"How Democracies Die" - A book we all should read

Each week Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN’s Global Public Square, recommends another book for me to read. I listen to Fareed because I believe he is one of the smartest, most balanced and intellectually curious journalists of our time. Consequently, each week my reading list grows.

book cover jpg.jpg

When Fareed recommended How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, I moved it to the top of my list. Why? Because I was pretty desperate to comprehend how my country, which I first came to know in the peaceful years of hope and plenty under the Eisenhower administration (“the 50s”), had become so frighteningly polarized. I wanted to understand, and I wanted others to understand – and maybe do something about it. So I read the book, and then I read it again, and then I took pains to summarize it for myself. 

Armed with the goods, I set out to draft an abstract (or book report – or whatever you might call this thing) that might help me achieve these four goals:

  • EDUCATE MYSELF on how we got to this woeful point of polarization, tribalism, verbal violence and uncertainty about what is authentic and what is fake

  • ENCOURAGE OHERS to undertake the same goal by reading the book

  • PROVIDE A SUMMARY to those who just aren’t going to read it but might want to understand

  • START A CONVERSATION about the topic – get people responding, first to my document, and then to each other

I put my faith in the authors, two 50-ish Harvard professors of government. Their specialty is political science of the “comparative government” type. They explain at the outset that they have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing, and teaching “about democracy’s failure from Europe’s dark 1930s to Latin America’s repressive 1970s.”

Now, Ezra Klein is also a smart journalist whose commentary I trust. He interviewed the authors and reviewed the book. Klein commented, “How Democracies Die is being read as a commentary on Donald Trump, but the analysis of Trump is the book’s least interesting, and least important, contribution. Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the problems bedeviling American democracy.” I couldn’t agree more. Now, if you are an enthusiastic Trump fan, you will probably be unhappy by the time you’ve read everything here. But that’s one of the symptoms of the intense polarization characterizing our hollowed out democracy. If you’re a never-Trumper, you might finish with a smug “I told you so.” Be forewarned: Your response will almost certainly not be fully objective.

Because I really, sincerely want people to read this book or, as an alternative, be exposed to its core concepts and facts, I have inserted graphics to make the content as accessible as possible, and I’ve tried to use bullet points in place of paragraphs. I’ve distilled it down to as few words as I can, still telling the complete story, hoping to escort my reader all the way through the crux of How Democracies Die, from start to finish. My fervent hope is that you will read my entire document (and view the images as important parts of the story), and then review the comments of others and write a response of your own. You may assume that everything herein, beyond this paragraph, represents exactly what Levitsky and Ziblatt have written, to the best of my ability. My apologies to the authors in advance, should I misinterpret or misspeak.

Our Assumptions about How Democracies Die

On September 11, 1973, in Chile, armed forces were seizing control of the country under the direction of General Augusto Pinochet. “Within hours President Allende was dead. So too was Chilean democracy.” That’s how we imagine democracies dying: at the hands of men with guns. Many did die this way: Argentina, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay. 

But they might also die at the hands of elected leaders. Some “erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” Hugo Chavez, duly elected leader of Venezuela, for example, railed against “the corrupt governing elite” and promised to improve the lives of the poor. Within a few years of his election, though, he was taking clear steps toward authoritarianism. After he died, Chile did not recover and remained an autocracy. 

Most democratic breakdowns now occur at the hands of elected governments. “Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.” No tanks in the streets, constitutions remain in place, people vote, and “elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.” Government efforts to subvert democracy are often legal, approved by legislature, accepted by courts. They’re portrayed as efforts to improve democracy.

These Four Autocrats Killed Democracy without Guns

When establishment politicians overlooked warning signs and abdicated political responsibility

  • Mussolini – Italy - 1922: Referred to his rise to power as a “revolution”; capitalized on divisions among established politicians, fear of socialism, threat of violence; was supported by political insiders rather than voters

  • Hitler – Germany – 1933: a charismatic outsider who came along when government had collapsed, was supported by political insiders (who “despised him” but thought they could control him) rather than by voters; capitalized on a crisis – the Reichstag fire – to build a following.

  • Fujimori – Peru – 1991: Little known, arose in a period of acute economic and security crisis and disgust with established parties; called himself “A President like You” and promised Peru a better destiny; tapped into populist anger; unsparingly attacked the political elite as “corrupt” and attacked uncooperative judges as “jackals” and “scoundrels”; employed blackmail and bribery to keep judges in line; dissolved the congress and the constitution less than two years after taking office.

