How Democracies Die

How Democracies Die

Book - 2018
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER * "Comprehensive, enlightening, and terrifyingly timely." -- The New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)


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.

Praise for How Democracies Die

"What we desperately need is a sober, dispassionate look at the current state of affairs. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two of the most respected scholars in the field of democracy studies, offer just that." -- The Washington Post

"Where Levitsky and Ziblatt make their mark is in weaving together political science and historical analysis of both domestic and international democratic crises; in doing so, they expand the conversation beyond Trump and before him, to other countries and to the deep structure of American democracy and politics." -- Ezra Klein, Vox

"If you only read one book for the rest of the year, read How Democracies Die. . . . This is not a book for just Democrats or Republicans. It is a book for all Americans. It is nonpartisan. It is fact based. It is deeply rooted in history. . . . The best commentary on our politics, no contest." --Michael Morrell, former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (via Twitter)

"A smart and deeply informed book about the ways in which democracy is being undermined in dozens of countries around the world, and in ways that are perfectly legal." --Fareed Zakaria, CNN
Publisher: New York :, Crown Publishing,, [2018]
Edition: First edition.
ISBN: 9781524762933
Branch Call Number: 321.8 Levitsky 01/2018
Characteristics: 312 pages ;,22 cm
Additional Contributors: Ziblatt, Daniel 1972-- Author


From the critics

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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 !

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Jan 31, 2018

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Jan 31, 2018

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Mar 25, 2018

"No single political leader can end a democracy; no single leader can rescue one, either." page 230


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