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How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
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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.

About the Authors

Co-authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are prominent scholars on the topics of democratization, authoritarianism, and democratic backsliding.

Levitsky’s work has primarily concentrated on the problems of authoritarianism and democracy in the context of Latin American politics. His works as a co-author and editor on these topics include:

Levitsky is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard University and a former visiting fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies.

Ziblatt—Eaton Professor of Government at Harvard University and director of the Transformations of Democracy group at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center—is an expert on the history of European democracy. In his work, Ziblatt has explored the process of European state-building through the lens of the successful Italian and German unification efforts of the mid-19th century. He has also examined the special role that nations’ conservative parties play in determining the long-term survival of democracy.

Specifically, Ziblatt argues that democratic viability hinges on the willingness of conservative political parties such as the Tories in Britain—parties typically associated with nobility and landed privilege—to accommodate themselves to representative forms of government and keep in check the forces of the radical right. Where conservative parties accepted democracy and proved willing to compete in the electoral process (as in Britain in the 1830s), democracy survived; where conservative elites held themselves aloof from democracy or actively sought to undermine it (as in Bismarckian and Wilhelmine Germany) democracy proved stillborn and ultimately vulnerable to right-wing demagoguery.

Besides How Democracies Die, his works include:

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The Book’s Publication

How Democracies Die was published in 2018 by Penguin Random House.

Although both co-authors were already acknowledged experts in the fields of democracy formation and downfall at the time of the book’s publication,...

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How Democracies Die Summary How Democracies Die Guide Chapter 5: The Role of Norms

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.)

Mutual Toleration and Institutional Forbearance

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 acknowledging...

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Shortform Exercise: Explore Norms

Examine how norms influence behavior.


Are there norms or unwritten codes of conduct in your organization? Briefly describe and explain them.

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How Democracies Die Summary How Democracies Die Guide Chapter 6: American Political Norms

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.)

American Democratic Norms: A Brief History

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 two...

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How Democracies Die Summary How Democracies Die Guide Chapter 1: Political Gatekeepers

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:

  • How authoritarians come to power in democratic states
  • The basic characteristics that are shared by norm-violating, anti-democratic politicians
  • The mechanisms by which mainstream political parties have traditionally kept such figures from attaining power.

Identifying Authoritarians

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:

  • Reject the generally accepted rules of democratic competition by refusing to accept unfavorable election results
  • Refuse to accept the legitimacy of their democratic opponents by accusing their political competitors of being traitors or criminals
  • Endorse violence or sabotage by their supporters
  • Express a willingness to crack down on civil liberties by, for example, threatening...

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How Democracies Die Summary How Democracies Die Guide Chapter 4: Tactics for Dismantling Democracy

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:

  • Capturing the referees
  • Sidelining their opponents
  • Changing the rules of democratic competition

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.)

Capturing the Referees

Levitsky and Ziblatt use the metaphor of a referee to illustrate how authoritarian...

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How Democracies Die Summary How Democracies Die Guide Chapters 2-3: The Rise and Fall of American Parties

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.)

Smoke-Filled Rooms: Guardrails Against Extremists

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 even have...

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Shortform Exercise: Understand Partisanship

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.

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How Democracies Die Summary How Democracies Die Guide Chapter 7: The Downfall of American Norms

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 Rise of Newt Gingrich

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 Republican,...

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How Democracies Die Summary How Democracies Die Guide Chapter 8: Trump vs. Democratic Norms

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:

  • His nepotistic appointments of family members to important advisory positions in the White House
  • His refusal to divest himself from his personal business interests while in office
  • His flimsy regard for the truth in his public statements

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...

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How Democracies Die Summary How Democracies Die Guide Chapter 9: Saving American Democracy

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.

The Future of U.S. Democracy

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:

  • Democratic recovery
  • Authoritarian takeover
  • Worsening polarization

Democratic Recovery

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 could lose his bid...

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How Democracies Die Summary How Democracies Die Guide Shortform Commentary

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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Shortform Exercise: Understand How Democracies Die

Explore the main takeaways from How Democracies Die.


Why are written constitutions insufficient protection against authoritarianism?

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Table of Contents

  • Shortform Introduction
  • Chapter 5: The Role of Norms
  • Exercise: Explore Norms
  • Chapter 6: American Political Norms
  • Chapter 1: Political Gatekeepers
  • Chapter 4: Tactics for Dismantling Democracy
  • Chapters 2-3: The Rise and Fall of American Parties
  • Exercise: Understand Partisanship
  • Chapter 7: The Downfall of American Norms
  • Chapter 8: Trump vs. Democratic Norms
  • Chapter 9: Saving American Democracy
  • Shortform Commentary
  • Exercise: Understand How Democracies Die