How a Democracy Can Implode

In 2000 the American think-tank Freedom House, classified 120 countries, or 63% of the world total, as democracies. Back then it seemed as though democracy would dominate the world.  

But a lot has changed since then.

And the biggest challenge to democracy comes from the voters themselves.

Many Americans believe that we need to limit our government, reduce regulations, and defend our constitutional rights and national security. Americans also think that our democracy is for sale, the wealthy are rigging our systems, immigrants are taking over our country, and the have-nots are getting benefits they don’t deserve. What all Americans wittingly or unwittingly have in common is they depend on the government on the one hand, while disdaining it on the other.

The United States has become obsessed with partisan point-scoring.

And the first sign that democracy is heading for trouble often comes when elected officials—often in the name of majority rule, try to erode constraints on their power. 

Rewind sixteen years to Venezuela.

In 2001 Venezuela had the richest economy in Latin America. In 2016, its inflation was estimated as high as 720 percent, rendering its currency all but worthless.

And despite having the world’s largest proven oil reserves, its citizens are starving.

Back in the 1980’s Venezuelan citizens began to worry that the system was rigged against them.

In 1992, leftist Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez stepped in and attempted a coup, against Carlos Andrés Pérez. A few years earlier Pérez had ordered troops to quell a mass rebellion in response to austerity measures that broke his 1988 campaign promises.

Chavez was imprisoned for his coup attempt, but his anti-establishment message struck a chord with the Venezuelan people.

After Chavez had served time in prison for his coup attempt, he ran for president in 1998 and promised among other things that he would turn power over to the people. 

As a result of his promises, supporters of Chavez won him the presidency.

Chavez took office in February 1999, and during his first year in office, his approval rating reached 80 percent. He quickly went about drafting a new constitution that gave him unprecedented control over the three branches of government. 

The citizenry response to Chavez taking control over the Venezuelan government?  

Chavez was re-elected to a six-year term in 2000.

Many argue that while Chavez did give money, goods, and social services to the poor, he didn’t make their lives better.   

And a fair analysis of how Chavez affected the poor should include references to his subsidies and jobs for his well-connected cronies. 

He also formed intimate ties with Castro, passed controversial laws by decree and moved to limit the independent press.  He purged government jobs and abolished the legislature’s upper house.

As a result, many Venezuelans who had supported Chavez were becoming alienated by his increasingly radical agenda.

Opponents and supporters of Chavez came to see each other as locked in a tit-for-tat political struggle.

In 2001, many members of the press, as well as the business and political establishment, objected to Chavez’s executive orders. He responded by declaring them the enemy of the people.

By early 2002 his approval rating had fallen to 30 percent, and on April 11, 2002, close to a million people marched on the president’s palace to demand that Chavez resign.

A gun battle ensued between the protesters and pro-Chavez gunmen and National Guard troops, leaving dead and wounded on both sides. 

Following the gun battle, amid a faltering economy and citizen protests, there was a military coup and Chavez was out. Counter protests quickly ensued, and Chavez was returned to power, and he immediately went after the independent institutions.

He suspended the licenses of the mainstream media outlets, he gutted the courts, suspended unfriendly judges and packed the Supreme Court with loyalists.

He also put together political enforcers known as colectivos or “street fighters” to control the areas where protesters had almost brought him down. Brutal in their tactics, the colectivos/street fighters grew in power.

In 2005 they expelled the police from a large swath of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, and took control over tens of thousands of fearful residents. 

The result was an intense citizen polarization; a “them vs. us” between the two segments of society determined to destroy each other.

And yet, the more the opposition attacked Chavez, the stronger he became. In December 2006 he was elected president for a third time, with 63 percent of the vote. 

When Chavez died in 2013, Nicolas Maduro took power. Rather than going by the title of “First Lady,” Maduro’s soon-to-become wife, the former attorney general under Chavez, preferred to use the term "First Fighter" to describe her role.

With the economy in shambles, Maduro decided to print more money and fixed the currency exchange rate which only drove up inflation.

As businesses shut down and food became scarce Maduro printed even more money.

This cycle destroyed the economy and has brought Venezuela from wealth and democracy to the brink of collapse and possible civil war.

Eighty percent of Venezuelans oppose Maduro and believe that he is the puppet of those who actually control Venezuela: the Cubans, the drug traffickers, and Hugo Chavez’s political heirs. 

The extraordinary influence that Cuba has gained in Venezuela is due primarily to the deep emotional attachment and close political alliance that Chavez developed toward Fidel Castro years earlier.

Fast forward to today.

Maduro and Trump dangerously share contempt for norms, both formal and informal, of constitutional government. They also share similar views on opening up libel laws, and even street fighting.

On 2/26/16 Trump threatened legal action against unfriendly media by saying the following:

“One of the things I'm going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we're certainly leading. I'm going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We're going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they're totally protected… We're going to open up libel laws, and we're going to have people sue you like you've never got sued before."

During the campaign, Trump also encouraged violence among supporters, pledged to prosecute Hillary Clinton, and suggested that he “might not accept the election results.”

In February of this year, Trump called the news media the "enemy of the American people." 

And in the latest news headlines, the Trump team headed by Steve Bannon, are reportedly assembling “street fighters” to deal with the Russia probe.

Donald  Trump’s election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger?  

Only time will tell. 

Our checks and balances are more vital than ever in establishing and protecting a healthy democracy.

And yet the separation of powers between our three branches of government (the Executive—the President and about 5,000,000 workers, the Legislative—Senate and House of Representatives, and the Judicial—Supreme Court and lower Courts) has become blurred in the past few years.

In today’s government, as wealth has increased in Washington, more and more people put power, money and political party before Constitutional service. 

Perhaps there exists a fourth and most crucial branch of government.

That fourth branch being us, the citizens of the United States.

As Americans, we have a duty to vote not just Republican or Democrat, but for those who will uphold our Supreme Law. 

In 2014, voter turnout for mid-term elections plunged to the lowest rate in 72 years. The overall national turnout was a disgraceful 36.3 percent.  

And past stability is no guarantee of democracy’s future survival.

The past is the past. The future is entirely up to us.