Faculty Voices

Episode 2: How Democracies Live with Steve Levitsky

Episode Summary

This Fall has been a busy season for democracy, from elections in Bolivia (and the United States) to a resounding vote for a new Chilean constitution. Steve Levitsky, director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and co-author of How Democracies Die, puts it all in context in this podcast.

Episode Transcription

June:

Steve Levitsky is the director of the David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies, and a professor of government at Harvard University. He is also the co-author of the book, How Democracies Die. Welcome, Steve!

Steve Levitsky:

Thanks for having me.

June:

There's been a lot going on with democracy in the last two weeks. Here in the United States, we're still waiting to see who's our next President. In Chile, voters took to the polls to support the writing of a new constitution. In Bolivia, voters elected a candidate from the socialist MAS party. That's a lot to take in.

June:

So let's start with Chile. A new constitution sounds kind of obscure. Why is that important?

Steve Levitsky:

Well, in new constitutions or not, it sounds obscure in the United States because we don't change constitutions very frequently. But across the rest of the world, constitutional change is not a once every two to three centuries phenomenon. It's much more likely to be a once every two or three decades phenomenon.

Steve Levitsky:

So Chile, whose constitution is now a little more than 40 years old, that's actually older than your average constitution among the world's democracies. And it's much older than your average Latin American constitution. So this isn't a crazy event occurring in Chile. And an issue ... and this gets back to the United States as well, because constitutional durability, keeping a constitution around for a while, has a number of benefits. Very strong, deeply rooted institutions generate a number of important benefits. But societies change, the world changes, and there are times when strong constitutions get societies in trouble. They're no longer a good fit for the way that either politics works, or the way society works. And they, as a result, run into a legitimacy crisis.

Steve Levitsky:

And that is clearly going on in Chile. It might be going on in the United States, and we can talk about lessons of Chile for the United States. But in Chile, what you have is a constitution that was born under dictatorship. It was written and unilaterally posed by a military dictatorship that is pretty extreme in terms of the kinds of social and economic policies that it permits or excludes. And which was born with a legitimacy deficit, right? A group chunk of Chileans never quite bought into the legitimacy of a constitution written by a military dictator.

Steve Levitsky:

Now, for the first three decades of Chile's modern democracy ... no, I should say the first two decades. The constitution was accepted in part because Chileans were very worried about destabilizing their new democracy. It was accepted in part because the economy was going well and there was a lot of progress, and Chile was considered, even by most Chileans, to be very successful. But for a variety of reasons, in part just generational change, this constitution born under a dictatorship has lost legitimacy. And that was super, super clear in the protests of last year, and it was super clear in the overwhelming vote in favor of constitutional change.

Steve Levitsky:

So, when constitutions lose the basic legitimacy of the vast majority of citizens, they probably need to be reformed. And I think that's clearly the case in Chile.

June:

You talk about generational change. Do you see this, though, in Chile as being a victory for the social movements in Chile?

Steve Levitsky:

I think for sure. I mean, some of the social movements are quite diverse. Some of them are quite radical, and a few of them don't even accept this constitutional reform process. They're pretty anarchic. So there certainly was not a single goal, or even a single program of all social movement. But these social movements, if there's one thing that united them, it was that there needed to be this sort of concertations approach to politics over the last 30 years. Which has been, work within the parameters left behind by Pinochet and pursue goals of reform and greater redistribution, and greater social justice. But within the constitutional parameters and market parameters. That was what Pinochet said.

Steve Levitsky:

These social movements were saying no. That we need much more fundamental change, and we need to fundamentally change the rules of the game. And that begins with the constitution. So achieving constitutional reform, heaving a new constitution, is, I think, the central goal of the social movements. So it's a big, big, big.

June:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). So this process in Chile is just beginning. I believe it's 155 people who are going to hammer out the contents of the constitution. Do you see this process as leading to polarization in Chilean society? And is that a bad thing?

Steve Levitsky:

It's a double-edge thing, polarization. Societies need a certain degree of polarization. Democracies need a certain degree of polarization. Because if voters, if citizens don't believe that multiple sides are being represented, they don't believe that politics is about something. That there's something at stake. They either lose interest, or they lose trust in the system. And that in part is what has happened in Chile over the last couple of decades.

