Book review: “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Five stars, for sure.

I believe I picked up How Democracies Die after running into it on Twitter? It was just in the last couple weeks too, and the title was both compelling and relevant, given the recent Trump impeachment hearings in Congress. The book was written with Trump in mind, but the book isn’t meant to be partisan in nature and Trump isn’t necessarily meant to be the center of the story. First off, this isn’t a good time with John Oliver or Stephen Colbert. IT was written by an academic, and maintains a scholarly (yet not dry) approach throughout. Second, the book seeks to put Trump in a historical perspective, looking at the events leading up to the 2016 election as well as in context of other democracies that have ended in dictatorships and violence. Trump didn’t just happen out of nowhere. They examine trends in politics starting in about the 70s that resulted in the political mud-fight that is the current state of politics. It wasn’t always like this and it doesn’t have to be.

Surprisingly, despite being critical of Trump, this book is very conservative in nature. I don’t mean align with the current version of the Republican party. I mean small-c conservative, the necessity of strong institutions, a more negative view of human nature and an acknowledgement of the limits of reason, and a distrust of populism. You know that one-liner that’s thrown out there “we’re a republic, not a democracy”? They dig into that idea a little more. There’s a reason we aren’t a pure democracy, and that’s because pure democracies are very unstable. For instance, the authors praise the electoral college as an attempt to prevent the potential rise of demogogues and authoritarians that could take the whole system down with them. They also examine extra-Constitutional measures that ensure our democracy runs smoothly, what they call the “guardrails” of democracy. The two they focus on are (1) mutual toleration and (2) institutional forbearance.

Mutual toleration is the idea that political opponents acknowledge each others’ legitimacy to run, be elected, and govern. They don’t view each other as existential threats. And while they may disagree ideologically, they play fair with one another. We can all agree that’s a good thing, right? And yet, it seems that we have lost that. The thing I really like about their analysis is that they trace a few historical moments where things went awry.

Do you know Newt Gingrich? I’m too young to remember him, but Levitsky and Ziblatt trace the politics-as-war trope in the Republican party back to his election to Congress. Read this quote of his:

You’re fighting a war. It is a war for power… This party does not need another generation of cautious, prudent, careful, bland, irrelevant, quasi-leaders… 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.

When politics is viewed as out-right war, there is no compromise with “the enemy.” Every election lost is a critical failure. They look at how attitude has since eroded our political norms. When Obama became president, the Republican Congress when all-out obstructionist. Usually, the Senate would approve presidential appointments to the Supreme Court as a matter of course. But not in this state of war. The new motto was “If it’s not illegal, do it.”

The second guardrail of democracy is institutional forbearance, which I partly already explained in mutual toleration. Institutional forbearance means just because you can technically do something, doesn’t mean you always do it. For instance, the Constitution gives Congress the power to impeach the president. But they don’t use it very often. If they did threaten the president with impeachment all the time, things would be very unstable. You’ve essentially weaponized it. And that’s what it has become too.

An excellent book, it doesn’t predict doom and gloom. But it does give us a much-needed long view of things that we would do well to remember. I would shelve it right next to Political Tribes by Amy Chua in usefulness for the current political situation.

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