NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
“Cool and persuasive... How Democracies Die comes at exactly the right moment.”
—The Washington Post
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.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are Professors of Government at Harvard University. Levitsky’s research focuses on Latin America and the developing world. He is the author of Competitive Authoritarianism and is the recipient of numerous teaching awards. Ziblatt studies Europe from the nineteenth century to the present. He is the author, most recently, of Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy. Both Levitsky and Ziblatt have written for Vox and The New York Times, among other publications.
We tend to think of democracies dying at the hands of men with guns. During the Cold War, coups d’état accounted for nearly three out of every four democratic breakdowns, and more recently, military coups toppled Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. In these cases democracy dissolved in spectacular fashion, through military power and coercion.
But there is another way to break a democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive.
In Venezuela, for example, Hugo Chávez was a political outsider who railed against what he cast as a corrupt governing elite, promising to build a more “authentic” democracy that used the country’s vast oil wealth to improve the lives of the poor. Skillfully tapping into the anger of ordinary Venezuelans, many of whom felt ignored or mistreated by the established political parties, Chávez was elected president in 1998. As a woman in Chávez’s home state of Barinas put it on election night, “Democracy is infected. And Chávez is the only antibiotic we have.”
When Chávez launched his promised revolution, he did so democratically. In 1999, he held free elections for a new constituent assembly, in which his allies won an overwhelming majority. It wasn’t until 2003 that Chávez took his first clear steps toward authoritarianism, stalling a referendum that would have recalled him from office. In 2004, the government blacklisted those who had signed the recall petition and packed the supreme court. The chavista regime grew more repressive after 2006, closing a major television station, arresting or exiling opposition politicians, judges, and media figures on dubious charges, and eliminating presidential term limits so that Chávez could remain in power indefinitely. After Chávez’s death a year later, his successor, Nicolás Maduro, won another questionable reelection. It was only when a new single-party constituent assembly usurped the power of Congress in 2017, nearly two decades after Chávez first won the presidency, that Venezuela was widely recognized as an autocracy.
This is how democracies now die. Blatant dictatorship—in the form of fascism, communism, or military rule—has disappeared across much of the world. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections. Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.
How vulnerable is American democracy to this form of breakdown? The foundations of our democracy are certainly stronger than those in Venezuela, Turkey, or Hungary. But are they strong enough? Answering such a question requires stepping back from daily headlines and breaking news alerts to widen our view, drawing lessons from the experiences of other democracies around the world and throughout history.
We know that extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place—by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them, and when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.
Once a would‑be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: Will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them? America failed the first test in November 2016, when we elected a president with a dubious allegiance to democratic norms. How serious is the threat now? Many observers take comfort in our Constitution, which was designed precisely to thwart and contain demagogues like Donald Trump. Our Madisonian system of checks and balances has endured for more than two centuries. It survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and Watergate. Surely, then, it will be able to survive Trump.
We are less certain. Historically, our system of checks and balances has worked pretty well— but not, or not entirely, because of the constitutional system designed by the founders. Democracies work best— and survive longer— where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms. Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.
The erosion of our democratic norms began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. By the time Barack Obama became president, many Republicans, in particular, questioned the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals and had abandoned forbearance for a strategy of winning by any means necessary. Donald Trump may have accelerated this process, but he didn’t cause it.
The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization— one that ex-tends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. And if one thing is clear from studying breakdowns throughout history, it’s that extreme polarization can kill democracies.
There are, therefore, reasons for alarm. Not only did Americans elect a demagogue in 2016, but we did so at a time when the norms that once protected our democracy were already coming unmoored. But if other countries’ experiences teach us how democracies can die at the hands of elected officials, they also teach us that breakdown is neither inevitable nor irreversible.
Many Americans are justifiably frightened by what is happening to our country. But protecting our democracy requires more than just fright or outrage. We must be humble and bold. We must learn from other countries to see the warning signs— and recognize the false alarms. We must be aware of the fateful missteps that have wrecked other democracies. And we must see how citizens have risen to meet the great democratic crises of the past, overcoming their own deep-seated divisions to avert breakdown. History doesn’t repeat itself. But it rhymes. The promise of history, and the hope of this book, is that we can find the rhymes before it is too late.
Reprinted from HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE Copyright © 2018 by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
1 Fateful Alliances 11
2 Gatekeeping in America 33
3 The Great Republican Abdication 53
4 Subverting Democracy 72
5 The Guardrails of Democracy 97
6 The Unwritten Rules of American Politics 118
7 The Unraveling 145
8 Trump Against the Guardrails 176
9 Saving Democracy 204
How Democracies Die is a lucid and essential guide to what can happen here. Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies have collapsed elsewherenot just through violent coups, but more commonly (and insidiously) through a gradual slide into authoritarianism…There is no democratic paradise, no easy way out. Democracy, when it functions properly, is hard, grinding work. This message may not be as loud and as lurid as what passes for politics these days, but it might be the one we need to hear.The New York Times - Jennifer Szalai
A NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW EDITORS' CHOICE
“Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies have collapsed elsewhere—not just through violent coups, but more commonly (and insidiously) through a gradual slide into authoritarianism.... How Democracies Die is a lucid and essential guide to what can happen here.”
—New York Times
“We’re already awash in public indignation—what we desperately need is a sober, dispassionate look at the current state of affairs. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two of the most respected scholars in the field of democracy studies, offer just that.”
