By Daniel Ziblatt & Steve Levitsky
During the first Republican debate of the 2024 presidential primary campaign last month, Donald Trump’s rivals were asked to raise their hands if they would support his candidacy, even if he were “convicted in a court of law.” Mr. Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election wasn’t just a potential criminal offense. It also violated the cardinal rule of democracy: Politicians must accept the results of elections, win or lose.
But that seemed to matter little on the debate stage. Vivek Ramaswamy’s hand shot up first, and all the other leading candidates followed suit — some eagerly, some more hesitantly and one after casting furtive glances to his right and his left.
Behavior like this might seem relatively harmless — a small act of political cowardice aimed at avoiding the wrath of the base. But such banal acquiescence is very dangerous. Individual autocrats, even popular demagogues, are never enough to wreck a democracy. Democracy’s assassins always have accomplices among mainstream politicians in the halls of power. The greatest threat to our democracy comes not from demagogues like Mr. Trump or even from extremist followers like those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, but rather from the ordinary politicians, many of them inside the Capitol that day, who protect and enable him.
The problem facing Republican leaders today — the emergence of a popular authoritarian threat in their own ideological camp — is hardly new. It has confronted political leaders across the world for generations. In Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, mainstream center-left and center-right parties had to navigate a political world in which antidemocratic extremists on the communist left and the fascist right enjoyed mass appeal. And in much of South America in the polarized 1960s and 1970s, mainstream parties found that many of their members sympathized with either leftist guerrillas seeking armed revolution or rightist paramilitary groups pushing for military rule.
(Photo Credit: Zohar Lazar via New York Times)