How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Crown, US $26.00, Pp 320, January 2018, ISBN 978-1524762933
Democracies evolve over centuries but that does not guarantee their continued success. Democracies can fail and do fail. Some America-watchers have argued that the American democracy is also showing signs of failing. Although younger democracies can fail more easily, older democracies can also become dysfunctional. American democracy appears to be slowly becoming dysfunctional and it is feared that it may fail. Studying other democracies in crisis allows us to better understand the challenges facing our own democracy.
Based on the historical experiences of other nations, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have developed a litmus test to help identify would-be autocrats before they come to power. Levitsky and Ziblatt say that they can learn from the mistakes that past democratic leaders have made in opening the door to would-be authoritarians – and, conversely, from the ways that other democracies have kept extremists out of power. A comparative approach also reveals how elected democracies in different parts of the world employ remarkably similar strategies to subvert democratic institutions.
Knowing how citizens in other democracies have successfully resisted elected autocrats, or why they tragically failed to do so, is essential to those seeking to defend American democracy today. Levitsky and Ziblatt write that extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. They argue that an essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders and political parties can work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them, and making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates. Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.
Levitsky and Ziblatt say that America failed the test when they elected a president with a dubious allegiance to democratic norms in November 2016. Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republicans Party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue within its own ranks from gaining the nomination. Levitsky and Ziblatt say that many observers take comfort in our constitution, which was designed precisely to thwart and contain demagogues like Donald Trump. America’s Madisonian system of checks and balances has endured for more than two centuries. It survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Watergate. Surely then, it will survive Trump. However, today, the guardrails of American democracy are weakening.
Levitsky and Ziblatt say that the erosion of our democratic norms began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. By the time, Barak Obama became president, many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary. Donald Trump may have accelerated this process, but he didn’t cause it. The challenges facing American democracy run deeper. The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization – one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. America’s efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse have fueled an insidious reaction and intensifying polarization. One thing is clear extreme polarization can kill democracies.
How Democracies Die is a very insightful book. It is packed with knowledge, analyses and new perspectives. Steven Levitsky and Ziblatt scientifically analyze several successful democracies that failed and compare them with the American democracy. Their results are startling. They very powerfully argue that the foundations of the American democracy are being eroded. But, unlike most watchers of American politics, they do not blame it on President Trump. President Trump is not the cause but the symptom of the rot that is weakening the American democracy. This meticulously-researched and brilliantly-written book gives a very balanced and informed analysis.