How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future

How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future

A bracing, revelatory look at the demise of liberal democracies around the world--and a road map for rescuing our ownDonald Trump's presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we'd be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe...

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Title:How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future
Author:Steven Levitsky
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Edition Language:English

How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future Reviews

  • Richard

    I received this book free from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. Written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, New York in 2018, the book consists of a detailed and concise account of various democratic governments that have collapsed in relatively recent history, and how they compare to the state of the US government

    I received this book free from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. Written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, New York in 2018, the book consists of a detailed and concise account of various democratic governments that have collapsed in relatively recent history, and how they compare to the state of the US government and its political systems and leaders today. It is extremely well-researched. It is also very convincing. Its logic is inescapable. What has happened to other democracies, and what has almost happened on at least two previous occasions in the United States, could easily happen here again. The signs are unmistakable.

    Three countries frequently cited in the book as paradigm examples are: Germany under Adolph Hitler, Italy under Benito Mussolini and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. Even though Chavez was elected by popular vote, while Hitler and Mussolini were not, political insiders helped these men to obtain power by responding to their own thirsts and desires for power or riches (or both).

    The authors put forth four signs of authoritarianism: According to them, “We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, and 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” Does any of this sound familiar? How about Donald Trump issuing “Executive Orders” when Congress declines to grant his wishes? Or, how about his insistence that Hillary Clinton had no right to be president and should be locked up, or his frequent exhortations to the crowds at his rallies to use violence against protestors and media representatives, telling his supporters that he would pay their legal bills? How about his calls to curtail the news media, and his constant railing about “fake news”? Of course, Fox News Channel, an outlet that never says anything at all critical of Trump, enjoys immunity from his accusations against the media.

    Building on the efforts of previous researchers, the authors “have developed a set of four behavioral warning signs that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one. We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, and 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” The authors supply details about the four indicators of authoritarianism in the form of questions presented in a table to be found at locations #281 - #313 in the Kindle edition of the book. One example of the questions includes: "Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results?” (Donald Trump telling us that he might not accept the results of the election if he lost.) Another question is: “Do they baselessly describe their partisan rivals as criminals . . . “ Who can forget the chants of “lock her up” frequently heard at Trump rallies, even after he became President. One of the third types of question is: “Have they or their partisan allies sponsored or encouraged mob attacks on opponent?” Have we forgotten the frequent shouts by trump to “throw them out of here”? Or promises that he would pay the legal expenses of anybody arrested for using violence? The fourth indicator can be plainly seen in the answer to the following question: “Have they supported laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws, or laws restricting protest, criticism of the government, or certain political organizations”? In March of 2017, Trump said: “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.” There they are. Questions and answers. Ask yourself this: Is Donald J. Trump an authoritarian? Does he have the potential to become another Hugo Chavez? A Fidel Castro? An Adolph Hitler? Forget Godwin’s Law! It is nothing more than Political Correctness (PC) run amok. The comparison to Adolph Hitler is legitimate to anybody who has studied European History during the first half of the Twentieth Century.

    The authors cite the example of strongman Alberto Fujimori manipulating the Supreme Court in a successful attempt to be able to run for an unconstitutional third term in office as President of Peru. How much different is that from US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of KY denying hearings or a confirmation vote on then-President Barack Obama’s nominee for the US Supreme Court during all of 2016. It is really no different from what happened in Peru. The Leader’s actions were certainly undemocratic, yet his supporters love him. Tellingly, they all seem to be Republicans. That’s something we should be thinking about at every election.

    The authors make some important points. They tell us, for example, that “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” The authors go on to add that “This is how democracies now die.” The analogy to the frog and boiling water comes to mind when considering this. Americans are being led down the path to authoritarianism, and they don’t even realize it.

    Democracies have functioned well in the United States over the years for a simple reason: the application of checks and balances in the form of basic democratic “norms.” One of these is “mutual toleration,” the notion that “competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals.” The other norm is “forbearance,” or the idea that “politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.” Both of these norms have been seriously undermined, and even abandoned entirely, over the past thirty years, primarily by Republicans. The authors cite an example: “By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary.” Another way of describing this phenomenon is that the Republicans are playing “constitutional hardball” or “playing for keeps.” “It is a form of institutional combat aimed at permanently defeating one’s partisan rivals. In essence, it means not caring whether the democratic game continues.” The conclusion is: “There are, therefore, reasons for alarm.” I found these sections of the book to be particularly persuasive.

    A little further into the book, we are told that the political parties and party leaders are “democracy’s gatekeepers.” And that: “Potential demagogues exist in all democracies, and occasionally, one or more of them strike a public chord.” Whenever this might happen, it is the responsibility of the party to reign them in and prevent their abuse of power. Specific supporting examples are provided. This is something that was not considered by our founding fathers, but it occurred in the U.S. anyway, and it prevented the kind of demagoguery that we have not seen for more than 200 years — until after the 2016 presidential election.

