How Democracies Die

by Steven Levitsky

Hardcover, 2018


Crown (2018), 320 pages


"Donald Trump's presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we'd be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang--in a revolution or military coup--but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one. Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die--and how ours can be saved."--Dust jacket.… (more)

Media reviews

Is there any democracy that you would have ranked as highly as you ranked the United States as a democracy in 2016, whatever ranking that is, that’s fallen victim to authoritarianism in your case studies? Levitsky: No, there are actually very, very few established democracies, democracies that
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have been fully democratic and that have been around for, say, 20 or more years, very few of them in the history of the world have collapsed. Uruguay is one, Chile is another, Venezuela is a third, maybe Hungary depending on how you interpret it these days. But none have been as stable or as democratic as the United States.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member streamsong
seems more like a book report than a review, I apologize.

From the jacket:“Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930's Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey and Venezuela to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how
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democracies die – and how ours can be saved.”

“ A country whose president attacks the press, threatens to lock up his rival, and declares that he might not accept election results cannot credibly defend democracy “ p206

So how did we get into the current situation?

This book begins with a discussion of the four key indicators of authoritarian behavior:

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. P 23/24

American democracy has endured many previous threats, including the Civil War and Reconstruction and politicians such as Joseph McCarthy, Father Charles Coughlin and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, frustrated with his New Deal policies being struck down by the Supreme Court, attempted to increase the number of judges and thus pack the Court. Each time the checks and balances have brought the system back into balance as outlined by the framers of the Constitution.

An important check was that political parties were able to nominate candidates that conformed to party principles. However, after the chaos of the 1968 election, 'In 1972 passage of Mcgovern-Fraser Commission issued a set of recommendations that the two parties adopted before the 1972 elections. What emerged was a system of binding presidential primaries. ' (p 51) This resulted in the parties unable to perform as gatekeepers and keep unsuitable candidates out.

In addition, to work at its best, American democracy must be defined by two basic principles: mutual toleration and forbearance. Both of these address the idea that one's opponent is not evil and should not be annihilated; that varying political ideals are just that; that compromises between opposing views can be made.

These concepts have been breaking down for many years, as evidenced by the bombastic rhetoric of intolerance of Rush Lumbaugh and progressing through Ann Coulter whose 2008 campaign speech against Obama 'brought forth cries of “Treason!” “Terrorist!” and even “Kill him” from the crowd.” P157.

In addition to rhetoric, American politics has become a game of political hardball consisting of maneuvers that are legal, but not ethical or moral.

So is the answer to Republican hardball, hardball tactics by the Democrats? The authors say no.

”Even if Democrats were to succeed in weakening or removing President Trump via hardball tactics, their victory would be Pyrrhic-- for they would inherit a democracy stripped of its remaining protective guardrails. If the Trump administration were brought to its knees by obstructionism, or if President Trump were impeached without a strong bipartisan consensus, the effect would be to reinforce- and perhaps hasten – the dynamic of partisan antipathy and norm erosion that helped bring Trump to power to begin with. As much as a third of the country would likely view Trump's impeachment as the machinations of a vast left-wing conspiracy- maybe even as a coup. American politics would be left dangerously unmoored.

“This sort of escalation rarely ends well. If Democrats do not work to restore norms of mutual toleration and forbearance, their next president will likely confront an opposition willing to use any means necessary to defeat them. And if partisan rifts deepen and our unwritten rules continue to fray, Americans could eventually elect a president who is even more dangerous than Trump.”
p 217

This book is short, only a bit over 200 pages. It has definitely opened my eyes to nuances of the current political climate and the true danger our democracy may be in.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Democracies die when one party stops treating the other as legitimate. This is happening in the US. Levitsky & Ziblatt argue that tit for tat is not helpful but they don’t identify tactics that are, which is frustrating—they indicate that things like coup attempts by the other party are bad and
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lead to backlash that speeds the transition to autocracy, which I get, but this to me does not translate to the idea of perhaps abolishing the filibuster if/when Democrats get some control back. That said, it’s not clear to me that other people have a clear path forward either unless the Republican party decides to clean house, and this is a useful look at repeating patterns: the key difference between those countries that succumb and those that don’t, they say, is whether the mainstream party to which the fascist insurgency is closest decides to embrace it for short-term benefit (Weimar Germany, Venezuela, etc.) or reject it and support the “opposing” mainstream party to keep fascists out of power (more recent Germany, France).
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LibraryThing member RajivC
I would have called this book How (American) Democracy Dies.

