How Democracies Die

How Democracies Die

Book - 2018
Average Rating:
Rate this:

Comments (27)

Add a Comment
Feb 15, 2021

I realize it's easy to spot patterns in seemingly unrelated events when you're actively looking for them, but I feel like my library holds have been particularly topical of late. When I request a hold I'm usually put on a double-digit waiting list but when my turn comes up, it's somehow the perfect time. Most recently I read How Democracies Die, a damning criticism of political indifference in the face of rising authoritarianism during the second impeachment proceedings against former president Donald Trump. I realize that bad governance and disregard for institutional norms is just par for the course in Trump land, but what makes this book particularly salient is how it largely holds the Republican party to blame for refusing to hold Trump accountable for his deplorable behavior.

The structure of the book is very practical and accessible. It mostly relies more on case studies than political theory, making it a fairly easy read while reinforcing the importance of bipartisan cooperation in public administration. Having said that, the 'meta-analysis' approach might frustrate some readers as the cases concern some notorious authoritarian leaders - Fujimori, Chavez, Pinochet, etc. - which may elicit strong reactions from readers who want more details and context about these cases. This isn't a criticism so much as a style approach that some readers may not like.

The weakness of the book is it's preoccupation with political machinations means that other factors such as right-wing populism and conservative media feel more like after-thoughts than key components in the erosion of bipartisanship. For instance, the authors acknowledge that Newt Gingrich only succeeded in winning elections after abandoning his moderate stance in favor of a hardline approach, but don't explain why that resonated with voters. They also don't discuss how the conciliatory approach that John Boehner adopted during the Obama administration resulted in his stepping down from his position as the speaker of the house and resigning from Congress. By focusing so much on politics, the authors seem to suggest that the rise of authoritarianism is the GOP's problem to fix without recognizing that any efforts to address this are soundly rejected by the party's base. This oversight is particularly noteworthy as the authors propose reducing social and economic inequality in order to reduce slipping further in to authoritarianism without adequately accounting for how it contributes to authoritarianism in the first place.

Ultimately this is a good primer on party politics but only one small piece of the puzzle regarding the ascendency of a demagogue to office of the presidency.

Jan 29, 2021

Excellent book on how democracy works and how it can be destroyed when soft guardrails or societal norms are destroyed. Also excellent historical background on the Republican and Democratic parties and the actions of autocrats etc. Highly recommend this book

Sep 02, 2020

“Donald Trump’s Incitements to Violence Have Crossed an Alarming Threshold”
by John Cassidy, posted September 1, 2020, at The New Yorker
“Donald Trump has made it clear: the only 'real Americans' are white and Christian”
by Theodore R. Johnson, posted July 16, 2019, at The Guardian
“Everything is Permitted”: Trump, White Supremacy, Fascism”
by Nicholas De Genova (University of Houston) posted March 23, 2020
Journal of the American Anthropological Association
“Since day one, Donald Trump has been an autocrat in the making”
by Masha Gessen, posted June 27, 2020, at The Guardian
“Column: While Trump blames Antifa, a menacing far-right ‘boogaloo’ movement rises”
by Clarence Page, posted June 5, 2020, at Chicago Tribune
“Trump’s Occupation of American Cities Has Begun - Protesters are being snatched from the streets without warrants. Can we call it fascism yet?”
by Michelle Goldberg, posted July 20, 2020, at The new York Times – Opinion

Feb 18, 2020

This book explains how Trump can fool all of his base all of the time with the help of his Republican stooges.

✅ This book advances the well documented argument that a written constitution can only furnish the framework for a democracy. Whether it is successful, depends on the manners and mores of those who carry it out. It continues to evaluate the history of many democracies with respect to how their constitutions are upheld or subverted, and whether they revert to authoritarianism. The USA is not an exception. Recommended.

Dec 30, 2019

Every die hard Trump supporter should read this book, and do so with an open mind. Trump has all the criteria of a dictator, a role played out throughout history in many countries, including the USA. Trump has caused a lot of damage to democracy, and will continue to do so if left unchecked. The fault lies in the system, not so much with the voters. The system needs laws and rules, it can no longer operate on a honor system. Politicians have forgotten what the constitution means, they have forsaken the American people and are mad with power. There are no rules to break, so lawlessness runs wild and is made normal. Absolute power, corrupts absolutely. The political system must be changed since honor, honesty and common courtesy have taken flight and are long, long gone.

