The election of Donald Trump has sparked a great deal of discussion about the fate of American democracy. Does the election of a figure like Donald Trump—an inexperienced outsider with obvious authoritarian instincts—suggest that democracy in the US is backsliding? Are we doomed to suffer the fate of other 21st-century democracies, like Hungary, Venezuela, and Turkey, where true democracy ceased to exist? By what processes was democracy killed in those and other countries, and how might we prevent it here?
These are the questions that How Democracies Die seeks to answer. Authors and Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explore the historical processes by which democracies came to extinction in other countries in the 20th and 21st centuries, while examining the rise of anti-democratic forces in American politics during the same time period.
By identifying the specific tactics that autocrats employ in their efforts to dismantle representative government and outlining the political conditions that give rise to authoritarian movements, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s work serves as a warning for imperiled democracies—and a blueprint for how to save them.
To prevent authoritarians from taking power and begin dismantling democracy, it is important to be able to identify them first. There are four warning signs of authoritarians. Such politicians:
Mainstream political parties act as democracy’s gatekeepers, helping to keep authoritarians who exhibit these traits from attaining power. There are four main strategies that political parties use to act as gatekeepers:
A good example of parties responsibly exercising their gatekeeping function comes from Austria. There, in 2016, a left-right coalition of parties in Austria helped to defeat the far-right Freedom Party and its presidential candidate Norbert Hofer. Prominent conservative politicians, in particular, crossed party lines to endorse Hofer’s left-wing rival—with whom they certainly had profound ideological disagreements, but who they knew would safeguard democratic ideals.
An example of failed political gatekeeping can be seen in the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in the 1990s. Chávez was a political outsider and rabble-rouser who became a hero to many Venezuelans for his fiery rhetorical attacks on what he portrayed as a corrupt and decadent political establishment.
The former president Rafael Caldera, seeking to regain his own hold on power, saw that Chávez could have a useful electoral appeal and sought to co-opt it. In 1993, Caldera was elected to the presidency as an anti-establishment independent candidate, mimicking Chávez’s message and rhetorical style during the campaign—boosting the latter’s standing as a legitimate political figure.
In 1998, Chávez himself was elected to the presidency and began the work of dissolving democracy and a free press in Venezuela, thanks largely to Caldera’s role in legitimizing him.
Political parties long played the same role in American politics, blocking potential extremists and authoritarian populists from attaining power. Traditionally, party insiders selected presidential nominees from a roster of well-known politicians.
This crucial gatekeeping function is why political outsiders with no connection to parties fared poorly throughout most of American history. We can see this in the failed candidacy of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace. Considered unacceptable and unelectable by the leadership of both major parties, Wallace was forced to mount a third-party bid for the presidency in 1968 under the American Independent Party banner. Given America’s two-party system and the winner-take-all nature of the Electoral College, this doomed his longshot presidential bid to failure.
But party insiders lost this crucial gatekeeping power in American politics, beginning in the late 1960s. Following the turbulent events of the 1968 Democratic National Convention—in which the party was forced to install a nominee with no support from the rank-and-file, amid the divisive context of the Vietnam War—the Democratic Party moved its presidential nomination process to a system of state-level primaries, giving voters direct control over the party nomination process for the first time. Similar rules were adopted by the Republican Party at this time as well.
What this meant in practice was that the old party gatekeepers were mostly gone. There were no more bosses or insiders who could veto the people’s choice for the nomination or install their own favorite. Anyone could now run for the nomination and completely circumvent the traditional gatekeepers.
**The new system...
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The election of Donald Trump has sparked a great deal of discussion about the fate of American democracy. Does the election of a figure like Trump—an inexperienced outsider with obvious authoritarian instincts—suggest that democracy in the US is backsliding? Are we doomed to suffer the fate of other 21st-century democracies, like Hungary, Venezuela, and Turkey, where true...
