Erosion of Democracy Warning Signs

As I read this morning that Donald Trump has announced he plans an investigation of massive voter fraud — when the real threat is widespread and systematic denial of voting rights — I am drawn to thinking about our need to be alert to how our constitutional democracy might be weakened in this era.

Jeff Colgan, Professor of Political Science at Brown University, has a useful Risk of Democratic Erosion – Reading List.  It includes this list of warning signs:

In General: Some warning signs of democratic breakdown (not in chronological order) are:

  1. Media intimidation and restrictions
  2. Identification of crises or political paralysis to justify emergency measures
  3. Attacks on minorities; scapegoating foreigners
  4. Closing of space for civil society (especially funding restrictions, legal cases, raids and arrests, etc.)
  5. Rhetorical rejection of current political system; discourse shift
  6. Expanding the size of courts or other bodies to stack it with partisan judges/officials
  7. Modifying rules to impose or eliminate term limits on officials, esp. election officials
  8. Weakening of the legislature / intimidation of legislators
  9. Silencing of political opposition
  10. Significant increase in the internal security forces

Many items on this list already have warning lights flashing.  Colgan also provides links and references to a number of studies of democracy erosion in other countries. Nevertheless, he reminds us:

But the key point to keep in mind: if there were good, reliable signs of democratic breakdown, the breakdown itself would be unlikely to happen. Breakdown mostly happens when it is unanticipated and supporters of democracy fail to mobilize.

A similar list of warning signs with a more extended discussion of the particular risks of the Trump presidency has been provided by Stephen Walt of Harvard writing in Foreign Affairs about 10 Ways to Tell If Your President Is a Dictator.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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