Tolling Bells?

how democracies die

A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, there have been a number of books about the ramifications of his election. Some are “celebrity” memoirs, such as those by former FBI Director James Comey and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper. But one book that has jumped out of the pack, for me, is How Democracies Die (Crown Publishing) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

It goes without saying that the provocative title might be construed as advertising a book-length opinion editorial. This book does point a firm finger at the current government in D.C. (How could it not?) But it goes deeper and analyzes how a demagogic figure like Trump could have been elected in the U.S., and what this means for the future of American democracy. Levitsky and Ziblatt aren’t partisan propagandists, but professors of government at Harvard University who have studied democratic breakdowns in Europe and Latin America, independently publishing books and articles related to world governments, including the U.S.

I’m partway through the book, and hope to share a review in a coming longitudes post. But for now, here’s a teaser, taken from the Introduction to How Democracies Die:

Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking. We have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing, and teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times—Europe’s dark 1930s, Latin America’s repressive 1970s. We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession.

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. 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—all of these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.

What does all this mean? Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?

Maybe this book can offer some valuable insight into a troubling time in the U.S. I’ll try to share what I learn.

Stay tuned…

6 thoughts on “Tolling Bells?

  1. I don’t know if I can read one more thing about the demise of this country. It seems like something has gone very awry the world over. I did just finish reading Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think”. It’s a nice course correction when feeling all the doom and gloom. And wow, could we all use some facts these days. I’ll be interested to hear what you conclude about your current read.

    • Thanks, Michelle. Perhaps the world is better than some people think (though climate change is serious stuff). At least in Western Europe, the democracies there are much stronger than in the years approaching WW2. The EU might have something to do with that, plus Europe experienced firsthand the horrors of totalitarianism in the ’30s and ’40s. But America? Maybe we’re due for a wakeup call. The chapter I’m on now is called “The Unraveling,” and the authors clearly trace how we’ve devolved into two ideological “camps,” and where it’s leading us.

  2. I saw this at Barnes and Noble. I was tempted to get it but there are so many books inspired by that bonehead that I can’t keep up. I look forward to your notes on it. I will say this – I think our democracy – like banks – needs to be taken out and stress tested every once in a while. And that’s what this sociopath is effectively doing. And could this narcissistic, egomaniacal waste of flesh lead us down the path to perdition? Sure, it’s possible. But I’m optimistic. I think that at the end of the day, our institutions will hold up as will the people of our country. They will ultimately repudiate his misogyny, racism and white nationalism and perhaps even put him and his fellow thugs in jail where they can get to know each other better.

  3. Jim, I feel the same way as you about Trump. But the people that support him now will never repudiate him. He’s just what the doctor ordered: an I-don’t-give-a-damn WHITE authoritarian who, they are convinced, is fighting for their survival in an increasingly diverse society. It’s up to the rest of us to keep petty tyrants like him away from public office. However, this book isn’t only about Trump. It’s about democracies, how they can be shredded almost unwittingly and without military coups, and a polarization in America that began in the ’60s with civil rights, then picked up steam with Newt Gingrich’s take-no-prisoners political strategy, Reagan’s courting of the “Moral Majority,” the rise of right-wing media, the election of Bill Clinton (which infuriated conservatives), and also how the left has embraced identity politics (which also infuriates conservatives). In other free countries (and at one time in America), cultural and ideological beliefs are shared amongst the political parties. Today, in America, we’re two totally separate communities. A real warning sign of democratic disaster. The last chapter is “Saving Democracy,” which I haven’t gotten to yet, so maybe there’s hope like you say!

    Will try to elaborate in a later post. Thanks again. (And not sure why your stuff was going to spam…nothing I did…but I think I fixed it!)

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