  • Chavez – Venezuela – 1998: A hero among the poor; jailed for a failed coup attempt, was not denounced by the president but offered sympathy –all charges were dropped. Called his opponents “rancid pigs” and “squalid oligarchs”; as president, called opponents “enemies” and “traitors”; razed the courts entirely and created his own, which ruled almost all legislative bills “unconstitutional.”

We like to believe the fate of government lies in our hands – we, the voting citizens. “This view is wrong... solid electoral majorities opposed Hitler and Mussolini.” They achieved power “with the support of political insiders blind to the danger of their own ambitions.” What matters more, say the authors, “is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.”

Four Warning Signs of an Authoritarian Leader

~Imagine it in terms of a soccer game. What happens when:

  • Rules and refs are thrown out...

  • Opponents are de-legitimized...

  • Violence reigns on the field...

  • The playing field is tilted...

Soccre field.jpg

Consider authoritarian leaders who have behaved like this:

  1. Rejects in words or actions the democratic rules of the game

  2. Denies the legitimacy of opponents

  3. Tolerates or encourages violence

  4. Is clearly willing to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media

“Democracy is grinding work. Whereas family businesses and army squadrons may be ruled by fiat, democracies require negotiations, compromise, and concessions. Setbacks are inevitable, victories always partial... would-be authoritarians have little patience with the day-to-day politics of democracy.”

The Slow Assault on Democracy – Think of a soccer game copy.jpg

We have proof, from recent history, that would-be authoritarians can be held in check by strong political parties.

When U.S. Gatekeeping Did Work

Our political parties kept demonstrably unfit - but popular - figures from power.

  • Henry Ford – 1924: Cultural hero, “the people’s tycoon,” waffled among Democratic and Republican and Prohibition parties; published anti-Semitic writings, was praised by Hitler in Mein Kampf, won the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from the 1938 Nazi government. PARTY LEADERS SOUNDLY REJECTED HIM.

  • Huey Long – 1936: Rose to national prominence with a wealth redistribution “society” that had 7.5 million members. 32 typists handled his fan mail, considered most attractive man in America – ahead of Tarzan. Faced impeachment one year into governorship for allegations of bribery, carrying concealed weapons, scandalous and vulgar deportment and other charges. Said, “I’m the constitution now.” HIS PARTY PEERS ISOLATED HIM.

  • Joseph McCarthy – 1954: Used the fear of communist subversion to promote hysteria involving blacklisting, censorship, and book banning. Nearly half of Americans approved of him, even after censure by the U.S. Senate EFFECTIVELY ENDED HIS CAREER.

  • George Wallace – 1968: Won strong support among white working class for his mix of populism and white nationalism; exhibited undeniable racism. Exploited American rage; 40% of Americans approved of him. THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY WOULD NOT BACK HIM, SO HE RAN AS A THIRD-PARTY CANDIDATE AND WAS SOUNDLY BEATEN.

When European Gatekeeping Did Work

  • Finland – 1929: The extreme right Lapua movement burst onto the scene and grew more radical. Rival established parties joined together to form the “Lawfulness Front.” Fascism was aborted.

  • Belgium – 1936: Two far-right parties surged in the polls. Longtime rivals Catholic Party, Socialists and Liberals provided a united front against them. Expelled Mussolini and Hitler sympathizers from their ranks. Put democracy ahead of their own interests.

  • Austria – 2016: A radical right Freedom party arose. Some established party leaders had to support a rival to keep the outsiders from damaging democracy. They resisted the temptation to ally with an extremist on their own flank and saved the democracy.

  • France – 2017: Half of Francois Fillon’s conservative Republican Party voters followed his surprising endorsement of Macron; about another third abstained, “making a key difference in that election.”

Americans have long had an authoritarian streak, the authors say. But the real protection against would-be authoritarians “has not been Americans’ firm commitment to democracy but, rather, the gate-keepers – our political parties, keeping demonstrably unfit figures off the ballot and out of office,” as demonstrated above. “It was, above all, their risk aversion that led them to avoid extremists.”

Our founding fathers were deeply concerned about gatekeeping. They felt the Electoral College would serve as a built-in screening device, to filter out men with “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity.” Soon our electors became party agents, and the political parties took on the gatekeeping function. Understanding the parties’ development over 200 years is critical.

media and money copy.jpg

The Development of U.S. Political Parties as Gatekeepers

Parties’ strength and gate-keeping functions diminish as the power of press and $$$ grows.

  • Early 1800s – Political parties form. Electors (of the Electoral College) become party agents. Congressional Caucuses of party leaders choose candidates in closed, smoke-filled rooms.

