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.

  • Caren

    Fascinating book! I put everything aside this weekend and read it in a day. The authors, both professors of government at Harvard, not only look at warning signs of a democracy's decline based on others countries which have fallen into authoritarianism, but also at points in American history when that possibility existed here. They explain the "guardrails" which saved the USA in the past. Right at the start, they list four things to look for as a warning of authoritarian behavior: 1)Rejection of

    Fascinating book! I put everything aside this weekend and read it in a day. The authors, both professors of government at Harvard, not only look at warning signs of a democracy's decline based on others countries which have fallen into authoritarianism, but also at points in American history when that possibility existed here. They explain the "guardrails" which saved the USA in the past. Right at the start, they list four things to look for as a warning of authoritarian behavior: 1)Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game 2)Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents 3)Toleration or encouragement of violence 4)Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media (pages 23-24). The episodes from American history were really engrossing and built into an analysis of our current political situation of extreme partisanship. The authors' idea is that after Reconstruction, the South felt threatened by the mass of new black voters. The North and South had a tacit understanding that the North would look the other way and allow Jim Crow to permeate the South, in order to restrict black votes. In other words, the two parties got along because both allowed for white dominance. This worked until the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s. They note that our current parties are pretty strongly divided along racial lines. (The Republicans are predominantly white and the Democrats are more racially mixed.) They note that there need to exist two unspoken norms of political interaction: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. (page 102) Donald Trump is certainly not the cause of our political decline; he is merely a symptom. The authors particularly point out that in the 1980s-90s, Newt Gingrich promoted the idea of political differences as a war of ideas.(see pages 146-148) You were never to give in, but fight by whatever means gave your side a win. But, a party may win a battle and lose the war if they can't get along with the other side. They give examples from the past when a president attempted to breach controls on his power and his own party united with the opposition to squelch the tendency, one example being when FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court. The Twenty-Second Amendment was a response to FDR having served more than two terms in office, a violation of what until then had been an unspoken norm. They say that polarization destroys democratic norms (page 115). They note that North Carolina today is a good example of a state in which politics without guardrails has taken over. They have gerrymandered districts and implemented strict voter registration laws in order to favor the party in power. The authors believe it would be "valuable to focus on two underlying forces driving American polarization: racial and religious realignment and growing economic inequality." (page 222) They note that the control of parties by wealthy donors and outside media are real problems for implementing reform. What I really liked about this book is that the authors offer solutions to our predicament. The book is devoid of any jargon and is easily accessible by anyone with an interest in the health of our democracy. There are notes and an index for those who would like further study. The authors close with a wonderful definition of democracy from E. B. White, written in 1943:

    "Surely the Board [U.S. Federal Government's Writers' War Board] knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the 'don't' in don't shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the current suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is." (quoted on pages 230-231)

    I don't know about you, but that brought tears to my eyes. What we have here in this country, folks, is far too important to give up on. I would urge all of you to read this book and then talk it over with someone who has a viewpoint other than your own.

    **The authors were just interviewed on "Fresh Air":

  • Jean Poulos

    I found this book fascinating. Ziblatt and Levitsky are respected scholars in the field of democracy studies. They teach at Harvard University.

    The book is well written and researched. It is written in an easy to read style that is easy for the lay person to follow. The first part of the book reviewed how democracies around the world have fallen to authoritarian regimes over the years. The authors explain three key important elements vital to a democracy and then go into detail about each country

    I found this book fascinating. Ziblatt and Levitsky are respected scholars in the field of democracy studies. They teach at Harvard University.

    The book is well written and researched. It is written in an easy to read style that is easy for the lay person to follow. The first part of the book reviewed how democracies around the world have fallen to authoritarian regimes over the years. The authors explain three key important elements vital to a democracy and then go into detail about each country and whether one or all elements were involved in its demise. The authors also have revealed in detail how some countries have over thrown the authoritarian regime and returned to a democracy even stronger than before. I found the method used in Chile to return to a democracy most interesting. The last part of the book examines the United States and examines attacks on our democracy and how they were successfully repelled. The authors examine in-depth the first year of Trump’s administration. Levitsky and Ziblatt show how a democracy fails and most important what can be done to protect the democracy. From reading this book one thing that I was struck with is how critical it is to maintaining our democracy to solve our race problem. The book is written in a neutral academic method. This book is a must read for everyone living in a democracy.

