Abonné·e de Mediapart

Billet publié dans



Suivi par 38 abonnés

Billet de blog 4 oct. 2022

Abonné·e de Mediapart

How America's democracy is 'ripe to be exploited'

Why are so many people now embracing demagogues? Barbara Walter, political scientist and author of “How Civil Wars Start” tells ProPublica that the vitals signs of healthy democracy are in decline around the world.

Abonné·e de Mediapart

Ce blog est personnel, la rédaction n’est pas à l’origine de ses contenus.

By Eric Umansky

Voters in Sweden gave a leading role to a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots. Italy is also on the cusp of putting a party in power that has fascist origins. And of course, in the United States, one party has increasingly embraced election denialism and attempted to undermine the legitimacy of the electoral process.

To try to understand what, exactly, is happening, I talked with Barbara Walter, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego who studies democracies across the world. Her book “How Civil Wars Start” has become a bestseller. Rather than talk about the prospects for political violence, we discussed why many democracies are retrenching and how the U.S. stands alone — and not in a good way.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Can you walk through the vital signs of democracy that you and other political scientists have been tracking and that are trending the wrong way in the U.S. and elsewhere?

So there are probably five big data sets that measure the quality of democracy and countries around the world. They all measure democracy slightly differently. But every single one of them has shown that democracies around the world are in decline. And not just the fledgling democracies, but sacrosanct liberal democracies in Sweden, the U.K. and the United States.

These indices are like vital signs, but instead of for your body, it’s for our body politic. What are the most important ones?

So, empirically, we can’t rank order them. But we know what the good things are, and if you start attacking them, you’re attacking the vital organs.

One is constraints on executive power. You want lots of checks and balances on the executive branch. Here in the United States, you want to make sure that the legislative branch is strong and independent and willing to check presidential power. You want to know that the judicial branch is the same. Another one would be rule of law. Is the rule of law actually respected? Is it uncorrupted? You don’t want a system where certain individuals are above the law. If you want to become, say, Orban 2.0, you place loyalists in the Justice Department who are beholden to you and not to the rule of law.

You also want a free and open press, so that your citizens get high-quality information and they can make good decisions. Another one is you really want a competitive political environment, so that there’s a level playing field for people who are competing for power. You could make a very uneven playing field by party. So you can restrict the vote, you can make voting more difficult.

So these are all vital: Do you have constraints on the executive? Do you have the rule of law, so that there’s accountability? Do you have a level playing field, so that there can really be popular participation?

Another warning sign you’ve talked about is when a party becomes less about policy and more about identity, a shift one can see in the Republican Party in recent years. Can you talk about it?

The Republicans have always had a challenge that they were the party of wealthy Americans and business. The problem is wealthy Americans will always be a very small minority of Americans. So for wealthy Americans, they have to convince at least some nonwealthy Americans to support their platform. How do you do that? Well, you do it with issues of identity, their sense of threat, their sense of fear, their sense of the world is changing and “I’m being left behind.” It’s very effective.

I want to get to why we see these dynamics playing out across so many countries. You cite three dynamics. One is that the dominant caste in many nations, white people, is trending toward minority status. Another is increasing wealth concentration, where rural areas are often losing out. And then there’s a new medium that has risen that is unregulated and unmediated: social media.

On No. 3, the new medium, I would state it stronger than that. It’s not that it’s unregulated per se. It’s that it’s being driven by algorithms that selectively push out the more extreme incendiary messages.

You also wrote about another concept that I hadn’t heard before: ethnic entrepreneurs. These are politicians like, say, Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian strongman, who recognize an opportunity in appealing to the fears of a particular group.

Yep. He was not a nationalist. He was a straight up Communist. And again, that gets back to the difference between a political party based on ideology and one based on ethnicity. He became the leader of the Serb party.

So he saw which way the wind was blowing and he put up a sail. And that’s what an ethnic entrepreneur does?

Yes, but it can also be more strategic than that. Milosevic really had a problem in that communism was over. And if he wanted to stay in power, he was going to have to compete in elections. How is he going to get elected? And then he’s like, “Oh, like the largest ethnic group, and in this country are Serbs. I’m Serb!” If I can convince the Serbs during this time of change and insecurity and uncertainty when everyone’s a little bit on edge that unless they support a Serb, the Croats are gonna kill them, then then I can catapult myself to power. That’s classic ethnic entrepreneurship.

I want to ask you a last question I’ve been thinking about a lot myself. Like a number of news organizations, we’ve created a team devoted to covering threats to democracy. But after I read your book, I stopped referring to it as that because it occurred to me that the term threats to democracy reinforces a story that we Americans tell ourselves: that we already have a true democracy, the best darn one in the world, and we just need to protect it.

Our American democracy, even when we were happy with it and thought it was doing really well, it already had a whole series of undemocratic natures that no other healthy liberal democracy has.

