By Penny Smith

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die. New York: Crown Books, 2018. This is a long review, but it’s an important book.

 I started this book several weeks ago, when it first came out, and put it aside, because it was a tad too depressing. However, spurred on by the number of times I’ve since seen it reviewed in the liberal print media, I thought you should know it’s bouncing around in progressive conversations.

There is a rich history of books about revolutions that attempt to find some sort of pattern in their development. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of my favorite contributions, because I have found so many of its concepts useful in other disciplines. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels popularized a grand theory of change, dialectical materialism, in The Communist Manifesto, gifting future commentators with a thesis/antithesis/synthesis argument for the inevitable progression of class struggle.

More appropriate for Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book is Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of a Revolution for at least two reasons. First, Brinton uses a comparative method to derive his revolutionary pattern. He profiles the English Revolution of the 1640s (think Oliver Cromwell and those pesky Puritans), the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789 and the 1917 Russian Revolution. Levitsky and Ziblatt also looked at multiple revolutions, most of them in the twentieth-century and many of them in our hemisphere, to develop their prerequisites for taking down democratic governments. Second, both come up with a schematic to describe likely pathways to change.

Obviously, such arguments are the things that make arcane history and political science convention sessions and pad the resumes of academics as they present papers critiquing or expanding upon them. But they are also useful hooks on which to hang warnings about history’s penchant not necessarily to repeat itself, but to rhyme. In other words, the past holds lessons for us all and we choose ignorance at our peril.

Specifically, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that there are four “key indicators” for the rise of an authoritarian regime from a democracy. They derive those criteria from observing what has happened in democratic governments that have given way to authoritarian rule. They pay less attention to rapid, violent military take-overs (Cuba) and more attention to the democratic rise of a potentially authoritarian leader, who then changes the government once in power (Venezuela).

The “key indicators” include: (1) “rejection of or a weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game;” (2) “denial of the legitimacy of political opponents;” (3) “toleration or encouragement of violence;” and (4) “readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.” They build their argument by looking at a range of authoritarians and how they came to power, focusing on their rise and the subsequent decline of democracy. That leads them to the indicators, which they then apply to the United States.

Just reading the list above, you can already see where their argument is going to lead. Let’s start with democracy’s “rules of the game.” They define those rules as norms that confine authoritarian inclinations and that are held in check by tolerance of diversity and forbearance, which constitute the main “guardrails of democracy.” Tolerance is self-evident. Forbearance refers to self-restraint, to refusing to use powers held under the letter of the law, because it would violate the unwritten norms of fair play.

The authors point out that both our guardrails have been severely dented, mostly by Republicans. They rely on much of the same evidence that Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann present in their book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. And that evidence is fairly easy to compile: Mitch McConnell saying his first priority is to ensure that Obama has only one term; unnecessary government shut-downs; the refusal to consider a Supreme Court nomination for nearly a year;  the pattern of obstruction in place since the speakership of Newt Gingrich; new restrictions on voting; profound gerrymandering; anti-Sharia Law legislation; immigration restrictions for Muslims; bathroom laws – the list they generate is impressively far longer than mine.

One need only look at political campaigns for the last two decades to see their decaying civility. Not only do negative advertisements demonize opponents, but toleration of public demonization by specific candidates themselves abounds, particularly in the election of 2016. Never before has a candidate for President decried their primary opponents and opposite party candidates in the terms used repeatedly and with relish by Donald Trump. We were treated to “Lying Hillary” during the summer and fall of 2016. However, before that we had Cheatin’ Obama, Little Marco, Lyn’ Ted, Low Energy Jeb, 1 for 38 Kasich, Crazy Bernie, and Crying Chuck. Since becoming president, he has called some of his ideological and actual enemies nicknames, too: For example, Slippery James Comey, Animal Assad, Little Rocket Man, Sloppy Steve (once his friend), Dicky Durbin, Sneaky Feinstein, Al Frankenstein, Liddle Bob Corker, and Pocahontus.

