As we approach the midterm elections in the United States, I have been increasingly anxious about the state of the nation and what our future holds. Reading How Democracies Die for The Stacks Book Club was a helpful way for me to process what my anxiety is rooted in. I talk about the book on the podcast with Harris Cohn, and you can hear the full conversation here. No need to worry, there are no spoilers on the episode.
Donald Trump’s presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we’d be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one.
Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die—and how ours can be saved.
I really enjoyed this book. I felt like I was learning so much as I read it. It breaks down differences between autocracies and democracies, it explains how democracies sustain themselves, and what institutions and norms preserve our democracy. The book is crash course in what makes our country run smoothly, and how those things can be eroded. I honestly couldn’t believe how little I know and how little I understand about the equilibrium of governments, both here in the US and abroad.
As the book dives deeper into the issues we’re facing in The United States Levitsky and Ziblatt do not shy away from institutional racism that has allowed America to stay a democracy. They call out the Southern Democrats disenfranchisement and remind us that Northerns were willing to look away while these suppression tactics were enacted. Better to preserve White rule, they thought, than to disturb the comfort Southern Democrats had due to the laws built to exclude Black Americans from participating in the democracy. Often times in books like this, the author won’t call out racism, instead they dance around the issue and find other euphemisms to explain what is going on. Not here. Ziblatt and Levitsky are upfront with the role that racism played and is still playing in our democracy.
This book doesn’t place blame completely on Donald Trump or any one person, but rather shows how certain actions (think the heist of Merrick Garland’s seat on The Supreme Court) have lead us in the direction where our country’s foundation is at risk. There is fair blame placed on both parties, but the authors seem to think the Republicans have been particularly cavalier and destructive with their power.
How Democracies Die ends by presenting a few options that The United States has to prevent a slip into an autocracy. They suggest solutions for both the Republicans and Democrats. They also caution that most countries that have fallen to a dictator had to hit rock bottom, before they could move toward democracy. It remains unclear if America, and her politicians, have the humility to compromise and move forward for the better of the country. I certainly hope so. Either way, I think you should check out this book. It is smart and if nothing else you will learn something. I would even say you will learn many things. It is worth your time.
Don’t forget to listen the The Stacks with Harris Cohn discussing How Democracies Die.
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Crown (January 16, 2018)
- 4/5 stars
- Buy on How Democracies Die Amazon
To contribute to The Stacks, join The Stacks Pack, and get exclusive perks, check out our Patreon page. We are beyond grateful for anything you’re able to give to support the production of this show. If you prefer to do a one time contribution go to paypal.me/thestackspod.
The Stacks participates in affiliate programs. We receive a small commission when products are purchased through links on this website. Shopping through these links helps support the show, but does not effect my opinions on books and products. For more information click here.