Steve Levitsky:

I mean, Chile, for most political scientists, Chile was a model since 1990. It was a system in which left and right sat down and negotiated policy, and kept a bunch of polarizing issues off the table. And the left in particular, kept polarizing strategies off the table and really tried to keep a lid on unions and social movements, and the kind of ... in an effort to avoid the sort of polarization that led to the coup of 1973. And that was understandable. The 1973 coup and the dictatorship it gave birth to were incredibly costly. Particularly for the left, and for progressives.

Steve Levitsky:

And so the lessons that the left took from the coup and dictatorship was we've got to take steps to avoid polarization. And that was right, to a point. The depolarization of the 1990s did help Chile's democracy consolidate and survive. But too much depolarization can be as destructive as too much polarization. And I think that's one of the things that's hindered Chilean democracy over the last decade or two, is the sense among Chilean politicians that ... excuse me, sense among Chilean citizens, that their politicians aren't really giving them a choice. That a whole set of policy issues have been left off the agenda, kept off the agenda. That politicians are making decisions essentially behind closed doors without seriously consulting citizens, and that the scope of political competition has been reduced too much.

Steve Levitsky:

So, and that's one of the things that eroded the legitimacy of what looked to many political scientists like a pretty good, well-functioning system.

June:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Steve Levitsky:

Now things are polarized. I mean, certainly since the 2019 protests, things are polarized. We have a new left that has emerged sort of out of frustration with the moderation of the concertation. And that left is demanding much more radical change. We have a new right that is positioning itself, kind of modeling itself on Bolsonaro, and is much more illiberal than the right represented by Pinera and his governments, and his closest allies.

Steve Levitsky:

And so the distance between the right represented by [Kant 00:09:16] and the left represented by not only the [inaudible 00:09:19], but some of the social movements on the streets, is enormous. It's something that we haven't seen in Chile since the mid-1970s. And so, that's going to be a challenge. But it may also help to renovate and rejuvenate Chilean democracy. This constitutional process will be polarizing. The right doesn't want to change the constitution. The right opposed any kind of constitutional reform. The right is terrified. I think this is a misguided terror, but the right is terrified that constitutional reform will bring some sort of Oliverian constitution.

Steve Levitsky:

Today in Latin America, for the right, when they think of constitutional change, they think of Venezuela, Ecuador or Bolivia. They think of that model imposed unilaterally by successful populists. I think it's very, extraordinarily unlikely to occur, but that's why the right is very resistant about change. The right also, and even the moderate right in Chile, is very resistant to a constitution that includes the kinds of social rights that we see in places like Columbia and Brazil. They fear that what has protected Chile, what has made Chile so successful in recent decades, is the fact that a market economy is essentially constitutionalized, constitutionally protected. And once the state begins to grant a whole bunch of social rights and bring state and legitimize if not legalize, state intervention economy, that Chile is going to go the direction of say, Argentina.

Steve Levitsky:

I think, again, that that's overblown. That the evidence for that is not great. But that's what the right fears, so there's a lot of fear on the right. There are demands on the left that we have no seen really in half a century in Chile, and so it's going to be a polarizing process.

June:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). What do you think that means for democracy?

Steve Levitsky:

Well, this is new territory. And so we can't know for sure. My hope is that Chile has the sort of foundational pillars to survive this. So, polarization can quickly wreck a weak democracy. It can quickly wreck a democracy like Bolivia, or Ecuador, or Guatemala, or Peru. Chile has much stronger democratic institutions, has a stronger civil society, has stronger political parties, although they've been weakened. And I think, can handle a higher level of polarization and perhaps benefit from it.

Steve Levitsky:

So, I actually think that there's a good chance that Chilean democracy will survive this, but its political elite is going to have to be nimble. This crisis has been coming in Chile for a while, and there have been signs of growing discontent, growing disaffection, growing distrust for politicians, for many years. And the warning signs have been flashing quite loudly, or quite brightly, really for a decade, right? Since the Chilean Winter, which was almost a decade ago, the protests.

