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How Democracies Die (2018)

by Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5612429,754 (4.31)33
"Donald Trump's presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we'd be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang--in a revolution or military coup--but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one. Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die--and how ours can be saved."--Dust jacket.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
This is... an interesting book in the theory and idea behind it. There is definitely a lot of valuable information here, that I think takes a backseat burner 2/3rds of the way through, to push the agenda that Trump must be stopped, and that the Republican party is completely complicit and needs to be stopped/changed/altered/refounded as well.

This is kind of neither here nor there though. The first 1/3rd of the book is about how Democracies fall and why, and ways they could have been stopped, using multiple (real life) examples. And this is the interesting, elucidating, and valuable portion of the book.

It quickly goes off the "guard"-rails from there. (If you've read the book you'll get the pun.) It then breaks down into how Newt Gingrich started the trend and ruined the norms and guardrails of Democracy with his weaponizing of the ways of our constitution that he figured out via loopholes or actions or whatever you want to call it.

From there, it goes further into how Republicans took this and put it on steroids and now we have Trump. The ending chapter is basically a complete repudiation of everything Republicanism. And even as a moderate non-Democrat/non-Republican "independent" who is willing to vote for whoever he thinks makes the best candidate regardless of party, I found this to be so severely over-handed. Even going into the whole breakdown of Nazism and Hitler's rise, and even slightly off-handedly referring to Trump through this and making comparisons (and even pointedly saying "not that we're comparing Trump to Hitler") which is typically one of the hand-waves of "but we are actually doing this". And this is kind of the problem the Democrat party ran afoul with Bush. They called Bush Hitler and compared him to Colonialism with the war of Iraq. You can only call so many opponents Hitler before it either a) is truthful or b) destroys all impact of the name-calling. And it either has or hasn't happened with Trump (for both a and b), but its a pointless debacle for this book to bring up at the very closing arguments, and destroys the collaborative efforts of the authors and shows that the book is mainly pushed with an agenda rather than out-right trying to be an informative piece.

And that's the sad part. That the end of the book ruins the good that the beginning of the book does and ruins the informative and academia of it by pushing an agenda. One that even as a moderate independent can see from miles and miles away and finds distasteful. ( )
  BenKline | Jul 1, 2020 |
I would have called this book How (American) Democracy Dies.

Having made that little quibble, this is an excellent book. For me, the first part is excellent, where the authors detail the four signs that point towards a movement from democracy to an unenlightened autocracy. These signs are clear enough for me to see what has happened in my own country, and what is happening today.

There are danger signs aplenty.

The book does indeed focus on the USA, and this is something that they stated upfront. Having said that, I would have liked more analysis of what is happening across the world. There is scant mention of Asia, and this is a weakness in the book because a large percentage of the world's population lives in India and China.

Still, it does provide enough food for thought, and much cause for worry. ( )
1 vote RajivC | Sep 30, 2019 |
"How Democracies Die" is a book with a specific audience in mind. Not only is this book "one of those books that is academic but retoned for a wider audience," it is specifically aimed with a contemporary American audience in mind. Levitsky and Ziblatt are aiming to examine political architecture and history to prove that 1) American democracy is NOT safe, 2) there are patterns in the fall of democratic institutions, 3) America exhibits those patterns, and 4) there are fingers to point.

Personally, I think this book's main detractions come from this initial setup. This book tries to navigate the line between books that immediately condemn Donald Trump and books that empirically analyze him (and feign neutrality thus so). How do historians and political scientists cover a sitting President that has repeatedly demonstrated hostility towards academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities? I think the crux is time. It is a 2018 publication and writing in 2019, there are already slight alterations in the course of history. Some of the current democracies listed in the last chapter have lurched further into authoritarianism. Can one write good political history designed for a specific moment in time? Now of course, these are questions that people who study method can discuss for days, but my point is that these types of situational incongruences harm the book and make it less good—not bad.

I do have some substantive qualms: There are some moments when the authors make a large claim without effort in its defense. For instance, they repeatedly insinuate that violence is bad for democracies, yet without further discussion. Consider the words of Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." This is a huge gap in the authors "argument armor" especially coming from the left. There are a few such concepts that are dismissed with clear arguments agains them. The authors critique Montesquieu's proposal that structures in political systems can alone maintain those systems. While the authors dismiss this idea as folly, and use historical evidence, they don't ever seem recognize structural problems. For them, it is all about norms and institutions, while structures do play a huge role, especially considering that the American system of democracy has only been 92% accurate in electing the president with the most votes. This is a large avenue that is not tread, but is already burgeoning with discussion.

One last critique, this time of the publisher. Something wrong happened with this book. The authors clearly put a lot of research into their work, and had references and endnotes listed. HOWEVER, the publisher must have decided to not incorporate endnotes in the text. The endnotes section of this book is numbered but there are no numbers in the main text. Therefore, I have to ask "does this have supporting evidence," look at the references, and find a corresponding passage and related content. Good publications will have notes so that when I'm reading and see something, I can say—look! there's something more to this. This publishing decision makes the authors look bad.

