top of page

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt

Hello everyone,

As we are about to enter the final month of Q1 in 2022, I hope everyone is crushing their goals so far this year! After some deliberation the next book has been decided and it comes at a fairly reasonable time. During these trying times on the Russian/Ukraine front, there has been some uncertainty and distrust in how governments operate, in addition with all the draconian responses to COVID across the globe. The COVID topic is one for its own time and place, should I truly decide to delve into that lol. However, on a lighter and positive note, I want to give another shout out to our guy Mark Harris on his great pieces on how to be successful and deal with stress during the pandemic.

I was reading an article published on Monday, February 21, 2022, at 08:04am by David Leonhardt, which was titled "Why Ukraine Is Different" in the New York Times. I gathered some interesting notes from this article and one of his points was about the idea of democratic recessions on the planet. According to this article, Putin and his inner circle, along with top Chinese officials, there is belief that liberal democracy is in a decline. Putin also believes that Ukrainian land is of Soviet heritage, so it belongs to Russia, respectfully, from my opinion, that sounds goofy and real "Hitler-esque". The rulers of Russia, China, Iraq and Venezuela are people who believe that treaties and documents are played out and only hard power is respected. Authoritarianism, much?

NOW, to regular scheduled programming, today's selection is indeed a New York Times Best Seller. On the menu for today is: How Democracies Die. Published in 2018 and dual authored by Harvard professors Steven Levitksy and Daniel Ziblatt. There are nine chapters and the last page of readable book content ends at page 231. This book took me two weeks to read from May 1, 2021, until May 15, 2021, as I was truly intrigued by the information presented.

It may seem viable to wonder that our democracy really began to crumble when Donald Trump took over. It could be likely that things began to deteriorate way before then. In the intro, the authors paint the picture of the "typical" way one may see a democracy ending and that would be by way of war or militia coup. Another crippling effect to democracy is the actions and words of the very "leaders" of said democracies. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to make safe and comforting decisions for millions of people, but I am certain the old, outdated folk we have are not worth voting for. The USA just elected the oldest sitting president ever speaking of outdated, which points to another area the USA lacks in. One of the wildest and scariest thoughts is that a nation's military can be brainwashed into helping their "leaders" implement anything out of the scope of what's moral and civil. Or there could be other ways...

"This is how democracies 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. Democracies still die, but by different means. Since the end of the Cold War, most democracy breakdowns are not caused by soldiers but by elected government officials themselves (5). This quote followed a brief story from the 1990s, on the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and how he was a political outsider who was against a corrupting elite and vowed to be more "authentic". This sure as hell as sounds like a recycled political motto, eh? Chavez was elected president in 1998. He began his term democratically, then turned towards authoritarianism in 2003. They began to close major TV stations, arrest or exile opposing politicians, judges, and media figures on bogus charges. The Chavez administration began rewrite laws such as term limits to remain in power indefinitely.

"Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box" (5). That's some straight to point shit right there. I always wondered how the form of government in the USA is coined a democracy when it resembles an oligarchy if not something worse. The book defines DEMOCRACY as: a system of government with regular, free and fair elections, in which all adult citizens have the right to vote and possess basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and association. Throughout history, research and experiences, humans develop test and trials to help satisfy our pattern loving brain. Demagogues exist in all political landscapes and businesses from time to time. The most crucial test is whether other high ranking political figures align themselves with these characters and/or endorse them. Not sure if they do this in the name of "loyalty" but siding with the opposing political party to keep the unwarranted candidates off the ballots would help prevent derailing democracy.

"The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy's assassins use the very institutions of democracy -- gradually subtly, and even legally -- to kill it" (8). The authors immediate paragraph following this quote goes on to speak of Trump's successful presidency campaign and I will not go down the Donald rabbit hole. In my opinion, the whole entire political ideology of us versus them is one of the factors in derailing democracy.

Once again, this paragraph was going to start with a quote that does not need an explanation. The quote is lengthy but since it will speak volumes as is, but just for context the previous information to the quote was about Mussolini's rise to power. "Some version of this story has repeated itself throughout the world over the last century. A cast of political outsiders, including Adolph Hitler, Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, came to power on the same path: from the inside, via elections or alliances with powerful political figures. In each instance, elites believed the invitation to power would contain the outsider, leading to a restoration of control by mainstream politicians. But their plans backfired. A lethal mix of ambition, fear, and miscalculation conspired to lead them to the same fateful mistake: willingly handing over the keys of power to an autocrat-in-the-making" (13). What more can I say? (que the Jay-Z sample).

