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