How Democracies Die is a lucid and essential guide to what can happen here. 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 ... When presenting the most distressing historical analogies, the authors’ understatement is so subdued it verges on deadpan. But our current moment is so fraught that How Democracies Die is never dull, even if the writing can be ... Levitsky and Ziblatt are drier and more circumspect. There is no democratic paradise, no easy way out. Democracy, when it functions properly, is hard, grinding work. This message may not be as loud and as lurid as what passes for politics these days, but it might be the one we need to hear.
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 ... As Levitsky and Ziblatt emphasise, democracy survives when democratic leaders fight for it. They tell inspiring stories I had not heard before... The authors are free from nostalgia ... You can find grounds for hope in the Republican party’s refusal to allow Trump to silence the Russia inquiry and the president’s unpopularity. Maybe America will return to normal. But as the authors of this excellent book, which manages to be scholarly and readable, alarming and level-headed, would be the first to say: there are no guarantees.
In this respect, How Democracies Die comes at exactly the right moment ... Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two of the most respected scholars in the field of democracy studies, offer just that. Their book starts by giving us a readable but thorough look at democratic breakdowns in societies around the world. They then compare those incidents with current developments in the United States — and arrive at some disturbing conclusions ... Today’s parties, Levitsky and Ziblatt write, 'represent not just different policy approaches but different communities, cultures, and values' ... Their studies of democratic collapse in other places around the world show that even well-established legislatures, courts and constitutions become vulnerable when leaders — particularly 'populist outsiders' — begin to violate accepted norms of political behavior ... The problems of American democracy, they note, don’t stop with our president. He is, they conclude, a particularly dangerous symptom of a much broader malaise.
Where does it go from here? 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 ... They set out four tests for whether a democracy is in danger. Trump fulfils them all. The first is when an elected leader rejects the democratic rules of the game. Trump more than meets this test ... As these authors diligently show, and Frum eloquently argues, democracy is based on norms rather than rules. The system is only as good as the people who uphold it.
Two Harvard University scholars, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, have spent their careers studying how democracies have unraveled, from Germany in the 1930s to Venezuela in the 2000s ... In How Democracies Die, they turn their sights to America and conclude that there is cause for alarm: The election of Donald Trump is merely a symptom of a deeper, decades-long deterioration of American politics and democratic norms ... Political polarization and the unrestrained exercise of legal authority are the two key killers, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue. The idea that political opponents are legitimate, and that governmental powers must be handled with restraint, is the glue that keeps a democracy intact ... The authors offer a chilling diagnosis but few practical remedies, other than getting politicians to somehow transcend the partisan divide and build new coalitions.
In How Democracies Die, Messrs. Levitsky and Ziblatt investigate the way these conditions can be lost: How do the invisible rules of constitutional democracy evaporate in places where they once seemed secure, bringing orderly competition to an end? Much of the book treats this question informatively by offering historical portraits of democratic dissolution, focusing especially on pre-World War II Europe and postwar Latin America … The chief purpose of this book, however, is to alert the public about the unique threat President Trump ostensibly poses to democracy. The authors observe, rightly, that he admires strongmen and often seems to wish that he could act like one … 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.
In their new book How Democracies Die, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt flag this as a key threat to democratic stability. Institutions don’t typically collapse under sudden attack. Rather, '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' ... So far, Trump has been extremely long on demagogic bluster but rather conventional — if extremely right-wing in some respects — on policy. But Levitsky and Ziblatt note that this is entirely typical ... But they argue that demagogues typically do 'eventually cross the line from words to action,' because 'a demagogue’s rise to power tends to polarize society' ... This is, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, often a slower process than one might imagine — 'the erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.'
As tempting as it is for opponents of President Trump — whom the authors, Harvard University professors, call a ‘serial norm breaker’ — to blame him for all of what ails the U.S. democracy, he is just one of many who have changed the traditions of our national political fabric … At the root, they say, is racism … The authors deftly mine world history for other examples of how politicians have distorted their nations' less-robust democracies to enhance their own power … The authors show the fragility of even the best democracies and also caution politicians, such as those who enabled Chavez in Venezuela, who think they can somehow co-opt autocrats without getting burned.
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 ... 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.
...the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. 'Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,' they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality ... As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that 'a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,' though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles ... The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.
Where How Democracies Die makes its contribution is with an unusually clear analysis of why these norms are so embattled in America ... From this perspective, the book can be read optimistically. For instance, the authors spend considerable time on the dangers of Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which was formed to prove that Trump actually won the popular vote and seemed to foretell new, widespread efforts to disenfranchise voters of color.