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How Democracies Die (2018)

by Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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8553019,637 (4.32)38
"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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» See also 38 mentions

After reading Michael Austin's January 17, 2018 Goodreads review of "How Democracies Die", I realized there was little to nothing I could add to what he already wrote. As he points out, the authors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, are democracy scholars at Harvard University, who have made a study of how Democracies in a number of Countries have transitioned from democratic to authoritarian regimes. In their analysis, these Countries share four characteristics in weakening democracy:

1. They attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, or they attempt to use extra-constitutional measures to change things that have been designed to check their power.

2. They accuse their opponents of treason or criminal activity, jail them or advocate that they be jailed.

3. They make statements encouraging or support their followers to use or threaten violence.

4. They demonize their critics, media outlets, and opposition parties and move to curtail their civil liberties.

Behaviors which helped democracies thrive are being eroded, especially mutual toleration of political opponents, and institutional restraint. When our government worked best, political compromise wasn't something to be avoided, and Congressional majorities didn't always automatically oppose any initiatives put forth by an Executive from the opposite political party. Over this past decade or so, governing has become more and more difficult. And when it's impossible to govern, executives often become more and more authoritarian.

But while much of the book's focus is pointed at our Congress and President, a more general question remains, i.e., 'why are more and more Conservative and authoritarian leaders being elected and many different Countries?' The book does a good job of describing how democracies can be eroded by authoritarian leaders, but doesn't explain why so many authoritarian leaders seem to be coming to power in a relatively short time period. We see evidence of this in Hungary and Poland in eastern Europe. Authoritarian parties became among the largest blocs in northern European countries including the Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark. Recent elections in France and Austria showed similar trends. Marine Le Pen's National Front doubled its percentage of the vote in France's last election, and the far-right candidate narrowly lost the election in Austria. Leaders in Turkey, the Philippines, and Venezuela are becoming more authoritarian. In our Country, President Trump was elected after campaigning on a platform of xenophobia. It seems that the popularity of authoritarian figures in many cases is a reaction against immigration from the the war torn Middle East, and also from Mexico and Latin America in the U.S. Others have proffered that wage inequality, declining job opportunities, and cultural shifts make older voters feel that they're losing their country to outsiders, and they look to strong political leaders to make things right. So in addition to the recommendations made by Levitsky and Ziblatt, income inequality and the sharing in the benefits of technological advances may also need to be addressed to restore strong democracies. ( )
  rsutto22 | Jul 15, 2021 |
Read this important book to get an honest assessment of the state of the US government in the context of the history of failed democracies. It was published well before January 6th so you can see how the predictions are playing out. Scary stuff, but it provides recommendations on what needs to happen to fix Washington. ( )
  ghefferon | Jun 5, 2021 |
HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE was published in 2018. Had we, as a country, understood its observations and followed its advice, we would not be in the mess we are in today.
Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt compare the results of numerous countries throughout the world who had democracies within the last century and what happened to them. Most did not survive.
While most people think of democracies as being destroyed by military coups, that is not always the case. The demise of many democracies can be traced to a party’s greater affinity for extremists on its side of the political spectrum than for [mainstream] parties close to the opposite side. In January 1933 in Germany, even though Hitler was despised, he was popular among the public and those in power thought they could control him. The case of Germany in the 1930s shows that the elected leader will use his elected power to maintain it. Later that year, the Reichstag fire provided the fuel for him to completely take over government.
In other cases, such as with Mussolini and Chavez, it took longer, but it happened because those in the establishment either ignored the warning signs or acquiesced. Those are often first step toward authoritarianism.
The US Republican’s 25-year march to the right was made possible by the hollowing out of its organizational core. The leadership has been eviscerated–first by the rise of well-funded outside groups but also by the mounting influence of right-wing media.
According to the US Constitution, there are three coequal branches of government. Each has the power and responsibility to keep the other two in check.
While not part of the Constitution, our political parties are supposed to be the gatekeepers, using their power to filter out extremists. To do that, they must respect the other party/parties and treat them as legitimate rivals. Politicians should also understand that sometimes they may have the power to do something but should “exercise restraint” when using it because it violates the spirit of the law. Instead of winning by appealing to their supporters and doing everything they can to prevent others, particularly minority groups, from participating. Politicians and parties should be seeking a common ground to benefit the country and, especially, address the real concerns of those feeling left out.
“When fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.” The destruction of our democracy began in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Before Obama took the oath of office, Republicans met and agreed to not support any of his proposals. The goal became to make him an irrelevant, one-term President any way possible.
Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy–packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector or bullying them into silence, then rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents.
The authors (delete Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt offer four key indicators of authoritarian behavior:

● 1. Rejection of or weak commitment to democratic rules of the game.
● 2. Denial of legitimacy of political opponents.
● 3. Toleration of encouragement of violence
● 4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

A quick look at any news source nowadays will prove these are already happening. As I write this review, the US is having major protests in response to the murders of Black people by police officers. While most of the protests have been peaceful, the President has sent in unidentifiable federal officers whose aggressive behavior has caused the protests to escalate into violence. He has made drastic cuts in the postal service in an attempt to privatize it and prevent the wide-scale use of mail-in-ballots in November, causing major delays in mail delivery. The US has the highest number of victims the Coronavirus in the world and he wants to force people to risk their lives to vote and work.
The authors proffer suggestions on how to rebuild a democracy but cite obstacles. One has already happened: if Trump were to be impeached without strong bipartisan support, “...the effect would be to reinforce–and perhaps hasten–the dynamics of partisan antipathy and norm erosion that helped bring him to power to begin with. At much as a third of the country would likely view his impeachment as the machinations of a vast left-wing conspiracy–maybe even a coup.”
HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE presents a clear explanation of what is happening to threaten our democracy. There is historical precedent as well as suggestions on how to regain it.
This book was available two years ago. It is not too late to read it and change the direction our country is headed. ( )
  Judiex | Aug 2, 2020 |
Terrifying but necessary read. Appreciated the global/historical overview of democratic collapse as well as the survey of how some American leaders have faltered. Levitsky drives home the point that our democracy relies on unwritten norms or "soft guardrails" and details exactly how Trump has steamrolled over nearly every one of them. The pace is perfect. Just as the reality of it all is settling in, and I was asking myself "Well, what the heck can I do?", Levitsky ends with a chapter on how to save our democracy. Not the most uplifting as he also outlines how we may be in a period of democratic decline but a worthwhile read for every American. ( )
  luzdelsol | Jul 31, 2020 |
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 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (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)
 

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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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Introduction
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.
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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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"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.

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Contents:

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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