As Chapter One concludes, the authors provide a table of 4 indicators of authoritarian behavior. The list goes as: rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence, and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. All of these indicators are followed by "checklist questions" for a lack of better words, to help verify if one would meet authoritarian behavior.

On June 11, 1920, in Chicago in Suite 404 on the 13th floor of the nearby Blackstone Hotel, Republican Committee Chairman Will Hays and George Harvey (Harvey published his own periodicals) hosted a rotating group of U.S. Senators and party leaders in the original "smoke-filled back room". This event and group of men were donned The Old Guard, where they poured themselves drinks, smoked cigars, and talked late into the night about how to break a deadlock to get a candidate the 493 delegates needed for the nomination. In this era, candidates were by these small group of power brokers who were not accountable to the party rank and file, much less to average citizens. Advance almost exactly 102 years, yet we can still smell similarities in today's political landscape.

Gatekeeping is a consistent term throughout the book, considered a pro by the authors, pointed out from the smoke-filled room which is keeping demonstrably unfit figures off the ballet and out of the office. I would imagine this making sense as the individuals who meet to make these decisions has some ideas of the personalities of the potential candidates. Alexander Hamilton did not trust that the civilians could make the final decision because they can possibly be duped into believing that authoritarianism is the not objective. According to this novel, the solution the founders of America came up with is the Electoral College. Also, Article II of the Constitution created an indirect election system that reflected Hamilton's thinking in Federalist 68: "The immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under the circumstances favorable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements which were proper to govern them".

"The Electoral College, made up of locally prominent men in each state, would thus be responsible for choosing the president...the Electoral College thus became our original gatekeeper" (40). Just as this can be serviceable, it sure can backfire too, right? The rise of parties in the early 1800s change the way the election system in America worked. The founders envisioned electing local notables to the E.C. (tired of typing Electoral College lol) but the party system revolutionized this adaption, and each state began to elect party loyalists. Ultimately, the E.C. surrendered its gatekeeping powers to the parties and the parties have retained it since.

I like to pose another question along this topic: If the E.C. is as simple or intricate as it's made out to be, is there a real reason to vote on a mass scale for a president? Or could that possibly be the delusion of fitting in and making a difference despite the elites are choosing who they want in these positions?

Of course, over time through trial and error, humans learn to adapt or implement processes and systems to assist in simplifying things. The voting, election and E.C. processes have been tweaked numerous times throughout history, for the good and bad, just like every other aspect of life. However, can we be sure as regular civilians of these ruling classes, that we are not being deceived every day? Gatekeeping works sometimes, then there are times when the cracks and crevices are exploited.

Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motors, one of the wealthiest men on the planet during the 20th century, was a modern version of the extremist demagogue that Hamilton warned against. Ford used his wealthy platform to speak out against bankers, Jews and Bolsheviks. His racism caught the eye of Adolf Hitler and was awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle by the Nazi government in 1938. Yet, to no surprise, there were supporters of his, especially in midwestern USA. Some people believed Henry Ford's wealthy celebrity status, reputation for business acumen, and heaps of media attention would translate into a popular presidential candidacy.

What mattered more than public opinion was party leader opinion and Henry had no love in Washington. A group of 116 party leaders in both parties, including all members of the Republican and Democratic Party Committees, 14 leading governors and senators and congressmen in each party rejected him. Seems to be that gatekeeping worked 100 years ago.

The next chapter opens up about how Trump slid through the cracks and essentially joked his way into the White House by way of the loosening of gatekeeping in America. There are two main reasons to explain the continuing fragility of gatekeeping, The first reason is the astronomical increase in outside money allowing marginal candidates to run and access billions in donations. The second factor that diminishes the power of traditional gatekeeping was the explosion of social media and cable news television. There's a much likelier chance to overnight stardom with social media versus the small radio and tv stations from decades ago.

In the 1990s, Peru's Alberto Fujimori, was a little-known university rector of Japanese descent, who wanted to run for a senate seat, but no party would nominate him. His next cause of action was to create his own party and then nominate himself. To help generate money and publicity for his senate race he put his bid in for the presidential ticket. The year of 1990 was a year of turmoil for the Peruvians. The economy was in hyperinflation, people were getting killed by guerilla groups, citizens began to distrust the current administration, so there seemed to be a perfect time for change. Alberto and his "A President Like You" slogan began to garnish massive support.