However, it’s not just jazzy nicknames that deride opponents, it’s their characterization as anti-American. The “real” Americans are Trump supporters and anyone who is not is suspect. Real Americans wear their patriotism in public and would never question their leader’s choices or decisions. Sarah Palin perfected this trait, but she has an ardent follower in The Donald, who rose to national fame claiming that Obama was never a “true American.”

Anyone who attended a Trump Rally at which The Donald and his minions spoke was treated to the “Lock Her Up!” chant, often led by people who should know better, like Mike Flynn. In Cedar Rapids Trump told people to “knock the hell” out of protesters. “I promise you, I will pay the legal fees. I promise. I promise.” At a rally in Alabama, he yelled from the stage at a protester, “Get him the hell out of here, will you, please? Get him out of here. Throw him out.” At a rally in Las Vegas: “I love the old days, you know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out in a stretcher, folks.” At a rally in North Carolina: “… this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough.”

Then, there was Trump’s response to Charlottesville: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.” Except, of course, both sides didn’t display the same hatred, bigotry and violence. Or, from the campaign, “when Mexico is sending its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” “Laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is, I believe that.”

And I’m not even going into sexual harassment and our President, rich though that ground may be.

Finally, there is Trump’s willingness to misinterpret most of our Bill of Rights to his advantage. The media is populated with the likes of Psycho Joe, Crazy Jim Acosta, Sleepy Eyes Chuck, Dumb as a Rock Mika, and Crazy Megyn. Skim through Katy Tur’s book (Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat in the Craziest Campaign in American History) to get a sense of how The Donald and his folks treated the press. Political rallies routinely featured a booing exercise in which the attendees loudly and often profanely derided them.

Freedom House, in its annual report on political rights, downgraded the United States because of its multiple attacks on voting opportunities. Trump advocates imprisoning people who burn our flag. He’s called people who believe in freedom of speech “foolish.” He’s blacklisted reporters and threatened to change libel laws so he can sue them: “I would never kill them, but I do hate them. And some of them are such lying, disgusting people.” He suggested it was treasonous not to applaud his State of the Union speech. He has supported positions for religious freedom reasons that would deny basic freedoms to other Americans.

Having successfully made the argument that they could check off each of their “key indicators” for transition from democracy to authoritarianism with the rise of Donald Trump, the authors conclude that Trump didn’t originate “the violation of unwritten rules of civility, of respect for the press, of not lying … [but] his presidency is accelerating it.” “American has been defining political deviancy down.” And, as Trump World becomes the norm, “we grow accustomed to what we previously thought to be scandalous.” None of that is good news.

However, it is acerbated by the Republican Party’s complicity in the transition. For Levitsky and Ziblatt, it’s the two major political parties that are the keepers of the guardrails and one of them (the GOP) has decided to forego that responsibility. The authors end their book on a somewhat hopeful note – we have a remarkable democracy, but only if we, the people, want to keep it. We must reinvigorate our democratic norms and extend them. “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. It is our challenge. It is our opportunity.”

Well, I’m not as sanguine. This is a well-researched, well-argued book by two individuals who are academics rather than part of the political commentary class. Their interest is scholarly, rather than electoral. As much as I agree that there are responses to the current challenges and as much as I agree that political parties will play a major role in our recovery were we to recover, I worry that there are issues on both sides of the aisle that limit those possibilities. Republicans have shown they are willing to trade long-held norms for political power, even though it is apparently power only to enhance the lives of the already wealthy. Democrats have shown that they are willing to circle the wagons and fire rhetorical guns at each other, splintering rather than finding reasons to collaborate. And independents remain ideological purists in a system designed to operate with two political parties; they feel justified in defeat, even though their causes are lost and people are hurt. And, for that they blame the party more likely to agree with the causes and more invested in fragile populations. Sigh.