—The Washington Post
“Where Levitsky and Ziblatt make their mark is in weaving together political science and historical analysis of both domestic and international democratic crises; in doing so, they expand the conversation beyond Trump and before him, to other countries and to the deep structure of American democracy and politics.”
—Ezra Klein, Vox
“The political-science text in vogue this winter is How Democracies Die.”
—The New Yorker
“If you only read one book for the rest of the year, read How Democracies Die... This is not a book for just Democrats or Republicans. It is a book for all Americans. It is nonpartisan. It is fact based. It is deeply rooted in history... the best commentary on our politics, no contest.”
—Michael Morrell, former Acting Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (via Twitter)
“A smart and deeply informed book about the ways in which democracy is being undermined in dozens of countries around the world, and in ways that are perfectly legal.”
—Fareed Zakaria, CNN
“Carefully researched and persuasive... the authors show the fragility of even the best democracies and also caution politicians... who think they can somehow co-opt autocrats without getting burned.... How Democracies Die provides a guide for Americans of all political persuasions for what to avoid.”
“Scholarly and readable, alarming and level-headed… the greatest of the many merits of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s contribution to what will doubtless be the ballooning discipline of democracy death studies is their rejection of western exceptionalism. There are no vaccines in American (or, I would add, British) culture that protects us: just ways of doing business that now feel decrepit.”
"[An] important new book."
—Nicholas Kristof, New York Times
“How Democracies Die studies the modern history of apparently healthy democracies that have slid into autocracy. It is hard to read this fine book without coming away terribly concerned about the possibility Trump might inflict a mortal wound on the health of the republic.... It is simplistic to expect boots marching in the streets, but there will be a battle for democracy.”
—Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine
“The great strength of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die is that it rejects the exceptionalist account of US democracy. Their lens is comparative. The authors say America is not immune to the trends that have led to democracy’s collapse in other parts of the world.”
"A powerful wake-up call"
“The big advantage of political scientists over even the shrewdest and luckiest of eavesdropping journalists is that they have the training to give us a bigger picture.... [Levitsky and Ziblatt] bring to bear useful global and historical context... [showing] the mistakes democratic politicians make as they let dangerous demagogues into the heart of power.”
—The Sunday Times
“The authors argue, with good evidence, that democracies aren’t destroyed because of the impulses of a single man; they are, instead, degraded in the course of a partisan tit-for-tat dynamic that degrades norms over time until one side sees an opening to deliver the death blow. Donald Trump is not a dictator. But it’s impossible to read How Democracies Die without worrying that our collective decay of democratic norms may open the door to one down the line—perhaps even one of an entirely different ideological persuasion.”
—Wall Street Journal
“[How Democracies Die] is a stellar deep-dive into a series of modern democracies that ceased to be.”
"Maybe have a drink before digging into this one. Levitsky and Ziblatt trace the fall of democracies throughout history with agonizing clarity, going right up to our current perilous moment."
“Levitsky and Ziblatt are not entirely pessimistic… but they leave readers in no doubt that they should be worried about the state of American democracy.”
“Chilling… A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump's ascent and the fall of other democracies.”
“A powerful wake-up call.”
"Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have offered a brilliant diagnosis of the most important issue facing our world: Can democracy survive? With clinical precision and an extraordinary grasp of history, they point to the warning signs of decay and define the obligations of those who would preserve free government. If there is an urgent book for you to read at this moment, it is How Democracies Die."
—E.J. Dionne Jr., co-author of One Nation After Trump
"Levitsky and Ziblatt are leading scholars of democracy in other parts of the world, who with great energy and integrity now apply their expertise to the current problems of the United States. The reader feels the intellectual excitement, and also the political warning, as the authors draw the connections from their own vast knowledge to the chaos that we experience each day."
—Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny
“We live in perilous times. Anyone who is concerned about the future of American democracy should read this brisk, accessible book. Anyone who is not concerned should definitely read it.”
—Daron Acemoglu, co-author of Why Nations Fail
“Readers will not find an anti-Trump screed in How Democracies Die. The book is more erudite than alarmist… but that makes [Levitsky and Ziblatt’s] clarity on the risk of both Trump and wider political developments all the more powerful.”
"All Americans who care about the future of their country should read this magisterial, compelling book, which sweeps across the globe and through history to analyze how democracies die. The result is an unforgettable framework for diagnosing the state of affairs here at home and our prospects for recovery."From the Publisher
—Danielle Allen, author of Our Declaration and Cuz
"Two years ago, a book like this could not have been written: two leading political scientists who are expert in the breakdown of democracy in other parts of the world using that knowledge to inform Americans of the dangers their democracy faces today. We owe the authors a debt of thanks for bringing their deep understanding to bear on the central political issue of the day."
—Francis Fukuyama, author of Political Order and Political Decay
"In this brilliant historical synthesis, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how the actions of elected leaders around the world have paved the road to democratic failure, and why the United States is now vulnerable to this same downward spiral. This book should be widely and urgently read as a clarion call to restore the shared beliefs and practices—beyond our formal constitution—that constitute the essential ‘guardrails’ for preserving democracy."
—Larry Diamond, author of The Spirit of Democracy
A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump's ascent and the fall of other democracies.Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, "Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?" The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. "Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn't cause it," they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. "The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture." The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate's refusal to consider Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump's demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that "a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits," though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.