One of the primary means by which authoritarians come to power in democratic states is through alliances with establishment politicians. In this chapter, we’ll explore how such alliances come to be, the basic characteristics that are shared by anti-democratic politicians, and the mechanisms by which mainstream political parties have traditionally kept such figures from attaining power.
We’ll also explore some real-world examples of how democracy benefits when political elites successfully perform their gatekeeper role—and the consequences that befall democracy when they don’t.
If we want the political system to reject authoritarians, we need to be able to identify them first. What are some of the warning signs of an anti-democratic figure or movement? The political scientist Juan Linz identified four warning signs of authoritarianism. They single out politicians who:
So far, we’ve identified the main political traits of authoritarians and how mainstream political parties can successfully curb their influence—provided they exercise the political courage to do so. But we’ve only looked at such political developments outside the United States.
In this chapter, we will look more closely at how these same developments also apply to American politics. We’ll examine homegrown American authoritarians and how the political system used to be able to marginalize them. We’ll then explore the historical processes by which American political parties lost their crucial gatekeeper function.
Extremists have been able to garner the loyalty and support of large swathes of the American population in the past. The 20th century saw the rise of several such figures.
In the run-up to the 1924 presidential election, the great industrialist Henry Ford was overwhelmingly the top presidential choice of respondents to a series of polls conducted by Collier’s magazine in 1923. Unfortunately, Ford was also a notorious conspiracy theorist and rabid anti-Semite, who published an anti-Jewish newspaper in Dearborn,...
Examine the push-and-pull between party insiderism and demagoguery.
Do you believe the shift to the primary system has benefitted democracy? Explain why or why not.
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In the last chapter, we explored how American political parties traditionally played a decisive role in keeping dangerous autocrats out of power, and how they lost this ability beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In this chapter, we’ll look at perhaps the most significant consequence of this destruction of the gatekeeping power of major parties—the nomination and election of Donald Trump in 2016. We’ll explore why Trump was such a dangerous figure, why party leaders failed to stop his nomination, and how they enabled his success in the general election.
Early insurgent candidates like Pat Robertson and Steve Forbes failed to win the Republican nomination when they ran in 1988 and 2000, respectively. But in running, they exposed how vulnerable the new system truly was to hostile takeovers by outsiders with little institutional support within the party.
These candidates garnered high name recognition and earned a great deal of coverage from the media, which greatly boosted their national profiles. Robertson was a famous televangelist, who boasted a built-in audience of millions of loyal viewers before he launched his...
Think about how partisan loyalty influences political behavior.
Identify and explain two ways in which the Republican Party failed to stop the rise of Donald Trump.
So far, we’ve looked at how aspiring autocrats have come to power. In this chapter, we will look at the specific steps such figures take once they’re in power. As we’ll explore, authoritarians use three main tactics to dismantle democracy:
These changes may all technically be within the bounds of the law, but they all represent grave threats to a free democratic system.
In a team sport, the role of the referee is to act in a neutral manner and never to selectively apply the rules to favor one side over the other. Politics also has referees—non-political, neutral actors who can sanction the behavior of politicians. Typically, they are judges, state prosecutors, police, and civil servants. Their role is to enforce laws and regulations in a neutral and disinterested manner.
To an aspiring authoritarian, however, these upholders of political norms represent a threat. Because such officials are usually career civil servants, and not party loyalists or cronies, they are unlikely to have particular allegiance to him. If the...
We’ve already seen how authoritarians come to power through irresponsible political parties that abandon their gatekeeping role, and we’ve explored some of the main tactics used by authoritarians as they dismantle democracy.
But political parties exercising their gatekeeping function is not the only way that democratic systems maintain themselves. In this chapter, we’ll explore some of the other guardrails that keep democracy from backsliding into authoritarianism—and what happens when political actors decide to remove those guardrails.