Fujimori got off to a rocky start in office, congress failed to pass any legislation in his first months in office. Growing impatient while still lacking knowledge of the intricacies of legislative politics, Alberto began to make systems that excluded Congress until he eradicated the entire branch. On April 5, 1992, Fujimori appeared on television and announced that he was dissolving the congress and constitution. Less than two years after his shocking rise to the presidency, Alberto undoubtedly became a tyrant. While some elected demagogues take office with a plan for autocracy, Peru's situation shows an escalating scenario between a demagogue and a weakened and threatened political establishment.

"Democracy is grinding work. Whereas family businesses and army squadrons may be ruled by fiat, democracies require negotiation, compromise, and concessions. Setbacks are inevitable, victories always partial. Presidential initiatives may die in congress or be blocked by the courts. All politicians are frustrated by these constraints, but democratic ones know they must accept them. They are able to weather the constant barrage of criticism. But for outsiders, particularly those of a demagogue bent, democratic politics is often intolerably frustrating. For them, checks and balances feel like a straightjacket“(77). Here, sums up a fairly acceptable definition of what democracy should feel and look like. Some regimes don’t get the memo or just say “to hell with“ the memo, maybe?

The page following the previous quote, in this aptly titled chapter “Subverting Democracy”, the authors metaphorically use soccer to compare how autocrats subtly undermine institutions. By way of ”capturing the referees“ this aides in sidelining the opposition’s star players, then rewrite the rules of the game to favor and lock in their advantage. Over time, this weakens the opposition until they’re useless.

Having the refs on your side offers powerful weapons such as: tax authorities could be used to target rival politicians, businesses and media outlets, police can crack down on opposition protests while tolerating violence from progovernment thugs and intelligence agencies can spy on critics. Most often these acts are secretly and quietly. Judges who cannot be bought off may be targeted for impeachment.

If it’s difficult to remove a judge, governments may bypass them through court packing and extra people “on their team”. In Hungary, the Orbán administration expanded the size of the Constitutional Court from 8 to 15, which in effect drowns out the judges that are honest and trustworthy. Once the referees are all in place, the autocrats can turn all their focus to their opponents. The gerrymandering and city/county border retracing in America is of concern as well.

“One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion. Would-be autocrats often use economic crises, natural disasters, and especially security threats — wars, armed insurgencies, or terrorist attacks — to justify antidemocratic measures” (92-93). I wanted to put that shit in caps but that would’ve been annoying lol. This may be the first post where no quote needs an explanation just time for thought reflection after reading! This book and one of the previous posts by Donahue talks about the USA PATRIOT Act when it’s comes to this subject. Then you have other leaders who create crises. There were ”tricks” up the sleeves of Ferdinand Marcos and Adolph Hitler.

Almost at the end of the initial paragraph to chapter 5, there is a question that basically asks: are the constitutional safeguards, by themselves, enough to secure democracy? The authors quickly reply with: no. Germany’s 1919 Constitution was believed to be sound, created by the top legal minds of their land, yet it was dismantled by Hitler.

”Even well-designed constitutions cannot, by themselves, guarantee democracy. For one, constitutions are always incomplete. Like any set of rules, they have countless gaps and ambiguities. No operating manual, no matter how detailed, can anticipate all possible contingencies or prescribe how to behave under all possible circumstances“ (99). This page is littered with statements following this that make complete sense to me, but I won’t quote the whole page lol. This reason alone makes it tough to rely on constitutions to safeguard democracies.

“Unwritten rules are everywhere in American politics, ranging from the operations of the Senate and the Electoral College to the format of presidential press conferences. But two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and forbearance“ (102). Unwritten rules are every where on the damn planet if you ask me. Mutual toleration refers to the idea that as long as our opponents play constitutional rules, it is accepted that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power and govern. Forbearance means to have patience, self control, restraint and tolerance. Or simply refraining from exercising a legal right.

“Polarization can destroy democratic norms. When socio-economic, racial, or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose worldviews are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain“ (115). Seems as if this happens 24/7 and could be stopping force from great relationships despite what one thinks, feels, or believes. As long as we respect and love one another and it will drive out hate and division!

