How Democracies Die

Image of How Democracies Die
Release Date: 
January 15, 2018
Reviewed by: 

“filled with impressive historical research and analysis. . . . profound in its insights, and its conclusions are shocking.”

We live in a time of serious peril. Confronted by foreign regimes that seek our destruction as a democratic nation, we dither and scowl. Torn by internal politics and racial divisions, we seem to have lost our ability to rally to the goal of a united, free society. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the United States was a beacon for liberties around the world. Today we have become the outlier, the world’s lost leader.

Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have placed our current circumstances in historical perspective. In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt have issued a clarion warning that our present situation imperils the very foundation of America as a democratic nation. We risk becoming an autocracy under the leadership of a reality television demagogue.

Using accessible prose shorn of hyperbole and jargon, the authors of How Democracies Die employ numerous 20th century examples of how democracies in Europe and South America were subjugated by oppressive dictators. In each instance, the views of the autocratic leaders were known to the public well before their assumption of power, normally through a free election process. The loss of freedoms and individual rights could have been prevented had the established political parties joined forces to protect their nations. Ultimately, the voters could have avoided this slide toward despotism.

There is no question that Americans knew what Donald J. Trump stood for as he pursued the presidency. He had plainly stated and restated his rejection of the established norms of democracy. Perhaps at first the press and the people were intrigued by his cartoon character.  He couldn’t really mean those things, could he?

The Republicans had so many traditional conservative candidates in the race for the nomination that few thought that Trump would prevail. Had party leaders coalesced around a few reasonable candidates, they could have stopped Trump’s triumph in the nomination process. As we know, they did not.

Once in office, the loathsome president stumbled from one pronouncement to another, losing foreign allies and enraging domestic enemies at the same time. His Secretary of State told fellow cabinet members that their president was a “moron.” That was likely true, but the epithet did not fully capture the evil we now confront.

Some dictators have a fully comprehensive plan they intend to follow when they take power. Hitler’s Mein Kompf plainly stated his intentions. But most autocrats are elected, and then they move from one incident to another guided by the world views that have placed them in power. Trump’s adherents—a third of the American public—share their leader’s assessment that in recent decades America had changed for the worst. They agreed with him that Muslim immigrants should be barred from entry, that foreign-born aliens should be deported, and that white Christian Americans must be returned to control over the nation’s politics and infrastructure.

The Levitsky and Ziblatt book starts with an essential retrospective look at how democracies have died. It then turns to the Trump disaster and finds demonstrative evidence that he is heading toward autocracy. At the end of their remarkable text, the authors focus on what we, as Americans, should do now to preserve and protect our democracy.

So far, the established institutions of society have kept us free, in particular the media and press. They have rallied in defense of our democracy. Trump is no longer a curiosity; he is seen by most Americans as a malevolent villain. Although Trump denigrates as “fake news” their monitoring of his evolving scandals, the media will not be deterred. He has fostered his own set of “alternative facts” through intemperate use of Twitter and his own captured cable news channel. Courts have stood strong, for the most part. Congress dithers, but may ultimately provide the remedy.

Most importantly, the work of Robert Mueller, Special Counsel appointed to investigate the crimes of the Trump Administration and Russian interference, stands as our ultimate defense. Trump knows that as well, and he will act to defang the investigation before he loses his place.

For most members of society, however, the burdens of day-to-day life in America preclude active involvement in the resistance. At some point, however, they will see that the situation commands vigilance against those who would do harm to our democracy. So far, Trump has not burned down the Reichstag, Hitler’s excuse for arresting members of the opposition socialists. If he does, it will take more than the peaceful means the authors recommend to defend our democracy.

The first thing people should do, however, is read this book. It is filled with impressive historical research and analysis. It is profound in its insights, and its conclusions are shocking. Anyone left unimpressed and unaffected deserves what he or she receives.