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How Democracies Die Hardcover – January 16, 2018
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A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE
“Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies have collapsed elsewhere—not just through violent coups, but more commonly (and insidiously) through a gradual slide into authoritarianism.... How Democracies Die is a lucid and essential guide to what can happen here.”
—New York Times
“We’re already awash in public indignation—what we desperately need is a sober, dispassionate look at the current state of affairs. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two of the most respected scholars in the field of democracy studies, offer just that.”
—The Washington Post
“Where Levitsky and Ziblatt make their mark is in weaving together political science and historical analysis of both domestic and international democratic crises; in doing so, they expand the conversation beyond Trump and before him, to other countries and to the deep structure of American democracy and politics.”
—Ezra Klein, Vox
“The political-science text in vogue this winter is How Democracies Die.”
—The New Yorker
“If you only read one book for the rest of the year, read How Democracies Die... This is not a book for just Democrats or Republicans. It is a book for all Americans. It is nonpartisan. It is fact based. It is deeply rooted in history... the best commentary on our politics, no contest.”
—Michael Morrell, former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (via Twitter)
“A smart and deeply informed book about the ways in which democracy is being undermined in dozens of countries around the world, and in ways that are perfectly legal.”
—Fareed Zakaria, CNN
“Carefully researched and persuasive... the authors show the fragility of even the best democracies and also caution politicians... who think they can somehow co-opt autocrats without getting burned.... How Democracies Die provides a guide for Americans of all political persuasions for what to avoid.”
“Scholarly and readable, alarming and level-headed… the greatest of the many merits of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s contribution to what will doubtless be the ballooning discipline of democracy death studies is their rejection of western exceptionalism. There are no vaccines in American (or, I would add, British) culture that protects us: just ways of doing business that now feel decrepit.”
"[An] important new book."
—Nicholas Kristof, New York Times
“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.... It is simplistic to expect boots marching in the streets, but there will be a battle for democracy.”
—Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine
“The great strength of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die is that it rejects the exceptionalist account of US democracy. Their lens is comparative. The authors say America is not immune to the trends that have led to democracy’s collapse in other parts of the world.”
"A powerful wake-up call"
“The big advantage of political scientists over even the shrewdest and luckiest of eavesdropping journalists is that they have the training to give us a bigger picture.... [Levitsky and Ziblatt] bring to bear useful global and historical context... [showing] the mistakes democratic politicians make as they let dangerous demagogues into the heart of power.”
—The Sunday Times
“The authors argue, with good evidence, that democracies aren’t destroyed because of the impulses of a single man; they are, instead, degraded in the course of a partisan tit-for-tat dynamic that degrades norms over time until one side sees an opening to deliver the death blow. Donald Trump is not a dictator. But it’s impossible to read How Democracies Die without worrying that our collective decay of democratic norms may open the door to one down the line—perhaps even one of an entirely different ideological persuasion.”
—Wall Street Journal
“[How Democracies Die] is a stellar deep-dive into a series of modern democracies that ceased to be.”
"Maybe have a drink before digging into this one. Levitsky and Ziblatt trace the fall of democracies throughout history with agonizing clarity, going right up to our current perilous moment."
“Levitsky and Ziblatt are not entirely pessimistic… but they leave readers in no doubt that they should be worried about the state of American democracy.”
“Chilling… A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump's ascent and the fall of other democracies.”
“A powerful wake-up call.”
"Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have offered a brilliant diagnosis of the most important issue facing our world: Can democracy survive? With clinical precision and an extraordinary grasp of history, they point to the warning signs of decay and define the obligations of those who would preserve free government. If there is an urgent book for you to read at this moment, it is How Democracies Die."
—E.J. Dionne Jr., co-author of One Nation After Trump
"Levitsky and Ziblatt are leading scholars of democracy in other parts of the world, who with great energy and integrity now apply their expertise to the current problems of the United States. The reader feels the intellectual excitement, and also the political warning, as the authors draw the connections from their own vast knowledge to the chaos that we experience each day."
—Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny
“We live in perilous times. Anyone who is concerned about the future of American democracy should read this brisk, accessible book. Anyone who is not concerned should definitely read it.”
—Daron Acemoglu, co-author of Why Nations Fail
“Readers will not find an anti-Trump screed in How Democracies Die. The book is more erudite than alarmist… but that makes [Levitsky and Ziblatt’s] clarity on the risk of both Trump and wider political developments all the more powerful.”
"All Americans who care about the future of their country should read this magisterial, compelling book, which sweeps across the globe and through history to analyze how democracies die. The result is an unforgettable framework for diagnosing the state of affairs here at home and our prospects for recovery."
—Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration and Cuz
"Two years ago, a book like this could not have been written: two leading political scientists who are expert in the breakdown of democracy in other parts of the world using that knowledge to inform Americans of the dangers their democracy faces today. We owe the authors a debt of thanks for bringing their deep understanding to bear on the central political issue of the day."
—Francis Fukuyama, author of Political Order and Political Decay
"In this brilliant historical synthesis, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how the actions of elected leaders around the world have paved the road to democratic failure, and why the United States is now vulnerable to this same downward spiral. This book should be widely and urgently read as a clarion call to restore the shared beliefs and practices—beyond our formal constitution—that constitute the essential ‘guardrails’ for preserving democracy."
