Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—The Unraveling

how democracies die

Young people today might have difficulty with this: at one time in America, the two main political parties shared similarities, and actually showed civility to one another.

As the late, great Lou Reed once sang, “Those were different times.”

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, describe an America in which many conservatives actually voted Democratic, and many liberals actually voted Republican. The conservative South voted solidly Democrat, a tradition that dated to Reconstruction. And the urban Northeast was populated by fiscal conservatives, many of whom were fairly liberal on social issues. (My dad was one of them.) And—hard to believe, now—but white evangelical Protestants actually leaned Democratic.

This era encompassed 100 years of American history. But there was a dirty caveat to this calm bipartisanship: African-Americans were excluded from the democratic process.

With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, which brought black citizens into that process, a sea change occurred in American politics. Previously, heterogeneity characterized both parties. Whereas they divided on the issues of taxes, federal spending, government regulation, and unions, they did agree on race. But with these two Congressional acts, the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights, while the Republican Party became the party of a white status quo.

“In the decades that followed, southern white migration to the Republican Party quickened. The racial appeals of Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and, later on, Ronald Reagan’s coded messages about race communicated to voters that the GOP was the home for white racial conservatives.”

gingrich_1979 (AP Photo)

Newt Gingrich in 1979 (AP Photo)

And while this was occurring, blacks (and, later, other minority groups) not surprisingly supported the party that emphasized human rights.

This is significant, because “for the first time in nearly a century, partisanship and ideology converged.” (The bold type is mine.) Today, the two parties are divided not only by policy, but they also represent, as How Democracies Die aptly displays, “different communities, cultures, and values.” This polarization was exacerbated by religion, especially after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, and Ronald Reagan’s outreach in the 1980s to the so-called “Moral Majority”: white Christians opposed to legalized abortion, gay marriage (later), and who advocated school prayer.

How Democracies Die says that this ideological separation occurs in other Western nations, such as Britain, Germany, and Sweden. However, these nations don’t have parties exhibiting the same hostility as in the U.S. Part of this may be due to America’s long history of only two major parties, so the “anger” is less diffused. But that doesn’t explain all of it.

Levitsky and Ziblatt note that, while both parties have shifted closer to the fringes, this polarization has been “asymmetric, moving the Republican Party more sharply to the right than it has moved Democrats to the left.” They cite a 1964 essay by historian Richard Hofstadter that discusses “status anxiety,” which occurs “when groups’ social status, identity, and sense of belonging are perceived to be under existential threat. This leads to a style of politics that is ’overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic.’” The authors conclude that Hofstadter’s essay is far more relevant today than when it was written.


Bill Clinton

What is the “existential threat”? It is the changing demographic landscape in America. Blacks, Latinos, gays, non-Christians, and other once- disenfranchised groups (most of whom vote Democratic) are growing, and Christian Caucasians (most of whom vote Republican) see their numbers slipping.

The authors cite many events and trends since the Nixon administration’s “Enemies List” and illegal wiretaps—the latter condemned and punished via bipartisan gatekeeping—that indicate with clarity why political “mutual toleration” and “institutional forbearance” (recall that these are the unwritten rules, or the glue that binds democracies) have become obsolete. I’ll highlight a few of them:

Newt Gingrich: the former GOP Speaker of the House began his Congressional career in 1978 in Georgia with a “cutthroat vision of politics” that “questioned his Democratic rivals’ patriotism.” His team actually distributed memos to Republican candidates encouraging them to use pejorative descriptors to characterize their Democratic opponents, such as “pathetic, sick, bizarre, betray, anti-flag, anti-family, and traitors.” Gingrich encouraged a no-compromise style of political hardball, and “was one of the first Republicans to exploit” severe polarization as a political tactic.

