Book Review: “How Democracies Die”

how democracies die

Two posts ago I previewed a book I was reading called How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (see “Tolling Bells?”). I finished the book, and now want to share my thoughts.

I’ll offer one more preface, though. In my view, since the election of Donald Trump, the American electorate can be separated into three groups: those who will support Trump no matter what, based on one or more narrow ideologies that they view Trump as upholding; those who are disgusted with Trump’s personal and/or political behavior, yet who, in the words of writer Sinclair Lewis, believe “it can’t happen here”; and people like me, sickened by what they see, and who also believe democratic principles in America are eroding now, and have been for a while.

How Democracies Die has only reinforced my feelings about the road America is traveling down.

It’s a small book, but contains many ideas. Therefore, it’s probably best I break the book into digestible bits:

Fateful Alliances.  Most authoritarian leaders ascend not through violent coups, but through legitimate elections, and alliances with established political figures. The most well-known are, of course, Hitler and Mussolini. Hitler exploited a reeling German economy and infighting between the major German parties, and an alliance with conservatives who believed they could “contain” him. Mussolini used the power of theatricality, his party’s 35 parliamentary votes, divisions among the political elite, fear of socialism, and the threat of violence by his own Blackshirts to gain premiership. Political order was restored, and the Italian stock market soared.  Mussolini became a rock star…but only briefly.

While Nazism and Fascism were the two most horrific examples of democratic breakdown, the authors discuss a more recent example. Military leader Hugo Chávez in Venezeula was assisted to power by democratic President Rafael Caldera, whose popularity was waning, and who saw an alliance with Chavez as a political lifeline. He considered the demagogic Chavez a passing fad. He was mistaken. In 1998, Chavez was elected by a majority of voters.

Levitsky and Ziblatt ask “(W)hat kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often populist outsiders do.” They cite five of 15 presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012 as being populist outsiders who ultimately weakened democratic institutions.

They also provide four indicators of authoritarian behavior:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media

They argue that all democratic societies require “gatekeepers” to prevent authoritarians from gaining power, and the greatest gatekeepers are political parties and their leaders. Keeping extremists off party ballots, resisting alliances with extremist parties, resisting the urge to “normalize” extremists (as Caldera did with Chavez), and uniting with parties of opposing ideologies to block such extremists are all effective gatekeeping techniques.

They conclude “Fateful Alliances” with this:

For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping. Both Democrats and Republicans have confronted extremist figures on their fringes, some of whom enjoyed considerable public support. For decades, both parties succeeded in keeping these figures out of the mainstream. Until, of course, 2016.

(To be continued)

15 thoughts on “Book Review: “How Democracies Die”

  1. Bill Maher calls it a slow-moving coup. Unfortunately, some of our gatekeepers are more like enablers. I’ve always thought that if you gave Trump enough rope he’d hang himself. One wonders if his latest disastrous nightmare policy at the border was it. You are right that there are many people who will support him no matter what. Many of these idiots are in my extended family. When confronted with his evil, they spin the “wheel ‘o bullshit.” But, they sputter, Benghazi. And, and – her emails! Obama! Obama and Hillary! This is because they are literally unable to put two thoughts together in their head and can be destroyed in any debate. I still have faith in our institutions. I am hoping, nay praying for a blue wave. But frankly at this point, if it were at all feasible I would move to Canada and never return. And I mean that very seriously.

    • Yep. My daughter’s moving to Scotland (her husband’s job). But I look forward to visiting for some fresh air.

      You mentioned extended family sputtering about Benghazi, Hillary, Obama. These sorts live in a box constructed by conservative media. Fox News is probably their regular info-tainment. Soundbites for which most are unable to penetrate the surface. They’re like trained barking seals. Orwell has a character in “1984” who’s an automaton and has perfected, like a robot, the language of Big Brother’s “duckspeak.” He never questions anything. Liberals have their own soundbites, but there isn’t the same viciousness or confrontational attitude as with conservative Republicans (white Christians), who struggle to hold the upper rail, and are losing it.

      • Complete propaganda, ala Joseph Goebbels. My mother-in-law had it on all day, probably in honor of my late father-in-law, who watched it when he wasn’t watching baseball. My wife and I used to make her change the channel, because she started getting dementia. She’s in assisted living now, her brain like oatmeal. I’m convinced it was Fox that did it.

      • I’ll tell you what. I don’t watch ANYTHING all day long. Even it it’s a station that I think is telling it like it is and that I can trust, I can’t watch that much TV. Certainly not that much news. I don’t see how that’s possible. I don’t even get the concept of binge-watching. Geez, go for a walk!

      • I agree. I think elderly people who live alone, when they can’t get out, have the “box” blaring just to fight loneliness. But even white noise is better than the propaganda on Fox.

  2. The sheen is off our apple up here. He’s starting to go back on things that got him elected. Trouble brewing.The conservatives up here tried to throw some kind of minor TV celebrity (good requirement for leading a country, like getting a sword out of a lake from a lady) into the leadership mix. I guess some common sense kicked in and that idea died. Interesting stuff Pete. The clown show down there is scary clown stuff. Time to go for a walk with some good music. Later.

    • Canadian TV celeb? I guess that’s where we’re headed, screen celebs now as our leaders. At least Reagan had some political experience. They’re tossing around Oprah’s name as a Dem prospect down here. Hey, a black woman TV star for U.S. president: a triple threat! That must surely get them out to vote.

      Clown show is correct. We’re clowns being entertained by elected clowns. I’ll join you on that walk. Let’s head to the North Pole. I don’t think Exxon Mobil has penetrated that far yet.

      • I don’t think you underestimate the power of that box thing. The influence it has on people down there (up here also). You talked about it with Jim in your comments. Cast your mind back when Don threw his hat in the ring. People didn’t take him serious but a lot did. When a big portion of the population thinks the space program fake and pro wrestling real that adds up to what you have. I’ll meet you at the pole. Sounds good. We’ll hook up with Nanook.

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