How Democracies Die
A bracing, revelatory look at the demise of liberal democracies around the world--and a road map for rescuing our ownDonald 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.

How Democracies Die Details

TitleHow Democracies Die
Author
LanguageEnglish
ReleaseJan 16th, 2018
PublisherCrown Publishing Group (NY)
ISBN-139781524762933
Rating
GenrePolitics, Nonfiction, History, Political Science

How Democracies Die Review

  • Michael Austin
    January 1, 1970
    I have not read Fire and Fury and doubt that I will. It seems too much like gossip to me, and too similar to the truckload of OBAMA IS DESTROYING AMERICA books that occurred during the last administration. But I bought How Democracy Dies the first day it came out, and read it in an evening because it gives exactly the kind of historical analysis that, I think, we need to understand in 2018. Levitsky and Ziblatt are genuine scholars (at Harvard even) who have done substantial research in the way I have not read Fire and Fury and doubt that I will. It seems too much like gossip to me, and too similar to the truckload of OBAMA IS DESTROYING AMERICA books that occurred during the last administration. But I bought How Democracy Dies the first day it came out, and read it in an evening because it gives exactly the kind of historical analysis that, I think, we need to understand in 2018. Levitsky and Ziblatt are genuine scholars (at Harvard even) who have done substantial research in the way that countries transition from democratic to authoritarian regimes. They have studied transitions in (among others) Argentina, Ecuador, Hungry, Peru, Poland, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela. And they have isolated some of the clear signals.First, though, I have to acknowledge that this is not just a historical analysis. They have a contemporary agenda, which, I think, is the right one: they want to convince us that the election of 2016 brought the United States closer to authoritarian rule than we have been at any time since the Civil War. That is a stark thesis. And I think that they prove it. Here are some of the ways that they do.The authors show fairly clearly that most democracies do not end by the standard-issue military coup, where the general parks a tank on the public square and removes the democratically elected president in chains. This does happen--it happened in Chile in 1973--but it is not the rule.Democracies die when demagogues--individuals who enjoy widespread popular support and come from outside of the normal political establishment--come to power through democratic means and then gradually subvert the written and unwritten rules of democracy. These leaders usually exhibit four characteristics:1. They reject the established rules of democracy. They attack laws and constitutions, or they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, or they attempt to use extra-constitutional measures to change things that have been designed to check their power.2. They deny the legitimacy of political opponents. They accuse their opponents of treason or criminal activity, jail them or advocate that they be jailed (i.e. chant "lock her up" at rallies, even after they have won). They try to find ways to delegitimize their opponents and prevent them from participating in the democratic process.3. They tolerate or encourage violence. They encourage--subtly at first and then openly--their followers to use, or threaten violence. They "praise, or refuse to condemn, other significant acts of political violence either in the past or elsewhere in the world."4. They move to curtail the civil liberties of their opponents, including opposition parties, media outlets, or critics.After setting out these criteria and giving examples from the last 50 years or so of world politics, the authors spend most of the rest of the book trying to answer the question, "Why has American democracy worked reasonably well (though not entirely perfectly) since the end of the Civil War?" they explain all of the formal measures (separation of powers, checks and balances, etc.), but argue that these have limited effectiveness by themselves. America's success (such as it is) is primarily due to two unwritten norms that are not codified anywhere, but that have been reasonably well observed for the last 150 years or so.NORM 1: MUTUAL TOLERATION: The first norm is the simple fact that different political factions in the United States have recognized each other's right to exist. This was not always true. It was not true in 1800, and it was certainly not true in 1860. But, since the end of the Civil War, Americans have generally agreed that the people who disagree with them politically are still "decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens--that they love our country and respect the Constitution just as we do." We are not, in other words, mortal enemies trying to destroy each other (as we were during the Civil War).NORM 2: INSTITUTIONAL RESTRAINT: The second norm that holds us together is that different parts of government don't always exercise the full extent of their powers as they fight partisan battles. There are some things that they don't do even though the Constitution would permit them to. Senates usually confirm a president's cabinet and court appointees, even though they could refuse to--even when the president is of a different party. President's usually don't override legislation with executive orders. Courts defer to legislative intent. Presidents enforce Supreme Court rulings and legislative actions that they disagree with. We do not have a government of all against all. If every branch of government used every possible Constitutional power at its disposal, it would be impossible to govern. And when it is impossible to govern, executives often become authoritarian.The authors suggest that these norms held, unevenly but noticeably--from 1865 until around the end of the 20th century. Then they began to slip. Parties began to speak of their opponents as enemies and traitors more and more often. Individuals became more and more willing to describe people who disagreed with them as fundamentally flawed--crazy, stupid, or evil. Senates became less willing to defer to presidential appointments. More executive orders got issued. More stuff got filibustered. And so on. As a result, the unwritten norms have been collapsing and some of the guardrails of our democracy are starting to fail.In 2016, the authors say, two things happened that have the potential to accelerate the collapse of the guardrails: 1) the Senate, for the first time since the 1866, the Senate refused to allow a president of the opposite party to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. This decision largely collapsed one of the norms that has stabilized our democracy for more than 150 years. And it will very likely result in future reprisals that will weaken it even more.The second thing that happened is that Donald Trump--a classic populist demagogue who meets all four of the standard criteria--was elected president. And since becoming president, he has fired officials who tried to hold him accountable, relentlessly attacked the free press, continued to advocate for the criminal prosecution of his opponent, praised or refused to condemn acts of political violence, and consistently denigrated anybody who challenges him as "an enemy of the people."Levitsky and Ziblatt do not say that the American democracy is dead. The authors are not quite that dramatic. But they do argue, and I think argue convincingly, that many of the things that have made democracy reasonably stable in America since the end of the Civil War have been undermined by recent events--and that we need to pay attention to this fact and do something about it.
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  • Faith
    January 1, 1970
    This is a well-researched analysis of the factors leading to the death of democracies, the signs of the rise of authoritarianism and the threats to the checks and balances that were supposed to prevent the election of demagogues. It outlines strategies employed by elected authoritarians to consolidate their control: "capture the referees, sideline the key players and rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field". The authors demonstrate how Trump has attempted to employ each of these tactics. The This is a well-researched analysis of the factors leading to the death of democracies, the signs of the rise of authoritarianism and the threats to the checks and balances that were supposed to prevent the election of demagogues. It outlines strategies employed by elected authoritarians to consolidate their control: "capture the referees, sideline the key players and rewrite the rules to tilt the playing field". The authors demonstrate how Trump has attempted to employ each of these tactics. The fact that we have tolerated this is evidence that we have "defined deviancy down" and accepted the unpardonable, a "fundamental erosion of norms". The book was informative about the fall of democracies in other countries and would have been merely interesting to read were it not for the Trump election. Now it's not just interesting, it's painful to read. This wasn't supposed to be able to happen here. Frankly, I have little hope for us when one party is controlled by self-dealing, unprincipled, greedy, hypocritical, xenophobic, short-sighted, anti intellectual, cowardly, mean-spirited, racist and win-at-all costs members. (I could add more adjectives, but you get the idea.) It's a party of people making their last stand as the ruling class and I don't see them compromising, even if it means destroying democracy in the process. The breakdown of democracy is gradual and can still be prevented. However, even if the authoritarian slide doesn't totally destroy democracy the authors (and I) fear that it will leave it severely weakened. Also, there is the danger that we are just one security crisis away from having no checks applied to Trump at all. At least the authors do suggest some solutions.
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  • Clif Hostetler
    January 1, 1970
    The following is excerpt from article in New York Magazine, January 2018:http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/...https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/bo...Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written a more foreboding analysis. Their forthcoming book, How Democracies Die, studies the modern history of apparently healthy democracies that have slid into autocracy. It is hard to read this fine book without coming away terribly concerned about the possibility Trump The following is excerpt from article in New York Magazine, January 2018:http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/...https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/bo...Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have written a more foreboding analysis. Their forthcoming book, How Democracies Die, studies the modern history of apparently healthy democracies that have slid into autocracy. It is hard to read this fine book without coming away terribly concerned about the possibility Trump might inflict a mortal wound on the health of the republic.Levitsky and Ziblatt dismiss several popular myths that may serve as comfort. Authoritarian presidents do not always or even usually act immediately — they often take few steps against their opponents in their first year in office. Authoritarianism does not usually take the form of a sudden, dramatic coup, but instead the slow strangling of institutional restraints by the ruling party. It is more of an outgrowth of partisan politics than a sudden departure — partisanship taken to newer heights.In their historic study, the most important variable in the survival or failure of a democracy is the willingness of a would-be authoritarian’s governing partners to break with him and join the opposition. In countries that have successfully staved off authoritarianism, parties that hold the balance of power, usually those in the center-right, instead join with the opposition. They act out of the belief that any policy gains they might wrest from an ideologically friendly authoritarian are not worth the long-term threat to their country’s democracy.Some Republicans have shown signs of this sort of commitment to democracy. A handful of Senate Republicans have warned Trump not to fire Robert Mueller. Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary committee, publicly signaled his reluctance to confirm a successor for Attorney General Jeff Sessions should Trump fire him. On the whole, however, the party has made the opposite decision, to attach themselves to Trump. Levitsky and Ziblatt borrow the term “ideological collusion” from the sociologist Ivan Ermakoff to describe this calculation that “the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives.”Levitsky and Ziblatt note that, while many Republicans abstained from endorsing Trump in 2016, only a single elected Republican official actually endorsed Hillary Clinton. (That was New York congressman Richard Hanna, who — like most openly anti-Trump Republicans — was retiring.) The party has used its control of Congress to quash the oversight function that is more necessary now than it has been in decades. While Trump has continued to operate his business and use his power to fatten his bottom line — including by obtaining policy concessions from foreign governments — Congress has held no hearings into his open corruption. Even the modest step of disclosing Trump’s income, so the public can have knowledge about who might be bribing the president, is too much; House leaders have blocked repeated proposals by Democrats to compel release of Trump’s tax returns.Congress has instead used its oversight capacity to oversee the law enforcement officials who are investigating Trump’s connections to Russia. The House is running a counter-investigation into alleged liberal bias at the FBI, a theme that has blossomed into an obsession in the conservative media. The entire premise is utterly comic, of course. The FBI is an agency that has long attracted disproportionately white, male, and politically conservative talent. During the presidential campaign, the FBI publicized its active investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server (which produced no charges) while concealing its investigation into Trump’s connections with Russia (which has already produced multiple indictments). The discrepancy produced a wide impression that Clinton had engaged in serious criminality and Trump had not, an impression Trump skillfully exploited, when the reverse was true.The spurious charge that the FBI was motivated by pro-Clinton bias has become a pretext for a political purge to advance Trump’s goals of transforming the agency into a political weapon at his disposal. To say this is not to make an accusation against the president but simply to describe the views he has made perfectly clear. “I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he told the Times.“But for purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.” He likewise implores the Department of Justice to imprison political antagonists who have committed no crimes.
