Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote How Democracies Die. They were challenged to complete this book project by their agent Jill Kneerim. They did so with help from their student research assistants who are listed in the acknowledgments. It is a book that tries to analyze how much danger we are in of losing our democracy at this current moment in time. It begins with a story about Benito Mussolini and ends with references to the goings-on in the Trump/Republican administration, the 2016 primaries, and in the campaign of 2016. In the middle the authors look at a number of “political outsiders” who “came into power from the inside via elections or alliances with powerful political figures.” They take us through the rise of Adolf Hitler, Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. They say, “in each instance, elites believed the invitation to power would containthe outsider, leading to a restoration of control by mainstream politicians. But their plans backfired. A lethal mix of ambition, fear, and miscalculation conspired to lead them to the same fateful mistake: willingly handing over the keys of power to an autocrat-in-the-making.”
Although the authors remind us that America has had no shortage of authoritarian personalities in politics we also, they explain, have had “gatekeepers”, first in the form of powerful men in smoke-filled rooms and later in the form of political parties, conventions and the electoral college which kept authoritarianism in check, possibly with the sacrifice of some of the “will of the people”. They go on to explain that the primary system opened elections up to “outsiders” who had not come up from the ranks of government. Two factors weakened the gatekeepers, one being the availability of outside money (Citizen’s United) and two being the “explosion of alternative media”. “It was like a game of Russian roulette: The chances of an extremist outsider capturing the presidential nomination were higher than ever before in history.”
There were signs as early as the primaries that Trump might represent dangers for our democratic government.
- He would not say whether he would accept the results of the election
- He denied the legitimacy of his opponents
- He show a tolerance for and encouragement of violence
- He exhibited a readiness to curtail civil liberties of rivals and critics
The authors tell us that “No other major presidential candidate in modern U.S. history, including Nixon, has demonstrated such a weak public commitment to constitutional rights and democratic norms.” They offer evidence for each point they make. They also say that Republicans closed ranks behind Trump and normalized the election results.
Throughout their interesting and well-researched book we are shown examples of instances when outsiders have gradually and, sometimes, almost invisibly, sometimes rather violently taken the reins of power from the “referees” such as the courts, or the congresses of government, bought off their opponents, subverted the media, and have ended up with absolute control, thus ending a democracy. We can see where the authors are headed. They want to warn us that our democracy also could die such a death, just sliding into authoritarianism one baby step at a time. Here we look at Erdogan in Turkey and the Orbán government in Hungary and many more.
“Even well-designed constitutions cannot, by themselves, guarantee democracy,” say the authors. Successful democracies rely on informal rules, they add. “Two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.” The rest of the book shows us how these two norms are no longer functioning or are being eroded. In the end they explore our possible futures under Trump, but even if he is not the one who destroys our democracy it seems as if it has never been more threatened and it is good time to have a blueprint of what cues we should look for. Knowing when to put on the brakes or when the brakes will no longer functions could be very important either in the near or the more distant future.
Although this book seems scholarly and is constructed according to academic principles it is very readable. The language is not at all obscure and the examples of other nations who have lost their democratic government to a dictatorial government are interesting with easy-to-draw parallels. How Democracies Die should, perhaps, be required reading given where we find ourselves right now in America. It is the very best kind of thriller, the real kind.