How Democracies Die

By Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Penguin / Broadway Books, 2018, 302 pages

By John Bacher (reviewer) | 2021-01-01 11:00:00

Well before Trump was elected many Americans saw the threat he posed. This book—perhaps the most prescient study of the problem—was published in 2018. It compares historical situations when freedom was in peril. Based on their reviews of the strategies of Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long, Henry Ford, George Wallace, Charles Lindbergh, and several foreign demagogues, the authors correctly predicted Trump’s authoritarian moves as president.

Although most often democracy is killed by a military-led coup, in numerous cases elected leaders have subverted the very process that brought them to power; it is the latter type of threat that this book addresses. Sometimes it shows democracy eroding in barely visible steps, but the authors name four key indicators: (a) rejection of or weak commitment to democratic rules of the game; (b) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; © toleration or encouragement of violence; and (d) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. These steps were taken by Hitler and Mussolini, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, and several other would-be dictators in Finland, Belgium, and elsewhere.

America’s founding fathers realized that a Trump-like figure might gain popularity. Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers that “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” The Electoral College was created to prevent this; locally prominent men in each state would choose the president, after filtering out men with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of. popularity.”

The constitution mentions no political parties, for they only developed in the early 1800s and quickly began choosing electors. Now the party insiders became the gatekeepers, which might have allayed Hamilton’s concerns. But Livitsky and Ziblatt recognize the trade-off: “An overreliance on gatekeeping is, in itself, undemocratic—it can create a world of party bosses who ignore the rank and file and fail to represent the people. But an overreliance on the ‘will of the people’ can also be dangerous, for it can lead to the election of a demagogue.”

They agree with Seymour Martin Lipset in attributing the survival of democracy in the United States to political parties, which used to reject demagogues. But parties changed after the 1968 election, when Robert Kennedy, opposing the Vietnam war and the party’s “gatekeepers,” was slated to become president. After his murder, there was a riot at the Democratic Convention but the gatekeepers won and Hubert Humphrey (no opponent of the war) became the nominee. Humphrey had not even run in a single primary.

The dominance of party insiders was so patently undemocratic that reforms were necessary. By the 1972 election, both parties had started selecting delegates by primaries, reducing the influence of party insiders. The Republicans democratized more than the Democrats, who reserve 15 to 20 percent of the delegates for insiders—“superdelegates.” Thus the Democrats, but not the Republicans, still have gatekeepers. This largely explains Donald Trump’s rise. No Republican leaders wanted him, but he kept winning primaries.

Levitsky and Ziblatt see Trump’s populist authoritarianism as rooted in white supremacy attitudes which became systematic with the defeat of Black Reconstruction following the Civil War:

“Because civil and voting rights were regarded by many southern Democrats as a fundamental threat, the parties’ agreement to abandon those issues provided a basis for restoring mutual toleration.

The disenfranchisement of African Americans preserved white supremacy and Democratic domination of the South, which helped maintain the Democrats’ national viability. With racial equality off the agenda, southern Democrats’ fears subsided. Only then did partisan hostility begin to soften. Paradoxically then, the norms that would later serve as a foundation for American democracy emerged out of (an) undemocratic arrangement: racial exclusion and the consolidation of single-party rule in the South.”

The authors are pessimistic about Trump’s post-presidential influence, but they have advice for reducing polarization. They propose a temporary pro-democracy coalition of both parties. They were writing before the pandemic or the election, but Biden may be planning such a strategy.

Reviewed by John Bacher, a peace and environmental activist in St. Catharines.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2021

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2021, page 28. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by John Bacher here

Peace Magazine homepage