Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—More Unraveling

how democracies die

Longtime readers of this blog probably know that I lean leftward politically. So maybe I should offer a disclaimer now: my intention here isn’t to “stab” Republicans and conservatives. (I’m a middle-aged white male, so most of my peers and friends—those few that I have—are Republicans.  If that means anything.)

But I’m offering a synopsis of a book.  Also, I’ve never subscribed to today’s fashionable tendency toward “equalization” in all things, especially regarding political parties.  Political parties exist because their members differ on the issues, and they often differ radically. And while they share certain behaviors, in many ways they also behave differently.  And I don’t think this can be disputed.

History has shown numerous examples of political parties around the globe that cease to exist because they overextended themselves.

How Democracies Die illustrates how and why the Republican Party has shifted so far to the political fringe, much more so than the Democratic Party, and I touched on this in my last post. In this post, I’ll briefly list more examples of why authors Levitsky and Ziblatt feel both parties have abandoned their roles as democratic gatekeepers, yet conservative Republicans have far exceeded Democrats in an “unraveling” of democracy in the United States.

2000 Presidential Election: a U.S. presidential election was determined, not by voters, but by a court, when the Supreme Court ruled (in a 5-4 conservative opinion) to cease a recount of votes in a too-close-to-call election in the state of Florida.  The end of the vote recount resulted in a narrow Electoral College victory by Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore (Gore won the popular vote).

limbaugh (Huff)

Conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh (photo Huffington Post)

Tom DeLay and Karl Rove: while Bush promised to be a bipartisan president, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay reportedly told him “’We don’t work with Democrats. There’ll be none of that uniter-divider stuff.’” Bush’s political consultant, another Texan named Karl Rove, pushed Bush to govern “hard to the right.”

Senate Democrats: Democrats responded to the Bush presidency’s hard-right governing by “routinely filibustering Bush proposals they opposed” and rejecting or ignoring Bush’s judicial nominations. The 110th Congress filibustered “an all-time high of 139—nearly double that of even the Clinton years.” Later, during the Obama presidency, Senate Democrats responded to Republicans’ obstructionism of a Dem president by voting for a so-called “nuclear option” that eliminated the filibuster for most presidential nominations. Obama himself engaged in norm-breaking with unilateral executive actions in the face of “an increasingly dysfunctional Congress.”

House Republicans: “If Democrats eschewed forbearance to obstruct the president (Bush), Republicans did so in order to protect him.” The Republican House of Representatives essentially abandoned the practice of “regular order” which allowed minority parties to amend legislation, and began introducing bills under “closed rules.” The authors point out that the GOP-ruled House “conducted 140 hours of sworn testimony investigating whether President Clinton had abused the White House Christmas card list,” yet didn’t once subpoena the Bush White House, even during the controversial Iraq War.

palin (AP)

Former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (photo AP News)

State redistricting: the longstanding norm of state redistricting every ten years to maintain equal populations was shattered by Texas Republicans (led by DeLay) when, in 2003, they gerrymandered in order to isolate black and Latino voters and ensure Democratic defeat. It worked. “Six Texas congressional seats changed hands from Democrats to Republicans in 2004, helping to preserve Republican control of the House.” Racial gerrymandering by Republicans continues today, most notably in the state of North Carolina, which contains what one NC pastor called “apartheid voting districts.” It worked there, too. In 2012, although more Democrats than Republicans cast votes statewide, nine of North Carolina’s 13 congressional seats were won by Republicans.

Conservative media: during the Clinton years, “the emergence of Fox News and influential radio talk-show personalities—what political commentator (and former Bush speechwriter) David Frum calls the ‘conservative entertainment complex’—radicalized conservative voters, to the benefit of ideologically extreme candidates.” While the authors give Bush credit for not questioning his Democratic rivals’ patriotism during anti-Muslim hysteria following 911, they point out this was not the case with conservative commentators. “Commentators began at times to link Democrats to Al Qaeda—as Rush Limbaugh did in 2006, when he accused Senator Patrick Leahy of ‘taking up arms for Al Qaeda’ after Leahy probed Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito on the Bush administration’s use of torture.”

Conservative writer Ann Coulter joined the hue and cry with books featuring simplistic and melodramatic titles that portrayed Democrats and liberals as an existential threat: Slander, Treason, and Guilty. Not satisfied with these histrionics, she employed religion to emphasize her point: Godless and Demonic.

