How Democracies Die
By Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Broadway Books; paperback; $15.00; available today, January 8
Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have long studied the demise of foreign democratic governments and could no longer ignore the signs of impending crisis they were seeing at home when Donald Trump became President.
When How Democracies Die was published in January 2018, the United States marked its first year under Trump. American politics and its politicians had dangerously damaged the boundaries that have sustained American democracy for nearly 250 years.
Their revealing, bracing look at the fall of liberal democracies around the world, with a road map for rescuing our own, was hailed for its sound argument and cogent analysis of the threats facing American democracy.
One year later, Levitsky and Ziblatt's warning has never felt as urgent, and with the paperback release of How Democracies Die, they are calling citizens' attention once more to the perils we face, including:
- Trump's removal of the "referees" - agencies with the authority to investigate and punish wrongdoing: the firing of FBI director James Comey, the forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his lack of "loyalty," and continued threats against the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, among others.
- Republican-led efforts by state governments in Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina to redraw legislation, substantially curbing the power of incoming elected Democrats in a flagrant violation of existing norms.
- The president's and other elected officials' challenges to the legitimacy of the midterm election results and the overall U.S. electoral process.
- The intensification of Trump's base in the wake of the midterms and in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election
- Pressure on the new House Democratic majority to adopt the hardball tactics practiced by the GOP and the escalating dynamics of partisan animosity and norm erosion
- Continued attacks upon the free press
On how they would rate the state of American democracy one year since the hardcover publication of How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt said, "Our response is mixed. On the one hand, many of our core democratic institutions are functioning as they should. On various occasions, for example, the courts have done their job and checked abuse. So too have state governments. The media has also played an important role in exposing wrongdoing. And as we saw in November 2018, elections continue to be an effective mechanism for the opposition. On the other hand, the polarization and norm erosion we identified in the book continue unabated. Since the book's publication, we have seen egregious instances of constitutional hardball, such as the impeachment of the supreme court in West Virginia, the Georgia secretary of state's effort to disqualify likely voters for his rival in the gubernatorial race, and Wisconsin's legislature's lame-duck (and late-night) vote to radically curtail the powers of the incoming governor. So American democracy has survived the first two years of Trump's presidency, but the soft guard rails protecting our democracy continue to weaken."
How Democracies Die makes clear that democracy requires vigilance, and we cannot become complacent. As the history of other countries has shown, democracy cannot self-sustain. "Ultimately, American democracy depends on us - the citizens of the United States,' write Levitsky and Ziblatt. "No single political leader can end a democracy; no single leader can rescue one, either. Democracy is a shared enterprise. Its fate depends on all of us."