  • 1830s – National Conventions attract delegates from each state, chosen by state and local political parties. Delegates are not bound to a particular candidate, but are instructed by party leaders.

  • Early 1900s – Primaries introduced, but electors are not bound to the winner of the primary. Party leaders still choose the candidates. In 25 years, only one “outsider” nominated: Eisenhower.

  • 1968 – Democratic Convention: Violence intrudes on a convention floor for the first time. Democrats select Hubert Humphrey, who did not compete in a single primary.

    • Result: Democratic Party moves toward binding primaries: voters will choose electors. Opens the door to outsiders, extremists and demagogues.

    • Long-term effect: The “invisible primary” of fund raising, endorsements and media-dependence. Huge loss of power for party leaders.

  • 1972 – System now vulnerable to individuals with enough fame or $$ to bypass “invisible primary.”

  • 1972-2016 - 26 “outsiders” ran; none of them made it through to nomination.

  • Early 1980s – Democrats introduce the “super-delegate” chosen by elected leaders; Republicans do not follow suit.

  • 2016 – Jeb Bush wins “invisible primary” and Donald Trump has no endorsements at all. An outsider (Trump) wins a major party nomination for the first time, due, in large part, to support of right-wing media personalities and free mainstream media coverage created by controversy. Party gatekeepers have become “shells of their former selves.”

Antidemocratic leaders are often identifiable before they even come to power,” Levitsky and Ziblatt tell us. “Trump... tested positive on all four measures.” (Recall “soccer” analogy above.)

How Trump “tested positive on all four measures” before election

  • Demonstrated “weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game”: Questioned legitimacy of electoral process. His web site declared, “Help me stop Crooked Hillary from rigging this election!” Refused to say he would accept results of election if defeated.

  • Denied the legitimacy of his opponents: Cast them as criminals, subversives, unpatriotic, “little...lying... crooked,” called them a threat to national security and to the existing way of life. Had been a “birther.” Denied Clinton’s legitimacy by branding her a “criminal.”

  • Tolerated and/or encouraged violence: First in a century to embrace - even encourage – supporters who physically assaulted protesters; offered to pay their legal fees. Issued a veiled endorsement of violence against Hillary Clinton with reference to “you Second Amendment people.”

  • Willing to curtail civil liberties of rivals and critics: Intolerant of criticism; planned to arrange for a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton – said she should be imprisoned; attacked Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post.; called the media “among the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever met.” Promised he would “open up our libel laws so...we can sue them and win lots of money.”

“With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century... Donald Trump met them all.” One of the biggest mistakes party leaders make – that can open the door to a potential authoritarian – is abdication of the gatekeeping duty.

Abdication copy.jpg

How “Collective Abdication” Works

Abdication: The transfer of authority to a leader who threatens democracy

  • Either– The party mistakenly believes the authoritarian can be controlled or tamed

  • Or – The authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternative



How we rewrote the rules for authoritarian advantage – in the United States!


1861 - US Civil War begins

1863 – Emancipation Proclamation frees the slaves

1865 – US Civil War ends; the Democratic Party dominates all 11 post-Confederate states


1866 to 1868 – Percentage of black men eligible to vote increases by 80%; they vote overwhelmingly Republican

1870 – The 15thAmendment is adopted: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

1870s –2000+ southern freedmen win election, including 14 congressmen and 2 senators

1876 – Black voter turnout reaches 96%


1876 to 1896 – All 11 post-Confederate states reform their constitutions and electoral laws to disenfranchise African Americans with no mention of race: They add poll taxes, property ownership requirements, literacy tests and complex written ballots. Thus the Republican Party is locked out of the statehouses for nearly a century.

1898 – Black voter turnout falls to 11%

1912 – Black voter turnout is 2%. “The slaveholders were back in power.”

Together, the two parties rewrote the rules – and ended African-American voting

(%ages are estimates only to represent overall change)

Black Voting History copy.jpg

The norms that eventually served as the foundation for American democracy emerged “out of a profoundly undemocratic arrangement: racial exclusion and the consolidation of single-party rule in the South.” The legacy of this shame ultimately brought us to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 [and to the violence recalled by those of us who endured 1968]. By then, guardrails were in place, however.


Even well-designed constitutions are incomplete. They have gaps and ambiguities and certainly competing interpretations, and our constitution, as strong as it has remained, is no different. So, what secured American democracy for so long? The authors say that, in addition to “our nation’s immense wealth, a large middle class, and a vibrant civil society...the answer lies in the development of strong democratic norms.” These are shared understandings about what is and what is not acceptable, and their “importance is quickly revealed by its absence.”

