Mother Jones on the "Near Misses" of Democratic Decline Studied by Ginsburg and Huq

Can a Democracy on the Brink of Authoritarianism Recover?

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. 

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