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How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

how democracies die

American democracy is not exceptional: it is subject to the same strains and pitfalls as numerous other democratic regimes, both historically and at the present day. The political scientists Levitsky and Ziblatt are well-positioned to make that case, for Leivitsky is a leading student of democracy in Latin America, while Ziblatt is a prominent student of modern European politics.

The authors bring their expertise to bear on the democratic crisis posed by the presidency of Donald Trump. They make the case that this crisis has been decades in the making, as the underpinnings of a stable democracy were eroded, piece by piece. The immediate danger is the kind of soft authoritarianism within an ostensible democracy that we see in countries such as Turkey, Russia, Hungary, or Venezuela. These autocrats actually win elections, but then use their authority to consolidate themselves in power.

Based on several cases, including the rise of Mussolini, Hitler and Perón as well as more recent examples like Putin in Russia or Chávez in Venezuela, they summarize (23-24) four key indicators of authoritarian behavior by politicians who have not yet consolidated authoritarian rule.

The first is rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game. This would include rejecting the constitution, suggesting the need to suspend it, using or endorsing extraconstitutional means such as coups to change the government, and undermining the legitimacy of elections.

The second indicator of authoritarian behavior is denying the legitimacy of political opponents. That includes accusing them of being subversive, posing an existential threat to the country, criminals, or foreign agents.

The third indicator is toleration or encouragement of violence. Have they ties to gangs or militias that engage in illicit violence? Have they sponsored or encouraged mob attacks on opponents? Have they tacitly endorsed violence by their supporters? Have they praised acts of political violence in the past or in other countries?

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The fourth indicator is readiness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents and media. Have they supported the restriction of protest or criticism of the government? Have they threatened legal or other punitive action against opponents? Have they praised repressive action taken by other governments?

The attentive reader will see that Donald Trump has displayed each of these indicators.

In stable democracies, the major political parties keep authoritarians out of power through “gatekeeping” actions, such as isolating and defeating extremists, rather than allying with them, and by rooting out extremists in their own ranks.

In stable democracies, the major political parties keep authoritarians out of power through “gatekeeping” actions, such as isolating and defeating extremists, rather than allying with them, and by rooting out extremists in their own ranks. This is what both major American parties have done in the past, but which the Republicans blatantly failed to do with Donald Trump.

But Trump is just the culmination of trends that have been developing for decades. The relative stability from the Civil War to the 1960s was based on suppressing and excluding southern blacks through an authoritarian one-party regime in the South, with the tacit cooperation of northern Republicans and Democrats. The former could form a conservative alliance with southern Democrats, while the latter could use southern Democrats to control Congress and win most presidential elections after the 1930s. The losers were African Americans. As long as that racial exclusion prevailed, the white politicians of both parties could develop a “democratic” politics of mutual toleration and forbearance in which extremism was systematically discouraged.

When the civil rights movement secured key court decisions like Brown v Board of Education, and major civil rights laws in 1964, 1965, and 1968, the old party system began to unravel. As the national Democrats finally came around to supporting civil rights, the southern Democrats began a long migration to the formerly hated “party of Lincoln.” Now, the Republicans are nearly as dominant in the South as the Democrats used to be. The difference is that African Americans now vote, while a century ago they were excluded from the franchise. The current Republican Party is doing its best to suppress minority voting, though.

In the 23 years since Newt Gingrich’s rise to the Speakership in 1995, the lingering norms of toleration and forbearance between the parties, relics of a bygone age, have been abandoned. Trump is just the culmination.

The authors arrive at two conclusions the are in tension. The first is that, to save American democracy, Trump must be recognized as an authoritarian threat who must be opposed and defeated. The second is that, somehow, in a much more diverse and polarized society, moderates in the two parties must find a new way to reestablish the old norms of toleration and forbearance.

impeachment unavoidable

We may manage the first. It’s hard to see how we manage the second.

John Peeler