Filibuster abuse: before the 1970s, the annual number of filibuster attempts never exceeded seven, but “by 1993-94, the number had reached eighty,” under a GOP minority in Congress hostile to the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Clinton hostility: “Senate Republicans…pushed aggressively for investigations into a series of dubious scandals, most notably a Clinton 1980s land deal in Arkansas (the so-called Whitewater investigation).” They followed this by appointing independent counsel Kenneth Starr to investigate. When Gingrich became Speaker in a GOP landslide in 1994, the party “adopted a ‘no compromise’ approach—a signal of ideological purity to the party base—that brazenly rejected forbearance in pursuit of victory by ‘any means necessary.’” This bore fruit with a five-day government shutdown in 1995; a 21-day government shutdown in 1996; and reached its “apogee” with the impeachment of Bill Clinton in December 1998 for lying to a grand jury about extramarital sex. It was a strictly partisan maneuver by a Republican House to bring down Clinton.

delay (pablo martinez monsivais_ap)

Tom DeLay (photo Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP)

“In an act without precedent in U.S. history, House Republicans had politicized the impeachment process, downgrading it…to ‘just another weapon in the partisan wars.’”

Tom DeLay: Gingrich left Congress in 1999, but his brutal style of no-compromise politics was inherited by a Texan, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. DeLay “shared Gingrich’s partisan ruthlessness,” packing lobbying firms “with Republican operatives” (the K Street Project) and starting a “pay-to-play system that rewarded lobbyists with legislation based on their support for GOP officeholders.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt accuse DeLay of carrying “routine norm breaking into the twenty-first century.”  Longitudes accuses him of idiocy, based on statements like “God wrote the Constitution.”

(I’ll pick up with the 21st century next time…there’s sadly much more, starting with the explosion of propagandistic conservative media outlets that began during the Clinton years.)

18 thoughts on “Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—The Unraveling

  1. All excellent points. I read a lot of articles on these topics but especially on how LBJ’s Civil Rights Act “lost the South for a generation.” As it happens, I am currently reading the fourth volume of Caro’s multi-part series on LBJ’s life. This is the best history I have ever read. I am up to the part where Johnson has been chosen as VP, so this is all pre-assassination.

    In addition to the things you state, I think one of the problems in this country is we’ve never really resolved what this country wants to be when it grows up. We have this constant never-ending battle between people who want a strong Federal government and those who don’t. One president does something; another one undoes it. But I will say that those who oppose the idea of a multicultural majority/minority country have as much chance of preventing that as holding back the ocean with a spoon. They can curtail immigration but the country is gonna get browner. They need to deal with it.

    • Four volumes on LBJ? I applaud you, sir. He was a complex man, from what I’ve heard, and a perfect example of the lost species of conservative Southern Democrat. His thorny relationship with Bobby Kennedy is probably a book in itself.

      I really like your statement “We’ve never really resolved what this country wants to be when it grows up.” We’re not that old, and this never-ending ping-pong game we play is very tiresome. Probably the price we pay for a two-party liberal democracy. And you’re right about our growing multi-cultural makeup. Despite certain unnamed states and feds of a scarlet hue, feverishly trying to plug the dike with immigration laws, travel bans, voter ID laws, and gerrymandering… the levee’s breaking.

  2. Well, hey now, I should say that that’s literally over a period of years, those four volumes. But it is not a slog. Absolutely gripping, like a well-written novel. It goes into the LBJ/RFK blood feud and I just got done reading the machinations that Bobby tried to pull to get Johnson off the ticket. As to the back and forth, there are just so many people in the country still afraid of a central government. I mean, I get it. And lately, I understand that fear more than I used to. But minus some level of federal government, that way lies chaos. “States’ rights” has always been a smokescreen for let’s deny someone the rights a federal government would allow. I mean it’s just crap. I’m so fed up.

    • Anyone who’s read “1984,” like me, fears an all-powerful central government. At the same time, we have one of the best systems of government worldwide, and it can help citizens (and air, water, trees and wolves) in ways that private entities and the states can’t, or won’t.

  3. Pete, while I have yet to read the book, How Democracy Dies concerns me.
    I’ve been long enough in this country to have lived from Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon (I had a lottery number and a draft card – we survived), Ford Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama….Trump.
    One Helluva list, huh?
    Lots of talk, horror, disdain, disbelief from the Democrats about our current direction.