Having made that little quibble, this is an excellent book. For me, the first part is excellent, where the authors detail the four signs that point towards a movement from democracy to an unenlightened autocracy. These signs are clear
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enough for me to see what has happened in my own country, and what is happening today.

There are danger signs aplenty.

The book does indeed focus on the USA, and this is something that they stated upfront. Having said that, I would have liked more analysis of what is happening across the world. There is scant mention of Asia, and this is a weakness in the book because a large percentage of the world's population lives in India and China.

Still, it does provide enough food for thought, and much cause for worry.
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LibraryThing member dono421846
"We have developed a set of four behavioral warnings that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one. We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4)
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indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.... A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern.... Trump, even before his inauguration, tested positive on all four measures of our litmus test for autocrats."

Presented against the background of other emerging authoritarian heads of state, such as those of Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Hungary, and Poland, the authors review the case that Trump represents a dangerous step in a worldwide trend, one that threatens the liberal traditions upon which America was founded. Well written, persuasive, and almost certainly correct.
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LibraryThing member Razinha
I am in an uncharacteristically long reader's block slump combined with distracting ADD and I've never used a horror story to break me out of previous ones. The horror story of a horrible defense not knowing how to play on Sunday wasn't exactly enough, but it did prompt me to finish this horror
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story. Sinclair Lewis published the unfortunately prophetic It Can't Happen Here and Levitsky and Ziblatt's relates the actuality of it happening here with the erosive death of democracy in the US.

One problem with their analysis is starting from the premise that we've had a democracy to erode. They do noteAfter all, we like to believe that the fate of a government lies in the hands of its citizens. If the people hold democratic values, democracy will be safe. If citizens are open to authoritarian appeals, then, sooner or later, democracy will be in trouble. This view is wrong. It assumes too much of democracy—that “the people” can shape at will the kind of government they possess. It’s hard to find any evidence of majority support for authoritarianism in 1920s Germany and Italy. Before the Nazis and Fascists seized power, less than 2 percent of the population were party members, and neither party achieved anything close to a majority of the vote in free and fair elections.Yes, we've assumed that people can shape the kind of government they have. Of course, by "people" we hadn't counted on the formerly behind-the-scenes "people" now known as corporate "citizens" that are quite no longer behind any scenes. Today's Nazis and Fascists wear Republican, "alt-right" and MAGA trappings in the world of 2016 and later, and achieved a majority in electoral votes in a relatively free election (that is my extension of the text, not theirs.)

The authors write a well researched and well composed narrative of historical destruction of world democracies and turn an true eye on what the administration of 2017 has done and is likely to do here, drawing crosshairs and laying the blame properly on the majority party's failures to keep it in check. And, they accurately observe that the current regime did not create the conditions it adroitly takes advantage of, but correctly points to Newt Gingrich for laying waste to all civility (I may be paraphrasing just a bit.)When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted - mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.Those are gone.

The authors do well to recount all the indicators of destruction of our democracy, correlating with extensive historical examples. They don't have a solution , though - nor could we expect one. Their offered optimism doesn't counter this serious problem that we will be long recovering from, if ever.

