Review of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book, How Democracies Die
Reviewed by Joseph Langen
It would be comforting to think that our American experiment in democracy can survive its current dangers as it has in the face of past threats. Yet our survival is not assured in today’s socially and politically turbulent climate.
How Democracies Die places our current challenge into the context of previous and more
current democracies which failed or at least struggled with their own crises. The authors report that in the past, democracies have collapsed in the face of violent attack.
More recently, democracies have crumbled due to insidious challenges from within. They see America as facing the second type of challenge.
They point out that the Constitution gives us basic rules to support the US democracy. Our society is further bolstered by unwritten norms, the most important being mutual toleration of rivals as a legitimate part of our society and restraint from attacking those with rival approaches to managing our society.
They note that American factions coexisted fairly well before the Civil War. Our country broke into open conflict during the Civil War and remained in conflict until the end of Reconstruction. After that we had another period of relative cooperation until the 1960’s Civil Rights Act. Cooperation has been declining since then, leaving us with racial equality on the books. Yet polarization has worsened over the years culminating in the Trump fiasco.
It appears that both sides cooperate better when racial equality is off the negotiating table, a sad state of affairs. Battles over civil rights, especially with regard to racial equality, have been joined by conflict over migration, religious beliefs and the nature and purpose of culture.
The book discusses three possible outcomes of our polarized society.
- First is a recovery of democracy. Trump and Trumpism fall or fade into irrelevance in the face of public disgust.
- Second is continuing and worsening of the divide with no tolerance or forbearance related to issues which divide us. At some point this trend would result in the death of a functioning democracy. This second possibility is on the horizon if Trumpian Republicans manage to control the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court with anti-democratic power.
- Third is continuation of polarization and disregard of unwritten conventions keeping a modicum of peace, resulting in political warfare with an uncertain outcome. Whether a blend of individual freedom and egalitarianism would survive remains to be seen.
For us to survive as a nation, we must restore the endangered guardrails of tolerance and forbearance as well as overcoming polarization and fair elections. This will require compromise and softening of stances by everyone on both sides, particularly with regard to political rhetoric in both the major political parties. We must also address the needs of those neglected in our society as well as developing social policies favorable to everyone rather than just those favored by the political side in power at the moment.
Will we be able to come together as a society despite our differences? That remains to be seen. Can we set aside our partisan ideals or at least soften them while we focus on building a society supportive of all its members? This book clearly lays out the existential problems facing us, possible outcomes and what we need to do for our democracy to survive, Our future lies in the balance. Get ready to do your part.