Donald Trump’s presidency has been a boon for at least one particular pocket of political science: the study of democracies and autocratic regimes. Since Trump strode into the White House and started trampling norms, there have been a flood of articles and numerous best-selling books on the fall of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism. History is indeed replete with vivid examples of the decline of democracies—and with the transition of repressive states into democracies. At one end of the spectrum, there is the Weimar Republic descending into Nazi Germany; at the other, South Africa shedding apartheid. But there is one slice of the democracy-authoritarianism dynamic that has not been examined as extensively as the clear instances of full transformation, and that subset could be particularly relevant for the United States at the present moment: democracies that slipped toward authoritarianism but recovered before it was too late.
With Trump questioning election results, attacking the free press, calling for the arrest of political opponents, violating anti-corruption safeguards, implementing nepotism, advocating measures that limit voting, seeking more control of the civil service, claiming unbridled executive power, treating the federal government (even the White House grounds) as his own private duchy, and embracing and idealizing autocrats around the world, he has prompted justified concerns about the strength of democracy within the United States. Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights watchdog that monitors democracy globally, raised questions in its 2020 annual report about American democracy: “In recent years its democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, flawed new policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.”
Can this erosion be reversed? The road of democratic decline is not always an inevitable path that ends with a strongman regime. There have been U-turns. Some democratic nations have started falling into authoritarianism and then changed course. Two years ago, Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, University of Chicago professors, looked at this question. In an article for the Journal of Democracy, they described occasions when democracies suffered “substantial yet ‘non-fatal’ deterioration in the quality of democratic institutions and then experience[d] a rebound.” These “near misses,” they noted, “have received little or no attention in the new wave of scholarship on why democracies die (or survive).”
Their article focused on three historical episodes not well-known within the United States. The first they recounted was Finland in 1930, when the right-wing mass Lapua movement that partly modeled itself on Mussolini’s movement gained influence and was welcomed by the conservative president and the ruling party, which then banned communist newspapers. This fascistic movement—which was kidnapping political opponents—fueled the election of a former prime minister, who won a close race marred by the threat of violence. “Finland appeared to be on the cusp of the sort of democratic erosion that was to engulf Germany and Austria soon thereafter,” Ginsburg and Huq wrote. “Yet Finish democracy prevailed.” Key military officials did not join the Lapua movement, and judges issued tough verdicts in response to its use of violence. Moreover, other political parties banded together across ideological lines to oppose the Lapua movement, and some conservative politicians kept their distance from it. Come March 1937, a center-left coalition was in secure control of the government.