#140 Reading How Democracies Die

I downloaded this book as part of my research for my forthcoming Collapse series. Book one, Hatred, is all about the rise of an authoritarian regime, book two, Collapse, is the moment when society collapses due to resource depletion and book three, Insurgency, I previously published as When the Well Runs Dry, explores the post-collapse world.

How Democracies Die is a 2018 book by Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt about how elected leaders can gradually subvert the democratic process to increase their power.

The book warns against the breakdown of “mutual toleration” and respect for the political legitimacy of the opposition. This tolerance involves accepting the results of a free and fair election (sound familiar?) where the opposition has won, in contrast with advocacy for overthrow or spurious complaints about the election mechanism (hmm). The authors also assert the importance of respecting the opinions of those who come to legitimately different political opinions, in contrast to attacking the patriotism of any who disagree, or warning that if they come to power they will destroy the country.

The authors point out that the various branches of government in a system with separation of powers have actions available to them that could completely undermine the other branches or the opposition. The authors warn against ramming through a political agenda or accumulating power by playing “constitutional hardball” with tactics like court packing (look at the US Supreme Court), stonewalling nominations, or abusing the power of the purse, and recommend “forbearance” and some degree of cooperation to keep government functioning in a balanced fashion. Other threats to democratic stability cited by the authors include economic inequality and segregation of the political parties by race, religion, and geography.

The authors dedicate many chapters to the study of the United States, President Donald Trump, and the 2016 presidential election, but also apply their theory to Latin America and European countries, especially Venezuela and Russia. According to them, the United States has, until 2016, resisted the attempts to undermine democracy thanks to two norms: mutual toleration and forbearance, the latter defined as the intentional restraint of one’s power in order to respect the spirit of the law if not its letters. They finally predicted three potential scenarios for the post-Trump United States.


Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Harvard professors, study the prospect of the democratic system in an holistic approach, and take a critical stand of the Trump presidency. They describe their work as a study of how democracies die. The main subjects are drawn in the introduction: the authors argue that in our time, democracies still die but by different means, “less at the hand of men with guns and more by elected leaders”. The methodology used is mainly based on the “comparative method” and it is a book that tries to “reveal about our future” based on history, more specifically on historical comparisons (finding similar dynamics, presenting models of “gatekeeping” and the “rhymes” of history). The object of the study is the president Trump as an “autocrat in becoming” and, a comparison with state failures and autocrats. The study assesses the risk of his presidency and try to identify the pattern of autocratic tendencies.

Levitsky and Ziblatt accept the fear of the Trump presidency as legitimate and pledge for the protection of the democracy. Particularly the last chapter saving democracy, put emphasis on political recommendations to save democracy in a pledge. It was written before the recent presidential election but the content is still relevant

And they make recommendations for the Republicans. They must build a more diverse electoral constituency and they must find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism, the sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery. They realize that the president could inflict real damage on our institutions in the long term.

Although the Democratic party has not been the principal driver of America deepening polarization it could play a role in reducing it. Democrats could consider more comprehensive labor market policies and it is imperative that Democrats address the issue of inequality.

The New York Times called the book an essential guide to what can happen in the United States. The Washington Post said the book offers a sober look at the current state of affairs. The Wall Street Journal called it an unintentional clarifying lesson. In the United Kingdom, The Guardian called it provocative but also unsatisfying. The magazine Foreign Affairs concluded it is an important study. Fair Observer called it an original contribution valuable to researchers, policy makers, and citizens. Columbia University historian Adam Tooze described the book as the “most thought-provoking book comparing democratic crises in different nations.”

I think the authors have identified accurately the factors that lead democracies to backslide into autocracies and their theories provide good source material for my own stories.

About M J Dees

M J Dees lives and works in Sao Paulo, Brazil with his wife, daughter and two cats. He has written three novels, Living with Saci, The Astonishing Anniversaries of James and David, Part One, and When The Well Runs Dry. He is currently editing the fourth and writing the fifth. You can sign up for more information on his book launches at http://eepurl.com/cTnAD5 and receive a free copy of Living With Saci.
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