How Democracies Die

by Steven Levitzky & Daniel Ziblatt

Book Summary by Brian T. Murphy

“In all these cases, democracy dissolved in spectacular fashion, through military power and coercion. But there is another way to break a democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive. Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders–presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” p 3

Major concepts:

  • “Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves…elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.” p 5

  • “Norms of toleration and restraint served as the soft guardrails of American democracy, helping it avoid the kind of partisan fight to the death that is destroying democracies elsewhere in the world…” p 9

  • The authors provide salient foresight by looking into the past: “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization–one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. America’s efforts to achieve racial equality as our society grows increasingly diverse has fueled an insidious reaction and an intensifying polarization. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.” p 9

  • “We often tell ourselves that America’s national political culture in some way immunizes us from such appeals, but this requires reading history with rose-colored glasses. The real protection against would-be authoritarians has not been Americans’ firm commitment to democracy but, rather, the gatekeepers – our political parties.” p 37

  • Our political parties used racial equality as a bargaining chip to maintain civility: “Southern Democrats’ ideological proximity to conservative Republicans reduced polarization and facilitated bipartisanship. But it did so at the great cost of keeping civil rights –and America’s full democratization –off the political agenda…America’s democratic norms, then, were born in a context of exclusion. As long as the political community was restricted largely to whites, democrats and Republicans had much in common. Neither party was likely to view the other as an existential threat. The process of racial inclusion that began after World War II and culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act would, at long last, fully democratize the United States. But it would also polarize it, posing the greatest challenge to established norms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction.” p 144

  • With America’s push toward a more equitable racial and ethnic landscape, democratic norms are beginning to erode at the hands of partisan polarization: “Behind the unraveling of basic norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance lies a syndrome of intense partisan polarization. Although it began with the radicalization of the Republican Party, the consequences of this polarization have been felt through the entire American political system. Government shutdowns, legislative hostage-taking, mid-decade redistricting, and the refusal to even consider Supreme Court nominations are not aberrant moments. Over the last quarter-century, Democrats and Republicans have become much more than just two competing parties, sorted into liberal and conservative camps. Their voters are now deeply divided by race, religious belief, geography, and even ‘way of life’”. p 167

  • The authors closed with the book’s take-home message: “America’s democratic norms, at their core, have always been sound. But for much of our history, they were accompanied–indeed, sustained– by racial exclusion. Now those norms must be made to work in an age of racial equality and unprecedented ethnic diversity. Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic. That is our challenge. It is also our opportunity. If we meet it, America will truly be exceptional.” p 231

Introduction

  • “This is how we tend to think of democracies dying: at the hands of men with guns. During the Cold War, coups d’état accounted for nearly three out of every four Democratic breakdowns. Democracies in Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Turkey, and Uruguay all died this way.” The authors mention similar fates for Egypt and Thailand in 2014. But this is only one way for Democracies to die, and the book focuses on the other mechanisms. p 3

  • “Historically, our system of checks and balances has worked pretty well– but not, or not entirely, because of the constitutional system designed by the founders. Democracies work best – and survived longer –where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms. Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding the competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.” p 8-9

1 – Fateful Alliances

  • This chapter opens by discussing how political outsiders come to power and tear apart democracies from the inside. They mention Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. “But their plans backfired. A lethal mix of ambition, fear, and miscalculation conspired to lead them to the same fateful mistake: willingly handing over the keys a power to an autocrat-in-the-making." p 13

  • The authors mention existing governments thinking that they can control an outsider, who captures public attention, coming in with a large following. They fail. “… establishment politicians overlooks the warning signs and either handed over power to them (Hitler and Mussolini) or open the door for them (Chavez). p 18-19

  • “Put simply, political parties are democracies gatekeepers.” p 20

  • The authors mention Juan Linz’s 1978 work The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, and “developed a set of four behavioral warning signs that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one. We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” p 21

  • The authors assess what types of leaders fall into the prior for categories. “Very often, Populist outsiders do. Populists are antiestablishment politicians–figures who, claiming to represent the voice of “the people,” wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people.” p 22

  • Pages 26-29 describe how 1930s Belgian Catholics and rival socialists united to defend democracy and defeat Fascists.