The authors say this “right-wing media ecosystem” reached a watershed with Barack Obama’s ascension to the presidency. He was cast, by Fox News and others, as “Marxist, anti-American, and secretly Muslim” and linked with terrorists like Chicago professor and ex-Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, because Ayers had hosted a gathering for Obama in 1995. Fox News filled its programming with “at least sixty-one different episodes during (Obama’s) 2008 campaign” discussing the Ayers story.

McConnell (Reuters)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (photo Reuters)

Levitsky and Ziblatt say that the most disturbing aspect of this “right-wing media ecosystem” isn’t so much the extremism of the media itself, but its enormous popularity amongst right-leaning voters, and that its influence has, more now than ever before, seeped into the words and actions of powerful and influential Republican politicians:

Newt Gingrich: Obama is “the first anti-American president.”

Tom DeLay: “…unless Obama proves me wrong, he’s a Marxist.”

Iowa GOP Congressman Steve King: Obama is “anti-American” and will lead America into “totalitarian dictatorship.”

Sarah Palin: Obama has been “palling around with terrorists.”  (Words that elicit, from her fawning crowds, cries of “Treason!,” “Terrorist!,” and even “Kill him!”)

Rudy Giuliani: “I do not believe that the president (Obama) loves America.”

Ted Cruz: Obama is a “threat to the rule of law.”

Donald Trump: “I have people who have been studying (Obama’s not being born in America).”

Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott has admitted that “If you stray the slightest from the far right, you get hit by the conservative media.”

The combination of slanted conservative media coverage (read: propaganda) and reckless statements by conservative political leaders has been shown to profoundly effect voters:

According to a 2011 Fox News poll, 37 percent of Republicans believed that President Obama was not born in the United States, and 63 percent said they had some doubts about his origins. Forty-three percent of Republicans reported believing he was a Muslim in a CNN/ORC poll, and a Newsweek poll found that a majority of Republicans believed President Obama favored the interests of Muslims over those of other religions.

Even during a time of national crisis, such as the 2008 recession, Republican leaders refused to exercise bipartisanship. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced, immediately following Obama’s election, the “single most important thing we want to achieve (in the Senate) is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”


Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (with President Obama)

And after Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, 2016, the GOP-ruled Senate refused to hold nomination hearings for Obama’s replacement choice, Merrick Garland—a moderate with more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in history—claiming it was too close to the November presidential election. It was an unprecedented act, yet another partisan maneuver to give Republicans an edge, this time to maintain a 5-4 conservative majority on the Court.  And it worked. Republican Donald Trump was elected, he nominated conservative Neil Gorsuch, and Gorsuch was confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.


Recall that, at one time in America, the two major parties were able to restrict extremists, such as Henry Ford, Father Coughlin, and John Birch Society leaders, to the fringes of the political landscape. Political gatekeeping, mutual toleration, institutional forbearance, and a respect for norms and unwritten rules were the order of the day. Political leaders exhibited moderation, restraint, and civility (in varying degrees).

By the election of 2016, however, “open attacks on President Obama’s legitimacy (and later, Hillary Clinton’s) were carried out by leading national politicians.” Also recall that such questioning of the legitimacy of one’s opponent is one hallmark of democracies that have crumbled elsewhere in the world. This disturbing trend has allied itself with an almost total abdication of institutional forbearance, as exemplified by the Senate’s unprecedented blocking of the Merrick Garland nomination.

Enter Donald Trump.

27 thoughts on “Book Review: “How Democracies Die”—More Unraveling

  1. Hi Peter! I read your post, and kudos for your research on the topic.
    I have been puzzling over the difference between liberals and conservatives. Why is it that we can get along perfectly well in all aspects, but when it comes to politics, we have differences of opinion which can run skin deep, but in fact sometimes run bone deep as you so well described in your latest.
    I found a fascinating article which I cannot source at this time. Give me time; I will find it. But as I suspected, there is a biological difference between libs and cons. This makes sense to me, but I can’t prove it yet.
    What I do know, is that when I listen to progressive radio, I always feel detached, and not comfortable. When I listen to Rush Limbaugh, I feel comfortable and reinforced. I regularly look at Huffington Post, and feel put off; when I scan the Drudge Report, I feel validated. What is that?
    So… I found this research that a journalist had posted, where he has put it down to our mental wiring. It’s different, kind of like PC vs. Mac.
    But here is what he posits: Conservative minded people have a larger Right Amygdala, which is part of the brain. Liberals have a larger Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Also part of the old melon. It turns out that the Conservative Right Amygdala processes fear. The Liberal Anterior Cingulate Cortex processes conflict and ambiguity.
    There is some common sense in this. Conservatives avoid change, Liberals navigate change. If you are in the media, or a pundit, or God help you, a professional politician, this is your guiding light for all communications, posturing, and rhetoric. In short, it dictates the narrative.
    So, I apologize for taking so much of your post space, but I see that as the fundamental difference between us, if it holds true. As far as the argument for the death of democracy, I have to wait and see, but I have great faith in our systems and people to keep us from dissolving into a black hole. Thanks as always for the posts! PS, and I also think you are a good guy.