Stephen King wishes he could write horror like this. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
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LibraryThing member PhilipJHunt
Essential reading, and not just for Americans. These two Harvard scholars take a broad sweep of the countries where democracies has been killed off, sometimes temporarily, by autocratic leaders. They identify the processes that led to democracy's death in places as disparate as Venezuela and
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Hungary. Next they review the American experience. The analysis should give us pause. All democracies are fragile.
The book reveals that the election of Trump is merely the tip of an iceberg that has been long developing. Can we see the signs in our own democracy? What can we do about it? The authors have some suggestions.
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LibraryThing member seongeona
Written so simply, easy to understand, I read it in one day. It is a real eye opener for those who never thought it could happen here. Absolutely frightening and depressing. Can't recommend it highly enough.
LibraryThing member dasam
A somber, realistic, but hopeful look at the dangers to American democracy by the loss of mutual tolerance and forbearance and some strategies for preserving it.
LibraryThing member larryerick
The authors really jump head first into their subject, causing a splash so big, the reader may immediately think the actual title is "Trumpism 101". They promptly lay out four key signs of an authoritarian government, and, without any help from the authors, it is easy to think of statements or
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actions America's current president has done that meet those criteria. Has the legitimacy of the most recent presidential election ever been questioned? Ever heard the phrase "Lock her up!" at one of his rallies? How about his encouragement of his supporters to physically assault his non-supporters? Is the phrase "Fake news" familiar to you? What's your best guess on what he thinks of Putin? However, the book quickly gets away from Trump and cites many examples of well known authoritarian governments in recent decades in other parts of the world, to give perspective to what may or may not be happening in America. The book then points to two essential "guardrails" to democracy, those dimensions of government beyond representative government, balance of power, and other well known foundations of America's republic. It is this discussion that is often overlooked and is much more of a factor in making or breaking the better known pillars. Eventually, the authors narrate the "unraveling" of America to where it is in 2019. Many readers may be surprised the authors lay significant initial blame on a former key government official, rather than the current President, for why we are where we are. Finally, the book tries to guide the analysis to what, if anything could and should be done about the current state of affairs. I'll let other readers come to their own conclusions on how successful the authors are in doing that. Personally, I think it lacks a recognition of some essential dynamics at play, which surprises me somewhat, given how much depth they give to the subject up to that point. All in all, this is a concise review of democracy for not only the Bernie Sanders or even Jeff Flakes of the world, and you don't even have to read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to appreciate what the book has to say. It is about what every American should know before giving a political candidate their support, regardless of the details of their lives.
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LibraryThing member Susan.Macura
I am a fan of mysteries and thrillers. I enjoy being scared by potential evil in the world. I have even carried this forward to books about true evil in the form of studies of actual serial killers. However, nothing is scaring me more than the books I have been reading about the Trump White House.
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This was another book that has me up at night. The authors pointed out that our democracy is not guaranteed to survive unless we work to maintain it. They provide us with the histories of other countries that have succumbed to authoritarian rule. Such countries exhibit all or some of four key indicators: rejection of or weak commitment to democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media. They then went on to reflect how Trump has exhibited all four indicators. However, all is not lost, and they discuss how we can survive Trump by restoring the basic norms that once protected it. This is a fascinating and insightful look into what is going on today and should be required reading for us all.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
this book is a sobering consideration of how democratic governments have, through subtle and even legal steps, evolved into authoritarian states. If American norms--political interactions not legislated but tacitly agreed upon--continue to be eroded we, too, could quickly find ourselves watching
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the last days of a democratic America.

The authors present the histories of countries that were democracies and became authoritarian, highlighting the strategies used by populist leaders to bring the system into their control. Later chapters consider the history of our political parties as gatekeepers as well as the source of conflict. A sad reality is that consensus has only occurred in America when the racist elements have been appeased.

And I am not just talking about slave owning states bulking up their political power by making slaves 3/5ths of a person, or the later repression of voting rights. As my readings in late 20th c political history have taught, the repression of African American, and the poor, is active to this day. I was a young adult when I heard our politicians call for 'law and order' and the end of 'welfare queens' and 'young bucks' drawing the dole. If after the mid-century Civil Rights protests we could not be above board with racism, it morphed into new language.