    Continuing about gatekeeping, the authors go on to tell us that: “For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping. Both Democrats and Republicans have confronted extremist figures, some of whom enjoyed considerable public support. For decades, both parties succeeded in keeping these figures out of the mainstream. Until, of course, 2016.” Unfortunately, this is so obviously true. But, the authors go on to warn us that: “An overreliance on gatekeeping is, in itself, undemocratic—it can create a world of party bosses who ignore the rank and file and fail to represent the people. But an overreliance on the ‘will of the people’ can also be dangerous, for it can lead to the election of a demagogue who threatens democracy itself. There is no escape from this tension. There are always trade-offs.” To our nation’s shame, the election of a demagogue is exactly what happened in 2016. “Republican leaders were forced to face reality: they no longer held the keys to their party’s nomination.” And so, Donald J. Trump is now our nation’s president.

    In elaborating on the four traits of authoritarianism, the authors tell us that “No other major presidential candidate in modern US history, including Nixon, has demonstrated such a weak public commitment to constitutional rights and democratic norms.” Donald Trump has accelerated the process begun by Newt Gingrich so many years ago. “The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal—often in baby steps.” We have seen this process at work for more than thirty years, and it has only moved into high gear after the election of Trump.

    Later in the book, the authors tell us how governments must change the rules of the game in order to entrench themselves in power. We saw Governor Scott Walker do it in Wisconsin when he successfully attacked his state’s labor unions, and then fought off an attempt to recall him. Such moves, along with the successful attempts by several states to disenfranchise minority voters, “are often carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favor of incumbents.” One example of this is the tremendous push by Republicans to disenfranchise voters by claiming that citizens who are registered in two or more states are committing voter fraud. Let’s take a look at this assertion. I lived in a Midwestern state for more than 21 years. I moved to a Western state, California, where I lived for three years before moving to another Western state. What is the likelihood that I am still registered to vote in those other two states? I might still be registered to vote in all three states. How would I know? Do Republicans really believe that I would jump on an airliner, fly to Chicago, rent a car and drive 90 miles to my polling place to vote, then backtrack to O’Hare, fly back to the West, vote in California, then drive to my current home to vote a third time? How much would that cost? Would anybody really be willing to spend the time, the money, and the effort to do such a thing? For a single vote? It would be insane! And so are the people who believe that such things really take place: Republicans! People move all the time, and this was especially true after the Republican-instigated Great Recession of 2007-2008. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, bothers to contact their local commission of elections to notify them that they are moving away. It just isn’t done.

    Levitsky and Ziblatt talk about the “guardrails of democracy,” and they tell us that there are both hard guardrails and soft guardrails. The guardrails define the limits beyond which the government, no matter how radical, might travel. But when mutual toleration between ideologies and the politicians who espouse them exceed the norms of democratic politics, “[t]he result is politics without guardrails—what political theorist Eric Nelson describes as a ‘cycle of escalating constitutional brinksmanship.’” Forbearance was abandoned in 2016 by the leadership (Mitch McConnell) of the U.S. Senate. “. . . For the first time in American history, the U.S. Senate refused to even consider an elected president’s nominee for the Supreme Court.” “Since 1866 every time a president had moved to fill a Supreme Court vacancy prior to the election of his successor, he had been allowed to do so.” Until 2016, that is. McConnell refused to allow a vote on the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court: Merrick Garland. The Republicans changed the rules in 2016, and further contributed to the erosion of democracy.

    The authors have identified a major factor in the increasing divide between the political parties: racism. They point out that “as the Democrats have increasingly become a party of ethnic minorities, the Republican Party has remained almost entirely a party of whites.” These whites overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. “All but one Republican senator voted with President Trump at least 85 percent of the time during his first seven month in office.” Alarmingly, “[u]nwilling to pay the political price of breaking with their own president, Republicans find themselves with little alternative but to constantly redefine what is and what isn’t tolerable.” Those of us who have been paying attention have already seen this. The authors’ conclusion is that “This will have terrible consequences for our democracy.” I’m sad to say that I agree with their conclusions.

    Continuing with their observation about Trump, the authors tell us that “Under Donald Trump, the United States appears to be abandoning its role as democracy promoter for the first time since the Cold War. President Trump’s is the least prodemocratic of any U.S. administration since Nixon’s. . . . A country whose president attacks the press, threatens to lock up his rival, and declares that that he might not accept election results cannot credibly defend democracy.”