Unwritten rules guide the operation of the Senate and Electoral College and even the format of presidential press conferences. “But two norms stand out as fundamental... mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.”

two soccer players.jpg



The right to compete safely, by the mutually agreed upon rules, abiding by the decisions of the referees. The fight is fair and honorable, even though both sides cannot win.



winners and losers.jpg




Patient self-control, restraint and tolerance; the action of restraining from exercising a legal right

Effects of forbearance: 

  • Reinforces toleration for the other side

  • Reminds both sides of the natural handing-off of power from time to time – you win some, you lose some

When we exercise mutual toleration, we accept that our rivals “have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern... our political rivals are decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens.” We collectively agree to disagree. Only gradually, over decades, did our two major parties come to this point.

When we forbear, we avoid “actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit.” We play to win, but with a degree of restraint, civilly and fairly, eschewing dirty tricks." 

A good example comes from our oldest ally. “Consider the formation of governments in Britain... the Crown could select anyone.” But she chooses “a member of Parliament able to command a majority in the House of Commons – usually, the head of the largest parliamentary party.”  We take this system for granted, but there is no written constitutional law that dictates the process. Norms are in play.

The authors call these two norms “the soft guardrails of democracy.”

When the Guardrails are Working...

  • Institutions muscular enough to check the president routinely underuse that power

  • The president forbears from using pardons for self-protection or narrow political gain

  • The president forbears from packing the court

  • Senators honor reciprocity - forbear from using much of their political authority

  • Members of Congress avoid personal or embarrassing attacks on each other

  • Senators treat the filibuster as a weapon of last resort

  • The Senate defers to the President to fill cabinet and open Supreme Court seats

“Acts of forbearance... will reinforce each party’s belief that the other side is tolerable... But the opposite can also occur. The erosion of mutual toleration... is politics without guardrails,” leading to hardball tactics and brinksmanship at the very least. In the twentieth century alone we have clear examples of the guardrails being tested, but, through the mutual toleration and forbearance of both major parties, democracy held.

When Norms were Challenged – even Violated – and Democracy Held

~ the soft guardrails kept democracy sound ~

SITUATION 1 - Unprecedented concentration of executive power to President Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II.

  • He issued more than 3000 executive orders

  • He was the first to seek a third – and then a fourth – term in office

  • THE RESULT: “Executive excesses triggered bipartisan resistance.”

SITUATION 2 - Anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s threatened the norms of mutual toleration. Politicians could “red-bait” – cast opponents as communist sympathizers. 

  • Joseph McCarthy “used virulent anti-communism as a club to beat Democrats”

  • Eisenhower capitalized on the political energy McCarthy generated

  • THE RESULT: “The Senate voted to censure McCarthy, effectively ending his career.”

SITUATION 3 - President Nixon justified illicit activities, claiming his domestic opponents, often depicted as anarchists and communists, posed a threat to the nation.

  • Strayed from democratic norms by using wiretapping and other surveillance.

  • Compiled a list of opponents to be targeted.

  • THE RESULT: “Nearly a dozen Republican senators joined Democrats in calling for an independent special prosecutor...triggered widespread calls for Nixon’s resignation.”

“Even amid the crisis as profound as the Great Depression, the system of checks and balances... worked... Norms of mutual toleration were at best embryonic in the 1780s and 1790s... rivals initially suspected each other of treason... what we would today call constitutional hardball.” In the election of 1800, the authors say, “each side aimed for a permanent victory – to put the other party out of business forever... It took several decades for this hard-edged quest for permanent victory to subside.”

Norms of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance clearly have safeguarded our democracy, with its deeply respected but necessarily incomplete constitution. Will those norms hold in our current atmosphere of vitriolic polarization? The authors warn that polarization can destroy democratic norms.

Polarization –  Democracy without its Guardrails

 ~ when mutual toleration and forbearance break down ~

guardrails weakening copy.jpg

The signs:

  • Worldviews that are no longer just different, but now mutually exclusive

  • Political camps now wedded to incompatible worldviews

  • Social segregation to the point of little or no interaction

  • Temptation to try to win at all costs.

  • President bullies Congress by speaking directly to the people or attacking individual members

  • The Senate uses impeachment of a judge as a partisan tool

The dangers: 

  • Rise of anti-system groups that reject democracy’s rules altogether

  • Perception of opposition as posing an existential threat

  • Constitutional hardball – weaponizing of democratic institutions

  • Deadlock, dysfunction, gridlock; circumvention of checks and balances

  • Abdication of duty

  • Violence, even within the halls of government itself

  • Military rule, even military coup

An example of “constitutional hardball” has been the “packing” of the Supreme Court and other federal courts. Over the years – and in European and Latin American democracies too – authoritarian leaders or parties strategically reduced or enlarged the number of judges or justices to ensure a politically supportive judiciary. That is actually legal; it doesn’t violate the letter of the law. “The US Supreme Court changed size seven times between 1800 and 1869 – each time for political reasons.”  

