How Democracies Die
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt teach government at Harvard University. Levitsky focuses on Latin America and the developing world and Ziblatt focuses on Europe from the nineteenth century to the present. In How Democracies Die Levitsky and Ziblatt look at democracies that have failed around the world and explore the vulnerability of American democracy to the erosion of democracy they find in Venezuela, Turkey or Hungary. They fear that when established parties invite extremists into the mainstream. democracy is threatened. They explore how prospective authoritarians attempt to subvert democratic institutions and ask if ours are strong enough to avoid subversion. They argue that democracies are most successful where unwritten democratic norms support constitutions. Mutual toleration - the acceptance of the other party as legitimate and forbearance - the exercise of restraint and avoiding the nuclear option, are the norms that have guided American democracy for most of the twentieth century and have acted as guardrails that prevented the destruction of American democracy. Levitsky and Ziblatt point to four warning signs to identify an authoritarian: 1) a politician who rejects the rules of the game, 2) claims opponents are illegitimate, 3) tolerate or encourages violence, and 4) shows a willingness to restrict the civil rights of opponents. The authors attribute the longevity and vitality of American democracy to the gatekeeper role played by political parties. They caution that democracy often erodes in baby steps. They trace the current erosion of American democracy to the abdication of the Republican party, fueled and supported by infusions of outside money, alternative media and ineffective gatekeeping. They point out that Trump embodies all the warning signs of an authoritarian. They provide several examples of Trump's transgressions and wonder if the guardrails of American democracy are strong enough to contain him. They explore three possible scenarios for the post-Trump world. In the first, American democracy makes a speedy recovery. In the second Trump and the Republicans ride a white nationalist wave of support to victory. In the third scenario democracy survives but without the traditional guardrails. This important book provides an important diagnosis of the problems of democracy but the authors hold an elitist view with their faith in the traditional norms, the importance of democracy's gatekeepers and they give to democracy's gatekeepers and political elites in defending the norms of democracy that serve as the system's guardrails. Is a democracy dependent upon elites for its survival really a democracy? The author's diagnosis of democracy's prolems makes this an important book but the author's conclusions leave me feeling a little like a child near the end of the television show Peter Pan where they ask us all to pray that Tinker Bell lives by saying "I believe in Tinker Bell."