    • Hey Phil, I can relate to what you say about what this journalist said about there being a biological (brain) difference between liberals and conservatives. I’ve noticed that many engineers and businessmen tend to lean rightward. Whereas artists (musicians, writers, painters, actors (“liberal” Hollywood!)) lean leftward. I’m a technical writer and do a lot of engineering-related work, but I also dabble in writing and music, which might explain why I’m a three (on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being most liberal, I’m about a three). I’m sure there’s something there about how our hemispheres are put together.

      I think you’re a good guy, too. I also appreciate your patience and understanding, as I know you’re probably squirming with what I’ve written! All the best, from one Tom Rush fan to another.

    • I feel your pain, Neil (or, rather, nausea). I’d place Gingrich and maybe Cruz on a slightly higher plane than the other two, who are loose cannons and truly dangerous, but all four are divisive figures that have helped widen and deepen the trench between the parties. I wish more moderate Republicans (McCain, Susan Collins, Bob Dole, Eisenhower) could rein in those further right, but moderates in that party are a distinct minority these days. The left has its radicals and wingnuts, too, but I don’t see the same “Win at all costs,” “You’re either with us or against us” mentality.

  2. I could name a few, but really, what is the point and purpose? We all, both sides, have bigger, better, awesomer, smarter stuff than the other guy, anytime. I am more interested in your book review than naming names.

    • Hey Phil… your “naming names,” sounds like we’re sitting in front of Joe McCarthy! Seriously, if you feel there is an “equalization” here, spill your guts, man! I won’t promise I’ll agree with you… chances are I’ll disagree, maybe strongly… but I’ll do so in a civil manner. Also, I won’t at all claim that “my side” is awesomer or smarter. I know some very dumb liberals (many like to bitch, but they’re unwilling to vote on election night unless they get their perfect candidate… I won’t name names). I’m merely in agreement with the authors that Republicans have done much more “unraveling” than Democrats, possibly due to “status anxiety” that I/they described in my last post. And I think the authors made a good case in their book.

      Hope you understand!

      • My personal list would include Hillary, Tim Kaine, Chuck Shumer, Dick Durbin, Terry McAuliffe, Elizabeth Warren as vocally hard on my Right Amygdala. Strangely, I always admired Bernie for his passion, and was happy to give him time to speak.
        I think the reason you see Republicans in Ninja mode is that they finally had a voice on the radio.
        I like Rush, Michael Medved and a local Wisconsin broadcaster O’Donnell because they appeal strongly to my sense of logic. Then there are several which don’t score intellectually, or are too confrontational, which I avoid: Hannity, Coulter, Savage to name a few.
        All the blather aside, I think today’s political dialogue is extreme because the two sides are seeing their base change with the result that they are losing power, and with that, money. Ironically they leverage the many pains of the electorate to get that power and money back.

      • Thanks for naming names, Phil! (I’ll inform Joe McCarthy.) Just to respond (in list form – hey, I’m a technical writer):

        1. It’s indisputable that Hillary, Kaine, Schumer, etc. have made critical comments about their GOP opponents, on the issues, and probably about their personalities. But that’s politics. Where is the shrill and incessant questioning of their opponents’ legitimacy to participate in the democratic process? (Which is one of the disturbing trends that this book highlights.) Do these Dem politicians, on a regular basis, use slanderous language like “anti-American,” “unpatriotic,” and “terrorist”? Phil, I can cite instances where Trump, and possibly Palin, have actually endorsed and encouraged acts of violence. I’ll dig some out of this book, if you want.

        2. I don’t see Republicans in “Ninja mode” because they have a voice on the radio. I never listen to political talk radio, right or left. Please go back and re-read my last two posts. I discuss (via the book) Gingrich’s memos to demonize Democrats as being “sick” and “pathetic”; the manufactured Clinton scandals; Clinton’s impeachment for extramarital sex; Tom DeLay’s packing of lobbying firms with GOP operatives; the GOP’s beseeching the Supreme Court, rather than voters, to determine a presidential election; racially motivated gerrymandering by state Republicans; an exponential increase in filibustering by both parties, but primarily instigated by the GOP; the GOP Congress shutting down government, twice, to obstruct Clinton; House Republicans abandoning the practice of “regular order”; linking Obama to Al Qaeda by conservative TV and radio hosts, picked up by GOP politicians; the ridiculous “birther” movement, spearheaded by Trump; McConnell and the GOP’s obstruction of Obama during a national crisis; the stonewalling by Republicans after Merrick Garland was nominated. I haven’t yet mentioned, on my blog, the GOP’s pre-election Swift Boat tactics against John Kerry, or its “Lock Her Up!” hysterics against Hillary.