    At this point in the book, the authors offer what, to my mind, are soft, mushy, and unrealistic suggestions for curing our nation’s ills. They criticize Progressives who believe that the Democrats should adopt the same tactics as the Republicans, but their alternative is not the least bit likely to be successful, IMO. They tell us, for example, that: “Reducing polarization requires that the Republican Party be reformed, if not refounded outright. First of all, the GOP must rebuild its own establishment.” How unrealistic is that? Never gonna happen! They say that a new coalition needs to be built to unite “Bernie Sanders supporters and businesspeople, evangelicals and secular feminists, and small-town Republicans and urban Black Lives Matter supporters” that will “open the channels of communication across the vast chasm that has emerged between our country’s two main partisan camps.” What have these guys been putting in their coffee? Many Americans currently believe that the Black Lives Matter organization does more harm than good, that Bernie Sanders and his supporters are out of touch with reality, and that small-town Republicans would NEVER agree with anybody in either of the other two groups about anything. This sounds like more of what Republicans derisively call “Kumbaya.”

    Oh, wait! Maybe they mean that what our country REALLY needs is a new, third political party. Call it the Independent Party, or call it something else. Organize it around the principals of democracy put forth by our founding fathers. It might take a while, and it might cost a lot of money, but it could be done. Look how well Ross Perot did in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996. He ran as an independent in 1992, and as the candidate of the Reform Party in 1996. All that would be needed is a charismatic leader — one who could command the respect of the American people, and who could successfully solicit contributions, but NOT Bernie Sanders. ☺ This party should not limit itself to presidential elections, but should run candidates in all elections at all levels. It would be a slow, painful process, but the alternative offered by the authors is simply too unrealistic.

    The final conclusion of the authors, presented at the end of the book is: “Ultimately, then, American democracy depends on us—the citizens of the United States.” They are spot-on with this conclusion. The question is: How do American citizens fix a broken political system? In my opinion, the evil and corruption that has infused politics and governments in recent years can be largely attributed to the massive failure in its mission by the First Estate: the clergy, and especially the Christian clergy. The news media has also played a role. The authors, however, do not mention the ultimate root causes of our nation’s descent into authoritarianism. They discuss the behavior of the American people, but not the reasons why they behave the way they do.

    Most of the conclusions drawn by the authors are well-reasoned and compelling. To anybody who is fully conscious, who is alert and paying attention, who is not living in a state of delusion watching the Fox News Channel, or who has not been asleep in front of the TV set for the past thirty years, the parallels between the United States and those nations that were once democratically governed and have now fallen into authoritarianism, is inescapable. The United States of America is traveling down the same path. The prospect is scary, and it is depressing. Read this book.

  • Faith

    This is a well-researched analysis of the factors leading to the death of democracies, the signs of the rise of authoritarianism and the threats to the checks and balances that were supposed to prevent the election of demagogues. It outlines strategies employed by elected authoritarians to consolidate their control: "capture the referees, sideline the key players and rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field". The authors demonstrate how Trump has attempted to employ each of these tactics. The

    This is a well-researched analysis of the factors leading to the death of democracies, the signs of the rise of authoritarianism and the threats to the checks and balances that were supposed to prevent the election of demagogues. It outlines strategies employed by elected authoritarians to consolidate their control: "capture the referees, sideline the key players and rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field". The authors demonstrate how Trump has attempted to employ each of these tactics. The fact that we have tolerated this is evidence that we have "defined deviancy down" and accepted the unpardonable, a "fundamental erosion of norms".

    The book was informative about the fall of democracies in other countries and would have been merely interesting to read were it not for the Trump election. Now it's not just interesting, it's painful to read. This wasn't supposed to be able to happen here. Frankly, I have little hope for us when one party is controlled by self-dealing, unprincipled, greedy, hypocritical, xenophobic, short-sighted, anti intellectual, cowardly, mean-spirited, racist and win-at-all costs members. (I could add more adjectives, but you get the idea.) It's a party of people making their last stand as the ruling class and I don't see them compromising, even if it means destroying democracy in the process. The breakdown of democracy is gradual and can still be prevented. However, even if the authoritarian slide doesn't totally destroy democracy the authors (and I) fear that it will leave it severely weakened. Also, there is the danger that we are just one security crisis away from having no checks applied to Trump at all. At least the authors do suggest some solutions.

  • Nancy

    This book is a sobering consideration of how democratic governments have, through subtle and even legal steps, evolved into authoritarian states. If American norms--political interaction not legislated but tacitly agreed upon--continue to be eroded we, too, could quickly find ourselves watching the last days of a democratic America.

    The authors present the histories of countries that were democracies and became authoritarian, highlighting the strategies used by populist leaders to bring the syste

    This book is a sobering consideration of how democratic governments have, through subtle and even legal steps, evolved into authoritarian states. If American norms--political interaction not legislated but tacitly agreed upon--continue to be eroded we, too, could quickly find ourselves watching the last days of a democratic America.

    The authors present the histories of countries that were democracies and became authoritarian, highlighting the strategies used by populist leaders to bring the system into their control. Later chapters consider the history of our political parties as gatekeepers as well as the source of conflict. A sad reality is that consensus has only occurred in America when the racist elements have been appeased.

