Cover image of "How Democracies Die" by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which asks is American democracy dying

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 Behavior

The 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:

  1. Rejecting (or weakly committing to) democratic rules
  2. Denying the legitimacy of political opponents
  3. Tolerating or encouraging violence
  4. Demonstrating readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the news media.

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018) 299 pages ★★★★☆

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 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 see 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 the worst because of the actions of the Trump White House. But, as the authors make clear, there have been precedents aplenty:

  • the scorched-earth tactics Newt Gingrich engineered to achieve a Republican majority in the House in 1994
  • the explosion of right wing media that constantly urges Republican politicians to take the gloves off
  • brinksmanship over the debt limit and the budget
  • 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.

For further reading on the Trump phenomenon

I’ve posted reviews about a number of other books on Donald Trump, including the following:

In fact, this is one of 15 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy.

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