Dec 13, 2019

A fantastic book with a concerning message, Democracies no longer die violently from invasion or coups but through a slow and methodical rot that aligns all branches of government behind the autocrat and sidelines opposition. This is important information because Americans need to recognize that the constitution does not protect against this democratic decay and that, unless intervened, the tides of democracy in this great country are waning.

The book creates a, what I believe to be, reasonable set of warning signs that a country's leader is an autocrat: A distrust of the election process, a distrust of a free and open press, a disdain for political opposition and the encouraging of violence. Through various tweets and public speeches, as shown in the book, Donald Trump has met all four of these.

Ziblatt and Levitski outline how political efforts to stuff the courts with party loyalists, voting barriers on populations that favor the opposition and an increased hostility in rhetoric came to be historically and how they threaten democracy.

In my eyes it is a very important book to have read not only before the next election but in general to open your eyes to the anti-democratic rhetoric that's become commonplace today.

Nov 27, 2019

Democrats want to kill democracy by overthrowing the 2016 election. The authors lament that "American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections." That fits Democrats, who call rivals "racists", spy on reporters, and pretend that Trump isn't president. Yet the authors say Trump is the menace. They blame him for coming from outside the political establishment, the very quality that attracted voters. They claim he has "little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies." That is nonsense. Dems loath the Constitution. Trump does not inhibit the libelous press that savages him daily. If the authors were truthful, they would focus on the danger of dynasticism, repeatedly choosing leaders from the Kennedy, Bush and Clinton families.
--- Dems feel disdain for democracy. As elitists, they distrust the electorate. When rejected by voters, Dems denounce the "crude populism" of those who "cling to their guns and their religion" (Obama). They scornfully blamed 2016 on "angry White men," "the non-coastal people," "fascism," "racism," and "the rape culture."
--- Hillary ran a very dirty 2016 campaign. She stole the nomination from Bernie, then blamed Russia for exposing it. She paid thugs to start fistfights at Trump rallies. To cut voter turnout, the media insisted that Trump had no chance, while Dem insiders like Donna Brazile knew he was winning. Dems tried to stop Trump with an old quip about grabbing women, yet Trump won White women by ten points; they recalled how Hillary labeled Bill's victims "bimbos" and "trailer trash".
--- Hillary bought Russian lies (Steele Dossier), which Obama and Comey used to fool the FISA Court and spy on Trump's campaign. Dems got Ukrainians to smear Trump, tie him to Russia, and shield Hunter Biden (Politico 1/2017, Alexandra Chalupa). Obama hands Bruce & Nellie Ohr, Victoria Nuland, James Clapper and John Brennan helped in this treachery.
--- Sensing these maneuvers, Trump said the system was rigged. Knowing it was, Obama denied it could be. Dems warned Trump to accept his coming defeat. They demanded that Repubs honor the election result and unite behind the winner. This was sheer hypocrisy; Dems had no thought of fair-dealing should they lose.
--- Having done all they could to steal the election, Dems were shocked when Trump won anyway. They called for insurrection ("Not my president! Resist! Coup!"). Many went berserk, rioting, beating and shooting Republicans; ax-wielding Antifa gangs took over Oregon streets. Celebrities joked about killing Trump and his family. Dems tried to subvert the Constitution by corrupting the Electoral College. They vowed to destroy Trump's presidency one way or another.
--- Dems claimed Trump was a Russian agent and Putin had rigged the unriggable election. Adam Schiff led the slander, aided by Maxine Waters and perjurors Clapper & Brennan. After Mueller disproved these lies, Dems attacked Trump for investigating the Biden graft in Ukraine: Trump had no right to "drain the swamp" by exposing this corruption.
--- Trump haters ignore Clinton/Obama crimes that struck at the heart of our democracy. Bill Clinton ransacked FBI files on Republicans and gave bribed pardons. Hillary took tens of millions in payoffs for trade approvals, used a private server to hide them, and destroyed subpoenaed emails. Obama condoned Black Panther voter-intimidation while his IRS targeted conservative groups. He spied ruthlessly on reporters probing his lies re BP spill, Benghazi, Fast and Furious, and many other scandals; his henchmen threatened reporters and networks, forcing most to follow the White House line. Reporter Michael Hastings denounced Obama in "Why Democrats Love to Spy on Americans"; eleven days later he died in a strange car crash. Obama was thoroughly corrupt, his likable image a fraud.

