Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt – How Democracies Die

I will admit the title is a bit of a hyperbole. It grabs the reader’s attention, but it loses some credibility among intellectual readers. Fortunately, underneath the cover is a significant work of political thought. Steven Levitsky is a giant of political science who defined a new form of political regime along with Lucan Way in Competitive Authoritarianism. Levitsky is a household name among political scientists who writes extensively about Latin American politics.

The focus of this book is the United States. It is surprising because Levitsky has studied the decay and collapse of many democracies within Latin America. Venezuela is the most recent democratic collapse in the region. It is easy for commentators of American politics to dismiss doomsday outcomes as impossibilities. But the rest of the world accepts these outcomes as real possibilities. All governments are fragile. Their foundations rest on the balance of key institutions within a framework of norms and traditions.

Democracy is no exception. Consolidation relies on the participation of key institutions within the democratic process. But Levitsky and Ziblatt do not focus on American political structure. Rather their attention is directed towards the norms which define the behavior within those institutions. Indeed, democracy itself may depend less on the constitutional structure than the norms which determine the behavior within the political system. Perhaps democracy is not the structure of the political system but the behavior of both the government and those governed.

Levitsky and Ziblatt detail the historical decline of democratic norms within American politics. They begin their account with the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. They admit there are dark undertones in the selection of this historical moment. Indeed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is viewed as the fulfillment of the American promise of liberal democracy. Yet the Southern strategy of the Republican Party set forth a process of polarization that redefined the political map.

Of course, American politics has faced extreme polarization throughout its history. The Civil War was the culmination of a geographically polarized electorate between the North and the South. The emergence of Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats was an exceptional period of American History. It did not represent reduced partisan polarization. Rather, the Democrats held such dramatic legislative majorities the Republicans were marginalized until the end of World War II. Joseph McCarthy won office as the Republicans recaptured control of both legislative chambers. McCarthyism represented the potential for a new political polarization. But extremism lost popularity within the age of Eisenhower. Without the moderate leadership of Eisenhower, it is possible the trajectory of American politics may have led to an earlier polarization of the electorate.

But my criticisms do not challenge the primary contributions of this work. They reinforce the primary contribution they make to the literature of democracy. It is the norms of behavior that determine democratic success. It is irresponsible to depend on the security of the constitution or institutions labeled as democratic. Democracies die because their leaders and voters no longer behave democratically. Seen in this light this work ties together some of the work from theorists like Putnam, Lipset and Fukuyama on political culture. Democracy becomes a part of the culture itself. This perspective sets this work apart from some of the other works on democratic decay.

It may not seem professional to cite a work titled, How Democracies Die. But this is serious scholarship. It is recent and provides a sophisticated commentary on the election of Trump and the many historical moments which preceded it. The work is available on Audible, but I was able to find a copy from my public library using the Overdrive app. It’s a short work so it will not take long to read if you prefer a good old-fashioned book either. There is a lot of literature that has recently been written on the decline of democracy. This may actually be my favorite because it says so much more.

jmk, carmel, indiana,

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