Our electoral college, nobody has that. That was a compromise to rural states. We have the fact that our elections are run by partisan agents. No other healthy liberal democracy has that. Canada, this enormous country, has an independent electoral commission that runs all of the elections. Every ballot is the same no matter if you vote in Prince Edward Island or the Yukon. Or that we allow so much money to be injected into our system. Nobody else has this.

So we have not only these undemocratic features but a whole number of vulnerabilities that if you really did want to somehow cement in minority rule, you could do this legally. So in many ways we have a terrible system that’s ripe to be exploited.


Eric Umansky

Eric Umansky is a deputy managing editor of ProPublica.

  • ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive ProPublica's biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

Ce blog est personnel, la rédaction n’est pas à l’origine de ses contenus.

Bienvenue dans le Club de Mediapart

Tout·e abonné·e à Mediapart dispose d’un blog et peut exercer sa liberté d’expression dans le respect de notre charte de participation.

Les textes ne sont ni validés, ni modérés en amont de leur publication.

Voir notre charte

À la Une de Mediapart

Journal — France
À Saint-Étienne, le maire et le poison de la calomnie
Dans une enquête que Gaël Perdriau a tenté de faire censurer, Mediapart révèle que le maire de Saint-Étienne a lancé une rumeur criminelle, dont il reconnaît aujourd’hui qu’il s’agit d’une pure calomnie, contre le président de région Laurent Wauquiez. À l’hôtel de ville, des anciens collaborateurs décrivent un quotidien empoisonné par la rumeur, utilisée comme un instrument politique.
par Antton Rouget
Journal — France
L’encombrant compagnon de la ministre Pannier-Runacher
Des membres du ministère d’Agnès Pannier-Runacher sont à bout : son compagnon, Nicolas Bays, sans titre ni fonction, ne cesse d’intervenir pour donner des ordres ou mettre la pression. En outre, plusieurs collaborateurs ont confié à Mediapart avoir été victimes de gestes déplacés de sa part il y a plusieurs années à l’Assemblée nationale. Ce que l’intéressé conteste.
par Lénaïg Bredoux, Antton Rouget et Ellen Salvi
À Bruxelles, la France protège la finance contre le devoir de vigilance
Dans une note confidentielle, la France supprime toute référence au secteur financier dans la définition de la « chaîne d’activités » couverte par le devoir de vigilance dans la directive européenne en préparation. Bercy dément vouloir exonérer les banques. Les États se réunissent jeudi 1er décembre à ce sujet. 
par Jade Lindgaard
Morts aux urgences, pédiatrie sous l’eau, grève des libéraux : la santé au stade critique
Covid, grippe, bronchiolite : l’hôpital public vacillant affronte trois épidémies. En pédiatrie, dix mille soignants interpellent le président de la République. Côté adultes, les urgentistes ont décidé de compter leurs morts sur les brancards. Et au même moment, les médecins libéraux lancent une grève et promettent 80 % de cabinets fermés.
par Caroline Coq-Chodorge

La sélection du Club

Billet de blog
Le cochon n'est pas un animal
Pour nos parlementaires, un cochon séquestré sur caillebotis dans un hangar n'est pas un animal digne d'être protégé. C'est pourquoi ils proposent une loi contre la maltraitance animale qui oublie la grande majorité des animaux (sur)vivant sur notre territoire dans des conditions indignes. Ces élus, issus des plus beaux élevages politiciens, auraient-ils peur de tomber dans l'« agribashing » ?
Billet de blog
Abattage des animaux à la ferme. Nous demandons un réel soutien de l’Etat
Solidarité avec Quand l’Abattoir Vient A la Ferme : Depuis 2019, la loi autorise les éleveurs, à titre expérimental, à abattre leurs animaux à la ferme. Ils n’ont toutefois bénéficié d’aucuns moyens dédiés et doivent tout à la fois assurer les études technique, financière, économique, sanitaire. Respecter les animaux de ferme est une exigence collective. Nous demandons un réel soutien de l’État.
par Gaignard Lise
Billet de blog
Noémie Calais, éleveuse : ne pas trahir l’animal
Noémie Calais et Clément Osé publient « Plutôt nourrir » qui aborde sans tabou et avec clarté tous les aspects de l’élevage paysan, y compris la bientraitance et la mort de l’animal. Entretien exclusif avec Noémie.
Billet de blog
Canicule : transformer nos modes d’élevage pour un plus grand respect des animaux
L’association Welfarm a mené cet été la campagne « Chaud Dedans ! » pour alerter sur les risques que font peser les vagues de chaleur sur la santé et le bien-être des animaux d’élevage. Après des enquêtes sur le terrain, des échanges avec les professionnels de l’élevage, des discussions avec le gouvernement, des députés et des eurodéputés, Welfarm tire le bilan de cet été caniculaire.
par Welfarm