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Democrats Must Finally Play Hardball

Generally speaking, responding to violations of democratic norms with rule-breaking of one's own simply hastens the erosion of the entire system. But the situation in the United States today shows that there are rare occasions when the only way to save democracy is to fight fire with fire.

BERLIN – Around the world, right-wing populists are hollowing out democracy and the rule of law. But unlike many twentieth-century dictators, today’s aspiring authoritarians have tried to preserve the façade of the institutions they are destroying, which creates a dilemma for opposition parties. Should they play by the rules of a game that is rigged against them, or should they start writing their own rules and risk accusations of being liberal democracy’s real gravediggers?

The conventional wisdom has been that violating norms simply accelerates the destruction of democracy. But constitutional hardball is appropriate under specific circumstances. When autocratic legalists use the letter of the law to violate the spirit of democratic institutions, their opponents should do the opposite.

In many countries under right-wing populist rule – think of Hungary or Poland – there is no unified opposition, and parties can propose a variety of policies as alternatives to what the government offers (and not everything that a right-wing populist regime does is authoritarian per se). But when basic political principles are at stake, the opposition absolutely must unite and clearly signal to citizens that the situation has moved beyond run-of-the mill political disagreement.

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