Book Review of “How Democracies Die” – Guardians at the Gate

how democracies die

“The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often in baby steps.”

In my last post, I discussed how authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, show how certain democracies have failed worldwide (e.g. those in Germany, Italy, and Venezuela).  Some countries, however, have successfully prevented democratic decay when threatened by authoritarianism.

Belgium is one. In the economically depressed 1930s, Belgium resisted an urge to swing toward fascism. Two far-right parties, the Rex Party and the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond, surged in Belgian polls. (The leader of the Rex Party later collaborated with the Nazis.) Belgian centrist parties appeared to be in retreat. The mainstream Catholic Party was partly sympathetic with the popular Rexists, and could have joined with them. Instead, it went in the opposite direction.

The Catholics weeded out pro-Rexist candidates.  They also employed Rexist-style propaganda techniques, and created an anti-Rexist “Catholic Youth Front.” Their most effective gatekeeping technique, however, was to ally with the Belgian Socialist Party and Liberal Party behind leader Paul van Zeeland, to create a robust coalition that sidelined the Rexists. (At least, until the Nazis invaded Belgium.)

Similar gatekeeping occurred in Finland, when an extreme-right Lapua Movement surfaced in 1929. Finland’s more moderate conservatives pulled together to snuff out this “brief burst of fascism.”

More recently, in 2016 in Austria, the main center-right party (Austrian People’s Party) had an opportunity, but refused to ally with the ideologically similar but anti-immigrant, radical-right Freedom Party of Austria, ultimately defeating it.

(Notice how these various right-wing extremists were all toppled, not by their ideological opposites – liberals and socialists – but by moderates and fellow conservatives who were ideologically similar.)


Emblem of Finnish Lapua Movement

And America has its own laudable record of squelching extremists. Henry Ford, radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, Charles Lindbergh, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace were all enormously popular with certain segments of America. But Ford, Coughlin, and Lindbergh were virulent anti-Semites, Wallace was a Southern racist and segregationist, and McCarthy was a rabid and reckless Red-baiter. (Long was assassinated, but some historians claim the “Kingfish,” who claimed he was the Constitution, had all the characteristics of a demagogue.) All of these men had political ambitions, and some succeeded at the state level. None, however, were able to progress beyond their current stations, chiefly due to a strong U.S. party system that prevented it.  (McCarthy was ultimately censured and disgraced. He began drinking heavily, became addicted to heroin, and died at age 48.)

As mentioned earlier, America’s best gatekeepers are our political parties. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that, ironically, the oft-citicized “smoke-filled room” of party bosses serves to weed out extremists that otherwise might threaten democracy. They say there’s always a tension between “will of the people” (which Alexander Hamilton warned about, and which has resulted in figures like Long, Wallace, and Trump) and too much gatekeeping, such as elite party leaders.

But democratic gatekeepers aren’t limited to political parties; they also include political institutions and non-political figures. To illustrate this, the authors draw parallels between democracy and a soccer game. A fair soccer game involves referees, rules, and equal opponents. When any one of these gatekeepers is debilitated, the game can tilt.

Referees: Who are the referees in politics? The judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. Without strong referees, the authors argue, “The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured.” He can buy off opponents (including those in the media), pack the courts, and threaten impeachment of justices.


Anti-Semitic radio host Father Charles Coughlin (photo Detroit Free Press)

Opponents: Once referees are in tow, autocrats then turn to their opponents. However, the authors say that most contemporary autocrats don’t wipe out all dissent, such as Mussolini or Castro did, but merely sideline “key players” opposed to their government. These players include opposition politicians, business leaders, and cultural or religious figures who have good standing with the populace.

Rules: To entrench power, autocrats must also change the rules of the game, such as altering constitutions and electoral systems to tilt the playing field against opponents. Example: post-Reconstruction Southern states. To circumvent the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, Southern white Democrats used anti-democratic poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent blacks from voting, which consolidated white power in the South for a hundred years.

“Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled—even as it happens before their eyes.”

How Democracies Die points out that autocrats often take advantage of national crises, which allow them to break free from democratic institutions, often legally. Defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.

Example 1: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment of Japanese-Americans, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, was an outright subversion of democracy, and a black mark in an otherwise exemplary presidency.

Example 2: after 911, the controversial USA Patriot Act, signed into law by George W. Bush, “never would have passed had the September 11 attacks not occurred the previous month.” But Americans, including a bipartisan Congress, gave Bush a pass.

