How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The authors are professors of government at Harvard. Their thesis is that democracies don’t usually die because of coups or violent revolutions. They usually die when leaders take advantage of their nation’s established procedures to give themselves more and more power. For example, a political party will pass laws that make it so easy for them to win elections that they no longer face meaningful competition, or a ruler will assume temporary emergency powers because of a crisis but never give up those powers.

How Democracies Die shows how easy it can be to make the transition from democracy to authoritarianism. All budding authoritarians need to do is break the unwritten rules, the norms of behavior, that make a democracy work. If enough unwritten rules are broken, a democratic government will no longer function. Anti-democratic laws will be passed, ideologues and cronies will be put in positions of power, opponents will be jailed or exiled. Democracies can disappear either gradually or quickly. The authors provide examples from around the world.

They also call special attention to the behavior of the Republican Party in the last twenty-five years. Leaders like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Mitch McConnell and our current president have all broken rules without necessarily doing anything illegal. The result has been an accumulation of power inconsistent with majority rule.

When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted — mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. Treating rivals as legitimate contenders for power and underutilizing one’s institutional prerogatives in the spirit of fair play are not written in the American Constitution. Yet without them, our constitutional checks and balances will not operate as we expect them to [212].

The authors foresee three possible outcomes of our current political crisis. The most optimistic is that there will be a rebirth of democracy in reaction to the Trump presidency. The Democratic Party will be energized, the Republican Party will become less extreme, and “the Trump interlude [will] be taught in schools, recounted in films, and recited in historical works as an era of tragic mistakes where catastrophe was avoided and American democracy saved” [206].

The least optimistic is that America’s government will become increasingly authoritarian, possibly in response to a national security crisis. They believe this “nightmare scenario” isn’t likely, but it isn’t inconceivable either: “It is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities [in our case, white Americans who call themselves Christians] gave up their dominant status without a fight” [208]. Resistance to creeping right-wing authoritarianism could lead to “escalating confrontation and even violent conflict”, which would bring more repression in the name of “law and order” [207-208].

They consider the third alternative the most likely:

… polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare — in other words, democracy without solid guardrails… When partisan rivals become enemies, political competition descends into warfare, and our institutions turn into weapons. The result is a system hovering constantly on the brink of crisis [208-212].

In order to avoid this outcome, the authors believe the Republican Party needs to be “reformed, if not refounded outright”. It must “marginalize extremist elements”; “build a more diverse electoral constituency”; “find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism”; and “free itself from the clutches of outside donors [like the Koch brothers] and right-wing media” [223]. They also believe that it would be counterproductive for Democrats to fight fire with fire, to behave as badly as Republicans have.

I think the only way the Republican Party will be reformed or replaced is if the rest of us become so fed up that the Republicans suffer devastating electoral losses, and that the Democrats use their improved position to address urgent issues, in particular, rising inequality. That might encourage “conservatives” to start behaving like conservatives again, instead of like radicals. America might then have a normal center-right political party again. Stranger things have happened.