  • “Both Democrats and Republicans have confronted extremist figures on their fringes, some of whom enjoyed considerable public support. For decades, both parties succeeded in keeping these figures out of the mainstream. Until, of course, 2016.” p 32

2 – Gatekeeping in America

  • Page 34 describes Father Charles Coughlin in the US, an anti-Semitic Catholic priest who was antidemocratic and sympathetic to European Fascists. His radio program reached over 40 million people a week.

  • Pages 37-37 described Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a populist and segregationist, and one who often spoke out against the Constitution in favor of “the will of the people.” “Wallace’s message, which mixed racism with populist appeals to working-class whites’ sense of victimhood and economic anger, helped him make inroads into the Democrats’ traditional blue-collar base…Americans have long had an authoritarian streak. It was not unusual for figures such as Coughlin, Long, McCarthy, and Wallace to gain the support of a sizable minority–30 or even 40 percent–of the country. We often tell ourselves that America’s national political culture in some way immunizes us from such appeals, but this requires reading history with rose-colored glasses. The real protection against would-be authoritarians has not been Americans’ firm commitment to democracy but, rather, the gatekeepers – our political parties.” p 36-37

  • The founders wanted gatekeepers, as they called for a president that reflected the will of the people, though they did not fully trust the will of the people and their ability to judge a person’s fitness for office. “Alexander Hamilton worried that a popularly elected presidency could be too easily captured by those who would play on fear and ignorance to win elections and then rule as tyrants. ‘History will teach us,’ Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, that ‘of those men who have overturned liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.’ The founders thus designed the electoral college. Hamilton stated “the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” I find this to be particularly ironic, since President Trump was elected not by the popular vote, but by the electoral college. p 39-41

  • “Instead of electing local notables as delegates to the Electoral College, as the founders had envisioned, each state began to elect party loyalists. Electors became party agents, which meant that the Electoral College surrendered it’s gatekeeping authority to the parties. The parties have retained it ever since. Parties, then, became the stewards of American democracy.” p 40-41

  • “Primary elections were introduced during the Progressive era; the first was held in Wisconsin in 1901, and in 1916, primaries were held in two dozen states.” But for a long time these were considered cosmetic, and the convention system was the actual gatekeeper, where party insiders filtered fringe candidates. p 43-43

  • Authors describe how Henry Ford was very anti-Semitic. He was actually awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle in 1938 by the German government! Pages 43-44 describe Ford’s Trump-like bid for president. Importantly, it was the party leaders that rejected him and diffused the threat.

  • The authors describe the transition of power from party conventions to party primaries. “Even before the convention began, the crushing blow of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the escalating conflict over Vietnam, and the energy of the antiwar protesters in Chicago’s Grant Park sapped any remaining public faith in the old system…beginning in 1972, the vast majority of the delegates to both the Democratic and Republican conventions would be elected in state-level primaries and caucuses…Just before the McGovern-Fraser Commission began its work, two prominent political scientists warned that primaries could ‘lead to the appearance of extremist candidates and demagogues’ who, unrestrained by party allegiances, ‘have little to lose by stirring up mass hatreds or making absurd promises.’” p 49-51

3 – The Great Republican Abdication

  • The authors explain how the 2010 Citizens United rule severely weakened party gatekeepers as well. Fringe candidates such as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann could finance their campaigns by finding a billionaire sponsor. They cite the other factor as being the rise of “alternative media” (cable news and/or social media). p 56

  • Interesting fact: “… no U.S. President who was not a successful general had ever been elected without having held an elective office for a cabinet post…” p 60

  • The authors describe how Donald Trump (“even before his inauguration”) fit their litmus test of potential authoritarians: “The first sign is a weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game. Trump met this measure when he questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process and made the unprecedented suggestion that he might not accept the results of the 2016 election...The second category in our litmus test is the denial of the legitimacy of one’s opponents. Authoritarian politicians cast their rivals as criminal, subversive, unpatriotic, or a threat to national security or the existing way of life [Trump’s “birther” claims of Obama and calls for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton]…The final warning sign is a readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics. One thing that separates contemporary autocrats from democratic leaders is their intolerance of criticism, and their readiness to use their power to punish those–in the opposition, media, or civil society–who criticize them.” p 61-64

