How democracy and Montana may be dying

October 8, 2022 4:44 am

How Democracies Die, a book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Penguin Publishers)

Are Montana Republicans fascists? 

Goodness no! But the story is more complicated.  

Conservative columnist Gary Abernathy wrote recently that Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, and other Republicans willing to chastise Trump and their party in general should leave the party.  It is not their party anymore, or Ronald Reagan’s, or Dwight Eisenhower’s, according to Abernathy, and they need to understand this and, well, get out.

So, whose party is it and what does this “new” party stand for?  Republican abuse of democratic norms is the primary reason given for the steady six-year decline in America’s rating as a democracy by the V-Dem Institute in Sweden and Freedom House based in the U.S., two of the most respected institutions that track democracy worldwide.  

But what do undemocratic – or neo-fascist, “semi-fascist,” authoritarian, totalitarian, far-right, nationalist, or populist – parties or governments do to undermine functioning democracies like the United States?  In “How Democracies Die,” authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out that democracies die in two basic ways.  The first is a violent overthrow of the government.  Republicans have tried that.  Luckily, it did not work. 

The second is to undermine democratic institutions from within.  This is what Republicans have been doing for some time with practices that are characteristic of dictatorships, authoritarian regimes, and, yes, fascism.  They include:

  • Exert political control over the nation’s courts.  Republicans have turned the U.S. Supreme Court into an extension of the Republican Party that is establishing extremist policy in the guise of legal opinions.  It is arguably no longer a legitimate democratic constitutional court.
  • Control the nation’s electoral system. Along with a majority of Republicans refusing to accept the results of a legitimate presidential election, last year Republicans passed 34 laws restricting voting in 17 states, performed extreme gerrymandering for both state and Congressional offices to disadvantage Democrat voters, and are working to put partisan “election deniers” in key positions to exert Republican control over future elections.  This is at the top of the autocrat’s playbook.
  • Control the media and what is truth and fact. A Republican ex-President who continues to lie to the public, buttressed by conspiracy theorists, fear mongering, the Internet, international actors seeking to destabilize the U.S., and media like Fox News that peddle misinformation and propaganda – all unchallenged by Republicans – is creating a large, angry, poorly informed political base – essential to autocracy.
  • Identify scapegoats, usually minority groups, upon which to focus hate as a unifying cause.  Donald Trump started with “Mexican rapists,” “Muslim immigrant terrorists,” and immigrants from “shithole countries.”  Republicans have expanded political hate to include liberal “groomers,” Jews, the LGBTQ community, history teachers, promoters of life-saving vaccines, immigrants, Democrats, and a long list of “others.” Hate is at the heart of the MAGA party, as it is with most autocracies.
  • Promotion of violence as a legitimate political tool. Republicans and their supporters continue to threaten violence.  Election officials, school board members, librarians, medical staff and others continue to receive death threats.  Polls vary, but according to a recent University of Chicago poll 45% of “strong” Republicans, and a third of all Republicans, approve of violence against the government to achieve political goals.


Scholars cite additional characteristics of authoritarianism, also indicative of the MAGA Republican Party, including the intertwining of government and religion, corruption and cronyism, disdain for intellectuals and science, disrespect for the rule of law, and sexism.  “The 14 Characteristics of Fascism,” by Professor Lawrence Britt (Free Inquiry Magazine, 2003), is one such respected reference.

In Montana, Republican officials and legislators have supported actions to politicize the Montana judiciary, ignored the Montana Constitution, ignored the separation of religion and government, passed election laws that disfavor Democrats, and threatened to change the Constitution when it stands in their way.  This is in keeping with the overall Republican attack on democracy nationwide.

If regular Montana Republicans actively support such a non-democratic party – by whatever name you prefer – or do so with their silence, they are supporting a form of authoritarianism. 

If not, they should speak out loudly and let us know.  Some, thankfully, are doing that.

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David Darby
David Darby

David Darby is a believer in American democracy who has held a variety of senior positions in Montana, both in state and federal government, including State Budget Director. He also served for a decade overseas as a senior US Treasury Department advisor to foreign governments. He is retired and lives in Billings.