In How Democracies Die, co-authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue the cornerstone of democracy is not written laws or constitutions. Rather, they argue, democracy derives its strength from norms—unwritten rules and standards of conduct mutually agreed to by competitors within the political system. Adherence to these shared norms is what prevents political competition from straying outside the bounds of democracy.
The authors establish their case by:
The two democratic norms Levitsky and Ziblatt highlight are mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. The authors define mutual toleration as accepting the legitimacy of one’s political opponents and acknowledging their right to govern, as long as they win in free and fair elections.
The second norm Levitsky and Ziblatt identify is institutional forbearance. This is the unwritten rule by which political actors agree not to weaponize their control of institutions to marginalize their opponents.
Constitutional hardball is when political actors don’t follow these unwritten rules. In a 2004 paper titled “Constitutional Hardball,” Georgetown Law professor Mark Tushnet argued that when one side in a political system decides to abandon unwritten norms to secure some short-term partisan advantage, the other side often feels it has little choice but to respond in kind.
Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that extreme political polarization is often the decisive factor in triggering the abandonment of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. They define polarization as the disappearance of the middle ground in politics, in which parties do not differ merely on basic ideology or matters of public policy—but, instead, are sorted into mutually incompatible worldviews. If a party comes to believe that its opponents simply cannot be trusted to hold power, it becomes easier to rationalize any means to prevent those opponents from attaining power.
The Growing Partisanship of American Politics
Other scholars have explored this theme of polarization and the threat it poses to stable democratic governance. In Why We’re Polarized (2020), political journalist Ezra Klein observes that in the 1970s, there was only a 0.54 partisan correlation between someone’s vote for president and their vote for House or Senate. But today, there is a near-perfect 0.97 correlation.
Having argued that mutual toleration and institutional forbearance are the two main governing norms that uphold democracy, Levitsky and Ziblatt turn their analysis to explore how these democratic norms have historically played out in the context of American politics.
Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the U.S. political system only truly acquired the democratic norms it needed to survive in the post-Civil War period, when the Republican Party abandoned its commitment to Black civil rights. They agreed to look the other way as white Southern Democrats rewrote state constitutions and systematically disenfranchised black citizens.
This was the basis for what the authors describe as the great mid-20th-century era of cooperation, when mutual toleration and institutional forbearance held strong and major legislation, Supreme Court appointments, and even constitutional amendments regularly passed with strong bipartisan majorities.
The Era of Bipartisanship
The decades running from the New Deal of the 1930s to the Watergate crisis of the 1970s were the high-water mark of bipartisan governance in the United States. But it was not necessarily a time of progressive or liberal governance. Congressional politics at the time were dominated by the “conservative coalition” of Southern segregationist Democrats and their conservative Republican allies. Together, they were able to keep a range of progressive legislation—from national health insurance to expansion of Social Security to increased federal funding of schools—from passing into law.
Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that each branch of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—has a role to play in upholding democratic norms. By the same token, each branch has the ability to violate them if it so chooses.
For example, presidents can issue executive orders on a range of policy matters, which enables them to effectively sidestep Congress and legislate on their own.
Similarly, strong norms also govern behavior in the legislative branch, argue Levitsky and Ziblatt. In the U.S. Senate, for example, the filibuster (a procedural device unique to the upper chamber) can allow the minority party to force a ⅗ majority vote (60 votes) to end debate on a bill and proceed to a full vote. But, thanks to institutional forbearance throughout much of the 20th century, however, minority parties seldom weaponized the filibuster and allowed most legislation to come to a simple majority up-or-down vote.
Civil Rights and the Filibuster
In their celebration of the relatively restrained use of the filibuster throughout most of American history, Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t acknowledge that the filibuster was the favorite tool of Southern...
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In How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt set out to analyze democracy’s long-term prospects for survival in the United States. Levitsky and Ziblatt primarily explore this problem through the lens of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016. Did the success of Trump—an inexperienced outsider with possibly authoritarian instincts—suggest that democracy in the U.S. was backsliding?
The authors try to answer this question through an examination of the historical processes by which democratic norms and institutions came to extinction in other countries in the 20th and 21st centuries and offering a blueprint for how to save them in the U.S. Their main thesis is that the cornerstone of democracy is not written laws or constitutions. Rather, they argue, democracy derives its strength from norms—unwritten rules and standards of conduct mutually agreed to by competitors within the political system. Adherence to these shared norms is what prevents political competition from straying outside the bounds of democracy.
Co-authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are prominent scholars on the topics of democratization,...
Levitsky and Ziblatt’s central thesis is that constitutions and written rules are not, by themselves, enough to protect democracy. They argue that, in fact, it is political norms—the unwritten rules that govern political conduct—that provide the best protection for democracy.
In the authors’ model of a well-functioning democracy, political actors adhere to shared norms governing what is and is not acceptable behavior, regardless of what might be technically permitted by the written rules.
(Shortform note: As mentioned in the Shortform Introduction, we’ve started our guide with Levitsky and Ziblatt’s Chapter 5, which lays out the book’s central thesis: that informal, unwritten democratic norms are the main guardrails of a functioning democratic system. We’ve made some other restructuring and reordering choices throughout this guide and have noted these editorial choices where they occur.)
The two main democratic norms Levitsky and Ziblatt highlight are mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. The authors define mutual toleration as accepting the legitimacy of one’s political opponents and...
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Having argued that mutual toleration and institutional forbearance are the two main governing norms that uphold democracy, Levitsky and Ziblatt turn their analysis to explore how these democratic norms have played out in the context of American politics. They explore how they evolved, the historical challenges posed to them by anti-democratic politicians, and how those challenges were overcome in the past.