Nov 16, 2019

A primer and far from a deep think political treatise, ie a quick read (even for the cult of personality types). I particularly enjoyed the other nation examples throughout recent history where I didn't know any more than the broad outline. When the center collapses, democracy dies. Sound familiar?

Oct 25, 2019

Both Harvard professors, Levitsky and Ziblatt compare examples of democratic breakdowns all over the world. They then explore the reason behind the American democracy’s relative longevity before ending with a dissection of the Trump administration. ⁣⁣
Some interesting points: ⁣⁣
🥝 Democracy has been declining for decades: Trump is its phenomenon and accelerant, not the cause.⁣⁣
🥝 Political stances are more identity-based (especially on race and religion) than ideology-based now.⁣⁣
🥝American democracy has held in the past because of unofficial norms and gate-keeping (not nominating potential authoritarians as candidates), but now there’s an increasing inclination to sacrifice democratic norms for political gain. ⁣⁣
Some questions I ended up asking myself: ⁣⁣
🥝How much does democracy need to be sacrificed at certain stages (eg. gatekeeping) to maintain itself in the long run? ⁣⁣
🥝 How does meritocracy affect democracy?⁣⁣
The reason I took off half a star: ⁣⁣
🥝 As much as I admire President Obama, I feel like polarization has greatly increased during his time. I wish the book discusses what he could have done to prevent our current situation. ⁣⁣
🥝 The book suggests that Trump’s inauguration has caused a democratic recession in many parts of the world... but I suspect that like with the erosion of American democracy, he’s an accelerant, not a cause? ⁣⁣
Food for thought: how is this 2-party-eroding-democracy dynamic different from the Prisoner’s Dilemma? In the Dilemma, the prisoners’ distrust ruin each other’s chances. How are the two parties’ erosion of democratic norms for power any different? ⁣⁣
This read is both informative and captivating. Highly recommended.⁣⁣

For more book reviews, visit me on Instagram @ RandomStuffIRead !

Oct 25, 2019

Great book to read and what is worth mention - even most focus is on Trump's violations of democracy, he is not only one described. The same appliedto Obama.
I got issues with 2 items:
a. title is not correct -this is more about democracy abuses with democracy dying
b.even un-democratic dictators are stillpart of democracy. You may say that more or less any leader got to situations with democracy abuse. How much is acceptable and what is not ?

Oct 21, 2019

An excellent, timely short description of the now and then and how.

Aug 09, 2019

a cautionary tale - how democracies come to be, and how they can be dismantled, with particular focus on the USA - a dry accounting

Apr 14, 2019

This is a very important and well written book. Our democracy is at risk.

After discussing authoritarian regimes through history, the authors identify four warning signs of an authoritarian leader. We should worry when a politician (1) rejects, in words or actions, the democratic rules of the game; (2) denies the legitimacy of opponents; (3) tolerates or encourages violence; or (4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media. A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern. The current occupant of the White House meets all four of them.

The authors note that two basic democratic norms have preserved our system of checks and balances in ways we have taken for granted: (1) mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and (2) forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives. The authors call these norms the “soft guardrails of American democracy,” noting they were widely followed during the 20th century, but that is no longer true today.

There is way more in this book than I can share here. But here is one very important point: In 1993, Senator Daniel Moynihan, a former social scientist, observed: “Humans have a limited ability to cope with people behaving in ways that depart from their shared standards, When unwritten rules are violated over and over, . . . societies have a tendency to ‘define deviancy down’—to shift the standard. What was once seen as abnormal becomes normal.” Moynihan applied this insight (controversially) to the growing social tolerance for single-parent families, high murder rates, and mental illness. Today it can be applied to American democracy. The authors note, “The president’s routine use of personal insult, bullying, lying, and cheating has, inevitably, helped to normalize such practices. . . . in the face of widespread deviance, we become overwhelmed--and then desensitized.”

