Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Arizona.
Reading How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, I felt like I was a freshman at Harvard again, sitting front-row in Levitsky’s Introduction to Comparative Politics course, scribbling down notes on political dynamics in East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East while acquiring the jargon of comparative political scientists — “competitive authoritarianism,” “voluntarism,” “informal institutions.”
While the course I took with Levitsky was not explicitly focused on domestic politics, How Democracies Die applies core concepts of global comparative politics to the United States, inviting readers to situate American political dynamics within an international and historical context that is often absent from our political discourse. In doing so, Levitsky and Ziblatt contend that American democracy, particularly under the Trump administration, is facing an existential threat. They extend this diagnosis beyond the United States as well, though, pointing out that the topic of Western democratic decline is particularly salient, given the populist wave that has recently swept across Europe.
Using case studies from Latin America and Europe, Levitsky and Ziblatt cogently compare the rises of various historical autocrats to Donald Trump’s recent ascension to the American presidency. Their thesis provides a refreshing departure from discussions of how Trump won, a theme that has dominated so many recent articles, books, and think pieces. Instead, Levitsky and Ziblatt focus on Trump’s actions, both during his campaign and since taking office, arguing that they collectively constitute a threat to democracy.
Their fundamental argument hinges on an important distinction, one that the authors make early on in the book — democracies do not always die in “spectacular fashion, through military power and coercion”; instead, sometimes, they fade in a “less dramatic but equally destructive way.” Levitsky and Ziblatt note that “democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders — presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.” Trump, they argue, belongs in the second category.
Levitsky and Ziblatt begin How Democracies Die by likening Trump’s rise to those of Venezuela’s Chávez, Italy’s Mussolini, and Germany’s Hitler — three political ascensions that, they contend, occurred “because establishment politicians overlooked warning signs and either handed over power to them … or opened the door for them.” For readers unfamiliar with the twentieth-century political histories of these countries, the authors carefully paint a picture of each, setting the stage for nuanced comparisons to the contemporary political situation in America.
This main contention is clear, compelling, and well-supported, as they separate Trump’s behavior into clearly-defined categories, including rejecting democratic rules and norms, denying political opponents’ legitimacy, condoning violence, and curtailing civil liberties of opponents and the media. They provide an abundance of specific and relevant evidence to support each phenomenon, and their conclusion — that democracy in the United States is under existential threat — feels concerningly believable.
But in noting the failure of the Republican Party establishment to prevent Donald Trump from winning the presidential nomination, and insisting that political parties serve as more robust gatekeepers, Levitsky and Ziblatt run the risk of being perceived as elitist by some readers. They suggest that parties “keep would-be authoritarians off party ballots,” “root out extremists in the grass roots of their own ranks,” and “systematically isolate” them — moves which, attractive as they may seem, are antithetical to the very definition of democracy.
Levitsky and Ziblatt also urge mainstream parties to “forge a united front to defeat [extremists]” in these situations. “Picture Senator Edward Kennedy and other liberal Democrats campaigning for Ronald Reagan,” the authors optimistically beseech, using the unlikely scene to paint a picture of what it would mean for the major parties to meet in the middle to unequivocally reject “would-be authoritarians.” Here, their solution appears attractive but exceedingly idealistic, while their standard of “would-be” authoritarianism remains vague.
When Levitsky and Ziblatt to move on to introduce a detailed account of American politics and democratic norms in Chapter Six, they incorporate race and, more specifically, the exclusion of race from political conversations, as a central theme. They note that after the Civil War, “mutual toleration [between parties] was established only after the issue of racial equality was moved from the political agenda.” Prior to this section, though, their analysis rarely deals with race or the notion of excluding race as a necessity for political compromise. The well-supported comparisons between democratic demise in the United States and abroad that make this book so compelling are lacking in the authors’ discussion of race, making their claims about domestic race relations less convincing than the other central arguments of the text.
This theme is once again brought up at the end of the final chapter, as Levitsky and Ziblatt posit that the basic norms of American democracy must be “made to work in an age of racial equality and unprecedented ethnic diversity.” They present this as the great challenge facing the United States, and express their hope that it will rise to the test. However, Levitsky and Ziblatt simultaneously advocate for the formation of inter-party coalitions based on policy, with little to no mention of race. As such, while their ultimate message of racial inclusion is undeniably a noble and necessary one, it is mentioned fairly late in the book and lacks the convincing comparative political references and specific policy prescriptions that frame the rest of the book.
Ultimately, the strengths of How Democracies Die lie in its convincing diagnosis of the problems facing the current American political climate, as well as in its nuanced comparisons between the United States, Latin America, and Europe. However, the solutions offered by Levitsky and Ziblatt appear simplistic at best and out-of-touch at worst, as they consistently advocate for the vague goal of compromise while foregoing a deeper discussion of the tricky details of how to reach such a bargain without jettisoning virtues such as diversity and inclusion. Perhaps this could be the foundation for a future project, from either Levitsky and Ziblatt or from other scholars inspired to take their work to the next level.
To any reader — novice or pundit, student or teacher — who desires to unpack the contemporary challenges to the status quo of American democracy, this book offers an accessible, cogent, and well-written analysis. With clear categorizations, a well-backed central contention, and expert use of metaphors and case studies to illustrate an insidious political phenomenon, How Democracies Die is certainly a worthy read.
Image Source: Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore