By Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
A quarrel had arisen between the Horse and the Stag, so the Horse came to a Hunter to ask his help to take revenge on the Stag. The Hunter agreed but said: “If you desire to conquer the Stag, you must permit me to place this piece of iron between your jaws, so that I may guide you with these reins, and allow this saddle to be placed upon your back so that I may keep steady upon you as we follow the enemy.” The Horse agreed to the conditions, and the Hunter soon saddled and bridled him. Then, with the aid of the Hunter, the Horse soon overcame the Stag and said to the Hunter: “Now get off, and remove those things from my mouth and back.” “Not so fast, friend,” said the Hunter. “I have now got you under bit and spur and prefer to keep you as you are at present.” —“The Horse, the Stag, and the Hunter,” Aesop’s Fables
On October 30, 1922, Benito Mussolini arrived in Rome at 10:55 A.M. in an overnight sleeping car from Milan. He had been invited to the capital city by the king to accept Italy’s premiership and form a new cabinet. Accompanied by a small group of guards, Mussolini first stopped at the Hotel Savoia and then, wearing a black suit jacket, black shirt, and matching black bowler hat, walked triumphantly to the king’s Quirinal Palace. Rome was filled with rumors of unrest. Bands of Fascists—many in mismatched uniforms—roamed the city’s streets. Mussolini, aware of the power of the spectacle, strode into the king’s marble-floored residential palace and greeted him, “Sire, forgive my attire /dress. I come from the battlefield.”
This was the beginning of Mussolini’s legendary “March on Rome.” The image of masses of Blackshirts crossing the Rubicon to seize power from Italy’s Liberal state became fascist canon, repeated on national holidays and in children’s schoolbooks throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Mussolini did his part to enshrine the myth. At the last train stop before entering Rome that day, he had considered disembarking to ride into the city on horseback surrounded by his guards. Though the plan was ultimately abandoned, afterward he did all he could to bolster the legend of his rise to power as, in his own words, a “revolution” and “insurrectional act” that launched a new fascist epoch.
The truth was more mundane. The bulk of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, often poorly fed and unarmed, arrived only after he had been invited to become prime minister. The squads of Fascists around the country were a menace, but Mussolini’s machinations to take the reins of state were no revolution. He used his party’s 35 parliamentary votes (out of 535), divisions among establishment politicians, fear of socialism, and the threat of violence by 30,000 Blackshirts to capture the attention of the timid King Victor Emmanuel III, who saw in Mussolini a rising political star and a means of neutralizing unrest.
With political order restored by Mussolini’s appointment and socialism in retreat, the Italian stock market soared. Elder statesmen of the Liberal establishment, such as Giovanni Giolitti and Antonio Salandra, found themselves applauding the turn of events. They regarded Mussolini as a useful ally. But not unlike the horse in Aesop’s fable, Italy soon found itself under “bit and spur.”
Some version of this story has repeated itself throughout the world over the last century. A cast of political outsiders, including Adolf Hitler, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, came to power on the same path: from the inside, via elections or alliances with powerful political figures. In each instance, elites believed the invitation to power would contain the outsider, leading to a restoration of control by mainstream politicians. But their plans backfired. A lethal mix of ambition, fear, and miscalculation conspired to lead them to the same fateful mistake: willingly handing over the keys of power to an autocrat-in-the-making.
Why do seasoned elder statesmen make this mistake? There are few more gripping illustrations than the rise of Adolf Hitler in January 1933. His capacity for violent insurrection was on display as early as Munich’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923—a surprise evening strike in which his group of pistol-bearing loyalists took control of several government buildings and a Munich beer hall where Bavarian officials were meeting. The ill-conceived attack was halted by the authorities, and Hitler spent nine months in jail, where he wrote his infamous personal testament, Mein Kampf. Thereafter, Hitler publicly committed to gaining power via elections. Initially, his National Socialist movement found few votes. The Weimar political system had been founded in 1919 by a prodemocratic coalition of Catholics, Liberals, and Social Democrats. But beginning in 1930, with the German economy reeling, the center-right fell prey to infighting, and the Communists and Nazis grew in popularity.
