy is hard to kill, but there are worrying signs”


Trump has been harshly criticized in his country after his meeting with Putin.

It has been said a thousand times that the president of the United States, Donald Trump, is “populist”. But is it possible to compare it with leaders who were qualified in the same way in Latin America?

Steven Levitsky, a government professor at Harvard University, sees similarities between Trump and the ex presidents Hugo Chávez (Venezuela), Alberto Fujimori (Peru) or Juan Perón (Argentina).

To begin with, they all developed a personalist style that mobilized ordinary people against the ruling elite, says Levitsky, who has researched the problems of Latin American democracies.

But he warns that there is a crucial difference in the bases of support.

Donald Trump
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Image caption Donald Trump came to power in the US presenting itself as an option against the country’s political elite.

“In Latin America the populists appeal basically to all the poor, Trump can not do that and appeals to the common white people,” he explains in an interview with BBC Mundo.

According to Levitsky, this puts a “ceiling” on Trump’s electoral growth, which will never reach the levels of support that Latin American leaders had.

What follows is a synthesis of the telephone dialogue with this expert who is coauthor with Daniel Ziblatt of the book How Democracies Die (“How die democracies”) published this year:

What reflection do you make of this week’s controversy over the Trump press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, where he raised doubts about the US intelligence reports? who claim that Moscow intervened in the 2016 elections?

There was a stronger reaction than normal. The normal thing in the last months has been that Trump does something scandalous, the democrats and more independent means denounce it and the republicans support it. In this case he crossed an important line and his behavior in Finland was harshly criticized by many Republicans. That’s why he tried to reverse.

Trump and Putin
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Image caption Trump “crossed an important line” in his conference with Putin and tried to step back, says Levitsky.

But even if Trump has done something described as treason by the former director of the CIA, which is not a leftist, the Republican Party remains more or less allied with Trump. It is worrying. The key is the Republican Party: it showed some signs of distancing itself from Trump, but most likely tomorrow he will continue to support the president. That suggests that we are in a high risk area.

Do you think that the democracy of the United States is at risk?

American democracy is solid, it is hard to kill. It is old, with a very strong civil society and a rule of law, very strong institutions. It is not Venezuela, it is not Poland. Democracy is not about to die.

Many Americans, and I include myself, for many years we took for granted the democracy of the United States. We thought that politicians could do anything and it would be impossible for them to do serious damage to democracy.

Ziblatt and I believe that it is time to recognize that he is not invulnerable. That there are worrying signs. We have to take seriously the protection of democracy.

Is Trump the problem?

The problem is the polarization that gave birth to the Trump presidency, whose effect is that 40% of the population is willing to accept attacks against the media, lies, completely undemocratic behaviors. That has deeper causes than Trump.

Democracy (of the United States) is not about to die, but there are worrying signs that if we do not start taking them seriously they can end badly.

As which?

First, that for the first time in more than a century we elected a president who has no experience in government and has shown no knowledge or commitment to the basic rules of the Constitution. We chose a demagogue who has demonstrated antidemocratic tendencies for a long time.

Another signal is the polarization level. There are surveys that show that a growing percentage of the population, especially Republicans, are willing to support or tolerate measures such as laws that allow the government to punish media that publish false information. A large percentage of the electorate, especially Republicans, believe that there is fraud in the elections.

Confrontation between demonstrators in favor and against Trump in 2017.
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Image caption Levitsky points to political polarization as a serious problem for US democracy.

But for there to be such a strong polarization, there is also no responsibility of the opposition, in this case the Democratic Party?

According to our analysis, the origins come from the Republican Party from the 1990s. And if you look, for example, at the behavior of the Republican Party Congress, the turn towards extremes has been much stronger.

Another worrisome sign is the violation of basic norms of democracy that we have seen in recent years. It is true that the Democrats are now considering responses that also violate the rules. There is a discussion in the Democratic Party about what would happen if they win the majority in the Senate, if they would do the same with Trump and block any effort to fill a vacancy in the Supreme Court, as the Republicans did with Obama. That would be a step towards an escalation.

(Trump) is very personalist and his speech mobilizes (…) ordinary people against the elite, the establishment. That’s what Fujimori, Perón, Chávez have done … “

Steven Levitsky

There has been a lot of talk about Trump’s “populism”. Is it comparable to some kind of Latin American populism?

Yes, I would call it populist. He is very personalist and his speech mobilizes the common people in a very extra-institutional way against the elite, the establishment. Trump has done that and Fujimori, Perón, Chávez and others have done it.

The populists usually generate constitutional crises, enter into conflict with the other powers of the State: the Judicial Power and the Congress, as we saw in almost all cases of successful populists in Latin America. We have seen signs of that in the United States, the difference being that institutions are much stronger.

But Trump is different from most Latin American populists in one sense: its basis is different. There is a racial element and a more exclusive element in Trumpism compared to Chavism or Peronism.

Followers of Trump in an act in 2017.
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Image caption Trump’s electoral base. composed largely of white voters, it is pointed out by Levistky as a difference from Latin American populisms.

In Latin America the populists appeal basically to all the poor. Trump can not do that and appeals to white common people. It is much less inclusive than the populism of Evo Morales or Chávez. That’s why it has its roof: it’s super difficult for Trump to reach 50% of the electorate. It can never reach the 80% or 70% that arrived Fujimori, Evo Morales or Chávez. It is much more limited in that sense.

Is there any particular lesson that the US can I take from what happened with populisms in Latin America?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a long time and I really do not know. Defending against populisms is very difficult. Above all, the key is to avoid being chosen the first time.

Populism almost always arises from a large gap between the elite and the masses, when a part of the electorate feels that the political class has stopped representing it and is ignoring the demands of the people. That has happened in the United States in the case of immigration and free trade, globalization.

And what can Latin America learn from what is happening in the US? now?

The United States usually thinks that it is selling positive models of democracy to Latin America. Now you can give some lessons or negative models: things that should not be done.

You should not choose outsiders , people who have no experience in politics and come from outside the parties. The United States has shown the costs of choosing outsiders.

   It is also demonstrating the costs of polarization. The Chileans learned this in the 70s, Brazilians in the 1960s, Venezuelans in the 40s and certainly in the 2000s. But the United States is showing the world that presidential democracy can not work well in high context. party polarization and the democrats of Latin America should pay attention to this so as not to repeat the same mistakes that we Americans are making.

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