Three important lessons from Professor Daniel Ziblatt’s lecture on how democracies die

by Khush Chopra

I attended a Lecture by Professor Daniel Ziblatt the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University and co-author of the New York Times bestseller “How Democracies Die” (2018) earlier on Wednesday evening (9 Oct).

The talk was essentially about the tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism in that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.

I took away three important lessons for Singapore from this talk which I would like to set out here.

Legal subversion of democracy

First and foremost democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.

He pointed out an interesting phenomenon. Since the end of the Cold War, most democracies have not been overthrown externally by violent military coups, but internally through the ballot box and the subsequent capture of political institutions by autocrats.

He had explained this more fully in an earlier article he wrote for The Guardian:

‘Many government efforts to subvert democracy are “legal”, in the sense that they are approved by the legislature or accepted by the courts. They may even be portrayed as efforts to improve democracy – making the judiciary more efficient, combating corruption or cleaning up the electoral process.

Newspapers still publish but are bought off or bullied into self-censorship. Citizens continue to criticize the government but often find themselves facing tax or other legal troubles. This sows public confusion. People do not immediately realize what is happening. Many continue to believe they are living under a democracy….

This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy – packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.”’


Second, political elites invariably mobilise and weaponised deeply entrenched divisions in society to subvert democracy. In America, like in Singapore, these divisions are polarised largely along racial lines.

It is polarisation that kills democracies. Demagogues know this and exploit racial and other hard to change fault lines to engineer the break down of democracy. Dysfunction is injected by exploiting both people’s fears and other emotions.

Singapore’s efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse have instead fuelled insidious reactions both within our existing population and against new immigrants which have otherwise intensified polarisation which I call a “war of identity”. This is a very serious problem.

The study of democratic breakdowns in history has made one thing clear; it is that extreme polarisation undermines democracies.

Legitimacy of political rivals

Thirdly, a key indicator of authoritarian rule is in terms of the treatment of political rivals as illegitimate enemies, is clearly most unfortunately present within the Singapore context.

He explained that democracies work best and survive longer where constitutional frameworks are reinforced by two necessary but unwritten norms that serve to stabilise governance in a democracy as to mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. These norms also enable checks and balances to function without hindrance.

The first norm refers to the acknowledgment of the legitimacy of one’s political opponents to compete for power through the democratic process. Mutual tolerance means the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals requiring those in power to resist the temptation to use their temporary control of institutions to maximum partisan advantage.

Institutional forbearance means the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives, not using all the tools that you can technically, legally use.

These norms are disturbingly completely missing within our democracy reflecting the extent of the authoritarian rule we suffer here.

This denial of the legitimacy of political opponents usually manifests itself in a culture of demonising your political rivals by describing them as disloyal or unpatriotic orcas charlatans. When you start viewing your political opponents as traitors, when opponents have become enemies instead, mutual tolerance has broken down and a necessary norm for the functioning of a democracy is missing.

These observations are a most striking lesson in terms of the talk of “disloyal charlatans” we witnessed in our Parliament yesterday.


It is clear that our democracy has been hijacked by the PAP Government. It was butchered by the PAP Government by a thousand cuts slowly over the years and we live under authoritarian rule that has subverted our democratic institutions.

We need to rescue our democracy and we need to do it now. The key is to reject the polarisation that the PAP Government has engineered and to reverse engineer our society into the one united people we pledge ourselves to be.

People of Singapore unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

This was first published on Khush Chopra’s Facebook page and reproduced with permission