    And I am not just talking about slave owning states bulking up their political power by making slaves 3/5ths of a person, or the later repression of voting rights. As my readings in late 20th c political history have taught, the repression of African American, and the poor, is active to this day. I was a young adult when I heard our politicians call for 'law and order' and the end of 'welfare queens' and 'young bucks' drawing the dole. If after the mid-century Civil Rights protests we could not be above board with racism, it morphed into new language.

    I was shocked not to have noticed before that recent anti-immigration movements are rooted in a desire to weaken the Democratic party, since most immigrants, along with people of color, vote Democratic. I knew it was overt racism, just missed that connection.

    After leading readers through history the authors turn to today's political situation, evaluating the administration's tendency toward authoritarianism. As by the end of 2017, the system of checks and balances appear to be working. BUT, if the Republican party is complicit, the breakdown can happen here.

    In the end, the authors offer how the Democratic party should respond to the crisis--not by imitating the Tea Party methods, or by giving up 'identity politics' and letting the disenfranchised flounder, but by committing to consensus politics, forming a broad coalition, and restoring the basic norms that worked in the past: mutual toleration and forbearance.

    I think this is one of the most enlightening books I have read recently. I highly recommend it.

    I received a free book through Blogging for Books in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

  • Maria

    I'll be honest I'm not the biggest fan of America. I'm rather indifferent about them but I'm also aware of the importance of this country for the rest of the world. So like many people I was concern when Donald Trump got into power specially because I had seen a man like that. I'm 20 years old and that is how long the

    has been in my country and sadly I had not lived in a government different than that.

    I'll be honest I'm not the biggest fan of America. I'm rather indifferent about them but I'm also aware of the importance of this country for the rest of the world. So like many people I was concern when Donald Trump got into power specially because I had seen a man like that. I'm 20 years old and that is how long the

    has been in my country and sadly I had not lived in a government different than that. I left my country almost a year ago because this stupid "Revolution" and when I saw this book I had to read it because if in anyway I'm able to avoid something like that to happen again I'll be happy to.

    This books puts a compressive guide on how to notice if a person is a posible authoritarian and takes history as the best guide for what to do when we encounter this type of people. As Venezuelan I know first hand how they work and how the take advantage of a polarized population to take control of the country. Seen all this happen in the USA amazed me but reading this book I understood that the real reason why

    work is because the unwriting rules of the game. The authors focus on two thing: the importance of the political parties avoiding the demagogues and how the politicians in power must follow the rules not written in the constitution. Also not seeing the other as an enemy because this just creates deeper divide in the citizens.

    Sadly I feel that even when the sign are there it takes us time to see what is happening and it just becomes obvious when we actually lose democracy. I don't know if the US will be able to come back from this or if they will get even more polarized and isolated. My hope is that they realize the importance of democracy and how fragile it is before it's to late.

    I have a bunch of notes from this book. After what happened in my country I wouldn't want to live through something like that ever again so if I ever encounter the signs described in this book I want to be aware that is not normal and whoever is making those actions will try to kill democracy. I believe everyone living in a democracy should read this book. If so to know how to act if the scenario raise or just to remember that democracy is not just on the politician but in everyone who lives under it. On a final note I would like to leave this quote from the book describing democracy.

  • Michael Austin

    I have not read

    and doubt that I will. It seems too much like gossip to me, and too similar to the truckload of OBAMA IS DESTROYING AMERICA books that occurred during the last administration. But I bought

    the first day it came out, and read it in an evening because it gives exactly the kind of historical analysis that, I think, we need to understand in 2018. Levitsky and Ziblatt are genuine scholars (at Harvard even) who have done substantial research in the way

    I have not read

    and doubt that I will. It seems too much like gossip to me, and too similar to the truckload of OBAMA IS DESTROYING AMERICA books that occurred during the last administration. But I bought

    the first day it came out, and read it in an evening because it gives exactly the kind of historical analysis that, I think, we need to understand in 2018. Levitsky and Ziblatt are genuine scholars (at Harvard even) who have done substantial research in the way that countries transition from democratic to authoritarian regimes. They have studied transitions in (among others) Argentina, Ecuador, Hungry, Peru, Poland, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela. And they have isolated some of the clear signals.

    First, though, I have to acknowledge that this is not just a historical analysis. They have a contemporary agenda, which, I think, is the right one: they want to convince us that the election of 2016 brought the United States closer to authoritarian rule than we have been at any time since the Civil War. That is a stark thesis. And I think that they prove it. Here are some of the ways that they do.

    The authors show fairly clearly that most democracies do not end by the standard-issue military coup, where the general parks a tank on the public square and removes the democratically elected president in chains. This does happen--it happened in Chile in 1973--but it is not the rule.

    Democracies die when demagogues--individuals who enjoy widespread popular support and come from outside of the normal political establishment--come to power through democratic means and then gradually subvert the written and unwritten rules of democracy. These leaders usually exhibit four characteristics:

    1. They reject the established rules of democracy. They attack laws and constitutions, or they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, or they attempt to use extra-constitutional measures to change things that have been designed to check their power.