Were you surprised, nevertheless, when President Obama’s nomination to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of Antonin Scalia was absolutely denied by a Republican-led Senate? Consider this (below), and ponder whether the norms of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance had weakened by 2016.

Filling Open Supreme Court Seats – a historical perspective

“The Senate has the right to reject individual Supreme Court nominees.”

  • 1880 – 1980: More than 90% of nominees were approved.

  • 1866 – 2016: The Senate never prevented the president from filling a Supreme Court seat. “On 74 occasions during this period, presidents attempted to fill Court vacancies prior to the election of their successors. On all 74 occasions – though not always on the first try – they were allowed to do so.”

Democracy without Guardrails

Levitsky and Ziblatt warn us that democracy’s soft guardrails are, indeed, weakening. And a major contributor to their demise is polarization. Remember what Ezra Klein was quoted as saying back on Page One: “Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the problems bedeviling American democracy.” 

The signs and symptoms have been in front of us for years, but sometimes we truly cannot see the forest for the trees. For example, consider how Americans affiliated with the two major parties have morphed over the years in their feelings about each other:

“How would you feel if your child married someone who identified with another political party?”

Unhappy with other party copy.jpg

2016: How do you feel about the opposing party? [Pew Foundation Survey]

  • 49% of Democrats: “Republicans make me afraid.”

  • 55% of Republicans: “Democrats make me afraid.”

So we’ve been on this trajectory for a while. Below I offer as brief an outline as I possibly can of the historical weakening of the guardrails as presented in How Democracies Die. It covers only forty years of our history (the most recent 40 years), but I’ve been reluctant to omit any of the steps presented by the authors as the gradual weakening of the norms. My liberal use of quotation marks indicates how carefully I tried to stay true to the authors’ actual words.

I urge my reader to take a deep breath now and stay the course. When all the pieces are placed in order, the puzzle starts to make sense – and only then can we begin to entertain a way out of the dark forest of polarization.

Tracing the Weakening of Democracy’s Soft Guardrails

~ How polarization got a foothold in our political system ~

  • Pre-1978: “Annual number of cloture motions – a good indicator of a filibuster attempt – never exceeded seven.”

  • 1978: Newt Gingrich introduced politics as warfare.

    • “What we really need are people who are willing to stand up in a slug-fest... What’s the primary purpose of a political leader? To build a majority.”

    • Described Congress as “corrupt” and “sick.”

    • Questioned the patriotism of his Democratic rivals; compared them to Mussolini; accused them of trying to “destroy our country.”

    • Produced 2000+ training audiotapes called the “Republican Revolution,” instructing candidates to call Democrats “pathetic, sick, bizarre, anti-flag, anti-family, traitors.”

    • Became Minority Whip and then Speaker of the House

  • 1994: GOP won its first House majority in more than 40 years.

    • “Gingrich Senators” refused to compromise and were willing to obstruct.

    • Public discontent grows on the cusp of a wave of polarization

    • “Politics as warfare” became “the GOP’s dominant strategy.”

  • 1993 – 1994: 80 cloture motions! [Compare with no more than 7 per year above.]

  • 1994 – 2001: Clinton presidency marked by hardball approach from Congress

    • Filibuster use reached “epidemic levels” – 80 filibusters in one year.

    • “GOP...refused to compromise...in budget negotiations.”

  • 1998: House voted to impeach President Clinton without bipartisan support. Majority Leader Tom DeLay “packed lobbying firms with Republican operatives and instituted a pay-to-play system.”

  • 2000: Supreme Court decided presidential election in favor of George W. Bush.

    • When Al Gore conceded, George W. Bush promised to be a “uniter, not a divider.”

    • Tom DeLay announced: “We don’t work with Democrats. There’ll be none of that uniter-divider stuff.”

    • President Bush abandoned “all pretense of bipartisanship on the counsel of his political adviser Karl Rove.” (But he did not question the patriotism of his Democratic rivals.)

    • Senate Democrats began “routinely filibustering Bush proposals...obstructing an unprecedented number of... judicial nominees.”

    • “In the House, the informal practice of ‘regular order,’ which assured the minority party opportunities to speak and to amend legislation, was largely abandoned.”

