There are many embattled democracies in the world today, but How Democracy Die is primarily a book about America. It is a warning to Americans to never be complacent about their democracy, regardless of how robust and dynamic the oldest democratic constitution in the world may appear to be; the foundations of even the strongest of constitutions shake when an autocratic demagogue is committed to smashing the liberal democratic order.
In this book, Harvard professors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky examine international examples to illustrate how autocrats use legal means to kill democracy. Professor Ziblatt is a historian of Europe from the nineteenth century to the present day and Professor Levitsky focuses on Latin America and the developing world. You can’t get more qualified than that to write a book about how democracies die.
With the exception of its snowy neighbour to the north and its transatlantic Anglo sidekick, many who live outside of the US reside in countries where democracy has either died and been reborn, or is experiencing a difficult process of democratization. Others are witnessing the death of their own democracy in front of their very eyes. It is therefore imperative that Americans, regardless of their level of education, political views or social status, pay heed to the political histories of other nations in order to prevent the misfortune of others to be repeated in America. This is especially true while Donald Trump sits in the Oval Office. Sure, he was elected fair and square, but there are facets of his character and policies that raise alarm bells.
Borrowing and updating the work of Juan Linz, Ziblatt and Levitsky highlight four key indicators of authoritarianism. They are 1) rejection or weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game, 2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, 3) toleration of encouragement of violence, 4) readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including the media. Note that Trump falls into each of these four categories.
In recent times the death of a democracy is less likely to occur through a military coup or by a violent revolution. It’s not that there aren’t any good old-fashioned military coups anymore (Thailand, Ecuador), but it is increasingly the case that demagogues obtain power through the ballot box, and once there slowly but surely push democratic norms to the point of collapse in a bid to solidify power. Often this achieved by eroding the checks and balances needed in a healthy democracy through the combination of nullifying the legislative power of parliament, filling the judiciary with sycophantic or co-opted judges, attacking the critical media and delegitimising political opponents. Such has happened in Venezuela, Turkey, Peru, Argentina, Russia, and Hungary to name but a few. Then there is, of course, the examples of Germany and Italy earlier in the century. In the case of the United States, Ziblatt and Levitsky argue that over time America’s democratic fail safes have been eroded including party gatekeeping, institutional forbearance, self-restraint and mutual toleration. This has led to the situation of today. A US president who has no qualms about railing against the free press and calling for his political opponent to be locked up.
It is often said that history is doomed to repeat itself. Perhaps that’s true for those who choose to ignore the past. This is why a book like this is so important. Americans can no longer afford to be complacent.
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