    2. They deny the legitimacy of political opponents. They accuse their opponents of treason or criminal activity, jail them or advocate that they be jailed (i.e. chant "lock her up" at rallies, even after they have won). They try to find ways to delegitimize their opponents and prevent them from participating in the democratic process.

    3. They tolerate or encourage violence. They encourage--subtly at first and then openly--their followers to use, or threaten violence. They "praise, or refuse to condemn, other significant acts of political violence either in the past or elsewhere in the world."

    4. They move to curtail the civil liberties of their opponents, including opposition parties, media outlets, or critics.

    After setting out these criteria and giving examples from the last 50 years or so of world politics, the authors spend most of the rest of the book trying to answer the question, "Why has American democracy worked reasonably well (though not entirely perfectly) since the end of the Civil War?" they explain all of the formal measures (separation of powers, checks and balances, etc.), but argue that these have limited effectiveness by themselves. America's success (such as it is) is primarily due to two unwritten norms that are not codified anywhere, but that have been reasonably well observed for the last 150 years or so.

    NORM 1: MUTUAL TOLERATION: The first norm is the simple fact that different political factions in the United States have recognized each other's right to exist. This was not always true. It was not true in 1800, and it was certainly not true in 1860. But, since the end of the Civil War, Americans have generally agreed that the people who disagree with them politically are still "decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens--that they love our country and respect the Constitution just as we do." We are not, in other words, mortal enemies trying to destroy each other (as we were during the Civil War).

    NORM 2: INSTITUTIONAL RESTRAINT: The second norm that holds us together is that different parts of government don't always exercise the full extent of their powers as they fight partisan battles. There are some things that they don't do even though the Constitution would permit them to. Senates usually confirm a president's cabinet and court appointees, even though they could refuse to--even when the president is of a different party. President's usually don't override legislation with executive orders. Courts defer to legislative intent. Presidents enforce Supreme Court rulings and legislative actions that they disagree with. We do not have a government of all against all. If every branch of government used every possible Constitutional power at its disposal, it would be impossible to govern. And when it is impossible to govern, executives often become authoritarian.

    The authors suggest that these norms held, unevenly but noticeably--from 1865 until around the end of the 20th century. Then they began to slip. Parties began to speak of their opponents as enemies and traitors more and more often. Individuals became more and more willing to describe people who disagreed with them as fundamentally flawed--crazy, stupid, or evil. Senates became less willing to defer to presidential appointments. More executive orders got issued. More stuff got filibustered. And so on. As a result, the unwritten norms have been collapsing and some of the guardrails of our democracy are starting to fail.

    In 2016, the authors say, two things happened that have the potential to accelerate the collapse of the guardrails: 1) the Senate, for the first time since the 1866, the Senate refused to allow a president of the opposite party to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. This decision largely collapsed one of the norms that has stabilized our democracy for more than 150 years. And it will very likely result in future reprisals that will weaken it even more.

    The second thing that happened is that Donald Trump--a classic populist demagogue who meets all four of the standard criteria--was elected president. And since becoming president, he has fired officials who tried to hold him accountable, relentlessly attacked the free press, continued to advocate for the criminal prosecution of his opponent, praised or refused to condemn acts of political violence, and consistently denigrated anybody who challenges him as "an enemy of the people."

    Levitsky and Ziblatt do not say that the American democracy is dead. The authors are not quite that dramatic. But they do argue, and I think argue convincingly, that many of the things that have made democracy reasonably stable in America since the end of the Civil War have been undermined by recent events--and that we need to pay attention to this fact and do something about it.

  • Andrew

    How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is an examination of the Donald Trump presidency in the United States, and its tendencies toward authoritarianism. The authors are both adept at examining Latin American politics and similar subjects in countries like Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, and there analysis takes their skills in these study areas and applies them to the current administration in the United States. The authors use four

    How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is an examination of the Donald Trump presidency in the United States, and its tendencies toward authoritarianism. The authors are both adept at examining Latin American politics and similar subjects in countries like Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, and there analysis takes their skills in these study areas and applies them to the current administration in the United States. The authors use four behaviours of a would-be authoritarian, taken from years of study in this area. These four behaviours are:

    1. Rejection or weak commitment to democratic norms: In this category they look at other authoritarian states from around the globe in recent years, including Russian, Peruvian and eastern European states and there leaders. This encompasses a rejection of democratic norms and an implementation of populist style policies to reduce democratic traditions, rework checks and balances, and/or enhance personal or executive power. This can be done both through illegal or illegitimate means, such as using military power, threats of lawsuits, dissolving political systems and so on - or through legitimate ones, such as packing courts and legislatures. The authors note that Trump has engaged in this area, by threatening to reject election results if they went against him in 2016. He also seems willing to try and change administrative and legislative policies through executive action or by threatening to remove or fire opponents.