I was shocked not to have noticed before that recent anti-immigration movements are rooted in a desire to weaken the Democratic party, since most immigrants, along with people of color, vote Democratic. I knew it was overt racism, just missed that connection.

After leading readers through history the authors turn to today's political situation, evaluating the administration's tendency toward authoritarianism. As by the end of 2017, the system of checks and balances appear to be working. BUT, if the Republican party is complicit, the breakdown can and happen here.

In the end, the authors offer how the Democratic party should respond to the crisis--not by imitating the Tea Party methods, or by giving up 'identity politics' and letting the disenfranchised flounder, but by committing to consensus politics, forming a broad coalition, and restoring the basic norms that worked in the past: mutual toleration and forbearance.

I think this is one of the most enlightening books I have read recently. I highly recommend it.

I received a free book through Blogging for Books in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
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LibraryThing member schatzi
Although I definitely learned some things from the book, I left feeling vaguely disappointed.

I think the four "warning signs" that the authors mentioned are very good places to start, but I was rather baffled by the authors praising the "backdoor deals" of the political parties in the past as
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helping democracy. So making things more democratic...leads to less democracy? I understand the point about parties functioning as a way to keep demagogues out of the electoral process, but still.

I also found it rather surprising that the authors kept holding up Central and South American coups and dictatorships as examples while not addressing foreign influence in those coups and dictatorships but once or twice (and in a lukewarm way). Instead, America is held up as a paragon of democracy in this book, and the authors conveniently portray the dictatorships in C/S America as being driven solely by internal factors. Let's all ignore the (at times covert, at times very OVERT) American influence in these dictatorships' creation, shall we?
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
Over the past 2 years we have watched politicians do and say things unprecedented in the U.S., but which have been recognized as precursors to democratic crises in other places. We usually think democracies die by military coup, but they may also die at the hands of our elected leaders. Using
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examples from history, and focusing on events in the US from the 1980's through today, the authors demonstrate that, yes indeed, we are in danger of losing our democracy. Although the authors are well-regarded historians, they write in easy to understand language with vivid details. This is one of the most important and chilling of the many books I have read on this topic since the 2016 election. I am not hopeful
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LibraryThing member BenKline
This is... an interesting book in the theory and idea behind it. There is definitely a lot of valuable information here, that I think takes a backseat burner 2/3rds of the way through, to push the agenda that Trump must be stopped, and that the Republican party is completely complicit and needs to
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be stopped/changed/altered/refounded as well.

This is kind of neither here nor there though. The first 1/3rd of the book is about how Democracies fall and why, and ways they could have been stopped, using multiple (real life) examples. And this is the interesting, elucidating, and valuable portion of the book.

It quickly goes off the "guard"-rails from there. (If you've read the book you'll get the pun.) It then breaks down into how Newt Gingrich started the trend and ruined the norms and guardrails of Democracy with his weaponizing of the ways of our constitution that he figured out via loopholes or actions or whatever you want to call it.

From there, it goes further into how Republicans took this and put it on steroids and now we have Trump. The ending chapter is basically a complete repudiation of everything Republicanism. And even as a moderate non-Democrat/non-Republican "independent" who is willing to vote for whoever he thinks makes the best candidate regardless of party, I found this to be so severely over-handed. Even going into the whole breakdown of Nazism and Hitler's rise, and even slightly off-handedly referring to Trump through this and making comparisons (and even pointedly saying "not that we're comparing Trump to Hitler") which is typically one of the hand-waves of "but we are actually doing this". And this is kind of the problem the Democrat party ran afoul with Bush. They called Bush Hitler and compared him to Colonialism with the war of Iraq. You can only call so many opponents Hitler before it either a) is truthful or b) destroys all impact of the name-calling. And it either has or hasn't happened with Trump (for both a and b), but its a pointless debacle for this book to bring up at the very closing arguments, and destroys the collaborative efforts of the authors and shows that the book is mainly pushed with an agenda rather than out-right trying to be an informative piece.