June:

Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Steve Levitsky:

And the political class, the political elite, responded very slowly. Really, really without much in the way of reflexes. And that worries me a bit. This constitution reform process was forced upon them by massive protests, by the voters. And I don't yet see Chilean politically elites embracing the kind of innovation necessary to keep up with the streets, in effect. And so, any time things ... any time you get this level of polarization and radicalization, there's a threat to democracy. But I guess that ... I think Chile's institutions are strong enough, and the commitment of most Chilean elites still, to democratic rules of the game, are such that Chilean democracy stands a pretty good chance.

June:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Speaking of elites, next door in Bolivia, voters gave a mandate to Luis Arce from the socialist MAS party. And his opponent conceded, as most democrats do.

Steve Levitsky:

Outside the United States, anyway.

June:

Well, that was my reference. What's the significant of these elections?

Steve Levitsky:

Well, it shows first of all that the interim government, the transitional government, the forces that brought down the government of Evo Morales, have failed. They've failed politically to achieve their goal, whether they were bound to failure from the beginning because they don't represent enough of the population. Whether it was their overly politicized effort to kind of go after the MAS, and [Janine 00:14:44] [inaudible 00:14:44] effort to stay in power was a real no-no for interim governments. Or whether it was simply the economic crisis and the pandemic that overwhelmed the government. The fact that Bolivians overwhelmingly voted the MAS back into office is a clear sign that the anti-MAS effort, which was not entirely democratic, has failed.

Steve Levitsky:

So, that we know. We don't know, I don't think we know, that this is a mandate for Evo Morales's return. I don't think we know that this is a vote for a return to the status quo [inaudible 00:15:28]. It was a rejection of the interim government power over the last year. And I think it's an opportunity, probably the best case scenario, for a democratic [inaudible 00:15:45] in Bolivia.

Steve Levitsky:

Because any solution that excluded the MAS going forward was going to be unstable and destabilizing. Destabilizing and unstable. The events of the last couple years in Bolivia have some parallels to Argentina both for our own, where Peronism threatened and appalled a good chunk of society. And when society, when the opposition via the military had the opportunity to overthrow Peron, there was this effort to kind of cleanse Argentina of Peronism, and to ban Peronism. To keep Peronism out politically. And that was disastrous, and had incredibly destabilizing effects in Argentina for a good part of the 20th century.

Steve Levitsky:

There were signs that Bolivia was inching down that path, and there were certainly elements within the anti-MAS camp that wanted to behave similarly toward the MAS. And I think unless the MAS were incorporated, fully incorporated, into the post-Morales Bolivian system, the system is not going to work. MAS is just too big, too popular, and has too much motivational capacity to exclude it.

Steve Levitsky:

That said, a return to pre-2019 Bolivia is also not in the cards, and also would not be good for democracy. There was a power imbalance in Bolivia between 2005 and 2019 that was very unhealthy for democracy. The MAS was too strong, the opposition was too weak. And the Morales government benefited from, during most of this period, from the economic boom. From booming commodity prices, high growth rates, massive revenue generated particularly from gas exports. And it just made the MAS too powerful, and the MAS took advantage of that to govern in an increasingly hegemonic direction. Not as authoritarian as the Chavistas in Venezuela, but no longer democratic by the time Evo ignored a referendum in which he was defeated. In which he sought a fourth term in the presidency, was defeated, and then used a packed court to run anyway. And then ran not an entirely clean election in 2019.

Steve Levitsky:

Now, I think we ... kind of paradoxic. Even though the MAS has won, it's a different MAS. It's a weaker MAS. It's not as dominant of a party as it was, and it's going to govern in very, very difficult conditions. The economy is not good, and the pandemic has taken a huge toll, as it has across Latin America, but we get a huge toll on Bolivia. So governing in the next few years is going to be really difficult for President Arce.

Steve Levitsky:

And that is ... it's going to be tough times for Arce. It's going to be a tough time for Bolivia and for Bolivians, without question. But I think that difficulty will lead to a much more even balance of power between the MAS and its opponents. And that is probably quite healthy for Bolivian democracy. So actually, quite optimistic in light of this outcome, about the future of Bolivia's democracy.

June:

What do you see the role of the right, particularly the Santa Cruz right, as being in Bolivia?