    2. Denial of legitimacy of political opponents: This is a tool used by those with authoritarian ideals to remove, cajole or silence opponents in the system. It can be done by attacking opponents through the media, or by utilizing rhetoric centered on violence to threaten political opponents. These scenarios have played out frequently in Latin America, but are also seen in Eastern Europe and other authoritarian states. This is an adept way to hamper ones opponents, threaten them, and potentially scare them off all in one, while also being popular with voters who dislike or reject current political systems or elites. Trumps frequent clashes with the media, his campaign slogan of "Lock her up!" as a rallying tactic, threats against staffer, and his frequent rhetoric against legitimate institutions were all unprecedented in modern American politics, and comfortably fit into this category of authoritarian behaviour.

    3. Toleration or encouragement of violence: This one is pretty obvious. Authoritarian candidates are often fringe politicians, and threats or the utilization of violence are ways to remove political opponents, gather and rally support, and increase ones personal control. This can come in the form of coup attempts (such as in Venezuela under Chavez, or in Argentina, Chile, Brazil etc.) or through the use of violent rhetoric as a campaign tactic (seen in Orban's Hungary, for example, or in Turkey). Trump engaged in this tactic on his campaign trail, seemingly encouraging violence against protestors and those speaking there mind against his politics. This sort of behaviour is a direct threat to free speech, and can lead to advantageous situations for a would-be authoritarian to take advantage of or gain support from.

    4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media: This one should be obvious as well. It is common for authoritarian rulers to take control of a nation by closing down opposition media outlets or stacking them with loyalists, threatening political opponents with jail time or removing them or exiling them somehow, and generally stamping out attempts at dissent against the regime. This has happened in many authoritarian regimes - look at Russia and many pre-1990's Latin American regimes for examples. Trump has frequently attacked the media, threatened lawsuits, fired political opponents, attempted to staff bureaucratic positions with loyalists, and so on.

    The authors conclude that Trump has engaged in all four behaviour categories of an authoritarian leader. They stipulate that although these categories may be present, they do not necessarily show that the US has skewed authoritarian. The authors spend much of the book looking at ways these categories can be countered. Examples include uniting opposition regardless of bipartisan support, upholding the check and balances of the states, setting red lines within a political party against the authoritarian leader and so on. These examples are all present in the Trump administration, although the authors worry about the increasingly extremist views of each party in terms of their bipartisanism, and how this increasing divide weakens the political party system and threatens to sell democracy short in exchange for ideology. The authors also note that Trump is not the only President to ever have authoritarian tendencies in one form or another. From Obama's executive order spree, to Bush's Patriot Act, to Roosevelt and his attempts to push through major changes to the Constitution in favour of New Deal principles, these tendencies have always been present in the US. Other issues, such as restrictive voting laws becoming more popular in Republican states (strict voter ID laws etc.), filtering media bias, and other issues with a modern democracy are also discussed in some detail.

    All in all, this book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The authors argue that a democracy must remain vigilant against threats by authoritarian candidates, and gives good recent examples and comparisons of why from nations around the world, including Hungary, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Poland. The focus on the Trump presidency is certainly timely, although the saturation of similar books and articles bellies the seemingly benign and chaotic nature of the Trump presidency. Trump seems more an anti-establishment candidate than an authoritarian one, and although his attempts at change seem authoritarian in behaviour, I personally feel it is less of a political calculation on his part to gain more power, than a querulous reaction to his lack of popularity and support. Far from being a danger to democracy, Trump is more a siren for growing bipartisan extremism in the United States, and the complete lack of middle ground between the US's two political parties. This is something the authors discuss in some detail, but do not fully elaborate on.

    Another criticism I have of the book is its all-encompassing support for an expansion of Liberalism in the US. The authors seemingly advocate for what they call "gatekeeping" - the use of party insiders and kingmaker style politicians to screen candidates for behaviour and principles acceptable to the party, and not the voting public. Although this would reduce the mass populism seen in modern democracies, the reduction of the voting public's ability to choose a candidate is not necessarily democratic either, and can also lead to an erosion of democratic principles and institutions, not toward authoritarianism, but toward aristocracy or oligarchy. More democracy is certainly not always better, but fighting fire with fire can also be dangerous.

    I am a bit critical of this book, suffice to say it has interesting ideas in it. The examination of authoritarian states globally and the behaviour of candidates with authoritarian tendencies in a democracy sliding away from its principles was the most interesting part. Examinations of Hungary, Poland and the destruction of Venezuela's democracy, or the expansion of President Fujimori's power in Peru in the 1990's were fascinating. Even some of the examinations of the changes in the US political landscape were interesting, if a bit "too soon" in my opinion. However, the political commentary was muddling. The advocation for countering authoritarianism through decreasing voter rights to choose candidates from outside the establishment was wonky. The rhetoric on Trump's political ambitions seems to give him a bit to much credit in my opinion. Far from a demagogue, he seems more like a failed populist, although things can certainly change. This was an interesting read for sure; I would definitely recommend it for readers voraciously devouring anything on the Trump presidency, and for those interested in a lighter read on political theory, but overall it lacks the depth and concise analysis that other books on authoritarianism in democratic systems possess.

