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••• The International Writers Magazine: Review

How Democracies Die
By Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
2018 Crown Publishing New York 2018
312 pages $26.00 US
ISBN 978-1-5247-6293-3
• Stevellie Wheeler

How Democracy Dies

Both Levitsky and Ziblat are professors of government at Harvard University and have written for Vox and The New York Times.

It’s like watching a slow motion car wreck: you can’t look away but you know it’s too strange to ignore. Can the US , our big brother, under Trump's administration, really be sliding from democracy to authoritarianism to dictatorship?

Beginning in the 1960s, the United States experienced a massive wave of immigrants, first from Latin America and later from Asia, which has dramatically altered the country’s demographic map. In 1950, non-whites constituted barely 10 percent of the US population. By 2014, they constituted 38 percent, and the US Census Bureau projects that a majority of the population will be non-white by 2044.” P170

... in the 1950s, married white Christians were the overwhelming majority - nearly eighty percent - of American voters, divided more or less equally between the two parties. By the 2000s, married white Christians constituted barely 40 percent of the electorate, and they were now concentrated in the Republican Party. In other words, the two parties are now divided over race and religion – two deeply polarizing issues that tend to generate greater intolerance and hostility than traditional policy issues such as taxes and government spending." P171

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 assaults 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.” P174

The authors studied several countries and dictators as they tried to understand the Trump phenomenon in America. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Hugo Chavez are three modern day examples of outsiders who used the laws and customs of their governments to seize control and hold it. Each dictator is examined and his rise to power followed as establishment politicians of the time ignored warning signals and allowed it to happen.

The usual gatekeepers, the political parties and their leaders, blocked demagogues like Henry Ford, George Wallace, Huey Long and Charles Lindbergh from taking power in American elections, but with the rise of outside money and social media, the gatekeepers failed in the case of Trump.

Four key indicators of authoritarian behavior are listed in the book: rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence, readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.

In describing people of a demagogic bent, they say, “For them, checks and balances feel like a straitjacket.”

Yale historian Joanne Freeman estimates there were 125 incidents of violence on the floor of the US House and Senate between 1830 and 1860, including stabbings, canings and the pulling of pistols. Soon after, Americans engaged in the civil war which resulted in 600,000 dead.

The problem seems to be a lack of the two ingredients which had always saved American democracy in the past: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. The lack of these vital ingredients destroyed democracies in Europe in the 1930s and in South America in the 1960s and 1970s.

But there is a ray of hope in all this. It can be done. Some countries, like Belgium, Britain, Finland and Costa Rica have managed to keep demagogues from power.

Those of us who know or have known good, kind, intelligent Americans know that Trump represents a stereotype of the Ugly American like Rodney Dangerfield in Caddyshack. Not America.

So it’s a bittersweet feeling you get from How Democracies Die. The future for America looks dim right now but they’ve always come through before. One prays they can again.

© Stevellie Wheeler August 18th 2018
stevellie at

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