        I don’t think you’ll find “equalization” to all this on the Democratic side. Like you earlier alluded to, conservatives’ “right amygdalas” process fear, and they “avoid change.” When a political party resists change, it lacks ideas, and therefore its only tool to achieve success is to fingerpoint. And if you combine that with fear… you get a style of politics the authors call “overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic.”

        3. I’d like to challenge you, if I may. You say you get uncomfortable listening to progressive talk radio (does this even exist?) and reading Huff Post. But you feel “comfortable and validated” listening to Limbaugh, or reading the “Drudge Report.” Maybe because I studied journalism in college, but it’s easy for me to distinguish between propaganda and news. And I don’t understand why so many people, particularly conservatives, flock to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh, which to me (and others) is blatant right-wing propaganda. Huff Post is the opposite: well-written articles, but nonetheless left-wing propaganda. I’m sure these outlets are entertaining to these folks, because it validates their preconceived beliefs, but how much entertainment does a person need? Don’t people want to occasionally be informed, with solid, unbiased, hard reportage? Believe it or not, it does exist, even today.

        If you don’t already do it, check out “PBS Newshour” in the evenings. It’s a solid hour of straight news, with interviews and unbiased and/or balanced analysis. It doesn’t rely on advertising dollars, so it’s not the “info-tainment” of ABC, CBS, and NBC. Neither is it the slanted blather on the cable stations. For me, it’s the best news on television. In my opinion, if more people relied on it rather than Fox, Limbaugh, MSNBC, or Huff, we’d be a healthier country.

  3. I see that my “brain” theory made it through the gauntlet! And I thought it was just a right brain/left brain issue. In fact, it is a “no brain” issue that we are really up against. If I ever find myself in court defending a claim of rabid, capricious and unreasonable conservatism, I will blame it on my swollen right amygdala, and diminished anterior cingulate cortex. I see law clerks flipping through volumes of medical journals trying to figure that out.

  4. Way back in 1964, Barry Goldwater ran for president as a conservative. He was vilified, declared nuts and lost in a landslide to LBJ, who – while promulgating the Great Society – could hardly be called a liberal. From that day to this, the conservatives never gave up. Because then Reagan came along and became the Great White Hope. And the Buckleys and George Wills of the world were out there. And they – perhaps unwittingly – spawned the Limbaughs, Hannitys, Coulters. And Trump.

    But here’s my point – the right-wing never gave up. They kept their eyes on the prize, such as it was. There is a guy I used to read about lot named Richard Viguerie. who had some kind of genius for marketing which he applied to marketing conservative ideas. He’s called, by Wikipedia, the funding father of modern conservative strategy. The right is MUCH more focused and MUCH better at getting their message out. Hannity, Coulter, Limbaugh all thrive, are widely influential and have vast audiences. Fox? I saw a woman on TV who said she watches it 10 hours/day. Remember progressive radio station Air America, born 2004? Died 2010. The right are a propaganda machine to beat all propaganda machines. Democrats? Great at hand-wringing.

    The whole “No Collusion but if there was collusion it’s not a crime,” is part of the Giuliani/Trump public relations effort. Which they are, BTW, winning. Read this

    • You probably have a point about the effectiveness of conservative PR. But I think a lot of it is they feel their backs against the wall – “status anxiety,” like I said in my last post – which helps unite and radicalize them in safe zones like Fox and talk radio. Before the 2004 election, I volunteered for John Kerry. I still remember the county Dem leader telling me “When the Republicans throw mud, it sticks.” Only a few weeks later and the Swift Boat thing exploded. I wish more Americans could see through this shit, but sadly, they’re sheeple. The big problem with Dems and liberals is that the people who should be voting for them don’t vote: minorities and youth. The biggest voting bloc is middle-aged white males wearing short haircuts. And guess which party they support?

      Yeah, I remember Air America. Million Mom March. Occupy Wall Street (five years later we elect a Wall Street billionaire). Wonder how long March For Our Lives will survive.

      No, of course collusion isn’t a crime. Only if Hillary was president.