(Shortform note: We’ve moved up Levitsky and Ziblatt’s Chapters 5 and 6 to be the first two chapters of this guide. The analysis of democratic norms is the core argument of the book, and therefore, we’ve put it front and center to immediately establish how these norms operate, how authoritarian actors abuse and violate them—and, in this chapter, how they have historically functioned in American politics.)
How have mutual toleration and institutional forbearance operated in the context of American politics? At first, argue Levitsky and Ziblatt, they hardly operated at all. Immediately after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the political system was characterized by intense partisan warfare between America’s...
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Having now explored what democratic norms are and how they’re meant to function, it makes sense to examine the processes by which they come to be violated. In this chapter, we’ll analyze Levitsky and Ziblatt’s arguments for:
Before looking at how anti-democratic forces take over the political system, it’s important to delineate exactly what constitutes authoritarianism. Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four warning signs of authoritarianism, singling out politicians who:
Having examined Levitsky and Ziblatt’s model for how political parties uphold democratic norms by limiting the influence of extremists, it makes sense to examine what happens when this process fails and autocrats succeed in coming to power. In this chapter, the authors detail what such figures do once they have control of the government. As they argue, authoritarians use three main tactics to dismantle democracy:
While these changes may all technically be within the bounds of the law, they all represent major violations of democratic norms—and, potentially, threats to a free democratic system.
(Shortform note: We’ve moved this chapter to immediately follow Chapter 1 and its discussion of how parties play the key role in limiting the rise of authoritarian leaders. This provides the theoretical framework through which we can then analyze Donald Trump’s candidacy and presidency and the threat that the authors argue he posed for American democracy.)
Levitsky and Ziblatt use the metaphor of a referee to illustrate how...
Extremism is nothing new in American politics, and it certainly existed before the rise of Donald Trump in 2016. Levitsky and Ziblatt have argued that—by acting as responsible gatekeepers— mainstream, institutional political parties are the best defense against an authoritarian takeover.
But they also make the case that the American political system—and political parties in particular—used to be far more effective at filtering out extremists and keeping them from the levers of power. In this chapter, they explore the processes by which, in their analysis, the two major U.S. parties lost this ability during the second half of the 20th century.
(Shortform note: Since Chapters 2 and 3 are thematically and narratively linked, we’ve merged them into one chapter. We’ve also moved them to follow the analysis of democratic norms, party gatekeeping, and authoritarian tactics.)
According to the authors, party insiders once played a decisive role in choosing nominees for the presidency. These were the proverbial “smoke-filled rooms” of party conventions and caucuses. A candidate had to win over such party insiders to...
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Levitsky and Ziblatt have argued that American democratic norms of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance operated successfully throughout most of the 20th century, despite some challenges. But, they warn, these norms are under siege today and may be slipping away entirely. They see the success of Donald Trump as a critical failure by a major political party to stop an authoritarian figure from rising within their own ranks.
But, the authors argue, the emergence of Trump did not occur in a vacuum. They view him as a product or symptom of broader trends in the American political system—and the Republican Party in particular—that have gradually driven the degradation of democratic norms since arguably the middle of the 20th century. In this chapter, Levitsky and Ziblatt explore some key structural transformations in U.S. politics over the past few decades that have pushed norms to the brink.
The authors argue that the rise of Newt Gingrich as a major political player signaled the beginning of the transformation of American politics into the more partisan, ideological conflict that it is today. In 1978, Gingrich, a Georgia...
After exploring the history of democratic norms in U.S. politics—and what they argue is their erosion at the hands of an increasingly radicalized Republican Party—Ziblatt and Levitsky turn their attention to Donald Trump’s presidency.
According to the authors, the first year of Trump’s presidency was marked by repeated and serial norm-breaking. They cite:
Under the influence of Trump and the Republicans, warn Levitsky and Ziblatt, democratic guardrails are coming down, with political behavior once believed to be unthinkable now fully normalized.
(Shortform note: How Democracies Die was published early in 2018, barely a year after Trump had taken office. With the benefit of hindsight now that Trump has left office after his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, we’ve incorporated some analysis and insights from the later years of his term in office, as well as his post-presidency. This gives the reader a more nuanced...
The authors note what they view as grave threats facing American democracy today—increasing polarization, no-holds-barred electoral competition, and the abandonment of traditional democratic norms. They further argue that democratic backsliding in the U.S. has emboldened autocratic leaders around the world, from Hungary to Turkey to Russia.
In this chapter, they explore what they believe might lie ahead for American democracy and propose some reforms that can help rescue and strengthen it.
Following their comparative historical analysis of democratic failure in an international context and their examination of the threats they believe to be confronting American democracy, Levitsky and Ziblatt present three possible scenarios for the future of representative government in the United States:
In Levitsky and Ziblatt’s analysis, democratic recovery represents the most optimistic vision for American democracy. In this scenario, the Trump era proves to be short-lived, leaving behind few lasting effects. For example, he...
Having analyzed and absorbed Levitsky and Ziblatt’s ideas about democratic decline and what they perceive as the threats to U.S. democracy, it’s worth discussing the long-term impact of How Democracies Die—as well as some of the pushback the book has subsequently received, the analytical gaps in the authors’ approach, and how they’ve updated their thinking on these issues since the book’s publication in 2018.
How Democracies Die was a highly influential piece of scholarship upon its initial publication in 2018. One lasting impact of the book was the elevation of the concept of democratic norms to the forefront of the national discourse. This was an era in which President Donald Trump appeared to many to be a serial violator of traditional patterns of conduct for someone in high office—from his famously extemporaneous and undisciplined speaking style to his practice of government-by-tweet to his delight in [public name-calling of his...
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