And then there are those leaders that invent crisis, like Adolf Hitler. No one knows for certain whether, as Hitler and Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels claimed, a communist Dutchman set fire to the Reichstag on February 27, 1933. Some historians believe the Nazis did it themselves. Nonetheless, it ushered in a thunderstorm of Nazi barbarism that didn’t end until a dozen years later.

(To be continued)


Burning of the German Reichstag

20 thoughts on “Book Review of “How Democracies Die” – Guardians at the Gate

  1. Hi Peter: thanks for precasting the book, segment by segment. I am admittedly a conservative by nature, but I do like to read another person’s point of view. It broadens the perspective. Have a good summer read!

    • Thanks, Phil, my pleasure. I don’t consider longitudes an “echo chamber,” so I love hearing differing perspectives (as long as they’re not insulting, sarcastic, or juvenile, ala so many exchanges on Facebook). I frequently disagree with my friend Tad, but we have some great debates. Also, I definitely lean leftward (mainly on gun control and environment), but I am moderate, and even conservative on some issues.

      As I’ll profile later on – although Dems are somewhat guilty – this book assigns heavy blame to U.S. conservative Republicans for our current polarization, and it began long before Trump. I will be anxious to hear your thoughts!

      • Hi Peter!
        I think the polarization started with the blossoming of conservative talk radio. Prior to that, I think we have happily digested a full meal of media-filtered news, myself included. With the coronation of Rush Limbaugh as the spokesman for the right, a segment of the US population found a likable diversion from the main stream media.
        It’s not that were looking for “other news”, but he presented a logic that deflated a lot of the emotion that drives MSM popularity. With that, he, and the many hosts in his camp started to articulate differences in political stripe and philosophies. So, it’s not like it was the Republicans who designed this, but rather the media. There is a vast group of people who have found their voice.
        Today, that voice has been amplified by Trump, who has at every opportunity put down the MSM as a voice of the left.
        We are in strange territory; I can only say that I have worked for people like Trump, and see similarities. They hang on to a pendulum, which I think is the great strength of American democracy. It swings so far, and then it swings back. We are waiting for the next person to come along who just works best. We’ll see.
        I am sending along my link from a post that I wrote after Trump was elected. It’s not a defense, but my explanation as to how we got to here. Thanks for writing!

      • I remember reading your post-election post, Phil, and think I may have commented.

        I’m not sure Limbaugh presents any “logic,” although I don’t listen to him, so I’m no expert. And I’m not sure the “voice” that most modern-day conservatives have found is a healthy one, or is even couched in reality. And while the pendulum does indeed swing, a lot of damage can be done when it swings too far and shatters the things many of us value. But I’ll get to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s analysis of when and how our U.S. polarization started. Conservative media (not just radio) had much to do with it, but there were other forces. Stay tuned.

      • Listening to Rush Limbaugh is an exercise that probably half the “listening population” would find difficult, but the other half would find quite entertaining. It’s in our genes I think. It’s not that we are cut from the same cloth at all, more like the Mars and Venus argument about men and women. I think the voice of modern day liberals is just as “unhealthy” if you have to put a label to it, and I don’t like to. The reality is, there is a vast group of people who are not having a good time here, and the political class, both sides, has not been able to make things better. As for the pendulum swinging, I have ducked it several times over a working career, and things tend to right themselves. The world didn’t come to an end with Clinton, Bush, or Obama, as was constantly threatened, and I don’t think the world will come to an end with Trump. It’s just an uncomfortable change we encounter as a legacy of prior events. I will stay tuned!

      • I think you hit the nail on the head, Phil, by describing Limbaugh as less a journalist than “entertainer.” And I would add, one who specializes in a particularly brutal brand of entertainment, and which has a profound effect on how people vote, and our elected representatives and how they legislate (this is covered in the book). My opinion is we need fewer screamers and dividers and more whisperers and uniters, whether they’re “fun” to listen to or not (and that applies both right and left).

        You may not have been hit on the head by that pendulum, which is fortunate. But there are many who have, and they have an awfully hard time getting back on their feet. (Some never do.) As a conservationist, I know a few good mountaintops in West Virginia that will never return. Yes, some things tend to right themselves, and the world will not end with Trump. But his behavior and actions have devastating consequences for many people, and many things. That’s why books like this are being written.

        We’ll talk again!

      • Rush is not a brutal screamer, but I know a few conservative hosts who are, and they are disturbing. Rush is actually a clever rationalizer; he makes sense out of the politics of the day. Though clearly he feels that liberals and democrats have the wrong ideas, he isn’t one to call for the tumbrils. Entertaining, yes. Thoughtful, yes. One-sided, yes. Brutal screamer absolutely not. I look forward to your next segment!

