Books for Our Times: “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Third in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times

Americans might be forgiven if we believe we invented “normalcy.” Apart from the tumultuous crises of the Vietnam War and Watergate which brought citizens into the streets protesting, life in post-World War II America proceeded normally. We went about our personal business while the ship of state was steered by two major political parties cycling in and out of power — with peaceful transitions decided at the ballot box (if we bothered to vote), without the military coups or violent struggle we saw elsewhere in the world in the postwar period. That we were locked in a Cold War with an arch-enemy, communist USSR, and that we eventually won, only reinforced our sense that the American way was the “normal” way. This machine runs of itself, doesn’t it?

Now we know: No, it doesn’t. American democracy is in severe trouble, vaulted there by the anti-democratic “president,” Donald Trump. This machine we came to believe is self-correcting, or at least requires minimum maintenance, is showing itself barely capable of either. But Trump is not something new under the sun (much as he might boast), but something as old as History itself: the power-monger. Trump simply exploited cracks in the democratic edifice, fed on recent disturbing political trends, and disrupted the norms and guardrails that, since they were informal and invisible, made American life seem effortlessly normal.

Thus this best-selling primer — How Democracies Die — is especially useful now: We need to conduct this massive repair of our ship of state while it is steaming underway. And that Trump, and more ominously Trumpism, is not only still on the scene but threatening to retake the White House in 2024 by any means necessary means: The clock is ticking on this repair job. Though published in 2018, two years into Trump’s tenure, all the dire trend-lines mapped out in this book still pertain — and then some: It did not predict the violent Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Written by two academics — Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt — the book is blessedly free of academese, giving us instead context and instructive examples in a cogent 231 pages. With their individual area focuses — Latin America and the developing world for Levitsky, Europe for Ziblatt — the authors compare and contrast America’s case with other democracies around the world and in History, giving enough detail to keep their red alert of a message flowing, with 65 additional pages of notes for further reading. If it has been a while since you took a class in civics, this mission review is for you.

In their Introduction, the authors confess their “dread” for our democracy. As scholars knowing democracy is always fragile, they still thought “our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector” would “defy gravity.” But: Our edifice has been riven by increasing partisan polarization, fueled by “insidious reaction” to racial advances. A principal theme: “[I]f one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracy” (emphasis mine). Another theme: “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.” “Most countries hold regular elections. Democracies still die, but by different means. Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves.” The road from democracy to strongman rule is “dangerously deceptive” and “legal.” The authors explain in nine chapters.

Chap. 1, “Fateful Alliances”: Citing Italy (Mussolini) and Germany (Hitler) as instances where blocs of politicians made fateful alliances with proto-autocrats, the authors write: “In any democracy, politicians will at times face severe challenges…. If a charismatic outsider emerges on the scene, gaining popularity as he challenges the old order, it is tempting for establishment politicians who feel their control is unraveling to try to co-opt him.” This “devil’s bargain often mutates to the benefit of the insurgent, as alliances provide outsiders with enough respectability to become legitimate contenders for power.” Finland and Belgium avoided such crises. Will we?

Chap. 2, “Gatekeeping in America”: The Founders sought to enable a president’s election, but they “did not fully trust the people’s ability to judge candidates’ fitness for office.” Wrote Alexander Hamilton: “[O]f those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” The Electoral College was designed to be that gatekeeper, to shut out those with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity” (Hamilton); then, as they grew, the political parties served that function, with party “bosses” operating backrooms. Now with the parties weakened, money enables “the invisible primary.” Enabling proto-tyrants is what the authors outright cite as the American people’s “authoritarian tendency”: In the 1930s, nearly 800 right-wing extremist groups existed in the U.S. At his most popular, red-baiter Joseph McCarthy enjoyed the support of nearly half the American public.

Chap. 3, “The Great Republican Abdication”: Now the primary system is open not only to true outsiders (people never holding elective office), but is “especially vulnerable to a particular kind of outsider: individuals with enough fame and money to skip the ‘invisible primary.’” Enter Donald Trump, who also benefited from Fox News’ extremist echo-system and, by creating controversy, got billions in free media coverage. All of which fogged perception of Trump’s danger: As the authors write, Trump “tested positive on all four measures of our litmus test for autocrats”: weak commitment to democratic rules, denial of his opponent’s legitimacy, toleration of violence, and readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics. Ideally, fellow Republicans should have broken with their nominee, but — “tragically” — none endorsed Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.

