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Review: Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman’s “Backsliding”

(Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE)

“With that said, there is considerably more to democratic regression than the simplistic idea of evil, right-wing leaders whose ideas resonate with bad people.”

If one has been relying on media outlets of the cable news variety for one’s minimum daily requirement for news, he might come to the realization that he is intellectually famished. One is also likely aware of dire proclamations regarding the “death of democracy” from journalists on the Left. Fortunately for lovers of democracy worldwide, these concerned journalists deftly identified the malevolent actors responsible for democratic regression (right-wing populist leaders), explained the causes of their actions (xenophobia), and offered the remedy (deplatforming). I wanted to learn more about the idea that democracy might be under siege but was disappointed by the simplistic explanation that right-wing populism was responsible for it. I decided to turn to Saskia Sassen, one of my former Columbia University professors for a more scholarly assessment of the subject. Her tweet recommended Backsliding, a book released this year by political science professors Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman.

Upon the book’s arrival, I quickly scanned through its contents. I knew immediately that I was going to need to keep an open mind while reading this book when I came to the section entitled “Trump’s America.” During my time as a Columbia University student, I endured many presentations and lectures in which the phrase “Trump’s America” featured prominently. In every instance, I can say with absolute authority that nothing positive about former President Donald Trump or his supporters was ever uttered. This continued, in part, here; the authors believe that President Trump’s “rhetorical attacks on the press were unprecedented in the United States, as is his practice of calling out specific networks and even individual journalists for intimidating criticism.”

However, I might argue—just the same—that a journalist from a major television network calling a major party candidate for president a fascist, as Rachel Maddow did only five months after then-candidate Trump announced his campaign, was unprecedented as well. In my view, this difference of opinion on how specific events during President Trump’s four-year tenure are portrayed undermined the authors’ credibility. As a result, I approached the individual backsliding case histories of Venezuela, Russia, and Hungary that I would encounter later in the book with more skepticism than I otherwise would have.

Haggard and Kaufman’s arguments in Backsliding are straightforward: First, political polarization and dysfunction undermine support for mainstream or centrist political candidates, and they open the door for autocratic electoral appeals. Second, elected self-styled autocrats initiate a “collapse in the separation of powers between branches of government, as the executive gains control of other branches through the appointment of loyalists and sycophants.” And third, political norms are shredded in an incremental nature, namely when it comes to the protection of basic political rights and liberties, as well as the rule of law. In the past, fascists like Benito Mussolini acquired their power via the classic coup d’état, which arose, in his case, from a gradual dismantling of democratic institutions. Today, the authors assert that backsliding is a modern form of political change, as duly elected leaders rise to power by forcing people to frame their voting choices in binary terms: the pure people vs. the corrupt elite.

Finally, when it comes to shredding democratic norms, right-wing populists are not the only ones guilty.

The thesis put forth by Haggard and Kaufman is, in my view, every bit as Manichean and binary as the worldview held by the populists they claim are eroding democracy. The antagonists in Backsliding are leaders such as Hugo Chávez, Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Recip Tayyip Erdoğan, Donald Trump, and the people who support them. The protagonists are anyone who opposes nationalism and populism. In the fictional universe in which Haggard and Kaufman appear to inhabit, certain institutions (such as the media, the FBI, the CIA, and their European equivalents) are taken at face value as paragons of virtue and, thus, are beyond reproach. The possible moral failings and covert agendas of the people that populate these institutions are not discussed at all in Backsliding. The chapters that might have depicted how many of our nation’s bedrock institutions like the press and United States law enforcement agencies play a role in backsliding are not included in the book; one can only guess that they were not helpful in building the particular narrative that Haggard and Kaufman wanted to put forward. The authors’ primary focus was centered on simply measuring the erosion of democracy as they define it, showing where it has occurred, and who has been responsible for it.

I would argue that not discussing the corruption and politicization of social institutions—and how this might result in backsliding—renders the otherwise exhaustive research insufficient. Further, what Haggard and Kaufman describe as autocrats attempting to circumvent check and balances, like President Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, can be perceived as defensive maneuvers rather than offensive ones.

To this point, as journalist Sharyl Attkisson noted in 2018 at The Hill, “…no president should keep in place the head of a crucial division who—along with some of his top staff—apparently worked to undermine or control the president, and exercised poor judgment in important matters.” As such, the situation is not as unequivocal as Haggard and Kaufman suggest, and Director Comey’s firing is one example of the many instances where the authors fall short. That said, the authors never entered the rabbit hole of true anti-Trump delirium, and President Trump’s presence in the book was no greater than that of any of the other world leaders discussed.

Haggard and Kaufman, in fairness, did a commendable job in backing up their claims with data. What sets the social scientist apart from his journalistic counterpart is his ability to use a variety of research approaches for the collection and analysis of qualitative and quantitative data. As an illustration, the authors use the  V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) of the V-Dem data set as the methodological foundation of their book. This index captures both liberal and electoral aspects of democracy and scores the strength of democratic institutions from weak to strong (0-1) by aggregating variables across multiple dimensions, such as judicial and legislative constraints on the executive, the integrity of the election process, and respect for personal liberties. Backsliding is marked by a statistically significant decline from a country’s peak score. Real-world examples of backsliding include electoral reforms in Hungary intended to ensure the maintenance of Fidesz’s oversized parliamentary majority, as well as the claim that former President Trump’s judicial appointments were the first step in a plan to undermine the rule of law. As to whether this book succeeds in answering its central premise, I am convinced that left-leaning academics and those with progressive political inclinations will believe that it has and will delight in this book’s indictment of populism and those who support it.

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On the other hand, others will not be as persuaded by the argument put forth in Backsliding that populism is inherently bad and necessarily leads to backsliding. Populism has become a catchall phrase as well as a political pejorative used by academics, journalists, and politicians looking to explain political unrest around the world or election results that they are unhappy with. In my view, however, the thing that we ought to be focusing on is not whether a certain political ideology is allegedly resulting in the erosion “of democracy” but, rather, the actual political polarization and dysfunction itself.

Men and women left in the cold by globalization amid the backdrop of rising inequality have come to realize that traditional politicians have been ignorant of their needs. They have been longing for political leaders willing at least to acknowledge—if not solve—their problems. Regardless of geographic location, people want jobs; access to quality education; secure borders; and safe communities. Finally, when it comes to shredding democratic norms, right-wing populists are not the only ones guilty. Choosing from many examples, I would argue that the Biden administration’s plan of massively importing new immigrants does not exactly fortify democracy, not to mention plans to expand the Supreme Court, and also to increase the size of the Senate by making Washington, D.C. a state to ensure two more Democratic senators.

All things considered, Backsliding is a valuable introduction to the subject of democratic regression for general readers, especially when presented in conjunction with more conservative treatments of the subject. Although I have qualms about many aspects of this book, I appreciate the quantitative rigor with which the authors backed up their claims. With that said, there is considerably more to democratic regression than the simplistic idea of evil, right-wing leaders whose ideas resonate with bad people. By overly simplifying their argument in this way—and failing to acknowledge the Left’s complicity in backsliding—the authors have done themselves (and their readers) a disservice.

Tony D. Senatore graduated from Columbia University in 2017, at the age of 55. He is also a bassist and musician and can be reached at tds2123@columbia.edu. 

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