This is deeply disturbing. Even if we fight against normalizing this anti-democratic behavior, we are affected by it. The Republican party has done little or nothing to rein in this behavior. This behavior is weakening the foundations of our democracy.

The final chapter, “Saving Democracy,” tells us that the situation is serious but not hopeless. Our past stability came at a price of racial exclusion and single party rule in the South. The United States did not become fully democratized until 1965, and that very process led to a fundamental realignment of the American electorate that has left the parties deeply polarized.

The authors describe three possible futures for America: One optimistic, one dark, and one in between. The one in between is most likely: democracy without guardrails. If you want to see what that looks like, consider North Carolina today. The authors discuss the situation in North Carolina at length, and it is a cautionary tale of extreme partisan political warfare and weaponized democratic institutions. This is a system hovering constantly on the brink of crisis.

And the true bottom line is this: Democracy is a shared enterprise. We can not sit back and wait for other people to rescue our democracy from the problems it faces today. Each and every one of us is responsible for saving our democracy.

Jan 05, 2019

Obama's List

Oct 13, 2018

The sobering takeaway from this book is: democracies are actually very fragile. It can take only one person, with dictatorial qualities, to unravel decades, even centuries of democratic governance.

What I kept coming away with is the fragility of our democratic systems. They only work if we believe, trust and respect them. Supreme courts can be packed with politically aligned justices. Filibusters can be abused to the point of making governments impotent. Respect for the executive, the house and judiciary have been eroded.

In order to keep democracy working politicians must respect the rules and customs that have been observed over the decades and centuries. Once the unwritten rules of decorum and respect are broken democracy itself can unravel.

It was a chilling subject.

Sep 17, 2018

The description of how demagogues such as Trump undermine democracy is spot on. Unfortunately, the authors -- conventional liberals -- are very short on solutions.

Jul 11, 2018

I have just rented this book and look forward to reading the authors' thoughts on this subject. Regrettably, there is one reader whose arrogance led him to underline many passages. You must consider yourself to be so self-important. In doing this you disturb the flow of the narrative and cause the other readers a distraction that they do not need. I will erase the underlined portions; so sorry about that! Think twice before defacing a book!!
Otherwise, it is very educational for those who can look at how history repeats itself.

Jun 19, 2018

Two experts on European and Latin American authoritarian/semi-authoritarian governments 1946-2018 explain what makes them non-democratic and compares them to Trump's non-democratic actions. The authors see three possibilities for America post Trump - 1) America quickly recovers from Trump's non-democratic presidency, 2) The Republicans utilize their white nationalist appeal to stay in power and further erode democracy (via their advantages gained through years of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and right-wing judicial appointments), 3) The Democrats and Republicans continue with their polarization and with their ineptitude further erode democracy.

Jun 17, 2018

it is not that democracy is dying, but that it is being killed

May 09, 2018

A chilling account of how the current administration is breaking norms and destroying "guard rails" that have previously supported the written and unwritten parts of the Constitution. A must read for every thinking American.

Mar 10, 2018

This is a powerful and important book. Other democracies have withered and died; ours could, too. Forewarned is forearmed.

Feb 28, 2018

Very much agreed. Oh, and Donald Trump doesn't present a threat to our democracy. Though taking away our guns is, it takes away a constitutional right and leaves us vulnerable to everybody.

Feb 28, 2018

This is a MUST read for every patriotic American. It doesn't matter what your political ideology is, our democracy and our Constitution need to be preserved, protected and defended. It takes real effort to do this on everyone's part. That will make America Great Again!!

Feb 13, 2018

Compelling and persuasive argument about the gradual ways that democracies weaken and slide into autocracy (as opposed to suddenly, in violent coups), first using examples from countries all over the world, and then the U.S. Shows how the "soft guardrails" of American democracy--mutual toleration and institutional forbearance--have both functioned and broken down at different points over the entire history of the U.S., and gives a clear account of the warning signs of autocratic slide in the U.S. over the last 25 years. Details the alarming ways in which Donald Trump exhibits key indicators of authoritarian behavior. Also maps out some possible futures for the country, and a (hard) path for fortifying democracy in the U.S. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants a better understanding of the fragility of democracy in general, and of the dangers that the U.S. democratic system is currently facing in particular.

1-25 of 27 items

Explore Further


Subject Headings

To Top