Review of “How Democracies Die”


“The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active,’ to ‘participate,’ to mask the nothingness of what goes on…those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence.” – Slavoj Zizek, Violence

Is it a scholarly analysis? A manifesto? A living will for the death throes of American democracy? Already a bestseller and New York Times Editor’s Choice book, the newly released How Democracies Die is a text by Harvard political scientists Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. An accessible book no doubt responding to the urgency to ‘do something’ amid the chaos of the Trump presidency, the book is part wake-up call, part diagnosis, and part prescription.

Their wake-up call contains perhaps the most compelling observation of the book: anyone who thinks that democracies end because of dramatic autocratic power-grabs or military coups needs to shake themselves out of the 20th century. In today’s world, democracy dies not with a bang but a whimper, and oftentimes with the help of democratic institutions themselves. Hence, the lengthy juxtaposition of Trump with a variety of elected officials-turned-autocrats.

The next set of questions, though, are why the US, and why now? This is where the book starts to fall apart, and the urgency of the moment overtakes cool scholarly analysis as they call out two culprits: the declining power of political parties and the erosion of democratic norms.

First, they celebrate the gatekeepers of democracy–political parties–and bemoan the increasing democratization of the presidential primary process that began in the 1960s: “Binding primaries were certainly more democratic. But might they be too democratic?” (pg. 51). Here, as in other places, they equivocate, never clarifying what, exactly, counts as “democracy” or “democratic,” and how one would judge what makes something “too democratic” or “not democratic enough” other than the emergence of an elected demagogue at some point down the road. Thus, without any irony, the authors write, “For its part, the United States has an impressive record of gatekeeping.”

Second, readers are reassured throughout the book that, indeed, democracy really did exist in the United States, and it was a good democracy: the book argues that the political norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance sustained a healthy political culture, at least from the aftermath of the Civil War until the present-day chaos. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, then, our task is not to build democracy (or interrogate and then put into practice which kind of democracy Americans actually want)–it is to save a lost democracy by recuperating these norms and, hopefully along the way, rebuilding institutions.

The most problematic element of the book is, then, revolves their attempts to hedge against the most obvious critique of this move to ‘save’ democracy: Democracy for whom?  They, perhaps following the liberal injunction to be ‘woke’, periodically remind the reader that white supremacy and racial exclusion have distorted American politics, but these observations are never systematically integrated in their analysis of how democracies ‘die’ and how democracies can be ‘saved.’ Perhaps this is because genuinely integrating this would mean that democracy has long been dead–or, maybe better put, long been in a zombie state. In other words, Levitsky and Ziblatt want it both ways–they want to reach historically backward for a Golden age of democracy that is marked by the cherished norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance, but they want to assert an awareness that these norms were made possible by an austere system of racial exclusion and expulsion. Consider this passage:

“America’s democratic norms, at their core, have always been sound. But for much of our history, they were accompanied—indeed, sustained—by racial exclusion.” (p. 232)

How can the core of norms be sound if the soil that sustains them is rotten? Rather than doing the analytical or historical work to answer this question, they equivocate: norms were both accompanied and sustained by racial exclusion. But history does not appear so equivocal; this is not merely guilt by association. Throughout the period that Levitsky and Ziblatt deem the high point of American democracy, people of color were politically excluded, economically marginalized, and violently terrorized by private citizens and state agents alike. And racial exclusion continues to operate through a highly anti-democratic political apparatus, though you’d never know it based on How Democracies Die. Nowhere in the book is there a serious challenge to a variety of anti-democratic elements of the American political system that far predated Trump–and will far outlast him. Readers hear not a peep about, as just one example, the anti-democratic elements of law enforcement, including the increased use of lethal force, the apparent impunity of officers who use that force, the erosion of constitutional protections vis-a-vis police power, and the non-starter status of any reform that hints at genuine community oversight or transparency.

It is a shame that Levitsky and Ziblatt cannot take their acknowledgement about the role of racial exclusion to inform their own prescription, because it would have provided a far richer terrain of political possibilities than outlined in the feel-good conclusion. In their concluding thoughts, readers learn that Americans must stick to our core values (including diversity) but at the same time, open our arms to new allies. As the book celebrates the “American creed” of “individual freedom and egalitarianism,” the missed opportunity for excavating Really Existing Democracy becomes palpable. Indeed, rather than political parties, it is the very histories that Levitsky and Ziblatt gloss over–the histories of oppression and struggle among the racially excluded throughout the late 19th and into the 20th and 21st centuries–that provide the most encouraging indications of American democratic spirit. As Princeton intellectual Imani Perry writes in More Beautiful and More Terrible,

“Practices of resilience are already part of every cultural tradition in this nation and certainly are part of every history of undoing historic injustice…my measure of possibility is not present claims to impotence; it is historic examples of resilience and then transcendence. There is no humbler root found than that of the descendants of slaves, no greater possibility than going from chattel to citizen, no stronger motivation than the legacy of those who made that transformation real.” (p. 207)

Implicitly, How Democracy Dies conceals that legacy with a wish for a return to a nostalgic fantasy of democracy. Overall, my concern with this book isn’t that readers will find parts of it misplaced, and other parts of it compelling (as I do); it is that readers will come away from it thinking that they understand something about American democracy that–by virtue of the book’s partial narrative–is only further obscured. Across the political spectrum, Americans today are convinced of the urgency of the present moment; if we don’t make history, history will unmake us. Levitsky and Ziblatt persuasively show how political polarization has been aggravated by the high-stakes ‘tit for tat’ game between Democrats and Republicans; unfortunately, though, Levitsky and Ziblatt seem embedded in a similar kind of game. Not unlike Trump’s fantastically nostalgic promise to bring back American manufacturing jobs despite fundamental shifts in technology and political economy, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die ultimately turns on a sustained nostalgia for a democratic Golden Age that, for many Americans, is not worth returning to.


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