Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—Unwritten Rules of the Game


how democracies die

For those of you late to the game, I’ve been reviewing a recently released book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt called How Democracies Die. The gist of this book is that democracies usually don’t die via military coups, but instead crumble from within, via legitimate elections and failures of “gatekeeping” measures, and that conscientiousness on the part of political parties is the best guarantor of maintaining democracy.


Americans are justly proud of their Constitution, which frames our government, and stipulates a federal separation of powers, the rights and responsibilities of state governments, and which includes 27 important amendments (the first ten of which are known as the Bill of Rights). I’ve talked with a few people who feel America’s constitution (our written “rules of the game”—see previous post) is so strong, that our country is impervious to democratic breakdown.

But Levitsky and Ziblatt say that America’s constitution is often vague and ambivalent and susceptible to radically different interpretations. Also, the U.S. Constitution has been used as a model, almost verbatim, in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and the Philippines, yet those nations nonetheless plunged themselves into dictatorships (under Juan Perón, Getúlio Vargas, and Ferdinand Marcos, respectively). Germany’s Weimar Republic had a constitution “designed by some of the country’s greatest legal minds,” yet it “collapsed rapidly in the face of Adolf Hitler’s usurpation of power in 1933.”


Franklin D. Roosevelt

The authors argue that, while written rules of the game are important, along with referees to enforce them (e.g. judiciary), these work best in conjunction with unwritten rules, or basic norms, such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

Mutual toleration is the idea that “we may disagree with, and even strongly dislike, our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate.”

And institutional forbearance means “avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.”

Think of democracy as a game that we want to continue playing indefinitely. To ensure future rounds of the game, players must refrain from either incapacitating the other team or antagonizing them, to such a degree, that they refuse to play again tomorrow….In politics, this often means eschewing dirty tricks or hardball tactics in the name of civility and fair play.

The authors cite certain powers held by the executive and legislative branches that are vaguely addressed in the U.S. Constitution, or not at all, but both branches have adhered to certain unwritten rules regarding them. For example, the Constitution doesn’t limit the number of terms during which a president can preside. However, all U.S. presidents since George Washington, other than one, have limited themselves to two terms in office.

The Constitution also does not limit the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court. However all presidents (again, other than one) have adhered to the unwritten rule of limiting the court to nine justices.

Additionally, the U.S. Congress has the power to filibuster (which the framers designed to assist minority parties in the Senate), block presidential court and cabinet appointments (“advice and consent”), and impeach. But for most of the country’s history, Congress has exhibited institutional forbearance, courtesy, and “reciprocity” regarding these powers.

How Democracies Die highlights that, excluding the Civil War era, on only three occasions since 1776 have democratic norms (checks and balances) been seriously violated in America:


U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

  1. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt at court packing, his issuance of 3,000 executive orders, and his decision to seek a third term in office. (However, FDR never slipped into autocracy due to bipartisan resistance. Also—due to the dire situations of the Great Depression and WWII, most historians have given FDR a pass, similar to what occurred with Lincoln’s violation of habeas corpus during the Civil War.);
  2. McCarthyism and red-baiting in the 1950s;
  3. Richard M. Nixon’s authoritarianism and illegal activities in the 1970s, which resulted in a looming impeachment and his eventual resignation.

On all three occasions, guardrails held due to bipartisan cooperation. “Episodes of intolerance and partisan warfare never escalated into the kind of ‘death spiral’ that destroyed democracies in Europe in the 1930s and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.”

But the authors state that, beginning with civil rights legislation in the 1960s, things began to slowly change in the United States. Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, which have held our democracy together like cement on brick, have increasingly become passé.

And over the past few decades, our unwritten rules of the game have been violated at an alarming rate, creating a toxic atmosphere that has allowed a Donald Trump to attain the highest office in the land. Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss this trend in a powerful chapter entitled “The Unraveling.”

I’ll tackle that chapter next time.


10 thoughts on “Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—Unwritten Rules of the Game

  1. Good forbearance on your part, Pete. I just now saw your response to my comment on a previous post. No argument here that Trump is the logical result of years of race-baiting, not to mention our worship of wealth, celebrity and the power of TV. (I have no idea if the authors say any of that but that’s my take on the whole thing.) I note that Trump recently not only dissed the NATO powers but actually said – and I saw this reported on Fox News of all places – that the “EU is our foe.” Now, to quote him exactly, he said the EU is our foe in trade. But regardless, in what way is the EU our foe? It’s very, very clear he would vastly prefer we align ourselves with world authoritarians rather than with democratic, freedom-loving countries. Bill Maher refers to what’s happening now as a slow-moving coup. He does not believe that Trump will willingly leave office. Anyway, I will HAVE to read this book. The sad thing is that many of the people who should read it never will.

    • As is usual, Jim, I agree with you completely about our “worship of wealth, celebrity, and the power of TV.” When I wrote about Trump in 2015 or ’16, a reader commented about what a terrible leader he would be, but that she was looking forward to Trump’s appearance on SNL. I agreed with her, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking “Is this where we’re headed? Are we now electing people because they’re good ‘song and dance men’?

      As for my “forbearance,” I guess there’s a first time for everything. I’ve been doing this gig for six years and roughly 150 posts, and this cockroach’s comment is the first time I was rendered speechless.

      • My sister once asked me why I didn’t do a political blog. That’s why. Way too many bigots and haters in the world. If I want to talk to them, I can go on the comments section of pretty much any news article. I do not want to engage with them at all. I know you don’t. But that’s what happens.

      • Most folks that come to this blog are pretty intelligent, even the ones I disagree with. But crazy as it sounds, I’m actually glad this person chose to publicize his foolishness. Anti-Semitism is real, and his poison dribble is a good reminder of the warped thinking that helps bring demagogues to power.

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