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  • Andy
    January 1, 1970
    This book delivers autopsies of various democracies from 30,000 feet. Hitler, Hugo Chavez, Pinochet, Trump somehow all get blended into this survey. So the bulk of the book works as an introductory history course. That's fine, but the rise of Hitler, for example, is old information. What I am looking for at this point is what to do to save democracy. I was disappointed by what the authors eventually conclude. For example, they have a long list of things that the leaders of the Republican Party " This book delivers autopsies of various democracies from 30,000 feet. Hitler, Hugo Chavez, Pinochet, Trump somehow all get blended into this survey. So the bulk of the book works as an introductory history course. That's fine, but the rise of Hitler, for example, is old information. What I am looking for at this point is what to do to save democracy. I was disappointed by what the authors eventually conclude. For example, they have a long list of things that the leaders of the Republican Party "must" do to weed out Trumpish candidates. I don't know how "must do" lists for leaders change anything and I don't even know if I agree with the prescription. Registered Republicans wanted Trump and they got Trump, so the democratic system worked as far as that goes. Do the authors condone the shady shenanigans of the Democratic Party leadership in 2016 when it was taken over by Hillary Clinton long before she won the primaries? Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White HouseTrump is just a symptom of a syndrome that this autopsy is missing. The following offer better diagnoses of the deeper disorder: For a more illuminating book about the current political mess: . For digging into Hitler, I still like: For a better factual understanding of what is going right in the world in the present:
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  • Nancy
    January 1, 1970
    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 interaction not legislated but tacitly agreed upon--continue to be eroded we, too, could quickly find ourselves watching 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 syste 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 interaction not legislated but tacitly agreed upon--continue to be eroded we, too, could quickly find ourselves watching 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 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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  • Maria
    January 1, 1970
    I want you to see this man. He's the reason why I had to read this book.I'll be honest I'm not the biggest fan of America. I'm rather indifferent about them but I'm also aware of the importance of this country for the rest of the world. So like many people I was concern when Donald Trump got into power specially because I had seen a man like that. I'm 20 years old and that is how long the Revolución Bolivariana has been in my country and sadly I had not lived in a government different than that. I want you to see this man. He's the reason why I had to read this book.I'll be honest I'm not the biggest fan of America. I'm rather indifferent about them but I'm also aware of the importance of this country for the rest of the world. So like many people I was concern when Donald Trump got into power specially because I had seen a man like that. I'm 20 years old and that is how long the Revolución Bolivariana has been in my country and sadly I had not lived in a government different than that. I left my country almost a year ago because this stupid "Revolution" and when I saw this book I had to read it because if in anyway I'm able to avoid something like that to happen again I'll be happy to.This books puts a compressive guide on how to notice if a person is a posible authoritarian and takes history as the best guide for what to do when we encounter this type of people. As Venezuelan I know first hand how they work and how the take advantage of a polarized population to take control of the country. Seen all this happen in the USA amazed me but reading this book I understood that the real reason why democracies work is because the unwriting rules of the game. The authors focus on two thing: the importance of the political parties avoiding the demagogues and how the politicians in power must follow the rules not written in the constitution. Also not seeing the other as an enemy because this just creates deeper divide in the citizens. Sadly I feel that even when the sign are there it takes us time to see what is happening and it just becomes obvious when we actually lose democracy. I don't know if the US will be able to come back from this or if they will get even more polarized and isolated. My hope is that they realize the importance of democracy and how fragile it is before it's to late.I have a bunch of notes from this book. After what happened in my country I wouldn't want to live through something like that ever again so if I ever encounter the signs described in this book I want to be aware that is not normal and whoever is making those actions will try to kill democracy. I believe everyone living in a democracy should read this book. If so to know how to act if the scenario raise or just to remember that democracy is not just on the politician but in everyone who lives under it. On a final note I would like to leave this quote from the book describing democracy. “Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the “don’t” in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.” - E. B. White
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  • Gary Moreau
    January 1, 1970
    On the surface, this is a book about the internal contradictions of democracy and how those vulnerabilities can be exploited by those interested in authoritarian power with, in the case of the Republicans, a “white nationalist appeal.” It’s a valid assessment to about half of us, and they make a very strong historical and horrifying case in support of it. (think fascism, communism, and MAGA-ism)Every coin, of course, has two sides. The failure or success of any political system, including democr On the surface, this is a book about the internal contradictions of democracy and how those vulnerabilities can be exploited by those interested in authoritarian power with, in the case of the Republicans, a “white nationalist appeal.” It’s a valid assessment to about half of us, and they make a very strong historical and horrifying case in support of it. (think fascism, communism, and MAGA-ism)Every coin, of course, has two sides. The failure or success of any political system, including democracy, will always be a matter of perspective. You say to-mah-to, I say to-may-to. One person’s democratic failure is someone else’s democratic validation, and there is little question as to which side of that perspective the authors come down on. “Moreover, America is no longer a democratic model.”It struck me, as I read the book, that what the authors are ultimately arguing is that the coin of democracy, which they acknowledge as having two sides, should be kept very, very thin. The democratic failure they expertly portray, in other words, is a failure in moderation. The need for moderation, the authors convincingly argue, was well understood by the Founding Fathers. That is why we have three branches of government, the rule of law, a dual-chambered legislative body that virtually ignores the concept of popular representation in one of its chambers (e.g., the U.S. Senate), and the Electoral College, which, as the authors note, was, in the beginning, even less democratic than it is today, because the delegates had virtually no obligation to behave as the voters instructed them to.It is this political machinery, and the all-powerful two party system that grew out of it, that has, until now, according to the authors, kept political extremists at bay. Inexperienced outsiders like Henry Ford, George Wallace, and Huey Long may have made a lot of noise among the populists, but were kept at bay by the party bosses who, by implication, were protecting some higher standard of democratic ideals.The “thin coin” argument, however, is always employed by the side of the coin that is out of favor, or, more specifically, out of power. It is, however, a semantic argument. Did democracy fail or did it finally succeed?There is little question as to the authors’ political perspective on that question. “This all [the nomination of Trump] should have set off alarm bells. The primary process had failed in its gatekeeping role and allowed a man unfit for office to run as a mainstream party candidate.” The result: “President Trump’s is the least prodemocratic of any U.S. administration since Nixon’s. Moreover, America is no longer a democratic model.” The Republican objective: “…use the techniques of constitutional hardball to manufacture durable white electoral majorities.” To be accomplished, of course, through large scale electoral reengineering that includes massive deportations, abusive voter registration laws, etc.The book is well researched and well written. It will, however, do little to bridge the current partisan divide. In the end, the “thin coin” argument is an argument in support of centrism. Is that, however, really what people on either side of the political aisle want? Both political parties, it seems, are internally fractured between centrists and the more extreme wings of each ideology.I do agree with the authors’ assessment that, “When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted—mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance.” That is spot on and why I would agree with the authors when they argue, “In our view, the idea that Democrats should ‘fight like Republicans’ is misguided.” I don’t, however, support their conclusion, “Reducing [political] polarization requires that the Republican Party be reformed, if not refounded outright.” That’s another “thin coin” argument.I personally don’t believe, moreover, that pushing politics back into the smoke-filled back rooms, in an effort to keep the outsiders at bay, is what anyone wants. My own sense is that things have changed. Technology, in short, has redefined the way we live, work, and learn, and doubling down on the old coin isn’t going to work. What we need, instead, is a new coin. We don’t need a to-may-to or a to-mah-to so much as we need something completely new and different.Those of us who lived through half of the 20th Century or more know full well the perils and failure of fascism, communism, and authoritarianism. These, however, were manifestations of an either/or world. As technology integrates our global environment, our economies, and our societies, the either/or world that gives rise to the “thin coin” debate makes that debate less and less relevant. We need, instead, to think in terms of and/but. We need to think less in terms of limiting extremism of any variety and more in terms of how we create a more inclusive and just world.Historians deal in historical facts and figures. The best historians, however, rise above those facts and figures to help us to better understand the context in which they came to be. In doing that they prepare us to make a more informed decision about the future. While the authors, in this case, have painted a vivid historical picture that will appeal to all of the people who now feel they are looking in, myself included, they fail, in my view, to rise above the historical facts and figures to give us a viable vision for the future. That makes for a very interesting read, but not one on which to build an inclusive and prosperous America.
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  • Andrew
    January 1, 1970
    How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is an examination of the Donald Trump presidency in the United States, and its tendencies toward authoritarianism. The authors are both adept at examining Latin American politics and similar subjects in countries like Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, and there analysis takes their skills in these study areas and applies them to the current administration in the United States. The authors use four How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is an examination of the Donald Trump presidency in the United States, and its tendencies toward authoritarianism. The authors are both adept at examining Latin American politics and similar subjects in countries like Argentina, Peru, Ecuador and Brazil, and there analysis takes their skills in these study areas and applies them to the current administration in the United States. The authors use four behaviours of a would-be authoritarian, taken from years of study in this area. These four behaviours are:1. Rejection or weak commitment to democratic norms: In this category they look at other authoritarian states from around the globe in recent years, including Russian, Peruvian and eastern European states and there leaders. This encompasses a rejection of democratic norms and an implementation of populist style policies to reduce democratic traditions, rework checks and balances, and/or enhance personal or executive power. This can be done both through illegal or illegitimate means, such as using military power, threats of lawsuits, dissolving political systems and so on - or through legitimate ones, such as packing courts and legislatures. The authors note that Trump has engaged in this area, by threatening to reject election results if they went against him in 2016. He also seems willing to try and change administrative and legislative policies through executive action or by threatening to remove or fire opponents. 2. Denial of legitimacy of political opponents: This is a tool used by those with authoritarian ideals to remove, cajole or silence opponents in the system. It can be done by attacking opponents through the media, or by utilizing rhetoric centered on violence to threaten political opponents. These scenarios have played out frequently in Latin America, but are also seen in Eastern Europe and other authoritarian states. This is an adept way to hamper ones opponents, threaten them, and potentially scare them off all in one, while also being popular with voters who dislike or reject current political systems or elites. Trumps frequent clashes with the media, his campaign slogan of "Lock her up!" as a rallying tactic, threats against staffer, and his frequent rhetoric against legitimate institutions were all unprecedented in modern American politics, and comfortably fit into this category of authoritarian behaviour.3. Toleration or encouragement of violence: This one is pretty obvious. Authoritarian candidates are often fringe politicians, and threats or the utilization of violence are ways to remove political opponents, gather and rally support, and increase ones personal control. This can come in the form of coup attempts (such as in Venezuela under Chavez, or in Argentina, Chile, Brazil etc.) or through the use of violent rhetoric as a campaign tactic (seen in Orban's Hungary, for example, or in Turkey). Trump engaged in this tactic on his campaign trail, seemingly encouraging violence against protestors and those speaking there mind against his politics. This sort of behaviour is a direct threat to free speech, and can lead to advantageous situations for a would-be authoritarian to take advantage of or gain support from. 4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media: This one should be obvious as well. It is common for authoritarian rulers to take control of a nation by closing down opposition media outlets or stacking them with loyalists, threatening political opponents with jail time or removing them or exiling them somehow, and generally stamping out attempts at dissent against the regime. This has happened in many authoritarian regimes - look at Russia and many pre-1990's Latin American regimes for examples. Trump has frequently attacked the media, threatened lawsuits, fired political opponents, attempted to staff bureaucratic positions with loyalists, and so on.The authors conclude that Trump has engaged in all four behaviour categories of an authoritarian leader. They stipulate that although these categories may be present, they do not necessarily show that the US has skewed authoritarian. The authors spend much of the book looking at ways these categories can be countered. Examples include uniting opposition regardless of bipartisan support, upholding the check and balances of the states, setting red lines within a political party against the authoritarian leader and so on. These examples are all present in the Trump administration, although the authors worry about the increasingly extremist views of each party in terms of their bipartisanism, and how this increasing divide weakens the political party system and threatens to sell democracy short in exchange for ideology. The authors also note that Trump is not the only President to ever have authoritarian tendencies in one form or another. From Obama's executive order spree, to Bush's Patriot Act, to Roosevelt and his attempts to push through major changes to the Constitution in favour of New Deal principles, these tendencies have always been present in the US. Other issues, such as restrictive voting laws becoming more popular in Republican states (strict voter ID laws etc.), filtering media bias, and other issues with a modern democracy are also discussed in some detail.All in all, this book was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The authors argue that a democracy must remain vigilant against threats by authoritarian candidates, and gives good recent examples and comparisons of why from nations around the world, including Hungary, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Poland. The focus on the Trump presidency is certainly timely, although the saturation of similar books and articles bellies the seemingly benign and chaotic nature of the Trump presidency. Trump seems more an anti-establishment candidate than an authoritarian one, and although his attempts at change seem authoritarian in behaviour, I personally feel it is less of a political calculation on his part to gain more power, than a querulous reaction to his lack of popularity and support. Far from being a danger to democracy, Trump is more a siren for growing bipartisan extremism in the United States, and the complete lack of middle ground between the US's two political parties. This is something the authors discuss in some detail, but do not fully elaborate on. Another criticism I have of the book is its all-encompassing support for an expansion of Liberalism in the US. The authors seemingly advocate for what they call "gatekeeping" - the use of party insiders and kingmaker style politicians to screen candidates for behaviour and principles acceptable to the party, and not the voting public. Although this would reduce the mass populism seen in modern democracies, the reduction of the voting public's ability to choose a candidate is not necessarily democratic either, and can also lead to an erosion of democratic principles and institutions, not toward authoritarianism, but toward aristocracy or oligarchy. More democracy is certainly not always better, but fighting fire with fire can also be dangerous. I am a bit critical of this book, suffice to say it has interesting ideas in it. The examination of authoritarian states globally and the behaviour of candidates with authoritarian tendencies in a democracy sliding away from its principles was the most interesting part. Examinations of Hungary, Poland and the destruction of Venezuela's democracy, or the expansion of President Fujimori's power in Peru in the 1990's were fascinating. Even some of the examinations of the changes in the US political landscape were interesting, if a bit "too soon" in my opinion. However, the political commentary was muddling. The advocation for countering authoritarianism through decreasing voter rights to choose candidates from outside the establishment was wonky. The rhetoric on Trump's political ambitions seems to give him a bit to much credit in my opinion. Far from a demagogue, he seems more like a failed populist, although things can certainly change. This was an interesting read for sure; I would definitely recommend it for readers voraciously devouring anything on the Trump presidency, and for those interested in a lighter read on political theory, but overall it lacks the depth and concise analysis that other books on authoritarianism in democratic systems possess.
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  • Richard
    January 1, 1970
    Depressing! I received this book free from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. Written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, New York in 2018, the book consists of a detailed and concise account of various democratic governments that have collapsed in relatively recent history, and how they compare to the state of the US government Depressing! I received this book free from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. Written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, New York in 2018, the book consists of a detailed and concise account of various democratic governments that have collapsed in relatively recent history, and how they compare to the state of the US government and its political systems and leaders today. It is extremely well-researched. It is also very convincing. Its logic is inescapable. What has happened to other democracies, and what has almost happened on at least two previous occasions in the United States, could easily happen here again. The signs are unmistakable.Three countries frequently cited in the book as paradigm examples are: Germany under Adolph Hitler, Italy under Benito Mussolini and Venezuela under Hugo Chavez. Even though Chavez was elected by popular vote, while Hitler and Mussolini were not, political insiders helped these men to obtain power by responding to their own thirsts and desires for power or riches (or both). The authors put forth four signs of authoritarianism: According to them, “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, and 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” Does any of this sound familiar? How about Donald Trump issuing “Executive Orders” when Congress declines to grant his wishes? Or, how about his insistence that Hillary Clinton had no right to be president and should be locked up, or his frequent exhortations to the crowds at his rallies to use violence against protestors and media representatives, telling his supporters that he would pay their legal bills? How about his calls to curtail the news media, and his constant railing about “fake news”? Of course, Fox News Channel, an outlet that never says anything at all critical of Trump, enjoys immunity from his accusations against the media. Building on the efforts of previous researchers, the authors “have developed a set of four behavioral warning signs 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, and 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” The authors supply details about the four indicators of authoritarianism in the form of questions presented in a table to be found at locations #281 - #313 in the Kindle edition of the book. One example of the questions includes: "Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results?” (Donald Trump telling us that he might not accept the results of the election if he lost.) Another question is: “Do they baselessly describe their partisan rivals as criminals . . . “ Who can forget the chants of “lock her up” frequently heard at Trump rallies, even after he became President. One of the third types of question is: “Have they or their partisan allies sponsored or encouraged mob attacks on opponent?” Have we forgotten the frequent shouts by trump to “throw them out of here”? Or promises that he would pay the legal expenses of anybody arrested for using violence? The fourth indicator can be plainly seen in the answer to the following question: “Have they supported laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws, or laws restricting protest, criticism of the government, or certain political organizations”? In March of 2017, Trump said: “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” There they are. Questions and answers. Ask yourself this: Is Donald J. Trump an authoritarian? Does he have the potential to become another Hugo Chavez? A Fidel Castro? An Adolph Hitler? Forget Godwin’s Law! It is nothing more than Political Correctness (PC) run amok. The comparison to Adolph Hitler is legitimate to anybody who has studied European History during the first half of the Twentieth Century. The authors cite the example of strongman Alberto Fujimori manipulating the Supreme Court in a successful attempt to be able to run for an unconstitutional third term in office as President of Peru. How much different is that from US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of KY denying hearings or a confirmation vote on then-President Barack Obama’s nominee for the US Supreme Court during all of 2016. It is really no different from what happened in Peru. The Leader’s actions were certainly undemocratic, yet his supporters love him. Tellingly, they all seem to be Republicans. That’s something we should be thinking about at every election.The authors make some important points. They tell us, for example, 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. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” The authors go on to add that “This is how democracies now die.” The analogy to the frog and boiling water comes to mind when considering this. Americans are being led down the path to authoritarianism, and they don’t even realize it. Democracies have functioned well in the United States over the years for a simple reason: the application of checks and balances in the form of basic democratic “norms.” One of these is “mutual toleration,” the notion that “competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals.” The other norm is “forbearance,” or the idea that “politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.” Both of these norms have been seriously undermined, and even abandoned entirely, over the past thirty years, primarily by Republicans. The authors cite an example: “By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary.” Another way of describing this phenomenon is that the Republicans are playing “constitutional hardball” or “playing for keeps.” “It is a form of institutional combat aimed at permanently defeating one’s partisan rivals. In essence, it means not caring whether the democratic game continues.” The conclusion is: “There are, therefore, reasons for alarm.” I found these sections of the book to be particularly persuasive. A little further into the book, we are told that the political parties and party leaders are “democracy’s gatekeepers.” And that: “Potential demagogues exist in all democracies, and occasionally, one or more of them strike a public chord.” Whenever this might happen, it is the responsibility of the party to reign them in and prevent their abuse of power. Specific supporting examples are provided. This is something that was not considered by our founding fathers, but it occurred in the U.S. anyway, and it prevented the kind of demagoguery that we have not seen for more than 200 years — until after the 2016 presidential election. Continuing about gatekeeping, the authors go on to tell us that: “For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping. Both Democrats and Republicans have confronted extremist figures, some of whom enjoyed considerable public support. For decades, both parties succeeded in keeping these figures out of the mainstream. Until, of course, 2016.” Unfortunately, this is so obviously true. But, the authors go on to warn us that: “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 who threatens democracy itself. There is no escape from this tension. There are always trade-offs.” To our nation’s shame, the election of a demagogue is exactly what happened in 2016. “Republican leaders were forced to face reality: they no longer held the keys to their party’s nomination.” And so, Donald J. Trump is now our nation’s president. In elaborating on the four traits of authoritarianism, the authors tell us that “No other major presidential candidate in modern US history, including Nixon, has demonstrated such a weak public commitment to constitutional rights and democratic norms.” Donald Trump has accelerated the process begun by Newt Gingrich so many years ago. “The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal—often in baby steps.” We have seen this process at work for more than thirty years, and it has only moved into high gear after the election of Trump. Later in the book, the authors tell us how governments must change the rules of the game in order to entrench themselves in power. We saw Governor Scott Walker do it in Wisconsin when he successfully attacked his state’s labor unions, and then fought off an attempt to recall him. Such moves, along with the successful attempts by several states to disenfranchise minority voters, “are often carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favor of incumbents.” One example of this is the tremendous push by Republicans to disenfranchise voters by claiming that citizens who are registered in two or more states are committing voter fraud. Let’s take a look at this assertion. I lived in a Midwestern state for more than 21 years. I moved to a Western state, California, where I lived for three years before moving to another Western state. What is the likelihood that I am still registered to vote in those other two states? I might still be registered to vote in all three states. How would I know? Do Republicans really believe that I would jump on an airliner, fly to Chicago, rent a car and drive 90 miles to my polling place to vote, then backtrack to O’Hare, fly back to the West, vote in California, then drive to my current home to vote a third time? How much would that cost? Would anybody really be willing to spend the time, the money, and the effort to do such a thing? For a single vote? It would be insane! And so are the people who believe that such things really take place: Republicans! People move all the time, and this was especially true after the Republican-instigated Great Recession of 2007-2008. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, bothers to contact their local commission of elections to notify them that they are moving away. It just isn’t done. Levitsky and Ziblatt talk about the “guardrails of democracy,” and they tell us that there are both hard guardrails and soft guardrails. The guardrails define the limits beyond which the government, no matter how radical, might travel. But when mutual toleration between ideologies and the politicians who espouse them exceed the norms of democratic politics, “[t]he result is politics without guardrails—what political theorist Eric Nelson describes as a ‘cycle of escalating constitutional brinksmanship.’” Forbearance was abandoned in 2016 by the leadership (Mitch McConnell) of the U.S. Senate. “. . . For the first time in American history, the U.S. Senate refused to even consider an elected president’s nominee for the Supreme Court.” “Since 1866 every time a president had moved to fill a Supreme Court vacancy prior to the election of his successor, he had been allowed to do so.” Until 2016, that is. McConnell refused to allow a vote on the confirmation of President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court: Merrick Garland. The Republicans changed the rules in 2016, and further contributed to the erosion of democracy. The authors have identified a major factor in the increasing divide between the political parties: racism. They point out that “as the Democrats have increasingly become a party of ethnic minorities, the Republican Party has remained almost entirely a party of whites.” These whites overwhelmingly support Donald Trump. “All but one Republican senator voted with President Trump at least 85 percent of the time during his first seven month in office.” Alarmingly, “[u]nwilling to pay the political price of breaking with their own president, Republicans find themselves with little alternative but to constantly redefine what is and what isn’t tolerable.” Those of us who have been paying attention have already seen this. The authors’ conclusion is that “This will have terrible consequences for our democracy.” I’m sad to say that I agree with their conclusions. Continuing with their observation about Trump, the authors tell us that “Under Donald Trump, the United States appears to be abandoning its role as democracy promoter for the first time since the Cold War. President Trump’s is the least prodemocratic of any U.S. administration since Nixon’s. . . . A country whose president attacks the press, threatens to lock up his rival, and declares that that he might not accept election results cannot credibly defend democracy.” At this point in the book, the authors offer what, to my mind, are soft, mushy, and unrealistic suggestions for curing our nation’s ills. They criticize Progressives who believe that the Democrats should adopt the same tactics as the Republicans, but their alternative is not the least bit likely to be successful, IMO. They tell us, for example, that: “Reducing polarization requires that the Republican Party be reformed, if not refounded outright. First of all, the GOP must rebuild its own establishment.” How unrealistic is that? Never gonna happen! They say that a new coalition needs to be built to unite “Bernie Sanders supporters and businesspeople, evangelicals and secular feminists, and small-town Republicans and urban Black Lives Matter supporters” that will “open the channels of communication across the vast chasm that has emerged between our country’s two main partisan camps.” What have these guys been putting in their coffee? Many Americans currently believe that the Black Lives Matter organization does more harm than good, that Bernie Sanders and his supporters are out of touch with reality, and that small-town Republicans would NEVER agree with anybody in either of the other two groups about anything. This sounds like more of what Republicans derisively call “Kumbaya.” Oh, wait! Maybe they mean that what our country REALLY needs is a new, third political party. Call it the Independent Party, or call it something else. Organize it around the principals of democracy put forth by our founding fathers. It might take a while, and it might cost a lot of money, but it could be done. Look how well Ross Perot did in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996. He ran as an independent in 1992, and as the candidate of the Reform Party in 1996. All that would be needed is a charismatic leader — one who could command the respect of the American people, and who could successfully solicit contributions, but NOT Bernie Sanders. ☺ This party should not limit itself to presidential elections, but should run candidates in all elections at all levels. It would be a slow, painful process, but the alternative offered by the authors is simply too unrealistic. The final conclusion of the authors, presented at the end of the book is: “Ultimately, then, American democracy depends on us—the citizens of the United States.” They are spot-on with this conclusion. The question is: How do American citizens fix a broken political system? In my opinion, the evil and corruption that has infused politics and governments in recent years can be largely attributed to the massive failure in its mission by the First Estate: the clergy, and especially the Christian clergy. The news media has also played a role. The authors, however, do not mention the ultimate root causes of our nation’s descent into authoritarianism. They discuss the behavior of the American people, but not the reasons why they behave the way they do. Most of the conclusions drawn by the authors are well-reasoned and compelling. To anybody who is fully conscious, who is alert and paying attention, who is not living in a state of delusion watching the Fox News Channel, or who has not been asleep in front of the TV set for the past thirty years, the parallels between the United States and those nations that were once democratically governed and have now fallen into authoritarianism, is inescapable. The United States of America is traveling down the same path. The prospect is scary, and it is depressing. Read this book.
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  • Jean
    January 1, 1970
    I found this book fascinating. Ziblatt and Levitsky are respected scholars in the field of democracy studies. They teach at Harvard University.The book is well written and researched. It is written in an easy to read style that is easy for the lay person to follow. The first part of the book reviewed how democracies around the world have fallen to authoritarian regimes over the years. The authors explain three key important elements vital to a democracy and then go into detail about each country I found this book fascinating. Ziblatt and Levitsky are respected scholars in the field of democracy studies. They teach at Harvard University.The book is well written and researched. It is written in an easy to read style that is easy for the lay person to follow. The first part of the book reviewed how democracies around the world have fallen to authoritarian regimes over the years. The authors explain three key important elements vital to a democracy and then go into detail about each country and whether one or all elements were involved in its demise. The authors also have revealed in detail how some countries have over thrown the authoritarian regime and returned to a democracy even stronger than before. I found the method used in Chile to return to a democracy most interesting. The last part of the book examines the United States and examines attacks on our democracy and how they were successfully repelled. The authors examine in-depth the first year of Trump’s administration. Levitsky and Ziblatt show how a democracy fails and most important what can be done to protect the democracy. From reading this book one thing that I was struck with is how critical it is to maintaining our democracy to solve our race problem. The book is written in a neutral academic method. This book is a must read for everyone living in a democracy. I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. It is such an important reference book I am going to purchase a hardback edition. The book is almost eight and a half hours. Fred Sanders does an excellent job narrating the book. Sanders is an actor and well-known audiobook narrator. He has a smooth reading style that is easy to listen too.
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  • Peter Mcloughlin
    January 1, 1970
    Lays the blame for the fall of democracies on the erosion of the guardrails (unwritten rules) of the polity. Also lays a big chunk of the blame for the decay of democracy at the party or legal gatekeepers failing to weed out extremists and outsiders. Outsiders and extremists are not well known for respecting established procedural forms of democracy and will break the guardrails of democracy and turn towards autocracy. This has been the form authoritarianism takes in Ecuador, Peru, Turkey, Venez Lays the blame for the fall of democracies on the erosion of the guardrails (unwritten rules) of the polity. Also lays a big chunk of the blame for the decay of democracy at the party or legal gatekeepers failing to weed out extremists and outsiders. Outsiders and extremists are not well known for respecting established procedural forms of democracy and will break the guardrails of democracy and turn towards autocracy. This has been the form authoritarianism takes in Ecuador, Peru, Turkey, Venezuela and other places democracy failed. It is now happening the US with the Republicans and Trump.
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  • Carlos Alberto Ledezma
    January 1, 1970
    This book was quite disappointing. I was expecting a thorough analysis on how stable democracies turned into authoritarian regimes; in contrast, the book only does a quick overview of some modern dictatorships and then delves into the United States' democratic history. Finally, the book concludes with some possible solutions to the current political crisis in the US, but these solutions don't seem to be founded on what's written in the rest of the book.On the upside, the essay presents many inte This book was quite disappointing. I was expecting a thorough analysis on how stable democracies turned into authoritarian regimes; in contrast, the book only does a quick overview of some modern dictatorships and then delves into the United States' democratic history. Finally, the book concludes with some possible solutions to the current political crisis in the US, but these solutions don't seem to be founded on what's written in the rest of the book.On the upside, the essay presents many interesting concepts that allow to assess if an 'outsider politician' shows authoritarian traits. Also, the first chapters of the book make a strong point about the unwritten rules that are tacitly understood and respected because they support democracies. As the book thoroughly states, no constitution can set the basis for the functioning of a whole country. Another strong point of the book is its portrayal of politicians and political parties as the main responsible for safeguarding democracy.Perhaps the most frustrating bit of this essay is that it covers all authoritarian regimes under the same umbrella. It does not include, in the analysis of how democracies have died in the past, the analysis of specific social and economical phenomena that may have elicited the rise to power of authoritarian personalities. It is almost vexing to state that the rise of power of Pinochet (a hard right dictator) happened under the same circumstances as that of Chavez (an extreme left populist).Finally, although the authors repeatedly visit Latin American dictatorships in look for examples, they never mention the fact that some of these (as in Chile and Nicaragua) would have been dead in their tracks had them not been financially supported by the US government. Perhaps the US policy of sponsoring dictatorships, when it fits their political agenda, has contributed to the political nightmare they are currently living in nowadays.
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  • Katia N
    January 1, 1970
    This book analyses historic examples how certain countries (Chile and Venezuela, but also the others) have moved from the democracy to autocratic and totalitarian regimes. The authors compare those examples with the current situation in America. They state that apart from the written laws and established institutions there are also unwritten norms and “forbearance” - accepting the opposition as a legitimate player. And when those things are undermined, the democracy is in real threat. In terms A This book analyses historic examples how certain countries (Chile and Venezuela, but also the others) have moved from the democracy to autocratic and totalitarian regimes. The authors compare those examples with the current situation in America. They state that apart from the written laws and established institutions there are also unwritten norms and “forbearance” - accepting the opposition as a legitimate player. And when those things are undermined, the democracy is in real threat. In terms American democracy, they think that Trump is more a symptom than the course. The main reason, as far as I understood their point of view, is the growing gap between the democrats and the republicans. “With disappearance of conservative Democrats and liberal republicans the overlap between the parties gradually disappeared.” They claim that the mutual reconciliation after the civil war was based on the racial disenfranchising of the black population, especially in the South. Ironically, this situation was promoted by the Southern Democrats and eventually quietly tolerated by the Northern Republicans. But since the 60s civil rights movements the situation has radically changed. Black enfranchisement and immigration give advantage to democrats. Both parties’ bases are radically realigned. And now they are “much more than liberal and Conservative party. Their voters are now deeply divided by race, religious belief, geography and even way of life.” The republicans have come to represent more and more white religious Americans who find themselves threatened by the demographics and experiense existential crisis because of that:“If definition of real America is restricted to those native born English speaking white and Christian that it is easy to see how “real Americans” might view themselves of declining.” … “By the end of Obama’s presidency many republicans embraced the view that the democratic rivals were anti American or posed a threat to the American way of life.”The result is all out war launched by the Republicans since the 80s through all possible means (money, media, manipulating with districts voting) undermining the established political norms and challenging opponents’s legitimacy. “If 25 years ago someone describe to you a country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal Surpreme court seats, you might thought of Equador it Romania, but not the United States.”After Trump elections, some commentators recommended the Democrats to step back from so called “identity politics”. But the authors of this book do not think it would be the right thing to do, especially in the racial issues. They consider different scenarios what could happen with the country after Trump; and unsurprisingly the scenarios vary on the spectrum of optimism. But if they are right about the root course of the problem (the perceived disappearing of “real America’), it would be a very difficult struggle until the people are ready to embrace the inevitability of the future which is different from the past.
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  • Emma Sea
    January 1, 1970
    holy shit, we are SO SCREWED!
  • Caren
    January 1, 1970
    Fascinating book! I put everything aside this weekend and read it in a day. The authors, both professors of government at Harvard, not only look at warning signs of a democracy's decline based on others countries which have fallen into authoritarianism, but also at points in American history when that possibility existed here. They explain the "guardrails" which saved the USA in the past. Right at the start, they list four things to look for as a warning of authoritarian behavior: 1)Rejection of Fascinating book! I put everything aside this weekend and read it in a day. The authors, both professors of government at Harvard, not only look at warning signs of a democracy's decline based on others countries which have fallen into authoritarianism, but also at points in American history when that possibility existed here. They explain the "guardrails" which saved the USA in the past. Right at the start, they list four things to look for as a warning 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 (pages 23-24). The episodes from American history were really engrossing and built into an analysis of our current political situation of extreme partisanship. The authors' idea is that after Reconstruction, the South felt threatened by the mass of new black voters. The North and South had a tacit understanding that the North would look the other way and allow Jim Crow to permeate the South, in order to restrict black votes. In other words, the two parties got along because both allowed for white dominance. This worked until the Civil Rights acts of the 1960s. They note that our current parties are pretty strongly divided along racial lines. (The Republicans are predominantly white and the Democrats are more racially mixed.) They note that there need to exist two unspoken norms of political interaction: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. (page 102) Donald Trump is certainly not the cause of our political decline; he is merely a symptom. The authors particularly point out that in the 1980s-90s, Newt Gingrich promoted the idea of political differences as a war of ideas.(see pages 146-148) You were never to give in, but fight by whatever means gave your side a win. But, a party may win a battle and lose the war if they can't get along with the other side. They give examples from the past when a president attempted to breach controls on his power and his own party united with the opposition to squelch the tendency, one example being when FDR tried to pack the Supreme Court. The Twenty-Second Amendment was a response to FDR having served more than two terms in office, a violation of what until then had been an unspoken norm. They say that polarization destroys democratic norms (page 115). They note that North Carolina today is a good example of a state in which politics without guardrails has taken over. They have gerrymandered districts and implemented strict voter registration laws in order to favor the party in power. The authors believe it would be "valuable to focus on two underlying forces driving American polarization: racial and religious realignment and growing economic inequality." (page 222) They note that the control of parties by wealthy donors and outside media are real problems for implementing reform. What I really liked about this book is that the authors offer solutions to our predicament. The book is devoid of any jargon and is easily accessible by anyone with an interest in the health of our democracy. There are notes and an index for those who would like further study. The authors close with a wonderful definition of democracy from E. B. White, written in 1943: "Surely the Board [U.S. Federal Government's Writers' War Board] knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the 'don't' in don't shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the current suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is." (quoted on pages 230-231)I don't know about you, but that brought tears to my eyes. What we have here in this country, folks, is far too important to give up on. I would urge all of you to read this book and then talk it over with someone who has a viewpoint other than your own.**The authors were just interviewed on "Fresh Air":https://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-ai...
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  • David Rush
    January 1, 1970
    Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives. These two norms under-girded American democracy for most of the twentieth century. Pg. 8That pretty much sums up the whole book, and for any that have their eyes open enough Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives. These two norms under-girded American democracy for most of the twentieth century. Pg. 8That pretty much sums up the whole book, and for any that have their eyes open enough to see it, this was already obvious. And [REVIEW SPOILER ALERT] I just don't see any Republican alive ever practicing either those two wonderful qualities so we are doomed...DOOMED I SAY!!. But what this book does is lay it all out in an easy to read format with many examples of democracy gone wrong. At first I was worried about the lack of footnotes, but for any historical example or ridiculous conservative quote...all the who, what, where, and when is in the end-notes, VERY thorough.Aside from the easy access historical data, the authors were convincing (to me at least) in their conclusion of what went wrong past democracies and what to look for in weakened democracies.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) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Pg. 21One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defense of democracy is used as a pretext for its subversion. Would-be autocrats often use economic crises, natural disasters, and especially security threats – wars, armed insurgencies, or terrorist attacks – to justify antidemocratic measures. Pg 92.One interesting observation is that for all the reverence for the “founders” intentions these guys remind us that it was not a sure thing at all.The American republic was not born with strong democratic norms. In fact, its early years were a textbook case of politics without guardrails….Federalists and Republicans initially suspected each other of treason. Pg. 120And after getting through those turbulent early days, the next wave of possible failure grew.The erosion of basic norms expanded the zone of acceptable political action. Several years before shots were fired at Fort Sumter, partisan violence pervaded Congress. Yale historian Joanne Freeman estimates that there were 125 incidents of violence – including stabbings, canings, and the pulling of pistols – on the floor of the U.S. House and Senate between 1830 and 1860. Pg 122I made a ton more bookmarks and I like the idea of being able to pull up some verifiable source to prove how crazy, crass or just plain stupid modern Republican’s are (and of course Democrats have plenty examples of un-heroic political performance, but in today’s world the problems are overwhelming caused by Republicans). But by the time I reviewed my notes I was just too depressed to bother loading up all this debate ammo.You see I finished this the weekend after the High School shooting in Florida, and the Republicans are already calling the angry students stooges of the liberal elite. And...well...damn...how can you argue with that? A truckload of footnotes or end-notes won’t convince one Republican to change their mind.So reading How Democracies Dies is an insightful and informative presentation we can all appreciate as the ship of state confidently sails into the iceberg destined to bring about the Steve Bannon’s desire for the “destruction of the bureaucratic state”
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  • Kusaimamekirai
    January 1, 1970
    In the darkest days of the Second World War, when America’s very future was at risk, writer E. B. White was asked by the U.S. Federal Government’s Writers War Board to write a short response to the question ‘What is democracy?’ His answer was unassuming but inspiring. He wrote:’Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high In the darkest days of the Second World War, when America’s very future was at risk, writer E. B. White was asked by the U.S. Federal Government’s Writers War Board to write a short response to the question ‘What is democracy?’ His answer was unassuming but inspiring. He wrote:’Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.’ How does a society sustain its democracy in the face of authoritarianism? How does one part of society who believes in democracy convince the other which is less convinced of its necessity? What lessons can be learned from our past to prevent the death of American democracy? These are the questions asked in “How Democracies die”. The first part of the book is primarily occupied by identifying the warning signs that a duly elected leader may have authoritarian impulses. These are many but the two most important are what the author describes as 1) mutual toleration and 2) institutional forbearance. Mutual toleration is the idea that regardless of party there is am agreed upon standard of conduct that governs discourse. Opposition parties may be disagreed with, even vehemently, but ideas and institutions are respected. Insulting opposition party members or supporters, questioning their patriotism, or in fact their very legitimacy is mutually agreed upon as unacceptable. As the author writes:“If partisan animosity prevails over mutual toleration, those in control of congress may prioritize defense of the president over the performance of their constitutional duties. In an effort to stave off opposition victory, they may abandon their oversight role, enabling the president to get away with abusive, illegal, and even authoritarian acts” Institutional forbearance dictates that while certain broad powers are legally acceptable such as eliminating filibusters, refusing to confirm judges, or blatant obstructionism, both parties choose to not utilize them. This may be due to the tacit understanding that power is cyclical and today’s majority is tomorrow’s minority. Less cynically, there is also the realization that cooperation between the parties is ultimately good for the republic as a whole. So what happens when parties abandon both of these principles? It looks a lot like today. Take for example the refusal of Republicans to observe norms in President Obama’s nomination to the Supreme Court of Merrick Garland:“In the 150-year span between 1866 and 2016, the Senate never once prevented the president from filling a Supreme Court seat. On seventy-four occasions during this period, presidents attempted to fill Court vacancies prior to the election of their successor. And on all seventy-four occasions, though not always on the first try, they were allowed to do so.” The author argues that the breaking of norms weakens the guardrails of democracy and lead to the opinion of the minority being run roughshod over in a zero sum game. Scorched earth policies like this are ultimately a race to the bottom and when unwritten rules that have survived 100’s of years are no longer observed, how soon before respect for the written ones is also discarded? Or as the author observes:“All successful democracies rely on informal rules that, though not found in the constitution or any laws, are widely known and respected. In the case of American democracy, this has been vital.” While we haven’t slipped into authoritarianism as of yet, the weakening and delegitimizing of institutions as we see in American discourse now, is a well worn path to dictatorships throughout history. America has to this point in its history successfully held back wannabe strongmen like George Wallace (who at the height of his popularity had 40% of the country’s support) for example, who once said:“There is one thing more powerful than the Constitution, that’s the will of the people. What is a Constitution anyway? They’re the products of the people, the people are the first source of power, and the people can abolish a Constitution if they want to.” The onus for maintaining our democracy in the end falls of course to a vigilant populace who must recognize and resist any weakening of our liberties but also to the institutions themselves. Politicians from both parties must also show courage and put aside short term gain while speaking out against any attempts to destabilize democracy. The country needs what the author calls “gatekeepers” to prevent the virus of authoritarianism from entering the national bloodstream. Gatekeepers like the Republican party in 1923 who in seeing the rise of the massively popular but virulently racist Henry Ford essentially blocked any path to his running for president. The author describes what happened:Despite popular enthusiasm for his candidacy, Ford was effectively locked out of contention. Senator James Couzens called the idea of his candidacy ridiculous. ‘How can a man over sixty years old, who has no training, no experience, aspire to such an office? It is most ridiculous.’ It is, therefore, not surprising that when Ford was interviewed for Collier’s at the end of that long summer, his presidential ambitions were tempered: I can’t imagine myself today accepting any nomination. Of course, I can’t say what I will do tomorrow. There might be a war or some crisis of the sort, in which legalism and constitutionalism and all that wouldn’t figure, and the nation wanted some person who could do things and do them quick. Who in 2018 has the courage to recognize and place the good of the good over the short term good of party? The future of American democracy perhaps depends on finding the answer.
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  • Bruce Katz
    January 1, 1970
    Rating a book like this with stars is entirely irrelevant. Written by two Harvard professors who have studied the lives and deaths of democracies around the world, the book rings a sober alarm about the precarious state of American democracy today. It lays out step by step how democracies have weakened and authoritarian regimes have taken their place -- sometimes dramatically, as with coups, and sometimes incrementally. As they demonstrate, our political culture has taken every single one of tho Rating a book like this with stars is entirely irrelevant. Written by two Harvard professors who have studied the lives and deaths of democracies around the world, the book rings a sober alarm about the precarious state of American democracy today. It lays out step by step how democracies have weakened and authoritarian regimes have taken their place -- sometimes dramatically, as with coups, and sometimes incrementally. As they demonstrate, our political culture has taken every single one of those steps over the past quarter century, culminating in what they describe as an assault on the norms and standards of democratic governance. Individual readers might quibble about one point or another, but viewed as a whole the book is very convincing. It should be read by every single member of Congress regardless of party affiliation. If I thought for a second they'd actually do so, I'd initiate a Kickstarter campaign myself to pay for it.
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  • Mehrsa
    January 1, 1970
    This is the rare book where I liked their solutions section better than their descriptive section. At the end, they fight against those who say that the left needs to let go of its embrace of identity culture (i.e. embrace of multiculturalism). They say that would be a huge mistake and I agree. Basically, this book shows how other democracies aboard have fallen into autocracy (spoiler: there are more similarities between us and them than differences). My one critique (or maybe it's just a questi This is the rare book where I liked their solutions section better than their descriptive section. At the end, they fight against those who say that the left needs to let go of its embrace of identity culture (i.e. embrace of multiculturalism). They say that would be a huge mistake and I agree. Basically, this book shows how other democracies aboard have fallen into autocracy (spoiler: there are more similarities between us and them than differences). My one critique (or maybe it's just a question) is their insistence on preserving (or resurrecting) the role of gate-keepers. This is a tempting solution--bring back the party bosses and the smoke rooms and the strong electorate college protections that kept out the crazies in the past (like Ford and Lindberg and Wallace). They certainly failed to keep out Trump. But I am not sure we need more gatekeepers. Hillary did win the popular vote. Seems we might just have a half-way system that is neither Populist nor elitist but the worst of both worlds. In any case, it's a short and interesting read.
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  • Rosalyn
    January 1, 1970
    This book is a mess. It reads like a first year college student's paper on why Trump is bad (which, of course, he is, but just because I share the authors' view of him doesn't mean I am going to overlook how pedestrian this book is).
  • Jennifer
    January 1, 1970
    Incredibly compelling and well-researched look at how fragile the institution of democracy is. This even-handed book provides numerous examples of the subtle rise of authoritarianism in countries throughout history. The pattern is predictable and clear: 1) Elected officials reject the established rules of democracy; 2) They deny the legitimacy of political opponents; 3) They tolerate or encourage violence; 4) They move to curtail the civil liberties of their opponents, including opposition parti Incredibly compelling and well-researched look at how fragile the institution of democracy is. This even-handed book provides numerous examples of the subtle rise of authoritarianism in countries throughout history. The pattern is predictable and clear: 1) Elected officials reject the established rules of democracy; 2) They deny the legitimacy of political opponents; 3) They tolerate or encourage violence; 4) They move to curtail the civil liberties of their opponents, including opposition parties, media outlets, or critics.Sound familiar? That's because we are repeating this pattern in the United States today. Five massive stars. This book is vitally important.
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  • Gail
    January 1, 1970
    10 stars if I could give it. If you’re a sentient being living in the United States you are likely worried about the country’s future. Some of you are concerned that America will never be “great again”. Some are terrified that this administration’s behavior and policies will ensure that we will end in ruin, sooner, not later. This book lays out the context for the polarization we are living with and sets the stage realizing that we are already sliding towards an autocratic state. I’ve read “Fire 10 stars if I could give it. If you’re a sentient being living in the United States you are likely worried about the country’s future. Some of you are concerned that America will never be “great again”. Some are terrified that this administration’s behavior and policies will ensure that we will end in ruin, sooner, not later. This book lays out the context for the polarization we are living with and sets the stage realizing that we are already sliding towards an autocratic state. I’ve read “Fire and Fury”, “What Happened”, bits and pieces of “It’s Even Worse Than You Think”, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”, endless analyses by Vox, pundits, and data gurus. None of these sufficiently explore the depth and breadth of the danger we are now facing. If you are a thoughtful person the conclusions these authors reach will chill you to your core. This is not a comforting book. It is however, necessary.I’m old enough to have lived through a great deal of the history recounted here. As the authors recount how past presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, attempted to bend democracy to their “imperial-lite” desires, the groundwork is laid to show how America fought back and was the better for it. The necessary ingredients for sustaining a successful democracy are identified and their functioning is elegantly explained. Everything from how political parties function to the composition of those parties, the role of a political elite, how candidates are “vetted”, the rules for civil discourse, the enormous risks that come with outsiders...all are critically important norms; none of them is written in the constitution but without our ability to agree on these underpinnings to democracy, we are in trouble. Beginning in the 1960s the elemental assumptions about how our country works, all the things that kept us a vibrant democracy, the things that cannot be written easily into laws, became unmoored. This led us to the intense, dysfunctional and potentially catastrophic social and political environment we live in today. For the 60s challenged the truth of the foundational lie on which we were built: that all races and people were equal. Prior to that period, the political calculus was that both parties would limit how much freedom black people were allowed. We substantially agreed to actively though subtly sustain white supremacy while attempting to maintain a rhetoric of “equality”. By agreeing to that, by not challenging this basic tenet of American life, we were free to fight political battles on taxes, debt, the military and the like. The 60s blew apart that veneer and with it, reconfigured the parties and their world views. Democrats moved dramatically to support equality and challenge the infrastructure of white supremacy; Republicans staunchly opposed it. Such a stark difference in world views set the battle for the heart and soul of American democracy. Republicans represented the interests of the white majority and they would fight to the death to sustain it. For while both parties are complicit in attempts to grow and sustain power, only the Republicans have been willing to undermine civil society, the norms of governing, and the institutions themselves in order to grab power for the white majority. They are without question, the party of autocracy. This book lays out the evidence in such compelling ways that it becomes impossible to turn away from that truth. It confirms the despair that some of us feel when we insist that Trump is the symptom but not the underlying problem. He is the culmination of a strategy and belief system that will live on past him. I’ve been deeply skeptical of the conventional wisdom that Hillary and the Dems lost political ground because they were not sufficiently concerned about the economic demise of white, blue-collar Americans. Some have suggested that Democrats jettison “identity politics” in favor of embracing the whites that have gravitated to the far right. If you are one of those convinced that it’s all about economic inequality (the far Left, I’m talking to you), then it is vital that you read this book’s assessment of that viewpoint.The authors present some new ideas on how the attack on democracy happens. Modern democracies die not through coups, but through legal means. That’s the terrifying part. There is evidence aplenty to substantiate their hypothesis. They end the book with three scenarios that are possible given where we are now. None of them is pleasant; one is their preferred and most hoped for way to minimize the damage, renew our democratic values, and rebuild our ability to govern. I’m not convinced we are capable of choosing the most productive and least violent path, but just reading about them gives me pause, pushes me to consider how I, as an individual, want to conduct my political life. This book is beyond exceptional. It should be read and reread and discussed with like-minded people and those who are not. If you are at all concerned about this country ... indeed, the world .. then I strongly encourage you to buy and read this book.
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  • Arielle
    January 1, 1970
    This was a fascinating education about how democracies around the world have either stood up to or succumbed to autocrats. It was both educational and somewhat frightening to learn about how many democracies slipped into authoritarianism through seemingly small changes: “Because there is no single moment—no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously 'crosses the line' into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who de This was a fascinating education about how democracies around the world have either stood up to or succumbed to autocrats. It was both educational and somewhat frightening to learn about how many democracies slipped into authoritarianism through seemingly small changes: “Because there is no single moment—no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously 'crosses the line' into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.” This book was a well-researched history lesson on democracies around the world and a cautionary tale about the dangers of eroding democratic norms and institutions. The end of the book also included advice about how we might help restore our democratic values once again.Highly recommend!
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  • Angie Boyter
    January 1, 1970
    When we think of a democracy dying, what comes to mind is usually a military coup or civil war or other sudden violent action. In How Democracies Die, Harvard Government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt show how countries can lose their democracy more slowly and insidiously, often without a single shot fired.They assert that, beyond the obvious mechanisms we depend on like free and fair elections and a strong constitution, democracies work best when these mechanisms are reinforced b When we think of a democracy dying, what comes to mind is usually a military coup or civil war or other sudden violent action. In How Democracies Die, Harvard Government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt show how countries can lose their democracy more slowly and insidiously, often without a single shot fired.They assert that, beyond the obvious mechanisms we depend on like free and fair elections and a strong constitution, democracies work best when these mechanisms are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms of mutual toleration of competing parties and forbearance in deploying institutional pregogatives. They also develop a set of four behavioral warning signs to help identify an authoritarian and a litmus test to identify autocrats.The authors support each of the general principles they put forth with many detailed examples of democracies that fell under autocratic rule and how it happened. These include the countries most likely to come to mind like Hitler’s Germany and others like Venezuela, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey.After making their case for how democracies die, the authors warn that the United States is not immune from this disease and give good evidence for their assertion. Not surprisingly the Trump administration is their primary example, but there are other recent examples from before Trump took office. As an example of the violation of the civil norm of forbearance (which has been broken by both parties), they cite the Senate’s refusal to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Until I read this book I had not realized that no president since Reconstruction has been denied the opportunity to fill a Supreme Court vacancy when he nominated someone before his successor was elected. Specific nominees had been turned down, but replacements were considered and someone was appointed in every instance until the Garland nomination. It was also interesting to read about the crucial role that the political parties play in keeping authoritarians on the fringes and to see how the use of primary elections to select nominees, a step most of us see as supporting democracy, could instead make it easier for an authoritarian to gain power.Not all the examples in the book are negative. It also cites instances where threats to democracy have been foiled, both in the United States and elsewhere. An excellent example was when President Roosevelt tried to neutralize a Supreme Court that was hostile to some of his New Deal by expanding the Supreme Court to 15 members. The bipartisan negative reaction was especially significant given that Roosevelt was extremely popular and had just been re-elected in a landslide. There ARE actions and attitudes that can counter threats.The book’s theses are well-reasoned and well-documented. Most of the current examples in the United States would be familiar to well-informed readers, and we probably did not need to hear about them to see their relevance to the general principles the authors developed from their examinations of history. It was especially chilling to read about a behavioral warning sign and then to see an example of it in the news. For example the day after I read about “willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media” as a warning sign, President Trump’s lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to try to prevent publication of Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff.Like most Americans, I react to the thought of losing our democratic way of life with “No, it can’t happen here.” This book has convinced me that it could.Thought-provoking and alarmingI revised my rating of this book from 4 to 5 because of how often I find myself recommending it to other people!NOTE: I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Netgalley with a request for an honest review.
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  • Book
    January 1, 1970
    How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt“How Democracies Die” is a very good book that describes how democracies domestically and internationally collapse not necessarily by force but by elected leaders who subvert the very process that brought them into power. Respected scholars Levitsky and Ziblatt provide readers with a very well informed look at challenges facing democracies today. This instructive 299-page book includes the following nine chapters: Chapter 1: Fateful Allian How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt“How Democracies Die” is a very good book that describes how democracies domestically and internationally collapse not necessarily by force but by elected leaders who subvert the very process that brought them into power. Respected scholars Levitsky and Ziblatt provide readers with a very well informed look at challenges facing democracies today. This instructive 299-page book includes the following nine chapters: Chapter 1: Fateful Alliances, Chapter 2: Gatekeeping in America, Chapter 3: The Great Republican Abdication, Chapter 4: Subverting Democracy Chapter 5: The Guardrails of Democracy Chapter 6: The Unwritten Rules of American Politics Chapter 7: The Unraveling Chapter 8: Trump Against the Guardrails Chapter 9: Saving Democracy. Positives: 1. A joy to read, well-researched book for the masses.2. An excellent topic with a unique perspective, how democracies die by taking advantage of the process that allowed politicians into power. 3. I’m always a little leery when multiple authors take credit for the book. Will the book flow as one or will readers notice the difference in styles and thought. That’s not the case, this book flows smoothly. 4. The authors have great command of the topic, weaving seamlessly from one example to the next without burdening the reader.5. An excellent introduction that whets the appetite of readers. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. America’s efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse have fueled an insidious reaction and intensifying polarization. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.”6. Provides domestic and international historical accounts of threatened democracies. “When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions. In Latin America, for example, of all fifteen presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012, five were populist outsiders: Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Lucio Gutiérrez, and Rafael Correa. All five ended up weakening democratic institutions.”7. Provides 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) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.”8. A historical look at extremists in America. “A decade later, Alabama governor George Wallace’s defiant segregationist stance vaulted him to national prominence, leading to surprisingly vigorous bids for the presidency in 1968 and 1972.”9. Eye-opening accounts. “Lindbergh—an advocate of “racial purity” who toured Nazi Germany in 1936 and was awarded a medal of honor by Hermann Göring—emerged as one of America’s most prominent isolationists in 1939 and 1940, speaking nationwide on behalf of the America First Committee.”10. Provides examples on how Republicans have abdicated their gatekeeping duties. In reference to Trump. “Although many factors contributed to Donald Trump’s stunning political success, his rise to the presidency is, in good measure, a story of ineffective gatekeeping.” “Not only was he uniquely inexperienced—no U.S. president who was not a successful general had ever been elected without having held an elective office or a cabinet post—but his demagoguery, extremist views on immigrants and Muslims, willingness to violate basic norms of civility, and praise for Vladimir Putin and other dictators generated unease in much of the media and the political establishment.”11. Examples of democratic subversion. “Elected autocrats also seek to weaken business leaders with the means to finance opposition. This was one of the keys to Putin’s consolidation of power in Russia. In July 2000, less than three months into his presidency, Putin summoned twenty-one of Russia’s wealthiest businessmen to the Kremlin, where he told them that they would be free to make money under his watch—but only if they stayed out of politics.”12. Examples of domestic democratic subversion. “South Carolina, whose population was majority black, was a pioneer of vote restriction. The 1882 “Eight Box Law” created a complex ballot that made it nearly impossible for illiterates to exercise the franchise, and since most of the state’s black residents were illiterate, black turnout plummeted.”13. Taking advantage of crisis, how demagogues role. “For demagogues hemmed in by constitutional constraints, a crisis represents an opportunity to begin to dismantle the inconvenient and sometimes threatening checks and balances that come with democratic politics. Crises allow autocrats to expand their room to maneuver and protect themselves from perceived enemies.”14. Provides the two essential guardrails of democracy. “But two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.” “Mutual toleration refers to the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern.” “A second norm critical to democracy’s survival is what we call institutional forbearance. Forbearance means “patient self-control; restraint and tolerance,” or “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right.” For our purposes, institutional forbearance can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.”15. The unwritten rules of American politics and three incidents where the democratic norms were challenged and even violated. Find out!16. An excellent chapter that covers the unraveling of American politics. “But for the first time in American history, the U.S. Senate refused to even consider an elected president’s nominee for the Supreme Court.”17. Explains how Trump fits against the guardrails. “The Trump administration also mounted efforts to sideline key players in the political system. President Trump’s rhetorical attacks on critics in the media are an example. His repeated accusations that outlets such as the New York Times and CNN were dispensing “fake news” and conspiring against him look familiar to any student of authoritarianism. In a February 2017 tweet, he called the media the “enemy of the American people,” a term that, critics noted, mimicked one used by Stalin and Mao.”18. The lies! “At 6:35 A.M. on March 4, 2017, President Trump tweeted, “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found.”19. Provides an analysis of a post-Trump America. “Turning back to our own country, we see three possible futures for a post-Trump America. The first, and most optimistic, is a swift democratic recovery. In this scenario, President Trump fails politically: He either loses public support and is not reelected or, more dramatically, is impeached or forced to resign.”20. Provides suggestions to avoid the continued polarization of American politics. “We think it would be more valuable to focus on two underlying forces driving American polarization: racial and religious realignment and growing economic inequality. Addressing these social foundations, we believe, requires a reshuffling of what America’s political parties stand for.” Negatives:1. It doesn’t take full advantage of the linking power of eBooks. It’s actually cumbersome, you have to go the Endnotes section find the note of interest and then it takes you to where the book references the note, instead of the other way around.2. Some tables but limited supplementary material. It’s a shame because the narrative is so good and the material was begging for charts, diagrams and timelines.3. No formal bibliography.In summary, this book was a treat to read. A fascinating topic conveyed with great rhythm and substance. Lack of supplementary materials aside this is a must-read, a very topical book that provides readers with a wake-up call of what is happening in the United States. I highly recommend it! Further suggestions: “Can It Happen Here?: Authoritarianism in America” by Cass R. Sunstein, “It’s Even Worse Than You Think” by David Cay Johnston, “The Common Good”, “Saving Capitalism” and “Beyond Outrage” by Robert B. Reich, “Inequality” by Anthony B. Atkinson, “The Great Divide” by Joseph Stiglitz, “Winner-Take All Politics” by Jacob S. Hacker, “White Rage” by Carol Anderson, “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” by Kurt Andersen, and “A Colony in a Nation” by Chris Hayes.
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  • Amie
    January 1, 1970
    I really wanted to enjoy this book and learn from it, but it failed on both counts. The premise is one that is clear form the cover and advanced press. “America is on the road to killing its democracy and Trump is advancing that demise.” The key message of the book is an important one. When the leaders in government abandon “restraint and forebearance”and take a “no holds barred” approach to winning, the end is nigh. That is, when leaders violate the spirit of the law while carefully abiding by I really wanted to enjoy this book and learn from it, but it failed on both counts. The premise is one that is clear form the cover and advanced press. “America is on the road to killing its democracy and Trump is advancing that demise.” The key message of the book is an important one. When the leaders in government abandon “restraint and forebearance”and take a “no holds barred” approach to winning, the end is nigh. That is, when leaders violate the spirit of the law while carefully abiding by the rule of law, for the singular purpose of marginalizing their opponents or oppenents’ supporters, democracy is eroded. That premise and its innate violation of implicit rules for civic engagement, democracy and classical liberal values is incontrovertible. Now you know most of what you will learn in the book. Beyond that, it is a polemic with historical examples provided. The problem is with the lack of a grander historical chronology. I would have loved to really learn the genesis of Chavez’ evolution from radical activist to elected leader to dictator in a cohesive, chronological, narrative thread. That would have been both illuminating and compelling. Same with Pinochet, Franco, Hitler, and all the other demagogues cited in this book (there are loads). Instead of a cohesive, historical perspective on the ways that populist leaders have used existing structures to erode democratic institutions, we get piecemeal examples in an order dictated by the authors' argument, out of order, ripped from any narrative or historical context beyond the individual point. So it feels like an overlong op-ed rather than a non-fiction book. That’s unfortunate. The authors clearly have encyclopedic knowledge of the historic figures they discuss, and their thesis accomplishes pointing out a demonstrable, clear and present danger. But the book was so hard to read, even for someone already sympathetic to the point that I can’t imagine anyone who isn’t already on-board getting past the first chapter. Too bad because the message is worth delivering to all of us.
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  • Mal Warwick
    January 1, 1970
    "Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can't really be that bad here." But can they? Is American democracy dying? This is the question that Harvard government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt set out to answer in How Democrac "Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can't really be that bad here." But can they? Is American democracy dying? This is the question that Harvard government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt set out to answer in How Democracies Die. Drawing on decades of research in comparative politics around in Europe and Latin America, they review the conditions of today's fractured American polity with Donald Trump in the White House.Four Indicators of Authoritarian BehaviorThe principal contribution Levitsky and Ziblatt bring to their topic are the "Four Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior" that they use to analyze the conduct of any democratic regime. It's useful to cite them here:Rejecting (or weakly committing to) democratic rulesDenying the legitimacy of political opponentsTolerating or encouraging violenceDemonstrating readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the news media.Unfortunately, "Trump, even before his inauguration, tested positive on all four measures on our litmus test for autocrats. . . With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century." So, if you're worried whether American democracy is dying, you have reason to be."The most likely, post-Trump future"Levitsky and Ziblatt's conclusions are equivocal but sobering. "[W]e see three possible futures for a post-Trump America," they write. "The first, and most optimistic, is a swift democratic recovery. . . A second, much darker future is one in which President Trump and the Republicans continue to win with a white nationalist appeal . . . The third, and in our view, the most likely, post-Trump future is one marked by [increased] polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions [i.e., customs and procedures], and increasing institutional warfare—in other words democracy without guardrails.""Democracy without guardrails"Guardrails is the metaphor the two professors employ throughout their book. The word refers to the unwritten laws that have almost always restrained Trump's predecessors in the Oval Office, following a pattern consciously laid down by George Washington at the outset of the republic. Of course, there have been departures from the norm: Abraham Lincoln suspending the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt attempting to pack the Supreme Court and running for third and fourth terms, and Richard Nixon's illegal wiretapping. However, with these and a few other notable exceptions, presidents have generally restrained themselves from using the full powers available to them against those they perceive as enemies. Similarly, until recently, Congress had shown similar restraint.Is American democracy dying?Not until the closing days of the 2oth century have we witnessed a dramatic increase in what can only be termed abuse of historical norms. The pattern is far and away most egregious because of the actions of the Trump White House. But, as the authors make clear, there have been precedents aplenty, especially beginning with the scorched-earth tactics Newt Gingrich engineered to achieve a Republican majority in the House in 1994, continuing with the explosion of right-wing media that constantly urges Republican politicians to take the gloves off, the brinksmanship over the debt limit and the budget, the increasingly frequent use of the filibuster by both Republicans and Democrats to frustrate presidents of the opposing party, and the blatant use of voter suppression and gerrymandering in red states. Donald Trump's attacks on the press, tolerance of white nationalism, and almost daily lies simply represent the fullest expression of these trends. Is American democracy dying? Has the trend been underway for three decades? You be the judge.What is to be done?To forestall the grim scenarios they foresee for America's future, Levitsky and Ziblatt recommend that centrist and liberal forces enter into coalition with their political enemies. "A political movement that brings together–even if temporarily–Bernie Sanders supporters and businesspeople, evangelicals and secular feminists, and small-town Republicans and urban Black Lives Matter supporters, will open channels of communication across the vast chasm that has emerged between our country's two main partisan camps." They point to successful efforts along these lines in such countries as Austria and Colombia. Can you imagine such a thing in today's overheated, deeply polarized political environment in the United States? I can't. Apparently, the two professors have had little if any practical political experience. Attractive as such an approach might appear in theory, it's a non-starter. To my mind, the only possible remedy for the current Republican shift to the far right is a sharp swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction.
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  • Keith Raffel
    January 1, 1970
    A truly frightening book that shows how America is following in the footsteps of other countries that have given up democracy for authoritarianism: countries like Hungary (now), Chile under Pinochet, Turkey (now), Germany in the 1930s, and Italy in the 1920s. The authors set forth four indications of danger: 1) rejection of democratic rules of the game, 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration or encouragement of violence, and 4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of o A truly frightening book that shows how America is following in the footsteps of other countries that have given up democracy for authoritarianism: countries like Hungary (now), Chile under Pinochet, Turkey (now), Germany in the 1930s, and Italy in the 1920s. The authors set forth four indications of danger: 1) rejection of democratic rules of the game, 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration or encouragement of violence, and 4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. Instances of all four have been increasing for a generation, but under Trump they are becoming SOP for the Executive Branch. How Democracies Die is a (figurative) call to arms for those who believe in American democracy.
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  • Nikos
    January 1, 1970
    Συνηθίζω να γράφω τις κριτικές μου στη γλώσσα που διάβασα το βιβλίο αλλά γι αυτό εδώ θα σπάσω την παράδοση. Ο λόγος είναι ότι, έχει νομίζω πιο πολύ ενδιαφέρον για τους Έλληνες φίλους παρά για τους αγγλόφωνους που θα έχουν πολλά να διαβάσουν έτσι κι αλλιώς γι αυτό.Και νομίζω ότι έχει ενδιαφέρον για μας, γιατί αν πάρει κανείς τα μαθήματα και τις αρχές του σαν ερμηνευτικά εργαλεία μπορεί να σκεφτεί διαφορετικά τη δική μας κρίση, τους κινδύνους που κρύβει για τη δημοκρατία και το τι μπορεί να γίνει Συνηθίζω να γράφω τις κριτικές μου στη γλώσσα που διάβασα το βιβλίο αλλά γι αυτό εδώ θα σπάσω την παράδοση. Ο λόγος είναι ότι, έχει νομίζω πιο πολύ ενδιαφέρον για τους Έλληνες φίλους παρά για τους αγγλόφωνους που θα έχουν πολλά να διαβάσουν έτσι κι αλλιώς γι αυτό.Και νομίζω ότι έχει ενδιαφέρον για μας, γιατί αν πάρει κανείς τα μαθήματα και τις αρχές του σαν ερμηνευτικά εργαλεία μπορεί να σκεφτεί διαφορετικά τη δική μας κρίση, τους κινδύνους που κρύβει για τη δημοκρατία και το τι μπορεί να γίνει για ν' αποσοβηθούν.Προφανώς, στη βάση της συζήτησης για την κρίση υπάρχει η οικονομική διάσταση. Η φτώχεια που ενέσκηψε, πραγματική σε μεγάλο βαθμό αλλά και σχετική σε κάποιον άλλον, αφού είδαμε ακόμα και ολίγον θιγόμενους να επαναστατούν με πρωτόγνωρο μένος. Κι ίσως δεν θα ήταν άδικο να πούμε ότι πολλές φορές το μένος ήταν αντιστρόφως ανάλογο της ζημιάς.Οι αντιδράσεις σε μια οικονομική κρίση έχουν πολλή ιστορία, πολλά προηγούμενα και γεννούν πολλές ευκαιρίες για τυχοδιωκτισμό και λαϊκισμό. Μια μικρή αναδρομή στην Ευρώπη του μεσοπολέμου μπορεί να χρησιμεύσει σαν text book ή και playbook αν είσαι κακόβουλος.Το ερώτημα που προσπαθεί ν' απαντήσει το βιβλίο, είναι τι κάνει μια δημοκρατία ν' αντέχει σε τέτοιες κρίσεις, σε τέτοιες στιγμές κινδύνου για την ίδια την υπόσταση της. Κι από την απάντηση σ' αυτό το ερώτημα μπορούν να βγουν κι οι αντίστοιχες θεωρήσεις για το τι ζούμε τώρα και τι μπορούμε να περιμένουμε.Μια λοξοδρόμηση εδώ για να πούμε ότι για να σ' ενδιαφέρουν οι απαντήσεις του βιβλίου προϋποτίθεται να σ' ενδιαφέρει η δημοκρατία, η αστική φιλελεύθερη δημοκρατία, το πρότυπο της οποίας υπήρξε για τα νεότερα έθνη, η αντίστοιχη αμερικανική και η γαλλική, και που τα νεόκοπα κράτη αντέγραψαν σε μικρό ή μεγάλο βαθμό. Κι αυτό δεν είναι αυτονόητο δυστυχώς. Αν δεν σ' ενδιαφέρει αυτή η δημοκρατία, βασικά δεν σ' ενδιαφέρει η δημοκρατία. Γιατί οι άλλες, είναι απλά πλειοψηφίες, στην καλύτερη περίπτωση, ή μασκαράτες στη χειρότερη. Η φιλελεύθερη αστική δημοκρατία είναι αυτή που ενσωματώνει την αναγνώριση των μειονοτήτων, που διαθέτει ειδικούς θεσμούς για την προστασία από την κατάχρηση εξουσίας και το τίμιο παιχνίδι στην διεκδίκηση της εξουσίας.Προφανώς το βιβλίο ενδιαφέρεται κυρίως για την Αμερικάνικη Δημοκρατία, για τους κινδύνους που αντιμετωπίζει και έχει και κάποιες προτάσεις για το τι μπορεί να γίνει εκεί. Για να παρουσιαστεί όμως το θέμα σε μια γενικότητα, διατρέχει πολλές περιπτώσεις ολισθημάτων σε απολυταρχία, ήπια ή ακραία. Περιπτώσεις ανά τον κόσμο. Για μένα πάντως ήταν η ανάλυση της αμερικάνικης περίπτωσης που είχε το μεγαλύτερο ενδιαφέρον. Και γιατί οι συγγραφείς την γνωρίζουν καλύτερα κι εκ των ένδον, και γιατί, κι αυτό κατά τη γνώμη μου είναι και το μεγαλύτερο προσόν του βιβλίου, προσφέρουν έτσι μια λεπτομερή εξήγηση του πως φτάσαμε στον Τραμπ και πως αυτό τοποθετείται μέσα στο σύνολο όλης της ιστορικής πορείας της δημοκρατίας των ΗΠΑ. Δεν θα "μαρτυρήσω" τις προτάσεις και τις λύσεις, γιατί νομίζω ότι αξίζει να τις διαβάσει κανείς από πρώτο χέρι. Αυτό που μπορώ να πω, είναι ότι μου χάρισε ένα άλλο ερμηνευτικό σχήμα της ελληνικής κατάστασης και της πορείας των πραγμάτων. Ένιωσα τον εαυτό μου να βγάζει πολλές κόκκινες κάρτες σε πράγματα που μαρτυρούν ολίσθηση προς πιο απολυταρχικές μορφές διακυβέρνησης, αλλά και ν' αποτιμώ αυστηρότερα πράγματα που τα θεωρούμε δεδομένα στη λειτουργία του δικού μας πολιτεύματος αλλά που δεν είναι το απαύγασμα της δημοκρατίας. Θα ήθελα να δω ένα αντίστοιχο βιβλίο που ν' ανατέμνει την ελληνική δημοκρατία μέσα στην ιστορική της εξέλιξη με τις πολλές ανάπαυλες κι οπισθοχωρήσεις.
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  • Muthuvel
    January 1, 1970
    "Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the edito "Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is." —E. B. White The book provides an erudite account of handfully picked case studies of failed, failing, recuperated democracies mostly in the American continents, some Eurasian countries. The authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are the professors of Government at Harvard University in which the former one has been studying the politics of Latin American countries where as in case of the latter, it has been European countries. This book is a perfect example of a perfect unbiased nonfiction work. They could have used unnecessary details to praise the Democratic party of USA when attacking the current Republican government but didn't. They could have used the contemporary people at Harvard to support their proceedings or cherry pick the supportive data but didn't. It surprised me how much superflous unnecessary garbage information I've got to know about the American government from the liberal news media from the past few years. Some main keys factors like hardball exploitations from the constitutional powers, evading the political forbearance and mutual tolerance have been discussed insightfully. Could be very helpful to the people who believe in the sanity of the masses to prevent the dying of democracy from within.
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