BrooklynFans Of Books: Levitsky & Ziblatt On “How Democracies Die”

(President Donald J. Trump)

How Democracies Die

By Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Broadway Books; paperback; $15.00; available today, January 8

Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have long studied the demise of foreign democratic governments and could no longer ignore the signs of impending crisis they were seeing at home when Donald Trump became President.

When How Democracies Die was published in January 2018, the United States marked its first year under Trump. American politics and its politicians had dangerously damaged the boundaries that have sustained American democracy for nearly 250 years.

Their revealing, bracing look at the fall of liberal democracies around the world, with a road map for rescuing our own, was hailed for its sound argument and cogent analysis of the threats facing American democracy.

One year later, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s warning has never felt as urgent, and with the paperback release of How Democracies Die, they are calling citizens’ attention once more to the perils we face, including:

  • Trump’s removal of the “referees” – agencies with the authority to investigate and punish wrongdoing: the firing of FBI director James Comey, the forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his lack of “loyalty,” and continued threats against the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, among others.
  • Republican-led efforts by state governments in Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina to redraw legislation, substantially curbing the power of incoming elected Democrats in a flagrant violation of existing norms.
  • The president’s and other elected officials’ challenges to the legitimacy of the midterm election results and the overall U.S. electoral process.
  • The intensification of Trump’s base in the wake of the midterms and in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election
  • Pressure on the new House Democratic majority to adopt the hardball tactics practiced by the GOP and the escalating dynamics of partisan animosity and norm erosion
  • Continued attacks upon the free press

Levitsky and Ziblatt have studied the death of democracy in other countries for twenty years. On there being a particular moment that made them realize they needed to turn their attention toward the United States, “In 2015, we both began to get this eerily creeping feeling that we had seen this movie before. At first it was just small echoes – hearing candidates accusing rivals of being disloyal, railing against the media, or working crowds into a frenzy by encouraging violence. Throughout the 2015-16 presidential primary season, we were worried and talked to each other a lot about these echoes. But for both of us, a big turning point came when Donald Trump won the nomination. The Republican Party establishment appeared utterly helpless in the face of a demagogue’s insurgency. In our minds, something pernicious was afoot. This same dynamic had taken place in Europe between the two world wars, when demagogues had taken over political parties that had been mainstream, and similar things also happened in Latin America, when establishment politicians made deals with outside insurgents, thinking they could be contained. We know that this sort of hostile takeover, whether allowed by the establishment out of opportunism, cowardice, or fear, is a precursor to bad things. And when, in the last days of the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump refused to promise he would abide by the results of the election, we realized we were in dangerous new terrain.”

On how they would rate the state of American democracy one year since the hardcover publication of How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt said, “Our response is mixed. On the one hand, many of our core democratic institutions are functioning as they should. On various occasions, for example, the courts have done their job and checked abuse. So too have state governments. The media has also played an important role in exposing wrongdoing. And as we saw in November 2018, elections continue to be an effective mechanism for the opposition. On the other hand, the polarization and norm erosion we identified in the book continue unabated. Since the book’s publication, we have seen egregious instances of constitutional hardball, such as the impeachment of the supreme court in West Virginia, the Georgia secretary of state’s effort to disqualify likely voters for his rival in the gubernatorial race, and Wisconsin’s legislature’s lame-duck (and late-night) vote to radically curtail the powers of the incoming governor. So American democracy has survived the first two years of Trump’s presidency, but the soft guard rails protecting our democracy continue to weaken.”

How Democracies Die makes clear that democracy requires vigilance, and we cannot become complacent. As the history of other countries has shown, democracy cannot self-sustain. “Ultimately, American democracy depends on us – the citizens of the United States,’ write Levitsky and Ziblatt. “No single political leader can end a democracy; no single leader can rescue one, either. Democracy is a shared enterprise. Its fate depends on all of us.”

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