REVIEW: How Democracies Die – Forward Observer Shop

REVIEW: How Democracies Die

How Democracies Die
Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt
300 ppg., Crown Publishing (January 2018). $26.00


Is our democracy in danger? That’s the central question of How Democracies Die, a forward-looking history of democracies post-mortem, in peril or under duress. The United States is a Republic (if we can keep it — have we kept it?), but the authors use the generic term “democracy” to refer to the ideal of rule by the People, as opposed to rule by the one, several, or the many. While the authors applaud democracy, we should remain aware that true, direct democracy is nothing more than mob rule and be reminded of the words of John Adams on democracy:

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

If you can get past the constant cheerleading of Democrats and demonization of Republicans, then you might find this book quite interesting. While the authors do an eloquent and informative job of stating their case, the ending fell flat for me. Donald J. Trump is not a dictator or a fascist, and he’s very unlikely to ever have the capacity or support required to turn America into a dictatorship. (No, that will come after Trump.) And the authors admit as much, which left me wondering, Then why frame the book around Donald Trump, the dictator? They do, however, make a really great case that President Trump violates the rules of civility, and I agree with their conclusions that Trump’s words and behaviors are eroding norms; something which is likely to make political conflict more volatile in the future.

I do believe that there’s a significant chance of domestic conflict in the United States in the next 10-20 years (and possibly before), and this book provides some forward-looking evidence. This book shed some light on where we might be headed. It’s very well researched and written, and I enjoyed reading it, even if I didn’t always agree with the premise or conclusions. This is as much a history book as it is a political or social science book, and I would recommend it to anyone who seeks to better understand the future of conflict in America, be it political or physical.

Now let’s get into some takeaways and lessons learned:

The authors — who are clearly biased to the Left — set the stage for us to understand that, traditionally, America has relied on gatekeepers to keep demagogues and would-be dictators out of the White House. For the first time in history, they write, the American system of gatekeeping has failed, and now democracy is in peril. President Donald J. Trump exhibits tendencies and characteristics of autocratic rulers and he must be stopped, they write.

Their examples of democracies in peril span the globe, giving the reader plenty of background on how autocrats subvert constitutional, congressional, and judicial checks on executive power. “During the Cold War, coups d’état accounted for nearly three out of every four democratic breakdowns” But that’s no longer the case. Today, autocrats rely on the unpopularity of current national leaders, resentment towards government or rival classes, threats to national security, and other crises to exploit existing structures of checks and balances. Constitutional provisions are curtailed, judicial courts are either packed or entirely replaced with loyalists, and the rules of the nation are changed to ensure one party rule. However a democracy is killed, the authors provide a laundry list of examples: Italy and Germany in the 1930s, Argentina in 1943, Chile in 1973, the Philippines in the 1970s, Venezuela in 1998, Nicaragua, Peru, Ghana, Russia, Brazil, Turkey,  Greece, Ukraine, Guatemala, and lots of other nations have had their government structures overturned by dictators. It’s truly a fascinating read for the politically-inclined.

Another trend, likely unintentional on the part of the authors, is that fascist and right wing movements often follow the growing political power of the far Left. Although Hitler was a national socialist, he railed against the threat of communism and the Bolsheviks, gaining the sympathies of the nation’s center-right which propelled him to power. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini used the fear of growing socialism in his rise to power. Chile’s Pinochet led a military coup after the election of Marxist president Salvador Allende. The anti-communist Lapua movement in Finland threatened violence against communists and socialists, starting in 1929, and eventually abducted over a thousand Social Democrats who were trying to usher in a far Left socialist government. There are several more historical data points on this trend, and history is replete with examples of right wing authoritarianism as a reaction to left wing authoritarianism. It’s almost as if authoritarian socialist and communist movements lead to right wing reactionary movements.