      • I used the word “screamer” rhetorically, not in a vocal volume sense, and I stand by what I say. And I find comments like “Journalists are simply leftists disguised as reporters” (among many others) to be brutish, hardly “rational” or “thoughtful,” insulting, and even dangerous. Obviously, Phil, you’re a fan of Limbaugh. That’s your prerogative. I’ll get my entertainment elsewhere.

      • No need to worry about hard feelings, Phil, and I haven’t “dismissed” you! I hope you’ll come back for when I summarize the book chapter “The Unraveling.” The authors touch on exactly what we’re discussing. Peace!

  2. I enjoyed this post, Pete. As an Australian, I only see US life and politics from the outside, but I can see some parallels with what’s happening here. We have a far right movement as well, and recently it’s gained political clout as well, but I’m inclined to think it’s social media manipulation rather than traditional media that’s underpining its rise. Traditional media are often seen as ‘the Establishment’ or even as ‘the Enemy’. Social media, on the other hand, is seen as a way of freeing people from the tyranny of the elites who used to control them. Sound famliar?

    Sadly, what most ordinary people don’t know is that social media is run by algorithms that are designed to present them with more of whatever they have liked in the past. And not just more, but an /escalation/ of whatever that thing may be.

    For example, as an atheist, I’d probably be shown more and more stuff about how the religious far right is evil incarnate. Alternatively, if I were a religious person, I’d be shown articles and posts about how evil non-believers [like me] really are. Given that there are countless examples of both scenarios, whipping up a storm of emotion is not that hard to do.

    Because the algorithms exploit a natural human tendency to seek out the familiar and shun the ‘other’, this has led to the growth of ‘filter bubbles’ that hone and magnify underlying beliefs. I stress the word belief because these bubbles are not designed to show opposing points of view, other interpretations of facts or even ‘real facts’ vs ‘fake facts’. They are only designed to amplify something that’s there already.

    So people on social media believe they’ve finally found a voice for their own, particular worldview, and very few actively search outside the comfort zone of those entrenched beliefs.

    I have no idea how this dangerous imbalance can be rectified, but I, too, fear how much damage is done before a) the power of the tech companies is recognzied and b) that power is regulated to rebalance the four pillars of society.

    • Thanks for your insightful comment, Meeka. I agree completely that social media exacerbates our beliefs and prejudices. Especially Facebook, with its bombardment of ads and suggestions. It’s one reason I rarely go there anymore (twice in the last six months?). WordPress and other blogs also encourage people to seek those writers/posters who are like-minded (perhaps like you and me!). Message boards, Twitter accounts… you name it. “Echo chamber” is everywhere.

      But in America, it’s gone way beyond a far right movement on social media. We now have politicians who legislate based on how Fox News or Rush Limbaugh will react, or based on a scorecard kept by powerful lobby groups like Americans for Tax Reform and the National Rifle Association. These folks used to be on the fringe (like the anti-communist John Birch Society). Not anymore. Books by conservatives like Ann Coulter paint all liberals and Democrats as being godless, un-American, terrorist-enablers, and worse. And the books are bestsellers! President Tweety Bird’s only political credential was heading a movement to prove President Obama wasn’t born in America – even after Obama publicized his birth certificate… and most conservatives that were polled still believed Tweety! Sadly, Republican politicians are now echoing these far-right groups. “No compromise with the enemy” is their order of the day.

      I fear the only thing that will change things is a major crisis, one that will, sadly, shake this country to its core. It’s pretty ugly here, and I could go on and on. In fact, I will: stay tuned for my next post on “How Democracies Die”!

      • Ouch. I didn’t realise things were that much out of kilter. I sincerely hope it doesn’t take a major crisis to make things change because the whole world is connected now. What affects you in the US will filter down to us in Australia, one way or another.
        As for Facebook…deleted my account soon after the Cambridge Analytica fiasco. Ditto Google. I guess like still calls to like, but I read the discussion on your blog and it was fair minded and civil. That is how intelligent beings are supposed to interact with each other. You and I may share common philosophies but no soap bubbles here. 🙂

      • You’re right, Meeka, we’re all connected. (And on that note, I apologize for the poor example America is now setting.) And I appreciate you calling me “fair minded and civil.” I still believe you can disagree and express opinion without resorting to insult. Policy aside, I wish we had more mature leaders like Obama to set that example.
        Thanks again!

      • I agree, Pete. I was always taught that you don’t win an argument by putting your opponent down with personal slurs. That’s not a win.:/

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