Steve Levitsky:

I mean, the Santa Cruz right is a potentially destabilizing force for Bolivian democracy, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was a really socially and politically dominant force for a good chunk of the 20th century that was, to a significant degree, displaced from power when the MAS won and we consolidated power in the early 21st century. And it's inability to win national elections creates a ... as it does for right-wing forces across the world. As my co-author Daniel Ziblatt has shown, when right-wing forces are not able to win elections, when they lack a strong conservative party at the national level, they tend to be ... they're more inclined to try to give up on democracy, to undermine democracy.

Steve Levitsky:

And what I worry about, back to the Santa Cruz elite, is if they don't feel like they can win elections nationally, they'll behave in an undemocratic fashion. And I think they did that in the early years of the Morales government when the country nearly descended into civil war. And they did it ultimately in 2019 as well, when they pursued change by pretty unconstitutional, or extra-constitutional means.

Steve Levitsky:

So the big challenge, so on the one hand, if the MAS is out of power, the key challenge to democracy is incorporating the MAS. If the Santa Cruz elite is out of power, the key challenge is incorporating them. Arce knows that. I think Arce will take a page from Morales's early playbook and try to reconcile and kind of buy off the economic elite. If the economic elite says, "okay, we can live with this government," that kind of deflates the political power of the Santa Cruz, or political elite.

Steve Levitsky:

And so I think the Arce government will probably spend a fair amount of time trying to reconcile itself with at least ... with as much of the Santa Cruz elites as possible. Now, that's harder with fewer economic resources than Morales had 10, 12, 13 years ago. But I think that's the direction the government will go.

June:

Steve, when I was doing some research for this interview, I found a poll on October 2nd which, by an organization called CELAG, which showed Carlos Mesa with a 10 point margin over Luis Arce. In the United States, we've all seen polls showing a tremendous blue wave, and we're still waiting for a President. What's going on with polls, and what is their roll in a democracy?

Steve Levitsky:

Well, I think I'm more of a fan of polls than maybe many citizens are right now. I think they're a really useful tool to try to understand the shape of an electorate at any time. Politicians need them because their job is to present platforms and proposals that [inaudible 00:23:07] would want. And they're very useful for analysts as well.

Steve Levitsky:

Polling though, is hard. It's hard because, in the United States in particular, the vast majority of people don't want to speak to pollsters. So the response rate, those people are not so cognizant of this, but this response rate to polls is often two or three percent. So for everybody that says, "yes, Gallup, I will answer your questions," 98 people say no. Or 50 people say no, for every one who says yes.

Steve Levitsky:

So it's really hard to construct a representative sample. If you do a 1,000 person poll based on this two percent response rate, you don't know how representative that group is going to be. Pollsters try and try and try. But the problem I think in the United States, and this may be true in Bolivia as well, is that the people who are least likely to respond to polls, the people who are either not going to answer their phone or they're going to say screw you and hang up the phone, or maybe they'll decline politely, but they don't ... they're resistant to participating in a poll. Those people are more likely to be those who distrust the government in general, who they don't trust government institutions.

Steve Levitsky:

They don't trust political parties and politicians. Maybe they don't trust the media. They tend to be in kind of an anti-establishment mood. I don't think we know quite ... we don't know much yet about the polling failures in the U.S. this year, but I suspect that Trump supporters, and not that there were shy Trump voters, but Trump voters are more and more likely to distrust our institutions, and therefore are more likely to say no to polls. That may have been true of MAS supporters as well. That MAS supporters were less likely to participate in surveys because they are more distrustful, or they were more distrustful of government institutions and institutions in general in the run up to the election.

Steve Levitsky:

But the fact that polls can be off does not make them ... we have to ... first of all, polls are accurate an awful lot of the time. We tend to focus on ... the polls that miss, are the ones that are salient with us. We tend to kind of ignore or stick in the closet all the polls that are right on. In Peru for example, a country that I follow very closely, polls have been amazingly accurate in recent Presidential elections. Really quite right on. But I guess my point is that even though polls are wrong sometimes, it's better than operating with no information about the electorate.

Steve Levitsky:

What is the alternative to surveys? The alternative to surveys is sort of talking to our neighbors, or going with our gut. And there are more sophisticated ways than that, but some information is invariably better than no information about the electorates.