The elected government collapsed in March 1930 amid the pain of the Great Depression. With political gridlock blocking government action, the figurehead president, World War I hero Paul von Hindenburg, took advantage of a constitutional article giving the head of state the authority to name chancellors in the exceptional circumstance that parliament failed to deliver governing majorities. The aim of these unelected chancellors—and the president—was not only to govern but to sideline radicals on the left and right.
First, Center Party economist Heinrich Brüning (who would later flee Germany to become a professor at Harvard) attempted, but failed, to restore economic growth; his time as chancellor was short-lived. President von Hindenburg turned next to nobleman Franz von Papen, and then, in growing despondency, to von Papen’s close friend and rival, former defense minister General Kurt von Schleicher. But without parliamentary majorities in the Reichstag, stalemate / deadlock persisted. Leaders, for good reason, feared the next election.
The Italian and German experiences highlight the type of “fateful alliance” that often elevates authoritarians to power. In any democracy, politicians will at times face severe challenges. Economic crisis, rising public discontent, and the electoral decline of mainstream political parties can test the judgment of even the most experienced insiders. If a charismatic outsider emerges on the scene, gaining popularity as he challenges the old order, it is tempting for establishment politicians who feel their control is unraveling to try to co-opt him. If an insider breaks ranks to embrace the insurgent before his rivals do, he can use the outsider’s energy and base to outmaneuver his peers. And then, establishment politicians hope, the insurgent can be redirected to support their own program.
This sort of devil’s bargain often mutates to the benefit of the insurgent, as alliances provide outsiders with enough respectability to become legitimate contenders for power. In early 1920s Italy, the old Liberal order was crumbling amid growing strikes and social unrest. The failure of traditional parties to forge solid parliamentary majorities left the elderly fifth-term prime minister Giovanni Giolitti desperate, and against the wishes of advisors he called early elections in May 1921. With the aim of tapping into the Fascists’ mass appeal, Giolitti decided to offer Mussolini’s upstart movement a place on his electoral group’s “bourgeois bloc” of Nationalists, Fascists, and Liberals. This strategy failed—the bourgeois bloc won less than 20 percent of the vote, leading to Giolitti’s resignation. But Mussolini’s place on the ticket gave his ragtag group the legitimacy it would need to enable its rise.
Such fateful alliances are hardly confined to interwar Europe. They also help to explain the rise of Hugo Chávez. Venezuela had prided itself on being South America’s oldest democracy, in place since 1958. Chávez, a junior military officer and failed coup leader who had never held public office, was a political outsider. But his rise to power was given a critical boost from a consummate insider: ex-president Rafael Caldera, one of the founders of Venezuelan democracy
Venezuelan politics was long dominated by two parties, the center-left Democratic Action and Caldera’s center-right Social Christian Party (known as COPEI). The two alternated in power peacefully for more than thirty years, and by the 1970s, Venezuela was viewed as a model democracy in a region plagued by coups and dictatorships. During the 1980s, however, the country’s oil-dependent economy sank into a prolonged slump, a crisis that persisted for more than a decade, nearly doubling the poverty rate.
Not surprisingly, Venezuelans grew disaffected. Massive riots in February 1989 suggested that the established parties were in trouble. Three years later, in February 1992, a group of junior military officers rose up against President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Led by Hugo Chávez, the rebels called themselves “Bolivarians,” after revered independence hero Simón Bolívar. The coup failed.
But when the now-detained Chávez appeared on live television to tell his supporters to lay down their arms (declaring, in words that would become legendary, that their mission had failed “for now”), he became a hero in the eyes of many Venezuelans, particularly poorer ones. Following a second failed coup in November 1992, the imprisoned Chávez changed course, opting to pursue power via elections. He would need help.
Although ex-president Caldera was a well-regarded elder statesman, his political career was waning in 1992. Four years earlier, he had failed to secure his party’s presidential nomination, and he was now considered a political relic. But the seventy-six-year-old senator still dreamed of returning to the presidency, and Chávez’s emergence provided him with a lifeline. On the night of Chávez’s initial coup, the former president stood up during an emergency joint session of congress and embraced the rebels’ cause, declaring:
It is difficult to ask the people to sacrifice themselves for freedom and democracy when they think that freedom and democracy are incapable of giving them food to eat, of preventing the astronomical rise in the cost of subsistence, or of placing a definitive end to the terrible scourge of corruption that, in the eyes of the entire world, is eating away at the institutions of Venezuela with each passing day.