“But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grew tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs. This may encourage the rise of antisystem groups that reject democracy’s rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble” (116). This would be considered politics without guardrails. I recently seen a video clip of it Kamala Harris telling someone they “sound like a republican”, that doesn’t sound very bipartisan friendly or respectful. But that’s what politics has become, right?

The Civil War was another event that weakened America‘s democracy. Thirty-three percent of American states did not participate in the 1864 election, almost half of the fifty Senate seats, and more than 25% of House seats were left vacant. Two years later, partisan tensions became constitutional hardball, the Republican congress reduced the size of the Supreme Court from ten to seven to prevent democratic President Andrew Johnson from making any appointments. The GOP considered him as subverting Reconstruction and they passed the Tenure of Office Act to prevent Johnson from removing Lincoln’s cabinet members without Senate approval.

After the Dems and GOP accepted each other as official rivals, polarization declined and new bills and laws were passed. Bipartisan cooperation enabled the creation of the 16th & 17th amendments in 1913. The 16th amendment permitted federal income tax while the 17th amendment established the direct election of senators. The 19th amendment in 1919 paved the way for women‘s voting rights. By the twentieth century, mutual toleration and institutional forbearance were the norm.

With so many gray areas in the Constitution, the American presidency seems to be a position with non-stop swelling authority. “The American presidency is a potent—and potentially dominant—institution, due, in part, to gaps in the Constitution. Article II of the Constitution, which lays out the formal powers of the presidency, does not clearly define its limits. It is virtually silent on the president’s authority to act unilaterally, via executive orders or decrees. Presidential power, has moreover, swelled over the last century. Driven by the imperatives of war and depression, the executive branch has built up vast legal, administrative, budgetary, intelligence, and war-making capacities, transforming itself into what historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. famously called the ‘Imperial Presidency’” (127). The scope of power of the president does appear to be endless.

On February 13, 2016, it was reported that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died. The expectation at the time was that the new Justice would be filled by the new president. Just over a month later, on March 16, 2016, President Obama nominated appellate judge Merrick Garland to fill Scalia's empty seat. No one had doubt that this was a viable replacement, but for the first time in American history, the US Senate refused to even consider an elected president's nominee for the Supreme Court. This moment is pivotal as norm breaking and potentially detrimental in the process of unraveling democracy. Some would argue that America and other societies are growing more comfortable to antidemocratic leaders, if not comfortable, oblivious.

The Democrats and Republicans seem to be more enemies than honorable adversaries. In today's political landscape, each party attempts to make their districts tougher for the other if they favor the area. By the 2000s, voters and the politicians that represent them were at the height of division in centuries. Some media stations are tailored propaganda to certain parties as well. Republican voters rely more on partisan media outlets than Democrats. In 2010, 69 percent of Republican voters were Fox News viewers. I personally do not watch television, but the moments where I catch Fox News via someone else's control of the tv at work or their home, it can be noticed as soon as they cut for commercial breaks who they favor.

"But it is not only media and outside interests that have pushed the Republican Party toward extremism. Social and cultural changes have also played a major role. Unlike the Democratic Party, which has grown increasingly diverse in recent decades, the GOP has remained culturally homogeneous. This is significant because the party's core white Protestant voters are not just any constituency -- for nearly two centuries, they comprised the majority of the U.S. electorate and were politically, economically, and culturally dominant in American society. Now, again, white Protestants are a minority of the electorate -- and declining. And they have hunkered down in the Republican Party" (177). Not sure if I mentioned, but I feel this is necessary to say: I've never voted and have no interest to. Did not want to sound like I was picking a side, but I would have to concur with this quote.

I have not looked back to confirm but as this feels to be the longest post on record, it is about time to wrap it up lol. There is one more quote and its diction is key, once again, considering the madness in Europe with Russia and Ukraine. Putin fits the bill of one that promotes a polarized nation. "Republican politicians from Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump learned that in a polarized society, treating rivals as enemies can be useful -- and that the pursuit of politics as warfare can be appealing to those who fear they have much to lose. But war always has its price. The mounting assault on norms of mutual toleration and forbearance -- mostly, though not entirely, by

Republicans -- has eroded the soft guardrails that long protected us from the kind of partisan fight to the death that has destroyed democracies in other parts of the world

While I must stress, that these are personal thoughts, feelings and opinions not to be taken as hate or disrespect. I truly hope that if you made it this far you learned and enjoyed your time here :)



21 views0 comments


bottom of page