    • “Congress resisted oversight of the Iraq War.”

  • 2003 - 2004: Texas, under Tom DeLay, redistricted “out of cycle... aimed only at partisan advantage. It left 6 Democratic congressmen especially vulnerable.”

    • 47 democratic legislators bused to Oklahoma for 4 days to prevent a quorum.

    • A month later, Democratic senators flew to New Mexico to prevent a quorum.

  • 2004 – 2007: “Fox News commentators... began to link Democrats to Al Qaida.”

    • An Ann Coulter book, which spent 13 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list, “defends Joseph McCarthy and embraces his tactics... claims that anti-Americanism is ‘intrinsic to liberals’ entire worldview.”

    • Fox News casts candidate Barack Obama “as Marxist, anti-American, and secretly Muslim.”

    • Tom DeLay “declared that ‘unless Obama proves me wrong, he’s a Marxist.’”

    • Sarah Palin claimed “that Obama had been ‘palling around with terrorists... launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist.’ Her racially coded speeches elicited cries of ‘Treason!’ ‘Terrorist!’ and even ‘Kill him!’ from crowds.”

    • Palin “used the expression ‘real American’ to describe her (overwhelmingly white Christian) supporters.”

  • 2008 - 2010: “Barack Obama’s... presidential victory speech... spoke generously, congratulating McCain on a heroic career of contributions to America... McCain had delivered a gracious concession speech... It was a textbook case of postelection reconciliation. But... in Phoenix... When McCain mentioned Obama, the crowd booed...forcing the Arizona senator to calm them down.”

    • The Tea Party “questioned President Obama’s very right to be president,” claiming he “posed a threat to our democracy... was not a real American.”

    • Tea Party activist Laurie Roth called President Obama a “closet secular-type Muslim...Socialist Communist... pretending to be an American.”

    • Newt Gingrich “called Obama ‘the first anti-American president.’”

    • The “birther movement” questioned whether he was born in the United States.

    • Led by Kevin McCarthy, “a group of young House members decided to make the GOP the ‘Party of no.’”

    • Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, said the “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

  • 2011 – 2016: Republicans ramped up the rhetoric; Democrats played hardball too.

    • President Obama’s birth certificate was made public, and Donald Trump “suggested it was a forgery.”

    • Democrats “voted to eliminate the filibuster for most presidential nominations... referred to as the ‘nuclear option.’”

    • President Obama took one unilateral executive action after another. 

    • “Mitch McConnell urged states to ignore Obama’s regulatory order limiting greenhouse gas emissions...a stunning undermining of federal authority.”

    • Standard and Poor’s downgraded America’s credit rating for the first time in history as Republicans held out until the very last minute on raising the debt limit. (“Raising the debt limit was a long-standing bipartisan practice; between 1960 and 2011 it had been done 78 times - 49 under Republican presidents and 29 under Democrats.”)

    • “Tom Cotton and 46 other Republican senators wrote an open letter to Iran’s leaders... intervened in diplomatic negotiations, long the domain of the executive branch... brazenly sought to undermine the authority of a sitting president.”

    • The Senate refused “to take up President Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court... not once since Reconstruction had a president been denied the opportunity to fill a Supreme Court vacancy when he nominated someone before the election of his successor.”

    • In 2012 the Koch family spent $400 million on elections.

    • When Darrell Issa suggested working with the Democrats to get things done, “Rush Limbaugh forced him to publicly repudiate his claim and pledge loyalty to the obstructionist agenda.” 

  • 2016: The Republican Convention shattered all norms.

    • The nomination went to a “birther.”

    • “Republican leaders called their Democratic rival a criminal and led chants of ‘lock her up.’”

Whew! I suspect, if you’ve read this far, you are now having some emotional responses as well as intellectual responses. This is not an easy picture for any of us Americans to view. But we’re near the end of the story now. Stay with me as we examine the role of major political party identification, alluded to above, as part of our polarized political culture. The authors tell us that “the civil rights movement, culminating in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, put an end to this partisan arrangement... accelerated a long-run party system realignment whose consequences are still unfolding today.” 

From “Big Tents” to Narrow Camps


Democrat Republian originally copy.jpg


Party membership post 1964 copy.jpg

Now, to President Trump himself, who was called a “symptom,” not a “cause” by Ezra Klein above. Here is a summary of the authors’ assessment of our 45th president’s level of authoritarianism in his first year in office.

Trump Against the Guardrails

“Trump exhibited clear authoritarian instincts during his first year.”