June:

Thank you. Speaking of the United States, NBC News reporter Chuck Todd, after the Trump fraud speech, said, "I still can't believe that an American President wants to question the integrity of our elections and our election process. The one thing we've counted on is American Presidents standing up for how we do democracy, and in fact we want to help the world do democracy like we do."

June:

Taking into account that statement, what significance, if any, do these U.S. elections have for Latin America?

Steve Levitsky:

Well, first of all, I think that statement is a little bit quaint. First of all, we have known since the beginning of the 2016 campaign that Donald Trump is somebody who is both perfectly willing and very quick to reject the democratic rules of the game, and to reject election results that he didn't like. He spoke repeatedly about rejecting the election results back in 2016, so the fact that he's doing what he's doing right now was entirely predictable.

Steve Levitsky:

And it's also not the case that the United States is even remotely even pretending to be a model for democracy any more [inaudible 00:27:54]. We did at some point. First in the post-World War II era and then in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, the United States was, rightly or wrongly, viewed as a model by aspiring democrats in much of the world.

Steve Levitsky:

That image has been eroding now for a couple decades, and it has just plummeted in the Trump era. So really the only people for whom U.S. democracy is a model in Latin America today is the Bolsonaro family. Very, very few others. But, this election, I think, is important. I was actually really struck in conversations with Latin Americans, including with a group of young Brazilian congress people who are in the opposition to Bolsonaro, about how closely they were following the U.S. election and how important it was to them that Trump lose.

Steve Levitsky:

Trump has both openly encouraged and embraced autocratic figures in Latin America and elsewhere, but is also just a model for autocratic figures elsewhere, right? If the President of the United States can call the media the enemy of the people, then why not do it in Kenya? In Uganda? And in Brazil, and elsewhere? And so Trump has helped to legitimate autocrats of all types. Particularly in Latin America, illiberal right-wing autocrats, to a really worrisome degree.

Steve Levitsky:

And so democrats in Latin America were paying very, very close attention to this election, and believed it to be very important. Not that Biden is going to restore the United States immediately to the status of some model democracy. He certainly won't, and I don't think any Latin Americans are in the delusion that he will. But at least the United States will cease being a model of right-wing and liberalism. At least it will cease being a force, an active ally, of global illiberal forces, whether it's the Russians or other illiberal forces on the right. I think the sense is at least we'll stop doing the kind of damage that we've done in recent years, and can at least begin to sort of right the ship and become, hopefully, a force that on the whole supports liberals and liberal values, and democracy.

June:

One last question. As you look at the challenges based in Chile, Bolivia, and the United States, is democracy dying? Are you hopeful? Are you pessimistic?

Steve Levitsky:

I'm not as pessimistic as those who think that democracy is on the retreat across the world. Particularly in Latin America, although there are a bunch of threats to democracy. And the current and coming public and health and economic crisis is going to be a major challenge. A serious, serious challenge for democratic governments across Latin America. Because when governments do not perform well, particularly over time, citizens get fed up and they become more likely to vote for outsiders or to support, sometimes, undemocratic figures on the left, on the right, maybe from the military, who promise to resolve problems in another way.

Steve Levitsky:

So, democracies are vulnerable across much of the world. But one reason why I'm not quite so pessimistic is, there has not emerged a serious alternative to democracy. A serious, sort of stable alternative model. Latin Americans get fed up with their own elective governments. They're losing trust, in many countries, with existing democratic institutions. They say they're dissatisfied with democracy, but there is not a country in Latin America where anything close to a majority wants to give up on electoral politics.

Steve Levitsky:

Latin Americans in every single country overwhelmingly want the ability to elect their governments, and maybe most importantly of all, to throw out governments they don't like. There is nobody on the streets anywhere in Latin America, and in most parts of the world, clamoring for the China model, or clamoring for some model that does not involve competitive elections.

Steve Levitsky:

So, competitive elections are not the whole of democracy, but as long as a broad majority insist on elections, I think democracy has a fighting chance. And that has not yet been lost in Latin America. There is a broad societal commitment, at least to electoral politics, in every country in [inaudible 00:33:21].

June:

Thank you very much. You've been listening to Steve Levitsky. He's the director of the David Rockefeller Center of Latin American Studies, a professor of government, and the co-author of How Democracies Die. Thank you, Steve.

Steve Levitsky:

Thanks, June. It was a pleasure.