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

  • 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.

  • Jean

    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.

  • 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.

  • Lisa

    "Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives."

    Well, there is a reason for the use of present perfect in that sentence. Mutual toleration and forbearance have become rare qualities in the political world of today, and pa

    "Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives."

    Well, there is a reason for the use of present perfect in that sentence. Mutual toleration and forbearance have become rare qualities in the political world of today, and particularly in the United States, the case study at hand. Using evidence from various historical eras and different countries, the authors show the inherent difficulties and threats that modern democracies face. They list the strengths and weaknesses, and the unwritten rules that make democratic leaders keep within certain limits that the constitution may have left open to interpretation.

    Following the different examples of the empowering of authoritarian rulers in Europe, Asia and Latin America throughout the 20th century, and then zooming in to look into the 200 years of democratic leadership in the United States, they offer a perspective that makes perfect sense, even though that doesn't make it less scary.

    In a chain reaction of undermining the political norms, which leads to division, anger and fear, which in turns leads to more polarisation, America slides further and further into politics that resemble the beginning stages of authoritarian, Machiavellian power models. When the opposition is not perceived as an equal rival, but rather as a mortal enemy, anything is justified to keep power, including undermining the judiciary, changing voting systems, challenging the credibility of political opponents, spreading false rumours, gaslighting, even openly threatening violence.

    What made democracies die in other times and places? The unwillingness of political establishment to ignore ideological differences to save democratic processes. So one can conclude in reverse that saving democracy means dipolarising the political dialogue across party lines. Is that possible still?

    There are solutions. Any takers?

    This is a thorough and wellwritten book based on historical and political research, and it is refreshingly different from other highly personal and vindictive accounts of American politics in 2018 - as it focuses on what made Trump happen, not on Trump himself and his endless, almost boring scandals. For after all, he is a symptom of a democratic system in decay, and without understanding what caused the election 2016, removing him from office would hardly heal the institutions he exploits. In a sane political environment, he would never have been able to rise within the Republican Party. He would not have appealed to so many people (

    ). He would not have got away with normalising outrageously insulting language. He would not have been able to gather supporters among the people who will lose most from his divisive actions.

    Understanding the democratic process is key to re-establishing America's reputation as a democratic country. Democracy is not like running a business. It requires compromise, politeness and acceptance of simultaneous and diverse voices, speaking for different groups. That is why business and military leaders get so frustrated when they try their luck in politics: they are not used to the basic ideas of democracy.

    Recommended for those who want to read an intelligent account of what happened and why, without any foul language, vulgar celebrity gossip or stupid bullying or narcissism. This is not a "me-against-trump" book, it is a political evaluation of the status quo - but it is also a warning. To be taken all the more seriously because it shows what we have really lost.

  • 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:

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