  • Hostility toward the referees – law enforcement, intelligence, ethics agencies, and the courts.”

    • “Only once in the FBI’s 82-year-history had a president fired the bureau’s director before his ten-year term was up – and in that case, the move was in response to clear ethical violations and enjoyed bipartisan support.”

    • When “U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s investigations into money laundering reportedly threatened to reach Trump’s inner circle... president removed him...”

    • President Trump “attacked judges who ruled against him... denounced [one] as... an ‘unelected judge.’”

    • “Pardoned the controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of violating a federal court order to stop racial profiling.”

    • “He openly spoke of using the Justice Department and the FBI to go after Democrats, including Hillary Clinton.”

  • “Efforts to sideline key players” –

    • Trump said, “fake news...doesn’t represent the people. It never will represent the people, and we’re going to do something about it.”

    • Made a campaign pledge to “open up the libel laws”

    • “Retweeted footage of him tackling and then punching someone with a CNN logo superimposed on his face.”

    • “Attacked NBC and other networks by threatening to ‘challenge their license.’”

    • Authorized “federal agencies to withhold funding from ‘sanctuary cities.’”

  • “Trump’s efforts to tilt the playing field to his advantage have been more worrying.”

    • “Called for elimination of the filibuster”

    • Created “the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity... based on a false claim that voter fraud was widespread in the United States.” [This commission was disbanded in early 2018 after no state fully complied with the request for voter information, and several brought suit against the federal government. President Trump announced that the Department of Homeland Security would now take over the investigation.]

    • “...complained that the election was ‘rigged’... made the extraordinary claim that he had ‘won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.’”

Well, that’s pretty much the case for the clear and present danger of our democracy gradually eroding into authoritarianism, and an extensive explanation about how we got where we are today: extreme polarization, weakened guardrails of mutual toleration and forbearance, and signs that our democracy actually could slip into autocracy if we do nothing. So, what do the authors suggest we do, and how urgent is it that we, the people, do something? Let’s first consider the effect of public opinion on a leader’s actions, since we are the public.

How Public Opinion Drives the Bandwagon

  • “When an elected leader enjoys, say, a 70 percent approval rating...”

    • “critics jump on the bandwagon”

    • “media coverage softens”

    • “judges grow more reluctant to rule against”

    • “even rival politicians... keep their heads down”

  • “When the government’s approval rating is low...”

    • “media and opposition grow more brazen...”

    • “judges become emboldened”

    • “allies begin to dissent”

And what of political leaders and their response to authoritarian speech and action? The authors suggest two types of response:

Two Ways to Address the Threat of Authoritarianism

“During President Trump’s first year in office Republicans responded to presidential abuse with a mix of loyalty and containment.”

  • Loyalty enables authoritarianism

    • Active loyalists “publicly defend even his most controversial moves”

    • Passive loyalists “retreat from public view”

    • Critical loyalists “try to have it both ways”

  • Containment

    • “Draw the line” at behavior one “considers dangerous.”

    • “Work with the president wherever possible... taking steps to ensure that he does not abuse power.”

    • “Could seek the president’s removal... [and] ...risk accusations of treason from fellow partisans... [this] ... risks derailing the party’s legislative agenda.”

Now, suppose we experience another crisis – bigger than a massive hurricane in the south or a long string of volcanic eruptions on Hawaii? Something as threatening to the whole nation as we experienced on September 11, 2001. What does history teach us about how a leader who already tends toward authoritarianism might respond?

How Crisis Emboldens a Would-be Authoritarian

  • A crisis increases support for the government

  • Citizens “tolerate and even endorse authoritarian measures when they fear for their security.”

  • THEREFORE: “Security crises are moments of danger for democracy.”

    • For example: Fujimori in Peru; Putin in Russia; Erdogan in Turkey.

    • EVEN IN THE US: Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; Roosevelt interned Japanese Americans; Bush passed the USA Patriot Act

    • BUT: “Each of them [above] exercised considerable forbearance in wielding the vast authority generated by crisis.”

    • “TRUMP, by contrast, has rarely exhibited forbearance in any context... given President Trump’s foreign policy ineptitude, the risks are especially high.”

Assuming no huge crisis over the next few years, Levitsky and Ziblatt warn that our democratic institutions might well be jeopardized anyway.

How Norm Breaking Corrodes Democratic Institutions

~ We now see “tactics that were once considered aberrant and inadmissible” ~

Moynihan copy.jpg

President Trump “...in his first year of office... was a serial norm breaker.”

Likely consequence: We “define deviancy down” – lower our standards, are desensitized, accept “discourse and action that could imperil democracy.”