      • There is no question that conservatives (many of them in this country) seem to have some sort of persecution thing going on. The media, they believe, is against them, as is Hollywood, universities, the culture, etc. But it must be lonely and challenging when your entire goal seems to be to hold things back from moving forward. Can’t be done.

        BTW, I too volunteered for Kerry! I still have a T-shirt they gave me (“I Called for Change”) and wear it to work out. I used to drive into Boston on Saturdays to make calls and then later to one of the burbs. My biggest frustration (over and above my dislike of making calls) was that nobody I called ever even heard of Kerry or could get a sense of him. It didn’t give me a warm and fuzzy. As to the Swift Boat thing, Kerry should have immediately come out and proclaimed loudly “I am a war hero.” But he wimped out, went parasailing, spoke French and let the swift boaters define him. The Dems bring knives to a gun fight.

      • All of what you said hits home, Jim. Kerry adopted the “I’m above all this silliness” stance, forgetting that America gorges on silliness. Yes, I did the phone calls and door knocking, too. Wrote a lot of letters to the editor, back when people had to actually “write.” You certainly had it easier in Boston than the conservative Cincinnati burbs, though. Occasionally, I was naughty and went offtrail to ring doorbells that weren’t on my list. Boy, that was interesting. Two young brothers told me that 2,000 dead U.S. troops in Iraq “isn’t that bad.” One woman told me that Bush had been chosen by God.

        I don’t know. The highlands of Scotland are looking more and more appealing.

      • No way could I knock no doors. That takes some balls. I won’t even make phone calls anymore largely because i detest people calling me. If people can’t see this guy for what he is, then they deserve him. That said, i think he’s shot himself in the foot enough that he’ll lose at least the House this fall. Unless he can disenfranchise more voters.

      • Re disenfranchising, the GOP is sure helping him out, with the Voting Rights Act being struck down, and red-state gerrymandering. The authors warn of this as a worst-case scenario in their last chapter. A permanent Republican lock on the electoral system.

        My feeling is that he needs to lose both the Senate and House, then lose his head, so it can be placed on a platter in the Smithsonian for Americans to gaze at while they shake their heads and mutter “Where did we go wrong.”

      • Some Americans will think that. What about the trolls who attended his Tampa rally the other night and threw the finger at the news media? Ginning up that kind of anger has only one logical conclusion and I pray it never happens. BTW, your other commenter may be correct in that we’re hard-wired to a certain extent for our political beliefs. But if so, what is it that has made Joe Scarborough and George Will (at least) not only repudiate the GOP but also encourage people to vote Dem? Simple, They thought about it, rebelled and overcame their programming.

      • (“What about the trolls…?”). Yeah, as far as the head-on-a-platter gazing, folks, I was being facetious (I don’t want the backlash that Kathy whats-her-face got). And I was thinking more about future generations of Smithsonian visitors than ours. Hopefully their amygdalas or whatever will have evolved.

        Hear, hear for Scarborough and Will.

  5. HI Peter:
    For a guy who doesn’t listen to radio, there’s no question that you do keep an inventory of stories to support your point. If I had the time, I would do the same.
    I don’t think Huffpost or Drudge Report as entertaining. I find them informative, in that they don’t write the articles, they just scan all the news media to pick up the articles that serve their audience. Their political bias helps dictate what to pick up. We get to decide what to read and think about. The most important rule I live by, and this was from Bill Bennett: “it’s okay to be open-minded; just don’t let your brains fall out.”
    I can leave it at that, thanks! Going on vacation now!

    • I’ve read some articles on Huff Post and generally like them. As I said, I think they’re well-written, I just don’t camp out there. Can’t comment on Drudge, since I’ve never read it, but I’ll take your word there’s a (different) bias. But seriously, give “PBS Newshour” a try, if you haven’t already. I feel the standards and quality are very high, and the relative lack of partisan agenda is refreshing these days.

      Enjoy your vacation!

      • This cartoon slide show is great! Whether the differences in brain physiology is valid or not, I will agree that fear and distrust tends to be a calling card of conservatives, while openness and acceptance is more a liberal trademark (although, lately, some liberals tend to be assigning conditions to “acceptance”).

        If the above is true, let me ask you this: which kind of world would you rather live in? (check out slide #2). A society loaded with Glocks and snarling dogs, or one with open gates and open doors? I’m striving for the latter. I may be naïve sometimes, and I may stumble and fall occasionally in the short term, but I’ll risk it if my granddaughter can inhabit a world like the second half of slide #2, rather than the first half.

        And keeping in tune with that thought… Peace!

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