But back in 1993, Chávez still had a major problem. He was in jail, awaiting trial for treason. However, in 1994, now-President Caldera dropped all charges against him. Caldera’s final act in enabling Chávez was literally opening the gates—of prison—for him. Immediately after Chávez’s release, areporter asked him where he was going. “To power,” he replied. Freeing Chávez was popular, and Caldera had promised such a move during the campaign. Like most Venezuelan elites, he viewed Chávez as a passing fad—someone who would likely fall out of public favor by the time of the next election
But in dropping all charges, rather than allowing Chávez to stand trial and then pardoning him, Caldera elevated him, transforming the former coup leader overnight into a viable presidential candidate. On December 6, 1998, Chávez won the presidency, easily defeating an establishment-backed candidate. On inauguration day, Caldera, the outgoing president, could not bring himself to deliver the oath of office to Chávez, as tradition dictated. Instead, he stood glumly off to one side.
The abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism. Years after Chávez’s presidential victory, Rafael Caldera explained his mistakes simply: “Nobody thought that Mr. Chávez had even the remotest chance of becoming president.” And merely a day after Hitler became chancellor, a prominent conservative who aided him admitted, “I have just committed the greatest stupidity of my life; I have allied myself with the greatest demagogue in world history”
Not all democracies have fallen into this trap. Some—including Belgium,Britain, Costa Rica, and Finland—have faced challenges from demagogues but also have managed to keep them out of power. How have they done it? It is tempting to think this survival is rooted in the collective wisdom of voters. counterparts in Germany or Italy. After all, we like to believe that the fate of a government lies in the hands of its citizens. If the people hold democratic values, democracy will be safe. If citizens are open to authoritarian appeals, then, sooner or later, democracy will be in trouble.
If authoritarians are to be kept out, they first have to be identified. There is, alas, no foolproof advance warning system. Many authoritarians can be easily recognized before they come to power. They have a clear track record: Hitler led a failed putsch; Chávez led a failed military uprising; Mussolini’s Blackshirts engaged in paramilitary violence; and in Argentina in the mid–twentieth century, Juan Perón helped lead a successful coup two and a half years before running for president.
Populists are antiestablishment politicians—figures who, claiming to represent the voice of “the people,” wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people.”
This discourse should be taken seriously. When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions. In Latin America, for example, of all fifteen presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012, five were populist outsiders: Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Lucio Gutiérrez, and Rafael Correa. All five ended up weakening democratic institutions.
Four Key Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior
Keeping authoritarian politicians out of power is more easily said than done. Democracies, after all, are not supposed to ban parties or prohibit candidates from standing for election—and we do not advocate such measures. The responsibility for filtering out authoritarians lies, rather, with political parties and party leaders: democracy’s gatekeepers
Successful gatekeeping requires that mainstream parties isolate and defeat extremist forces, a behavior political scientist Nancy Bermeo calls “distancing.” Prodemocratic parties may engage in distancing in several ways.
First, they can keep would-be authoritarians off party ballots at election time. This requires that they resist the temptation to nominate these extremists for higher office even when they can potentially deliver votes.
Second, parties can root out extremists in the grass roots of their own ranks. Third, prodemocratic parties can avoid all alliances with antidemocratic parties and candidates. Fourth, prodemocratic parties can act to systematically isolate, rather than legitimize, extremists.
Finally, whenever extremists emerge as serious electoral contenders, mainstream parties must forge a united front to defeat them. To quote Linz, they must be willing to “join with opponents ideologically distant but committed to the survival of the democratic political order.” In normal
circumstances, this is almost unimaginable. Picture Senator Edward Kennedy and other liberal Democrats campaigning for Ronald Reagan, or the British Labour Party and their trade union allies endorsing Margaret Thatcher. Each party’s followers would be infuriated at this seeming betrayal of principles.
Finally, whenever extremists emerge as serious electoral contenders, mainstream parties must forge a united front to defeat them. But in extraordinary times, courageous party leadership means putting democracy and country before party and articulating to voters what is at stake. When a party or politician that tests positive on our litmus test emerges as a serious electoral threat, there is little alternative. United democratic fronts can prevent extremists from winning power, which can mean saving a democracy.