  • “Collective abdication –the transfer of authority to a leader who threatens democracy–usually flows from one of two sources. The first is the misguided belief that an authoritarian can be controlled or tamed. The second is…‘ideological collusion,’ in which the authoritarians agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives.” The authors detail Austrian and French examples of politicians who voted against their own party to prevent fringe candidates from taking power. p 67-68

  • Of Republicans who refused to endorse Trump: “No Republican governors were listed. No senators. And only one (retiring) member of Congress. A handful of active Republican leaders…refused to endorse Trump…none of them, however, was willing to endorse Clinton.” p 69-70

4 – Subverting Democracy

  • This is a serious threat facing our American democracy: “Although some elected demagogues take office with blueprint for autocracy, many, such as Fujimori [Peru], do not. Democratic breakdown doesn’t need a blueprint. Rather, as Peru’s experience suggests, it can be the result of a sequence of unanticipated events–and escalating tit-for-tat between a demagogic, norm-breaking leader and a threatened political establishment.” p 75

  • The authors spend many pages describing authoritarians who change the rules to remain in power. “Perhaps the most striking example of rewriting the rules to lock in an authoritarian advantage comes from the United States. The end of post-Civil War Reconstruction in the 1870s led to the emergence of authoritarian single-party regimes in every post-Confederate state. Single-party rule was not some benign historical accident; rather, it was a product of brazenly antidemocratic constitutional engineering.” In the face of the Fifteenth Amendment and the 1867 Reconstruction Act, the southern states in particular engineered the political system ensure that blacks could not participate. “Between 1885 and 1908, all eleven post-Confederate states reformed their constitutions and electoral laws to disenfranchise African Americans.” They did so through “poll taxes, property requirements, literacy tests, and complex written ballots…Black turnout in the South fell from 61 percent in 1880 to just 2 percent in 1912. The disenfranchisement of African Americans wiped out the Republican Party, locking in white supremacy and single-party rule for nearly a century.” p 89-92

5 – The Guardrails of Democracy

  • The authors argue that constitutional safeguards are not sufficient to preserve a democracy. They mention Hitler’s taking of power in 1933, and dismantling of Germany’s 1919 Weimar constitution and the “highly regarded” Rechtsstaat ("rule of law"). The authors then document Argentina’s 1853 and the Philippines 1935 demise, whose constitutions were mostly taken from the U.S. p 98

  • “Because of the gaps and ambiguities inherent in all legal systems, we cannot rely on constitutions alone to safeguard democracy against would-be an authoritarians…All successful democracies rely on informal rules that, though not found in the constitution or any laws, are widely known and respected. In the case of American democracy, this has been vital…But two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.” p 99-102

  • “In just about every case of democratic breakdown we have studied, would-be authoritarians… have justified their consolidation of power by labeling their opponents as an existential threat.” p 106

  • “Forbearance means…‘the action of restraining from exercising a legal right.’…Where norms of forbearance our strong, politicians do not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it is technically illegal to do so…”. p 106

  • Pages 113-115 describe Allende’s ascension to power in Chile and the political polarization that tore the democracy apart (aided by U.S. assisted destabilization). “Polarization can destroy democratic norms. When socioeconomic, racial, or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship…toleration becomes harder to sustain.” p 115

  • Key: “But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs. This may encourage the rise of antisystem groups that reject democracy's rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble.” p 116

6 – The Unwritten Rules of American Politics

  • Pages 118-119 describe Roosevelt’s attempts to pack the Supreme Court after being elected with a 61% majority in 1937. But norms held, and both parties opposed it (not all but most Democrats).