    I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. It is such an important reference book I am going to purchase a hardback edition. The book is almost eight and a half hours. Fred Sanders does an excellent job narrating the book. Sanders is an actor and well-known audiobook narrator. He has a smooth reading style that is easy to listen too.

  • 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.

  • Angie

    When we think of a democracy dying, what comes to mind is usually a military coup or civil war or other sudden violent action. In How Democracies Die, Harvard Government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt show how countries can lose their democracy more slowly and insidiously, often without a single shot fired.

    They assert that, beyond the obvious mechanisms we depend on like free and fair elections and a strong constitution, democracies work best when these mechanisms are reinforced b

    When we think of a democracy dying, what comes to mind is usually a military coup or civil war or other sudden violent action. In How Democracies Die, Harvard Government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt show how countries can lose their democracy more slowly and insidiously, often without a single shot fired.

    They assert that, beyond the obvious mechanisms we depend on like free and fair elections and a strong constitution, democracies work best when these mechanisms are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms of mutual toleration of competing parties and forbearance in deploying institutional pregogatives. They also develop a set of four behavioral warning signs to help identify an authoritarian and a litmus test to identify autocrats.

    The authors support each of the general principles they put forth with many detailed examples of democracies that fell under autocratic rule and how it happened. These include the countries most likely to come to mind like Hitler’s Germany and others like Venezuela, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.

    After making their case for how democracies die, the authors warn that the United States is not immune from this disease and give good evidence for their assertion. Not surprisingly the Trump administration is their primary example, but there are other recent examples from before Trump took office. As an example of the violation of the civil norm of forbearance (which has been broken by both parties), they cite the Senate’s refusal to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Until I read this book I had not realized that no president since Reconstruction has been denied the opportunity to fill a Supreme Court vacancy when he nominated someone before his successor was elected. Specific nominees had been turned down, but replacements were considered and someone was appointed in every instance until the Garland nomination. It was also interesting to read about the crucial role that the political parties play in keeping authoritarians on the fringes and to see how the use of primary elections to select nominees, a step most of us see as supporting democracy, could instead make it easier for an authoritarian to gain power.

    Not all the examples in the book are negative. It also cites instances where threats to democracy have been foiled, both in the United States and elsewhere. An excellent example was when President Roosevelt tried to neutralize a Supreme Court that was hostile to some of his New Deal by expanding the Supreme Court to 15 members. The bipartisan negative reaction was especially significant given that Roosevelt was extremely popular and had just been re-elected in a landslide. There ARE actions and attitudes that can counter threats.

    The book’s theses are well-reasoned and well-documented. Most of the current examples in the United States would be familiar to well-informed readers, and we probably did not need to hear about them to see their relevance to the general principles the authors developed from their examinations of history. It was especially chilling to read about a behavioral warning sign and then to see an example of it in the news. For example the day after I read about “willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media” as a warning sign, President Trump’s lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to try to prevent publication of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff.

    Like most Americans, I react to the thought of losing our democratic way of life with “No, it can’t happen here.” This book has convinced me that it could.

    Thought-provoking and alarming

    NOTE: I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Netgalley with a request for an honest review.

  • Peter Mcloughlin

    Lays the blame for the fall of democracies on the erosion of the guardrails (unwritten rules) of the polity. Also lays a big chunk of the blame for the decay of democracy at the party or legal gatekeepers failing to weed out extremists and outsiders. Outsiders and extremists are not well known for respecting established procedural forms of democracy and will break the guardrails of democracy and turn towards autocracy. This has been the form authoritarianism takes in Ecuador, Peru, Turkey, Venez

    Lays the blame for the fall of democracies on the erosion of the guardrails (unwritten rules) of the polity. Also lays a big chunk of the blame for the decay of democracy at the party or legal gatekeepers failing to weed out extremists and outsiders. Outsiders and extremists are not well known for respecting established procedural forms of democracy and will break the guardrails of democracy and turn towards autocracy. This has been the form authoritarianism takes in Ecuador, Peru, Turkey, Venezuela and other places democracy failed. It is now happening the US with the Republicans and Trump.

  • 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.

  • 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 likewiseimplores the Department of Justice to imprison political antagonists who have committed no crimes.

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