    I have yet to see any Democrat candidate emerge as a contender to usurp our current administration.
    There is an opportunity, Trump lost the popular by 2.8 million votes.
    That means there are 2.8 million citizens currently not satisfied.

    What real candidate can achieve the Presidency and keep our Democracy ?
    Don’t tell me Sanders, Warren …

    • Oprah?

      (just kidding)… To answer your question… now that libs can see what happens when you don’t get off your butt and vote, I think Sanders or Warren (definitely Sanders) would bury Tweety in 2020. I stopped donating to the Democratic Party, though, so maybe they’ll run short of cash.

      As far as “keep(ing) our democracy,” as this book points out, it’s a slow crawl downward, and we haven’t reached the bottom yet. I don’t think any one presidential candidate can do anything. The stench extends into Congress and state governments. I believe our current party system is largely to blame. Republicans have abdicated their responsibility to democracy, and Democrats obviously can’t manufacture candidates to overcome the conservative media onslaught. Lately, I’m thinking a mandatory multi-party system isn’t a bad idea. Divide both parties into extremes and/or moderates (Liberal Democrats, Moderate Democrats, Conservative Republicans, Moderate Republicans), then throw in a 5th party for grins and giggles (Libertarian, or Green, or the “Humor Party”… whatever). This idea would diffuse power, AND diffuse anger, thereby decreasing the polarization and (hopefully) preventing train wrecks like Trump.

      Your thoughts?

  4. Again enjoying this take and comments. Good stuff. The whole LBJ thing always interested me. I guess it’s time CB turned off the films and the music and grab some light reading. Very interesting Pete.

  5. Pete,
    in our democracy we have navigated with forward looking Presidents.
    Lincoln, Roosevelt (F), Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson – each whatever their faults embraced our nations constitutional ideal.
    Sad fact – Kasich, Romney, Bush (J) reflect our Nations values.
    Sad fact – they are all Republicans.

    Democratic contenders who could stand up to Trump who we could rally around and get the vote for ?
    Tongue in cheek you mentioned Oprah…my north east lib bias suggests Michael Bloomberg.
    Want to go full Oprah…? Mark Cuban.
    Both have the intellect and ability to shoot back snark that would disarm Trump.

    Unfortunately there is no one in either our Democratic Congress or Senate strong enough to out “personality” Trump.
    This is perhaps one of the most important elections in our Nations history.
    It will define our country for the next generations.

    Short of Impeachment we have 1 year (2 ’till election) to present a Democratic candidate.
    Lets remember we once thought that McGovern, Dukakis, McCarthy (aka Sanders, Warren) might capture our countries imagination – all in the Presidential trash heap.

    Believe me, we need to change, but both you and the rest of your readers – present me with a real list of Democrats who will win the popular by 2.5 million and grab the electoral count.
    Be realistic, not idealistic.


    • I’ll be honest, Rob, I get so angry when I see or hear the news these days, I avoid it. So I can’t give you an educated opinion on viable Dem candidates. I like Bloomberg, an Independent, though. I mentioned him in a blog post two years ago. Fiscal moderate, and social liberal. A billionaire who, unlike Trump, has a brain. And a heart (he joined The Giving Pledge to give away half his wealth). I also like his strong advocacy of gun control. Unfortunately, like you said, this nation puts a premium on personality (and looks). Trump is the most repellant person we’ve ever seen, on just about every front, but he makes money for people. And that’s what matters in America, and he knows it.

      I’m not sure about your “the most important” election statement. I hear that every four years. This Supreme Court 5-4 conservative majority appears unshakeable. We saw how the GOP behaved with the Merrick Garland nomination. Despicable. But what can you do? Most Americans probably don’t even know how many justices are on the Supreme Court. Sorry to be a downer, but I think it will take a major crisis in this country to wake people up, like another Great Depression, or a national citizen upheaval , or a climate catastrophe never before seen. Our president behaves worse than a tawdry third world leader, yet supposedly 88% of Republicans (those who haven’t left the party) still support him, so that about tells you everything you need to know about America right now.

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