  • Interesting facts about breaking norms in our history: “The Civil War broke America’s democracy. One-third of American states did not participate in the 1864 election; twenty-two of fifty Senate seats and more than a quarter of House seats were left vacant…In 1866, the Republican Congress reduced the size of the Supreme Court from ten to seven to prevent President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat whom Republicans viewed as subverting Reconstruction, from making any appointments, and a year later, it passed the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited Johnson from removing Lincoln’s cabinet members without Senate approval. Viewing the law as a violation of his constitutional authority, Johnson ignored it–a ‘high misdemeanor’ for which he was impeached in 1868.” p 123-124

  • “It was not just time, however, that healed partisan wounds. Mutual toleration was established only after the issue of racial equality was removed from the political agenda.” Two compromises were the removal of federal protections for African-Americans in the south, and the failure to allow Federal oversight of congressional elections, thus ensuring suppression of the black vote. “Paradoxically, then, the norms that would later serve as a foundation for American democracy emerged out of a profoundly undemocratic arrangement: racial exclusion and the consolidation of single-party rule in the South. p 124-125

  • The authors nicely framed the chapter on page 127: “The American system of checks and balances, therefore, requires that public officials use their institutional prerogatives judiciously. U.S. presidents, congressional leaders, and Supreme Court justices enjoy a range of powers that, if deployed without restraint, could undermine the system. Consider six of these powers. Three are available to the president: executive orders, the presidential pardon, and court packing. Another three lie with the Congress: the filibuster, the Senate’s power of advice and consent, and impeachment. Whether these prerogatives are formally stipulated in the Constitution or merely permitted under the Constitution, their weaponization could easily result in deadlock, dysfunction, and even democratic breakdown. For most of the twentieth century, however, American politicians used them all with remarkable forbearance. p 127

  • “The U.S. Supreme Court change size seven times between 1800 and 1869–each time for political reasons. By the late nineteenth century, however, court packing was widely viewed as unacceptable.” p 131

  • “Only nine presidential cabinet nominations were blocked between 1800 and 2005… between 1880 and 1980, more than 90 percent of Supreme Court nominees were approved, and only three presidents– Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon–had nominees rejected…The ultraconservative Antonin Scalia…was approved in 1986 by a vote of 98 to 0, despite the fact that the Democrats had more than enough votes (47) to filibuster. In the 150-year span between 1866 and 2016, the Senate never once prevented the president from filling a Supreme Court seat. On seventy-four occasions during this period, presidents attempted to fill Court vacancies prior to the election of their successor.” p  135-136

  • The authors describe major challenges to America’s institutions, notably Roosevelt’s concentration of executive power, McCarthyism, and Nixon’s illegal behavior (p 138-141). In describing these, they highlight major points of both the chapter and the book. “…these challenges were affectively contained. The guardrails held, as politicians from both parties–and often, society as a whole –pushed back against violations that might have threatened democracy. As a result, episodes of intolerance and partisan warfare never escalated into the kind of “death spiral” that destroyed democracies in Europe in the 1930s and Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s.” p 143

  • We must conclude with a troubling caveat, however. The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion. The stability of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s was rooted in an original sin: the Compromise of 1877 and its aftermath, which permitted the de-democratization of the South and the consolidation of Jim Crow. Racial exclusion contributed directly to the partisan civility and cooperation that came to characterize twentieth-century American politics.” p 143

  • Take away: “Southern Democrats’ ideological proximity to conservative Republicans reduced polarization and facilitated bipartisanship. But it did so at the great cost of keeping civil rights –and America’s full democratization –off the political agenda.” p 143

7 – The Unravelling

  • Pages 147-151 describe the rise of Newt Gingrich and the beginning of the breakdown of democratic norms. It details how he changed the language used in Washington to describe political opponents. Became more aggressive, dirtier. It became more deceptive. “Gingrich and his allies worked to spread these tactics across the party. GOPAC produced more than two-thousand training audiotapes, distributed each month to get the recruits of Gingrich’s ‘Republican Revolution’ on the same rhetorical page… Gingrich didn’t create this polarization, but he was one of the first Republicans to exploit the shift in popular sentiment…”. Gingrich became speaker of the house and 1994 and the art of compromise in government began to disintegrate with his tactics…House Majority leader Tom Delay later “brought routine norm breaking into the twenty-first century.”