Overall, this is a very good book. While it may be a New York Times bestseller, it isn't going to make a tsunami in the political science world, simply due to the fact that many academics already feel this way about current U.S. politics, but also that the content isn't extraordinarily new. What IS unique is the assemblage of all this information together for consumption. If you had a strange feeling about current U.S. politics, this book might just articulate why you feel this way. The conversation that is had in this book is of high quality, and regardless of the demerits I as a critic have attached to it, this book is worth a read. ( )
  MarchingBandMan | Aug 25, 2019 |
In light of Donald Trump's presidency, some of us wonder if our democracy is resilient enough to withstand an autocrat. This book delves into the various ways democracies have been challenged or have died around the world, both throughout history and in present day. I learned about key indicators of authoritarian behavior (rejection of democratic rules, denying legitimacy of opponents, toleration of violence, and curtailing of civil liberties). I learned also about gatekeepers who, throughout history, have kept morally or intellectually deficient people from the highest offices, and the current abdication of these responsibilities. Another new idea: the guardrails of democracy, such as mutual toleration (opponents have an equal right to exist) and institutional forbearance (avoiding actions that are legal but violate the spirit of the law), both of which have been eroding in present-day American politics. We are taken through discussions of this slow, steady weakening of democratic institutions and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms not only in our country, but also 1930's Europe, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, etc. The last chapter deals with ways we can save democracy. The authors contend that means testing (the usual way of providing for those with less means based on income) can be supplanted with more universalistic models such as those in northern Europe, which could have a moderating effect on our politics and reduce inequality. Some specifics include comprehensive health insurance, aggressive raising of minimum wage, generous family policies, and better labor market policies.

This book was not an easy read for me, but it's one I have thought about quite a bit since finishing it, and have discussed it's contents with many people. i have even gone back and highlighted areas I'd like to think more about. Great book. ( )
  peggybr | Jul 7, 2019 |
This was a well researched and thought provoking book. It's also a bit of a true to life horror story as the authors entertain the possibility that our democracy has died or will die. My own personal thought is that our democracy is on life support. This country is in a political coma. Both authors seem a bit pessimistic about our chances too.

The authors have pointed out that our country has experienced extreme demagogues like Huey Long, George Wallace, Joe McCarthy and Henry Ford. In the past, political parties served as effective "gatekeepers" who prevented extremists from running for or being elected to high office. They also cite examples from other countries where democracy was threatened. In some of the cases, like Germany in the 1930s and Italy in the 1920s, democracy lost.

The authors cite four key indicators of authoritarian behavior:
1. Rejection of or weak commitment to democratic rules of the game.
2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents.
3. Toleration or encouragement of violence.
4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

I'll leave the reader to decide if our current politics and governance shows a remarkable trend towards authoritarian behavior and a strong shift from democratic ideals.
( )
  writemoves | Jun 17, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
Is there any democracy that you would have ranked as highly as you ranked the United States as a democracy in 2016, whatever ranking that is, that’s fallen victim to authoritarianism in your case studies?

Levitsky: No, there are actually very, very few established democracies, democracies that have been fully democratic and that have been around for, say, 20 or more years, very few of them in the history of the world have collapsed. Uruguay is one, Chile is another, Venezuela is a third, maybe Hungary depending on how you interpret it these days. But none have been as stable or as democratic as the United States.
added by elenchus | editslate.com, Isaac Chotiner (Jan 16, 2018)

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Levitsky, Stevenprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ziblatt, Danielmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Brand, ChristopherCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sanders, FredNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To our families:

Liz Mineo and Alejandra Mineo Levitsky

& Soriya, Lilah, and Talia Ziblatt
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Is our democracy in danger?
On October 30, 1922, Benito Mussolini arrived in Rome at at 10:55 am in an overnight sleeping car from Milan.
But two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. (Chapter 5)
Αυτό το δυσοίωνο σενάριο είναι μια ακόμα -έμμεση, έστω- επιβεβαίωση της βασικής θέσης αυτού του βιβλίου, ότι η ομαλή λειτουργία της δημοκρατίας στη χώρα μας εξαρτάται από δυο προϋποθέσεις τις οποίες συχνά τείνουμε να θεωρούμε δεδομένες: την αμοιβαία ανοχή και τη θεσμική αυτοσυγκράτηση. Το αντιμετωπίζεις τους πολιτικούς αντιπάλους σου ως νόμιμους διεκδικητές της εξουσίας και όχι ως εχθρούς, όπως και να μην κάνεις κατάχρηση των θεσμικών προνομίων σου, δεν είναι γραμμένο στο σύνταγμα των Ηνωμένων Πολιτειών. Ωστόσο, αν αυτές οι δυο αρχές δεν τηρούνται, τα θεσμικά αντίβαρα και οι ισορροπίες του πολιτικού μας συστήματος ανατρέπονται.
Mutual toleration refers to the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power and govern. We may disagree with, and even strongly dislike, our rivals, but we nevertheless accept them as legitimate. [...] Put another way, mutual toleration is politicians' collective willingness to agree to disagree. (Chapter 5, elisions added)
Με λίγα λόγια, το συμπέρασμα είναι πως η αντιπολίτευση πρέπει πάντα να εξαντλεί τις δυνατότητες που υπάρχουν ώστε να ανακοπεί με θεσμικά μέσα η πορεία μιας χώρας προς τον αυταρχισμό.
A second norm critical to democracy's survival is what we call institutional forbearance. Forbearance means "patient self-control; restraint and tolerance," or "the action of restraining from exercising a legal right." For our purposes, institutional forbearance can be thought of as refraining from actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, violate its spirit. Where norms of forbearance are strong, politicians do not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, for such action could imperil the existing system. (Chapter 5)
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Fateful alliances -- Gatekeeping in America -- The great Republican abdication -- Subverting democracy -- The guardrails of democracy -- The unwritten rules of American politics -- The unraveling -- Trump against the guardrails -- Saving democracy.
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