And that's the sad part. That the end of the book ruins the good that the beginning of the book does and ruins the informative and academia of it by pushing an agenda. One that even as a moderate independent can see from miles and miles away and finds distasteful.
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LibraryThing member Judiex
HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE was published in 2018. Had we, as a country, understood its observations and followed its advice, we would not be in the mess we are in today.
Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt compare the results of numerous countries throughout the world who had democracies within the last
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century and what happened to them. Most did not survive.
While most people think of democracies as being destroyed by military coups, that is not always the case. The demise of many democracies can be traced to a party’s greater affinity for extremists on its side of the political spectrum than for [mainstream] parties close to the opposite side. In January 1933 in Germany, even though Hitler was despised, he was popular among the public and those in power thought they could control him. The case of Germany in the 1930s shows that the elected leader will use his elected power to maintain it. Later that year, the Reichstag fire provided the fuel for him to completely take over government.
In other cases, such as with Mussolini and Chavez, it took longer, but it happened because those in the establishment either ignored the warning signs or acquiesced. Those are often first step toward authoritarianism.
The US Republican’s 25-year march to the right was made possible by the hollowing out of its organizational core. The leadership has been eviscerated–first by the rise of well-funded outside groups but also by the mounting influence of right-wing media.
According to the US Constitution, there are three coequal branches of government. Each has the power and responsibility to keep the other two in check.
While not part of the Constitution, our political parties are supposed to be the gatekeepers, using their power to filter out extremists. To do that, they must respect the other party/parties and treat them as legitimate rivals. Politicians should also understand that sometimes they may have the power to do something but should “exercise restraint” when using it because it violates the spirit of the law. Instead of winning by appealing to their supporters and doing everything they can to prevent others, particularly minority groups, from participating. Politicians and parties should be seeking a common ground to benefit the country and, especially, address the real concerns of those feeling left out.
“When fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.” The destruction of our democracy began in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Before Obama took the oath of office, Republicans met and agreed to not support any of his proposals. The goal became to make him an irrelevant, one-term President any way possible.
Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy–packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector or bullying them into silence, then rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents.
The authors (delete Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt offer four key indicators of authoritarian behavior:

● 1. Rejection of or weak commitment to democratic rules of the game.
● 2. Denial of legitimacy of political opponents.
● 3. Toleration of encouragement of violence
● 4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

A quick look at any news source nowadays will prove these are already happening. As I write this review, the US is having major protests in response to the murders of Black people by police officers. While most of the protests have been peaceful, the President has sent in unidentifiable federal officers whose aggressive behavior has caused the protests to escalate into violence. He has made drastic cuts in the postal service in an attempt to privatize it and prevent the wide-scale use of mail-in-ballots in November, causing major delays in mail delivery. The US has the highest number of victims the Coronavirus in the world and he wants to force people to risk their lives to vote and work.
The authors proffer suggestions on how to rebuild a democracy but cite obstacles. One has already happened: if Trump were to be impeached without strong bipartisan support, “...the effect would be to reinforce–and perhaps hasten–the dynamics of partisan antipathy and norm erosion that helped bring him to power to begin with. At much as a third of the country would likely view his impeachment as the machinations of a vast left-wing conspiracy–maybe even a coup.”
HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE presents a clear explanation of what is happening to threaten our democracy. There is historical precedent as well as suggestions on how to regain it.
This book was available two years ago. It is not too late to read it and change the direction our country is headed.
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LibraryThing member FormerEnglishTeacher
An important book about democracies and how they manage to fail. A book everyone should read in today's divisive climate.
LibraryThing member luisiglc
It could have been an interesting book. After a promising start with international and historical aims, the book narrows into a quite politicized book focused on the American politics.


Massachusetts Book Award (Must-Read (Longlist) — Nonfiction — 2019)
Lionel Gelber Prize (Shortlist — 2019)

Original publication date





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