  • Has engaged in “lying, cheating, bullying”

    • Politifactclassified 21 percent of his public statements [during the campaign] as ... ‘mostly false,’ 33% ‘false,’ 15% ‘pants on fire.’ Only 17 percent were coded as ‘true’ or ‘mostly true.’”

  • Note his “willingness to challenge unwritten rules of greater consequence”

  • “nepotism... conflicts of interest... openly challenged the legitimacy of an election”

  • “... abandoned basic rules of civility. He broke with norms of postelection reconciliation by continuing to attack Hillary Clinton.”

  • “...violated the unwritten rule that sitting presidents should not attack their predecessor.”

  • “Trump... made at least one false or misleading public statement every single day of his first forty days in office.”

  • “Trump’s... public insults of media outlets and even individual journalists were without precedent in modern U.S. history.”

Likely consequence: We “define deviancy down” – lower our standards, are desensitized, accept “discourse and action that could imperil democracy.”

Have we already reached that point? Do you feel, upon reflection, that you’ve become desensitized, begun to accept statements and actions that lower your standards? Do you believe our democracy might be imperiled, or is this book just predictable political hype from two PhD Harvard professors who have devoted their lives to comparative politics and do not like Donald Trump? What the book is notis a prescription for what you and I should do about the weakening of the guardrails, the polarization of our major political parties and the possible threat to our democracy. Instead, the authors present three possible scenarios for the future.

“3 Possible Futures for a Post-Trump America”

  1. Swift democratic recovery: “implosion of Trump’s presidency”; Democrats energized; Republicans “end their flirtation with extremist politics.” ADVISABILITY and LIKELIHOOD: “...simply removing President Trump will not miraculously restore them [the soft guardrails of democracy] ... “victory would be Pyrrhic.”

  2. Republican hardball: GOP consolidates a solid majority, including the Supreme Court; “white nationalist appeal... constitutional hardball... large-scale deportation, immigration restrictions, the purging of voter rolls... strict voter ID laws... elimination of the filibuster... violent conflict... heightened police repression... in the name of ‘law and order’” ADVISABILITY and LIKELIHOOD: “...scenario isn’t likely, but it also isn’t inconceivable.” Shrinking ethnic majorities do not give up “their dominant status without a fight.” Consider Lebanon, Israel, even the U.S. during Reconstruction, when the two parties disenfranchised African Americans for nearly a century.

  3. Polarization: “more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare... democracy without solid guardrails... decline in mutual toleration and forbearance.” ADVISABILITY and LIKELIHOOD: “In our view, most likely”

Not such a rosy future, then, according to How Democracies Die. But the authors do offer a glimmer of hope at the end. First they remind us that polarization is fueled by resentment and how that resentment has been bubbling and simmering for the past forty years.

Resentment Fuels Polarization

Resentment Fuels Polarization copy.jpg

Finally, Levitsky and Ziblatt do offer some hope for the nation. Although these actions would ultimately have to be taken by our elected leaders in most cases, I can see where the ordinary citizen – the voter, who is, very probably, a member of one of these parties (or could be) – might take some action. I will close now by presenting the recommendations of the authors, again with apologies for anything I might have misconstrued, and I beg you to: a) Respond with a comment and then return to this blog to review the conversation and continue to participate; and b) Read How Democracies Die. Perhaps education will ultimately neutralize polarization.

Addressing Polarization

  1. Focus on two underlying forces:

    1. Racial and religious realignment

    2. Growing economic inequality

  2. Reform (if not re-found) the Republican Party

    1. Free it from the clutches of outside donors and right-wing media

    2. Build a more diverse electoral constituency – “Win elections without appealing to white nationalism.”

    3. Expel extremists from its ranks – “... break sharply with the Trump administration’s authoritarian and white nationalist orientation.”

    4. Broaden the party’s base beyond Christians

  3. Ensure the Democratic Party plays its part

    1. Reduce the influence of ethnic minorities to win back the white working class

    2. Address the issue of inequality

  4. The two parties together, as a nation...

    1. Address the concerns of long-neglected segments of the population, no matter their ethnicity.

    2. Focus on social policies that benefit everyone (without a means test): Social Security, Medicare, comprehensive health insurance, raising the minimum wage, a “family policy,” job training, wage subsidies, work-study programs...

And so you have now completed this extensive (and unauthorized) abstract of Levitsky and Ziblatt's How Democracies Die. Two things to do next: Please comment below, and then please get ahold of the book and read it for yourself. Sometimes self-education is the only means we have to prepare ourselves for a brighter future.