Constitutions and written rules are not, by themselves, enough to protect democracy. There is always potential for political leaders to act in bad faith in selectively interpreting the constitution to suit their own agenda. They can remain within the letter of the constitution, while violating its spirit. Worse, anti-democratic measures might still bear the stamp of technical legality, creating the veneer of democratic legitimacy for acts that are actually grave threats to representative government.
In fact, it is political norms, not laws, that provide the best protection for democracy. **Norms are the...
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Examine how norms influence behavior.
Are there norms or unwritten codes of conduct in your organization? Briefly describe and explain them.
Having established mutual toleration and institutional forbearance as the two main governing norms that uphold democracy, we’ll explore how these democratic norms have played out in American politics. We’ll look at how they evolved, the historical challenges posed to them by anti-democratic politicians, and how those challenges were overcome in the past.
How have mutual toleration and institutional forbearance operated in the context of American politics? At first, they hardly operated at all. Immediately after the ratification of the US Constitution, the political system was characterized by intense partisan warfare between America’s two original parties—the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.
The two parties viewed each other with mutual hostility. Both parties engaged in constitutional hardball, most notably through manipulating the size of the Supreme Court (whose size is not fixed by the Constitution) to maximize partisan advantage and censorship laws that targeted newspaper editors sympathetic to the other party.
This tit-for-tat cycle only subsided when a new generation of politicians rose to prominence in the...
Democratic norms of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance operated successfully throughout most of the 20th century, despite robust challenges. But, as any observer of politics today can plainly see, these norms are under siege and may be slipping away entirely.
In this chapter, we’ll explore some of the key structural transformations in US politics over the past few decades that have pushed norms to the brink and examine some of the key players—particularly within the Republican Party—who have driven this process forward.
A good place to start is with the rise of Newt Gingrich as a major political player. In 1978, Gingrich, a Georgia Republican, was elected to the US House of Representatives. But Gingrich was no ordinary Republican. He had a view of politics as warfare, believing that defeating one’s enemies was its ultimate purpose—not working with rivals or seeking to find common ground with them. As he rose through the ranks, Gingrich formed the political-action committee GOPAC to train up-and-coming Republican politicians in these new attack messaging strategies, labelling Democrats as “sick,” “traitors,” and...
Now that we’ve explored the history of democratic norms in US politics and the assault waged on them over the past four decades by an increasingly radicalized Republican Party, it’s time to bring our discussion to the present day.
From his nepotistic appointments of family members to important advisory positions in the White House to his refusal to divest himself from his personal business interests to his seemingly endless stream of lies about matters great and small, Trump has emerged as a serial norm-breaker. The democratic guardrails are coming down, with political behavior once believed to be unthinkable now fully normal within Republican politics.
In this chapter, we’ll delve further into how President Donald Trump has degraded democratic norms while in office and explore the key factors that will determine the survival of democracy in America.
In Chapter 3, we saw how candidate Donald Trump exhibited all four signs of anti-democratic authoritarianism. How has he behaved since taking office in 2017?
To answer that question, we’ll need to recall the three main tactics used by authoritarian leaders as they move to dismantle...
We’ve explored the grave threats facing American democracy today—increasing polarization, no-holds-barred electoral competition, and the abandonment of traditional democratic norms. Worse still, the weakened state of domestic democracy has only emboldened autocratic leaders around the world in countries like Hungary, Turkey, and Russia.
In this chapter, we look at what might lie ahead for American democracy and explore some of the structural reforms that can help rescue and strengthen it.
What lies ahead for American democracy? Although we cannot know the future with complete certainty, there are three possible scenarios for representative government in the United States:
Let’s explore what each of these scenarios might look like.
This is the most optimistic vision for American democracy. This is a world in which the Trump era proves to be short-lived and leaves behind few lasting effects. It might entail him losing reelection (possibly in a landslide that wipes out Republicans at the federal, state, and local levels) or even being...
Explore the main takeaways from How Democracies Die.
Why are written constitutions insufficient protection against authoritarianism?