—Larry Diamond, author of The Spirit of Democracy
About the Author
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are Professors of Government at Harvard University. Levitsky’s research focuses on Latin America and the developing world. He is the author of Competitive Authoritarianism and is the recipient of numerous teaching awards. Ziblatt studies Europe from the nineteenth century to the present. He is the author, most recently, of Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy. Both Levitsky and Ziblatt have written for Vox and The New York Times, among other publications.
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The first is to illuminate the role of "norms" in a constitutional system. In this context, a "norm" is an unwritten standard of behavior that is followed for an extended period of time -- you might think of it as describing some type of behavior that's "normal." US law school profs are prone to point out several such norms, none of which are in the US Constitution as written: such as that US Supreme Court justices are lawyers, that members of the military retire from active duty before joining the Cabinet, and, prior to FDR in 1940, that Presidents not run for a third term. (These sorts of norm are often called "constitutional conventions" by political scientists -- not to be confused with the event in Philadelphia mentioned in the musical "Hamilton.") Individually, though, the loss of any of these highly specific norms wouldn't necessarily have a huge impact on the functioning of the government.
Levitsky & Ziblatt (L&Z) instead focus on some norms that are more abstract, but also more vital to the fabric of democracy. The norms of interest to them are "shared codes of conduct that become common knowledge within a particular community or society -- accepted, respected and enforced by its members" (@101). Two of the most important are (i) mutual toleration, i.e. the belief that political opponents are not enemies, and (ii) institutional forbearance, i.e. "avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit" (@106). In more specific contexts several other such norms also come up, e.g. that presidents shouldn't undermine another coequal branch (such as the court system). Calling such norms the "guardrails of democracy," L&Z provide one of the clearest and most convincing expositions of them that I've read. Many presidents challenge norms -- such as when Teddy Roosevelt had dinner in the White House with a black man (Booker T. Washington), or Jimmy Carter and his wife walked part of the route to his inauguration -- but Pres. Trump stands out, they say, stands out "in his willingness to challenge unwritten rules of greater consequence" (@195). So far, some of his assaults on mutual toleration and institutional forbearance have been more rhetorical than actual: as I write this, he continues to revile Hilary Clinton but hasn't actually "locked her up." Unfortunately, the fact that in his first year Pres. Trump has only bumped into, but not yet broken through, such "guardrails" doesn't necessarily signify much about the future: see Table 3 @108, which shows that the now-authoritarian Erdoğan was at about the same place as Trump at the end of his first year.
But it's not only the president who is capable of breaking the norms -- Congress can as well. L&Z point out how the era of "constitutional hardball," emphasizing the letter over the spirit of the document, has roots as early as in the 1970s, when Newt Gingrich was a Congressional aspirant. It really came into its own after the 1994 mid-term elections, when Gingrich was elected Speaker. Although the Republicans seem to have begun this cycle of escalation, Democrats also participated, such as in removing the ability to filibuster most judicial nominations. L&Z use historical narratives to show how the disappearance (or nonexistence) of such norms in other countries allowed society to slide down the slope into authoritarianism.
The second and more surprising point of L&Z's historical study is that in the US the erosion of these two central norms is linked to matters of race. During most of the 20th Century conservative Republicans could cooperate with conservative Democrats, and liberal Democrats could cooperate with liberal Republicans. The stability of this bipartisanship rested to a great degree on the fact that political participation of racial minorities could be limited in a variety of ways, such as via a poll tax. As the civil rights movement picked up steam, and as the Hispanic population started to increase, it became clear that the Democratic party was minorities' preference. Around the first Reagan election in 1980 the previously traditional party alignments started to break down, and polarization set in. White voters in Southern states shifted to the Republican party. Concurrently, the divisiveness of the abortion issue following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was driving many religious voters toward the Republicans as well.
This is actually the most depressing aspect of the book. Unless he perpetrates a coup, Trump will pass; but the racial and religious source of hardball attitudes augurs ill for American politics into the indefinite future. The US is a multi-ethnic society in which no ethnicity is in the majority. L&Z point out that to date they haven't been able to identify any society like that which is both (i) a democracy and (ii) a society where all ethnicities are empowered politically, socially and economically.
In short, this isn't a "Chicken Little" book screaming hysterically to the already-persuaded about how terrible Donald Trump is. Rather, while pointing out some of the dangers posed acutely by Trump's handling of the presidency, it also identifies some much more long-term problems. The solutions proposed by L&Z, such as that Democrats shouldn't behave like the hardball Republican politicians, may strike some readers as weak and overly optimistic. But no solutions will eventuate if people aren't aware of how deep the problem really is, and for that reason this book deserves to be read widely.
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. The book makes a good argument that 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.
NOTE: I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Netgalley with a request for an honest review.
Second, it is quite dispassionate and free of fearmongering or catastrophising. I did find myself very afraid at certain points in the book, but that was due to reading the historical examples and reaching my own conclusions. This book allows the reader space to think themselves.
Third, I was incredibly shocked by some of the data presented, especially on race. I had not known that at one point post-reconstruction black representatives made up 40% of the Louisiana legislature or that black voter turn-out was as high as 96% before black voter suppression became successful.
Fourth, this book made me reevaluate some of my own "resist" tactics and decide that I would do well to focus more on winning future elections and less on impeachment.
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