Chap. 4, “Subverting Democracy”: Once in power, the proto-tyrant can disassemble the system, via an erosive process, often with “a veneer of legality”: i.e., “combating corruption, ‘cleaning up’ elections, improving the quality of democracy, or enhancing national security.” Here the authors cite foreign tyrants — Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Argentina’s Juan Peron, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Hungary’s Viktor Orban: how first they “capture the referees” (courts; law enforcement; intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies), then turn on opponents, mainly by attacking the media. To entrench their power, they then change the rules, mainly by disenfranchisement. But, notably: “Perhaps the most striking example of rewriting the rules to lock in an authoritarian advantage comes from the United States. The end of post-Civil War Reconstruction in the 1870s led to the emergence of authoritarian single-party regimes in every post -Confederate state.” In effect, the old South “did away with democracy” for African-Americans.

Chap. 5, “The Guardrails of Democracy”: Americans take pride in our Constitution, we rely on it. But constitutional safeguards, “always subject to competing interpretations,” are not enough to secure a democracy. Norms are needed: “shared codes of conduct that become common knowledge.” Chief among them: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Readers know the fate of toleration, how Democrats and Republicans now view each other as enemies (it is good to recall a similar enmity between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who famously died as friends). But beware: In Spain in 1931, high hopes for a nascent democracy soon turned violent, leading in ’36 to civil war. Again, polarization kills. Less understood is institutional forbearance, which means: “[P]oliticians do not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it is technically legal to do so, for such action could imperil the existing system.” We’re now at “to the hilt.”

Chap. 6, “The Unwritten Rules of American Politics”: The authors remind us that “the American republic was not born with strong democratic norms.” Federalists and Republicans initially accused each other of treason; the Federalists passed the Sedition Act in 1798, which “virtually criminalized criticism of the government.” With time, “this hard-edged quest for permanent victory” subsided, with mutual toleration becoming the norm, which however “soon unraveled…over an issue the founders had tried to suppress: slavery.” In the 20th century, with toleration and institutional forbearance re-established as norms — again only after racial equality was “removed from the political agenda” — the book focuses on the unwritten rules of power: both presidential (executive orders, the pardon, court packing) and Congressional (the filibuster, the Senate’s advise and consent power, impeachment). All of which powers were abused — mightily — in the Trump era.

Chap. 7, “The Unraveling”: America’s unraveling — distressing term, but apt — accelerated in early 2016 with Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia’s death and the GOP’s denial of President Barack Obama’s nominee. But this norm, that presidents get their court and cabinet picks, was plowed under starting in the ’90s with the rise of ruthless GOP Congressman and eventual House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Norm-breaking became “weaponized,” with, by Obama’s term, GOP obstructionism (the “Party of No”), Tea Party havoc, government shutdowns, birtherism (peddled by outsider Donald Trump). Why was most norm-breaking done by the GOP? The authors cite Richard Hofstadter’s influential 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: “Status anxiety” — a group’s conviction that their status, identity, and sense of belonging are under existential assault — leads to a politics that is, per Hofstadter, “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic.” Cue: “Make America Great Again.”

Chap. 8, “Trump Against the Guardrails”: “President” Trump’s norm-breaking from Day One is fresh in mind — attacking the media as “the enemy of the American people,” demanding loyalty from the FBI chief, commissioning a panel to look into “election integrity,” etc. Not all norm-breaking is bad, the authors note: as when, for example, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House; in reaction Senator William Jennings Bryant railed against their attempt “to wipe out the race lines.” (The authors rightly portray America’s inability to reckon with race as key.) But all the vectors of Trump’s norm-breaking point to autocracy, with again no concerted pushback from Republicans. (The authors expound on types of loyalty: active, passive, and critical.) Their great “fear”: Trump confronting a war or terrorist attack. Another fear: what Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down” — or, what once was abnormal becomes normal.

Chap. 9, “Saving Democracy”: This chapter is scant on solutions. The authors’ post-Trump scenarios are moot: Trump and Trumpism are only gathering force. Such that, in the margins, I wrote repeatedly “Not happening”: i.e., polarization reducing, GOP expelling extremists or quelling vigilantism, politicians finding courage. The authors make an important historical point that I pray Republicans will pray on: “[W]here it has been successful, conservative party reform has catalyzed democracy’s rebirth,” as seen in West Germany after World War II. (I wrote in the margin, “But it took a war….”) At a time when democracy authority Larry Diamond posits the world has entered a “democratic recession,” we citizens of America, the world’s oldest democracy, must defend her, using all tools available, in a “muscular” but democratic way: argument, protest, voter organizing. If we succeed, we will create something new: a multiracial, genuinely democratic society. Perhaps the authors, working now on this book’s follow-up, will have more solutions.

For Levitsky and Ziblatt’s recent article in The Atlantic, “The Biggest Threat to Democracy Is the GOP Stealing the Next Election,” see here.

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" Playwright. Contributor, HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.