  • Gary Moreau

    On the surface, this is a book about the internal contradictions of democracy and how those vulnerabilities can be exploited by those interested in authoritarian power with, in the case of the Republicans, a “white nationalist appeal.” It’s a valid assessment to about half of us, and they make a very strong historical and horrifying case in support of it. (think fascism, communism, and MAGA-ism)

    Every coin, of course, has two sides. The failure or success of any political system, including democr

    On the surface, this is a book about the internal contradictions of democracy and how those vulnerabilities can be exploited by those interested in authoritarian power with, in the case of the Republicans, a “white nationalist appeal.” It’s a valid assessment to about half of us, and they make a very strong historical and horrifying case in support of it. (think fascism, communism, and MAGA-ism)

    Every coin, of course, has two sides. The failure or success of any political system, including democracy, will always be a matter of perspective. You say to-mah-to, I say to-may-to. One person’s democratic failure is someone else’s democratic validation, and there is little question as to which side of that perspective the authors come down on. “Moreover, America is no longer a democratic model.”

    It struck me, as I read the book, that what the authors are ultimately arguing is that the coin of democracy, which they acknowledge as having two sides, should be kept very, very thin. The democratic failure they expertly portray, in other words, is a failure in moderation.

    The need for moderation, the authors convincingly argue, was well understood by the Founding Fathers. That is why we have three branches of government, the rule of law, a dual-chambered legislative body that virtually ignores the concept of popular representation in one of its chambers (e.g., the U.S. Senate), and the Electoral College, which, as the authors note, was, in the beginning, even less democratic than it is today, because the delegates had virtually no obligation to behave as the voters instructed them to.

    It is this political machinery, and the all-powerful two party system that grew out of it, that has, until now, according to the authors, kept political extremists at bay. Inexperienced outsiders like Henry Ford, George Wallace, and Huey Long may have made a lot of noise among the populists, but were kept at bay by the party bosses who, by implication, were protecting some higher standard of democratic ideals.

    The “thin coin” argument, however, is always employed by the side of the coin that is out of favor, or, more specifically, out of power. It is, however, a semantic argument. Did democracy fail or did it finally succeed?

    There is little question as to the authors’ political perspective on that question. “This all [the nomination of Trump] should have set off alarm bells. The primary process had failed in its gatekeeping role and allowed a man unfit for office to run as a mainstream party candidate.” The result: “President Trump’s is the least prodemocratic of any U.S. administration since Nixon’s. Moreover, America is no longer a democratic model.” The Republican objective: “…use the techniques of constitutional hardball to manufacture durable white electoral majorities.” To be accomplished, of course, through large scale electoral reengineering that includes massive deportations, abusive voter registration laws, etc.

    The book is well researched and well written. It will, however, do little to bridge the current partisan divide. In the end, the “thin coin” argument is an argument in support of centrism. Is that, however, really what people on either side of the political aisle want? Both political parties, it seems, are internally fractured between centrists and the more extreme wings of each ideology.

    I do agree with the authors’ assessment that, “When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted—mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.” That is spot on and why I would agree with the authors when they argue, “In our view, the idea that Democrats should ‘fight like Republicans’ is misguided.” I don’t, however, support their conclusion, “Reducing [political] polarization requires that the Republican Party be reformed, if not refounded outright.” That’s another “thin coin” argument.

    I personally don’t believe, moreover, that pushing politics back into the smoke-filled back rooms, in an effort to keep the outsiders at bay, is what anyone wants. My own sense is that things have changed. Technology, in short, has redefined the way we live, work, and learn, and doubling down on the old coin isn’t going to work. What we need, instead, is a new coin. We don’t need a to-may-to or a to-mah-to so much as we need something completely new and different.

    Those of us who lived through half of the 20th Century or more know full well the perils and failure of fascism, communism, and authoritarianism. These, however, were manifestations of an either/or world. As technology integrates our global environment, our economies, and our societies, the either/or world that gives rise to the “thin coin” debate makes that debate less and less relevant. We need, instead, to think in terms of and/but. We need to think less in terms of limiting extremism of any variety and more in terms of how we create a more inclusive and just world.

    Historians deal in historical facts and figures. The best historians, however, rise above those facts and figures to help us to better understand the context in which they came to be. In doing that they prepare us to make a more informed decision about the future.

    While the authors, in this case, have painted a vivid historical picture that will appeal to all of the people who now feel they are looking in, myself included, they fail, in my view, to rise above the historical facts and figures to give us a viable vision for the future. That makes for a very interesting read, but not one on which to build an inclusive and prosperous America.

