Book Review: “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt

There are a number of things that could be said about the nuts and bolts of Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s book How Democracies Die (Crown: 2018). For example, one could push back at their claim that a vote for Donald Trump was de facto a vote against democracy:

“An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures [demagogues] emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place…. America failed the first test in November 2016, when we elected a president with a dubious allegiance to democratic norms.” (7-8)

As if Donald Trump is the first President who cares little for democratic norms (though I admit that he’s the first President who clearly cares primarily for himself over democratic norms, as opposed to caring for his policy goals over democratic norms), and that therefore there is no reasonable motivation for voting for him in a democratic society.

Likewise, one could tackle their comparison of America in the 21st Century with developing and Third World states, especially in Latin America and the Middle East. I mean, can’t really tackle this comparison, as I know little about the politics of Latin America or the Middle East. But someone could. (Note: not knowing much about their politics doesn’t stop me from having an opinion about it; see below).

And of course, one could always nit-pick about errors in details. For example, talking about the partisan rancor at the beginning of the Republic between Federalists and Democrats, the authors write:

“Partisan conflict was so ferocious that many feared the new republic would fail. It was only gradually, over the course of decades, that America’s opposing parties came to the hard-fought recognition that they could be rivals rather than enemies, circulating in power rather than destroying each other.” (103)

Alternatively, and more historically accurately, the “partisan conflict” came to end because the Federalist Party was resoundingly trounced and driven from virtually all power in the country. Yes, it did take a few decades, but that doesn’t change the fact that the total victory of Jefferson’s Party over that of Adams/Hamilton party was the origin of the Era of Good Feelings, not learned mutual toleration…

But in this short review (I promise it won’t be nearly 5000 words, as my last one was), I just want to highlight a couple of things they get right and a couple of places they misfire in their analysis.

How Democracies Die outlines “Four Key Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior”, which include:

  1. “Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game;”
  2. “Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents;”
  3. “Toleration or encouragement of violence;”
  4. “Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.” (23-24)

The book then both explores the institutions and practices that have kept individuals who meet the criteria of these indicators from rising to power, as well as the events of the last few decades that have weakened these institutions and practices to the point of crisis in our democracy.

Image: Crown

Specifically, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that responsible political parties, unwritten rules, written rules (including the Constitution), and especially “mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance” have all worked together to prevent demagogues from rising to power and to keep our democracy strong.

In the past few decades, however, the Republicans (and, they argue, the Democrats to a lesser extent) have actively worked to undermine this process to the point where our democracy is now at risk.

For what it’s worth I think this is largely true. To be sure, I’d put the blame more on the Democrats than on the Republicans, but a “You started it/no, you started it!” conversation isn’t necessarily all that helpful at this point. At least, not in this particular context. As far it goes, How Democracies Die presents a useful and cogent comparative analysis. It is an excellent look at the late stages of national institutional democratic collapse.

And yet, they don’t really give a compelling reason for why this wide-spread national collapse is happening. And here, I suspect that the authors would give a markedly different narrative than I would—and it would be in part because they have a different understanding of what makes American democracy work than I do.

Even granting that everything outlined in How Democracies Die as a “guardrail” is accurate—that is, assuming they are right in their institutional analysis of, for example, political parties as traditionally the way demagogues are kept from national power—the guardrails mentioned in this book have only ever been intended to be fairly weak and light barriers.

The real barriers are not national institutional barriers at all. They are the tradition we have of state and local government, vibrant local associations, autonomous voluntary organizations, etc etc etc. Our national democracy has historically been strong because our local institutions have historically been strong. As the Left has chipped away unsystematically-but-steadily over the last century (and yes, the Right is guilty here too; but not nearly as much), it is no surprise that our national democracy has begun to totter. It is also no surprise that nations which have no history or tradition of local self-government have regularly failed to maintain a stable national government like ours. (See? Told you I had opinions about Middle Eastern and Latin American politics.) As Solzhenitsyn said,

“Here in Cavendish [Vermont], and in the surrounding towns, I have observed the sensible and sure process of grassroots democracy, in which the local population solves most of its problems on its own, not waiting for the decisions of higher authorities. Unfortunately, we do not have this in Russia, and that is still our greatest shortcoming.”

Certainly “mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance” are critical to the proper operation of our national government. But, critically, those principles are not primarily learned by the citizen body at the national level. Instead, they are learned when my neighbor and I spend an hour arguing at the local Rotary meeting about what color the new carpet should be, and then go home and barbecue together in the back yard. Institutional forbearance is learned when the little old lady goes and tells the city council exactly what she thinks of their stupid new tax plan. And, well, I could go on, but hopefully the point is clear. (And if it’s not clear, go read Tocqueville.)

This is the strength of our democracy, and the more these local and state governments are trampled, the weaker our democracy becomes nationally. If you want an example of this, look at Roe v Wade. I don’t even mean in the moral sense (though that is certainly relevant), simply speaking institutionally a single Federal government action overturned the laws of 46 states. I don’t deny that some of these states were significantly less democratic in practice than others, and we could argue about which abortion laws were too strict and which weren’t strict enough and which were passed by all-male legislatures and on and on and on. At least, we could have argued all that before Roe. After Roe, the only argument is over which side will have sufficient power to seize control of the Supreme Court and impose its own agenda on the nation.

That is only one example (albeit a politically loaded one), but the point is true broadly. Once the Federal government has battered down the door—even if it’s a door we all agree needed battering down—democracy is that much weaker, the bolts on the guardrails are that much looser and the car is going that much faster as we all fight over the wheel.

None of these arguments are found in How Democracies Die. Which is unfortunate, because a robust Left-leaning analysis of the value of hardy federalism is sorely needed these days.

A closing note about Bernie Sanders: For all their discussion of the failure of political parties in the modern era to act as gatekeepers, conspicuous by its absence is any discussion of the campaign of Bernie Sanders. In fact he is only mentioned in passing three times: once as a “marginal presidential candidate” (56), once as a source of supporters for an “anti-Trump coalition” (219), and once as someone who argued that Democrats need to get back to their blue-collar base (226). In other words, the campaign that would have served well as a positive example of party gate-keeping (the Democrats Superdelegates as well as the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the DNC surely influenced Bernie’s loss) or as a negative example of other rhetoric that demagogues can use in their attempts to gain votes, is completely ignored. I’m not sure why Bernie was left out. If it was simply because he lost and so isn’t immediately relevant, I suppose that’s okay. But if, as I uncharitably suspect, it was because of sympathies with his policies, well, that’s much less okay…

So do read How Democracies Die, but read it remembering that it is only dealing with a tiny slice of the whole, grotesque picture of the collapse of our democracy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *