How Democracies Die

How Democracies Die

Book - 2018
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"Cool and persuasive... How Democracies Die comes at exactly the right moment. We're already awash in public indignation--what we desperately need is a sober, dispassionate look at the current state of affairs. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two of the most respected scholars in the field of democracy studies, offer just that."
-- The Washington Post

Donald Trump's presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we'd be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang--in a revolution or military coup--but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one.

Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die--and how ours can be saved.
Publisher: New York : Crown, ©2018.
ISBN: 9781524762933
Characteristics: 312 pages ;,22 cm.
Additional Contributors: Ziblatt, Daniel 1972-- Author


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Apr 14, 2019

This is a very important and well written book. Our democracy is at risk.

After discussing authoritarian regimes through history, the authors identify four warning signs of an authoritarian leader. We should worry when a politician (1) rejects, in words or actions, 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. A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern. The current occupant of the White House meets all four of them.

The authors note that two basic democratic norms have preserved our system of checks and balances in ways we have taken for granted: (1) mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and (2) forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives. The authors call these norms the “soft guardrails of American democracy,” noting they were widely followed during the 20th century, but that is no longer true today.

There is way more in this book than I can share here. But here is one very important point: In 1993, Senator Daniel Moynihan, a former social scientist, observed: “Humans have a limited ability to cope with people behaving in ways that depart from their shared standards, When unwritten rules are violated over and over, . . . societies have a tendency to ‘define deviancy down’—to shift the standard. What was once seen as abnormal becomes normal.” Moynihan applied this insight (controversially) to the growing social tolerance for single-parent families, high murder rates, and mental illness. Today it can be applied to American democracy. The authors note, “The president’s routine use of personal insult, bullying, lying, and cheating has, inevitably, helped to normalize such practices. . . . in the face of widespread deviance, we become overwhelmed--and then desensitized.”

This is deeply disturbing. Even if we fight against normalizing this anti-democratic behavior, we are affected by it. The Republican party has done little or nothing to rein in this behavior. This behavior is weakening the foundations of our democracy.

The final chapter, “Saving Democracy,” tells us that the situation is serious but not hopeless. Our past stability came at a price of racial exclusion and single party rule in the South. The United States did not become fully democratized until 1965, and that very process led to a fundamental realignment of the American electorate that has left the parties deeply polarized.

The authors describe three possible futures for America: One optimistic, one dark, and one in between. The one in between is most likely: democracy without guardrails. If you want to see what that looks like, consider North Carolina today. The authors discuss the situation in North Carolina at length, and it is a cautionary tale of extreme partisan political warfare and weaponized democratic institutions. This is a system hovering constantly on the brink of crisis.

And the true bottom line is this: Democracy is a shared enterprise. We can not sit back and wait for other people to rescue our democracy from the problems it faces today. Each and every one of us is responsible for saving our democracy.

Jan 05, 2019

Obama's List

Oct 13, 2018

The sobering takeaway from this book is: democracies are actually very fragile. It can take only one person, with dictatorial qualities, to unravel decades, even centuries of democratic governance.

What I kept coming away with is the fragility of our democratic systems. They only work if we believe, trust and respect them. Supreme courts can be packed with politically aligned justices. Filibusters can be abused to the point of making governments impotent. Respect for the executive, the house and judiciary have been eroded.

In order to keep democracy working politicians must respect the rules and customs that have been observed over the decades and centuries. Once the unwritten rules of decorum and respect are broken democracy itself can unravel.

It was a chilling subject.

Sep 17, 2018

The description of how demagogues such as Trump undermine democracy is spot on. Unfortunately, the authors -- conventional liberals -- are very short on solutions.

Jul 11, 2018

I have just rented this book and look forward to reading the authors' thoughts on this subject. Regrettably, there is one reader whose arrogance led him to underline many passages. You must consider yourself to be so self-important. In doing this you disturb the flow of the narrative and cause the other readers a distraction that they do not need. I will erase the underlined portions; so sorry about that! Think twice before defacing a book!!
Otherwise, it is very educational for those who can look at how history repeats itself.

Jun 19, 2018

Two experts on European and Latin American authoritarian/semi-authoritarian governments 1946-2018 explain what makes them non-democratic and compares them to Trump's non-democratic actions. The authors see three possibilities for America post Trump - 1) America quickly recovers from Trump's non-democratic presidency, 2) The Republicans utilize their white nationalist appeal to stay in power and further erode democracy (via their advantages gained through years of gerrymandering, voter suppression, and right-wing judicial appointments), 3) The Democrats and Republicans continue with their polarization and with their ineptitude further erode democracy.

Jun 17, 2018

it is not that democracy is dying, but that it is being killed

May 09, 2018

A chilling account of how the current administration is breaking norms and destroying "guard rails" that have previously supported the written and unwritten parts of the Constitution. A must read for every thinking American.

Mar 10, 2018

This is a powerful and important book. Other democracies have withered and died; ours could, too. Forewarned is forearmed.

Feb 28, 2018

Very much agreed. Oh, and Donald Trump doesn't present a threat to our democracy. Though taking away our guns is, it takes away a constitutional right and leaves us vulnerable to everybody.

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Jan 31, 2018

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Jan 31, 2018

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Mar 25, 2018

"No single political leader can end a democracy; no single leader can rescue one, either." page 230


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