  • Pages 152-155 describe Democrats’ efforts to fight back and block many of President Bush’s judicial nominees, followed by Republican efforts to redistrict and disenfranchise African-Americans from voting while helping them to maintain control of the House. The authors then detail a long list of offenses against presidential candidate Barack Obama, where politicians pick up blatantly false smears and spread them at the highest levels of government (Marxism, terrorism, birtherism, un-American, etc).

  • The authors detail more offenses against Obama, and a back-and-forth war between Republicans and Democrats that eviscerates norms and escalates the war between the parties: “A stunning 385 filibusters were initiated between 2007 and 2012 –equal to the total number of filibusters in the seven decades between World War I and the end of the Reagan administration.” They then discuss judicial nominations, and even foreign relations that are obstructed by both parties, but mostly the Republican Party to oppose Obama. p 163-166

  • Gist: “Behind the unraveling of basic norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance lies a syndrome of intense partisan polarization. Although it began with the radicalization of the Republican Party, the consequences of this polarization have been felt through the entire American political system. Government shutdowns, legislative hostage-taking, mid-decade redistricting, and the refusal to even consider Supreme Court nominations are not aberrant moments. Over the last quarter-century, Democrats and Republicans have become much more than just two competing parties, sorted into liberal and conservative camps. Their voters are now deeply divided by race, religious belief, geography, and even ‘way of life’”. p 167

  • On page 169 the authors summarize the evolution of the Republican Party from the 1960s onward. Basically, the foundation of the modern Republican party is white nationalism, or at a minimum, an indifference to the rights of people of color.

  • A very telling statistic:“The non-white share of the democratic vote rose from 7 percent in the 1950s to 44 percent in 2012. Republican voters, I contrast, were still nearly 90 percent white into the 2000’s.” p 171

  • “The Republican Party has also become the party of evangelical Christians. Evangelicals entered politics en masse in the late 1970s, motivated, in large part, by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.” “In other words, the two parties are now divided over race and religion–two deeply polarizing issues that tend to generate greater intolerance and hostility then traditional policy issues such as taxes and government spending.” p 171-172

8 – Trump Against the Guardrails

  • “In Chapter 4, we presented three strategies by which elected authoritarians seek to consolidate power: capturing the referees, sidelining the key players, and rewriting the rules to tilt the playing field against opponents. Trump attempted all three of the strategies. President Trump demonstrated striking hostility toward the referees–law enforcement, intelligence, ethics agencies, and the courts. Soon after his inauguration, he sought to ensure that the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI, the CIA, and the National Security Agency, would be personally loyal to him…”. p 177

  • “Only once in the FBI’s eighty-two-year history had a president fired the bureaus director before his ten-year term was up–and in that case, the move was in response to clear ethical violations and enjoyed bipartisan support.” p 178

  • The authors stress that Republican leaders can play a major role in curtailing Trump’s consolidation of power, as happened previously with Roosevelt and Nixon. p 188

  • Incredible statistic: “The Office of Government Ethics reported receiving 39,105 public complaints involving Trump administration conflicts of interest between October 1, 2016, and March 31, 2017, a massive increase over the same period in 2008–2009 (when President Obama took office), when just 733 complaints were recorded. p 196

9 – Saving Democracy

  • “The number of democracies rose dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, peaked around the year 2005, and has remained steady ever since.” p 205

  • The authors send a warning about the future of our democracy by detailing how the North Carolina Republican party executed a coup over the incoming elected Democratic officials recently. “North Carolina offers a window into what politics without guardrails looks like–and a possible glimpse into America’s future. 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.” They continue: “This grim scenario highlights a central lesson of this book: 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 into the American Constitution. Yet without them, our constitutional checks and balances will not operate as we expect them to.” p 212

  • The authors cite their colleague Danielle Allen: “The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality and economies that empower all have been achieved.” p 227

  • “Our constitutional system, while older and more robust than any in history, is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere.” p 230

  • The authors closed with the book’s take-home message: “America’s democratic norms, at their core, have always been sound. But for much of our history, they were accompanied–indeed, sustained– by racial exclusion. Now those norms must be made to work in an age of racial equality and unprecedented ethnic diversity. Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic. That is our challenge. It is also our opportunity. If we meet it, America will truly be exceptional.” p 231

Think for Yourself. Dissolve your Allegiances.