How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Volume XXVII, No. 1: Winter 2019
A Review by Anne Armstrong

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 baffled political analysts around the world and put a cloud of doubt over the strength of American democracy. The simultaneous rise of strongman politics in other parts of the world led many to reconsider the assumptions of liberal democracy. In How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt use a comparative approach to determine the factors that have weakened democracy in America and created deep divides within the country. The authors delve into the United States’ inception as a republic and outline key, defining moments in the country’s political history. This research is supplemented with historical case studies from countries as diverse as Turkey, Sweden, and Venezuela. Levitsky and Ziblatt describe how and why democracies have failed throughout history and in every part of the world. The authors then detail the institutions and norms that have sustained American democracy, how they are currently under attack, and what must be done to preserve democracy in America.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are academics with deep expertise in democratization theory and practice. Levitsky’s background in Latin American politics and Ziblatt’s specialization in European governance blend effortlessly in How Democracies Die to produce keen insights and well-placed examples. Their examination of democracies does not favor one historical narrative over another. This comprehensive perspective allows them to draw convincing conclusions about patterns in democratic breakdown. While parts of the book are extremely critical of the United States’ Republican Party, the authors argue their case through a historical narrative and successfully avoid the temptation to assign blame. The result is a well-researched and well-argued critique of American democracy, a set of informed recommendations for its preservation, and adds to the broader critique of liberal democracy in the 21st century.

Early in How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt use several authoritarian metrics to measure President Trump against current authoritarian leaders. These behaviors, such as a rejection of rivals, indifference to civil rights, or a refusal to denounce violence, were prevalent when leaders like Nicolás Maduro, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Erdoğan came to power. The authors conclude that Donald Trump is not an autocrat in the vein of those infamous leaders, but nevertheless has behaved undemocratically. Levitsky and Ziblatt place particular emphasis on President Trump’s attacks on the judicial system and the media, including public criticism of judges who rule against him, as well as independent investigator Robert Mueller. He has also directed increasingly volatile rhetoric toward the media. Levitsky and Ziblatt compare this behavior to other authoritarian leaders, noting the similarity between these actions and actions taken by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro against a Venezuelan prosecutor who attempted to investigate him and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s use of media attacks to sideline critics. By showing the behavioral similarities between President Trump and undemocratic leaders of less developed countries, the authors demonstrate how he is challenging democratic norms in the U.S.

Two critical “guardrails of democracy” frame the book’s argument: mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 97). According to the authors, these norms are crucial as they reinforce checks and balances in the U.S. Constitution that prevent leaders from abusing power. Mutual tolerance is defined as the acceptance of political rivals as legitimate competitors and leaders, so long as they abide by the law. Institutional forbearance refers to the idea that politicians exercise restraint over their power, resisting the temptation to act in a way that violates the “spirit” of the law, even if their actions are technically legal (106). By accepting and respecting these norms, America’s two major political parties can and have operated with, if not friendliness, at least civility. The authors use these norms as a framework to show how polarization, rooted in racial and religious differences, has shifted the country’s political landscape and led to electoral wins for populist and divisive figures.

Though Levitsky and Ziblatt show how these two norms have secured American democracy in the past, they also demonstrate how the same norms relied on racial exclusion to do so. This claim is significant: it suggests that the relatively collegiate nature of past American politics cannot be achieved in the future without regressing civil rights. The authors contend that as non-white voters gained rights in the United States, the guardrail norms were violated and American society became increasingly polarized. They trace the division to the Civil Rights Movement; specifically, Democratic president Lyndon Johnson’s support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. These changes, in addition to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, triggered a dramatic change in the American electorate. Vast numbers of black voters and white evangelical Christians entered politics for the first time. This shift, the authors argue, would define the Democratic Party as “the party of civil rights” and the Republican Party as that of the “racial status quo” (169). The increased enfranchisement of black Americans therefore inevitably meant decreased ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans and decreased the effectiveness of the two “guardrails of democracy.” Nevertheless, the remedy to partisan polarization is clearly not racial exclusion, and as the percentage of American voters who are white and Christian shrinks, it seems that race has become increasingly divisive.

There is no question that the book paints an unflattering picture of the Republican Party, yet Levitsky and Ziblatt simultaneously maintain that the GOP will be critical to maintaining democracy in the United States. To secure American democracy, politicians of both parties must recommit themselves to democratic norms, absolutely reject extremism—even at the expense of their party’s power—and heal the polarization and resentment through unprecedented, crosscutting alliances. Democrats and Republicans must identify the spaces in which their ideals converge without insisting on a political “litmus test” (219). Working together, the authors say, these bipartisan coalitions can strive for genuine progress.

Levitsky and Ziblatt gracefully guide the reader through the key institutions and challenges that have characterized democracies across time and borders. The authors are especially effective at using historical examples, both domestic and international, to articulate how and why democracies become vulnerable. The book overlooked, however, key aspects of the contemporary political environment; namely, the effect of increased women’s political involvement and the impact of foreign influences on U.S. elections. Levitsky and Ziblatt successfully describe how racial and ethnic diversification has impacted American politics, but they fail to address other changing demographics. As more women have run for office now than any time in American history , and as female lawmakers are shown to be more efficient on average in terms of finances and laws passed , the absence seems like a critical oversight. The book also neglects to comment on the effect that foreign powers can and have had on U.S. elections. While the book was perhaps too far along in publishing to speak to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the authors could have discussed misinformation campaigns as a contemporary tactic used by foreign adversaries to undermine democracy around the world. Finally, the authors’ argument could be enhanced by applying more of the international examples that they diligently articulate at the beginning of the book while developing the two critical norms. Employing these comparative examples would both place their argument in an international context as well as contribute to the larger discussion about the current global retreat from democracy. While these oversights do not detract from the overall value of How Democracies Die, they call into question whether the book’s interpretation of American democracy is truly comprehensive and if the observations can be extrapolated to rest of the world.

The campaign and election of Donald Trump in 2016 challenged the United States’ democratic institutions and highlighted their weaknesses. While still fundamentally a democracy, the country remains vulnerable to anti-democratic forces. The experience has jolted the international perception of the United States as the world’s most successful democracy; in reality, the country is vulnerable to authoritarian threats like any other. Levitsky and Ziblatt explore the nuances of American democracy in How Democracies Die without softening these details. The book is not a validation of liberal political claims, but rather a thoughtful reflection on the trajectory of democracy in the United States and how it can—and must—be safeguarded. Though the book’s scope is focused primarily on the mechanisms of democracy in the United States, the lessons it imparts have implications for democracies across the world. As global democracy faces new challenges, the recommendations posited in this book may prove useful for practitioners world-wide aiming to make democratic institutions more resilient.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2018. ISBN 978-1-5247-6295-7. $26.00.

This Book Review was published in our Winter 2019 issue. Click here to browse the contents and here to download a PDF version.

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