One area noticeably bare, however, is any criticism of former president Barack Obama and his administration, which should have had a well-deserved chapter or sub-section. One indicator of autocratic rule — “Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media” — is one that absolutely describes some activities of the Obama administration. The ‘remarkably scandal-free’ Obama administration was responsible for illegal and unwarranted surveillance on American citizens, wiretapping members of the press, stonewalling conservative groups via the IRS (for which taxpayers ponied up millions of dollars worth of out-of-court government settlements), obstructing Congressional investigations into the administration, and killing U.S. citizens without due process, to name a few.

In their search to explain the Trump phenomenon, the authors settle on race. Of course, to the authors, race is the single biggest issue for Trump voters, and racism and white nationalism drove enough whites to the voting booth to put Donald Trump into office. What the authors actually miss — and what a great deal of liberals and racebaiters miss — is that what conservative voters actually feared is not skin color, but culture. It just so happens that in only under the regime of Leftist identity politics is identity and race synonymous with political views. What the Left perceives as white supremacy is actually cultural supremacy: the utmost support for liberty at all costs, the freedom to succeed, the freedom to fail, the freedom to live with the consequences of your actions, the freedom of unencumbered self-determination, the right to free speech and to bear arms in defense thereof, limited government, and the acknowledgement of the superiority of the West. All these things are threatened not by skin color, but by culture. And because the Left forces racial and ethnic identity into marriage with Leftist culture and politics, the Left has no choice but to arrive at the convenient and disingenuous conclusion that all conservatives are simply racist.

Similarly, when the authors warn that, “Few societies have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic,” they’re overlooking the differences of language, cultural norms, family values, social mores, political views, opinions of rightful authority, work ethic, and attitudes and biases, and boiling those differences down simply to skin color. This is completely intellectually dishonest. Has there been any national or international conflict where the only difference among the competitors is skin color? In every instance I can recall in my study of insurgencies, civil wars, and conflicts, wars are almost always over access to resources, rightful authority, or the pursuit of self-rule. But skin color is the most visible, the cheapest and easiest difference to identify for political points, so the authors’ conclusion is that it’s the only reason Donald Trump was elected, and conservatives are the only people standing in the way of being genuinely democratic.

But perhaps the most important takeaway arrives towards the end of the book, in a chapter entitled “Saving Democracy”. The authors write, “There’s nothing in our Constitution or our culture to immunize us against democratic breakdown… This polarization, deeper than at any time since the end of Reconstruction, has triggered the epidemic of norm breaking that now challenges our democracy.” The authors see three potential scenarios going forward. Summarized, they are:

  1. A “swift, democratic recovery” in the post-Trump age, where Democrats usher in a new era of scandal-free politics and restore the norms of civility and democracy. “But it is unlikely,” they write.
  2. “A second, much darker future is one in which President Trump and the Republicans continue to win with a white nationalist appeal.” The authors also describe this scenario as unlikely, but they do write: “It is difficult to find examples of societies in which shrinking ethnic majorities gave up their dominant status without a fight”.
  3. The last and most likely scenario, according to the authors, is “one marked by polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare”.

The authors leave us with a final warning: “If Democrats do not work to restore norms of mutual toleration and forbearance, their next president will likely confront an opposition willing to use any means necessary to defeat them… Americans could eventually elect a president who is even more dangerous than Trump.”

While I understand the Left’s perception of Dictator Trump, I don’t believe that he’ll actually become one. My concern, though, is what happens after Trump leaves office. If one party rule in the United States is a chief concern, then amnesty, increased immigration, and the welfare state are great avenues for the Left to pursue. Packing the country with millions of new Democrat voters is a great way to ensure that the GOP is relegated to being just a regional party. There absolutely is a way for ‘democracy’ to die in America (or more accurately, for democracy to do what democracy does, which is enable mob rule), but it’s not yet at the hands of a dictator. It’s at the hands of domestic policies which will implement one party rule far sooner than any right wing dictator could. Overall (and so far) I think there’s been quite an over reaction to Dictator Trump. After all, the Left does have a vested interest in making him to be the greatest villain they can — even if that’s a task he occasionally helps them to achieve.


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Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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