  • Andy

    This book delivers autopsies of various democracies from 30,000 feet. Hitler, Hugo Chavez, Pinochet, Trump somehow all get blended into this survey. So the bulk of the book works as an introductory history course. That's fine, but the rise of Hitler, for example, is old information. What I am looking for at this point is what to do to save democracy.

    I was disappointed by what the authors eventually conclude. For example, they have a long list of things that the leaders of the Republican Party "

    This book delivers autopsies of various democracies from 30,000 feet. Hitler, Hugo Chavez, Pinochet, Trump somehow all get blended into this survey. So the bulk of the book works as an introductory history course. That's fine, but the rise of Hitler, for example, is old information. What I am looking for at this point is what to do to save democracy.

    I was disappointed by what the authors eventually conclude. For example, they have a long list of things that the leaders of the Republican Party "must" do to weed out Trumpish candidates. I don't know how "must do" lists for leaders change anything and I don't even know if I agree with the prescription. Registered Republicans wanted Trump and they got Trump, so the democratic system worked as far as that goes. Do the authors condone the shady shenanigans of the Democratic Party leadership in 2016 when it was taken over by Hillary Clinton long before she won the primaries?

    Trump is just a symptom of a syndrome that this autopsy is missing. The following offer better diagnoses of the deeper disorder:

    For a more illuminating book about the current political mess:

    .

    For digging into Hitler, I still like:

    For a better factual understanding of what is going right in the world in the present:

  • Clif Hostetler

    The following is excerpt from article in New York Magazine, January 2018:

    Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written a more foreboding analysis. Their forthcoming book, How Democracies Die, studies the modern history of apparently healthy democracies that have slid into autocracy. It is hard to read this fine book without coming away terribly concerned about the possibility Trump

    The following is excerpt from article in New York Magazine, January 2018:

    Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written a more foreboding analysis. Their forthcoming book, How Democracies Die, studies the modern history of apparently healthy democracies that have slid into autocracy. It is hard to read this fine book without coming away terribly concerned about the possibility Trump might inflict a mortal wound on the health of the republic.

    Levitsky and Ziblatt dismiss several popular myths that may serve as comfort. Authoritarian presidents do not always or even usually act immediately — they often take few steps against their opponents in their first year in office. Authoritarianism does not usually take the form of a sudden, dramatic coup, but instead the slow strangling of institutional restraints by the ruling party. It is more of an outgrowth of partisan politics than a sudden departure — partisanship taken to newer heights.

    In their historic study, the most important variable in the survival or failure of a democracy is the willingness of a would-be authoritarian’s governing partners to break with him and join the opposition. In countries that have successfully staved off authoritarianism, parties that hold the balance of power, usually those in the center-right, instead join with the opposition. They act out of the belief that any policy gains they might wrest from an ideologically friendly authoritarian are not worth the long-term threat to their country’s democracy.

    Some Republicans have shown signs of this sort of commitment to democracy. A handful of Senate Republicans have warned Trump not to fire Robert Mueller. Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary committee, publicly signaled his reluctance to confirm a successor for Attorney General Jeff Sessions should Trump fire him. On the whole, however, the party has made the opposite decision, to attach themselves to Trump. Levitsky and Ziblatt borrow the term “ideological collusion” from the sociologist Ivan Ermakoff to describe this calculation that “the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives.”

    Levitsky and Ziblatt note that, while many Republicans abstained from endorsing Trump in 2016, only a single elected Republican official actually endorsed Hillary Clinton. (That was New York congressman Richard Hanna, who — like most openly anti-Trump Republicans — was retiring.) The party has used its control of Congress to quash the oversight function that is more necessary now than it has been in decades. While Trump has continued to operate his business and use his power to fatten his bottom line — including by obtaining policy concessions from foreign governments — Congress has held no hearings into his open corruption. Even the modest step of disclosing Trump’s income, so the public can have knowledge about who might be bribing the president, is too much; House leaders have blocked repeated proposals by Democrats to compel release of Trump’s tax returns.

    Congress has instead used its oversight capacity to oversee the law enforcement officials who are investigating Trump’s connections to Russia. The House is running a counter-investigation into alleged liberal bias at the FBI, a theme that has blossomed into an obsession in the conservative media. The entire premise is utterly comic, of course. The FBI is an agency that has long attracted disproportionately white, male, and politically conservative talent. During the presidential campaign, the FBI publicized its active investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server (which produced no charges) while concealing its investigation into Trump’s connections with Russia (which has already produced multiple indictments). The discrepancy produced a wide impression that Clinton had engaged in serious criminality and Trump had not, an impression Trump skillfully exploited, when the reverse was true.

    The spurious charge that the FBI was motivated by pro-Clinton bias has become a pretext for a political purge to advance Trump’s goals of transforming the agency into a political weapon at his disposal. To say this is not to make an accusation against the president but simply to describe the views he has made perfectly clear. “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he told the Times.“But for purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.” He likewise implores the Department of Justice to imprison political antagonists who have committed no crimes.

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