How Democracies Die Book Summary By Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

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How Democracies Die is a critically acclaimed book that examines the principles of democracy in an effort to understand why democracies fail and how these failures can be prevented in the future.

Written by two renowned political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in 2018, this captivating read dives into several historical cases from Latin America, where democracies turned into dictatorships or autocracies, to determine how and why this happened.

The authors also take a closer look at the current presidential administration led by Donald Trump and examine his motives as well as whether he qualifies as an American autocrat.

With expert analysis and thought-provoking insights, How Democracies Die provides a chilling and eye-opening look into the fragility of democracy—one that every individual should have on their bookshelf.

How Democracies Die Book

Book Name: How Democracies Die (And how we can save ours)

Author(s): Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

Rating: 4/5

Reading Time: 29 Minutes

Categories: Politics

Author Bio

Steven Levitsky is the co-author of the book 'How Democracies Die', and an esteemed professor of government at Harvard University.

His research has been greatly focused on Latin America and regions across the developing world.

His knowledge and expertise in political science have earned him a wide range of publications, making his book 'How Democracies Die' a great source for those looking for insight into ways democracy can be undermined in its functioning.

With his years of experience researching in this field, Professor Levitsky offers a unique viewpoint that readers are sure to benefit from.

How Donald Trump Is Challenging The Health Of American Democracy: Examining Unconventional Presidential Behavior And The Threat Of Dictatorship


Have you ever wondered if Donald Trump is a threat to democracy? In the book How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt analyze past cases of democracies that have fallen in other nations.

Through their analysis, they explain how certain attitudes adopted by the Trump administration are similar to those that led to dictatorships in Venezuela and Peru.

The authors look at the US two-party system, voter rights, and how Republican leaders could take steps like Sweden did in the 1930s to protect democracy.

They also explore how today’s Republican Party of Trump differs from the party of Lincoln.

Ultimately, this book contains important insights into how we can better protect democracy against authoritarianism — especially when it comes to traits shared by past dictators and Donald Trump himself.

Beware Of The Danger Lurking In Populist Demagogues And Their Unlected Rise To Power

A potentially dangerous autocrat can be hard to spot in advance.

Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, they often seem to have no red flags and innocently come into power at the request of the establishment.

A great example of this is Adolf Hitler, who was brought up by conservative German leaders as a ‘populist champion’ during the 1930s as part of a last-ditch attempt to gain voter support during the Great Depression.

Despite his seemingly harmless appearance, he quickly made himself a dictator within two months of being appointed chancellor, having outlawed opposition parties and going against democratic rule.

It’s an example that serves to remind us that hidden among everyday politicians, there can be individuals with malicious intentions who may want to reduce civil rights or even encourage the use of violence if given power.

To combat this threat, it pays to look out for four warning signs: when rules of democracy are rejected; unsubstantiated claims made about opponents; encouragement or acceptance towards violence; praise for active silencing of journalists and protesters.

By being vigilant over these warnings you can help protect your society from those with malintent intent on pushing for an autocratic rule.

Political Parties Have A Responsible Role As Gatekeepers Of Democracy

Democracy requires strong gatekeepers who can protect it from those who wish to undermine it.

This is where political parties come in, as they are responsible for deciding which candidates will be allowed to enter mainstream politics and potentially become a ruling force.

The example of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez serves as a reminder of the power of gatekeeping gone wrong.

In the early 1990s, Chávez had already been arrested for treason after attempting a takeover of the Democratic Action party – yet he was still able to go on to win the presidency in 1998 due to his popularity.

This was, in part, thanks to politician Rafael Caldera publicly sympathizing with him.

By validating Chávez, Caldera effectively opened the door for his regime with all its anti-democratic practices from filling supreme courts with sycophants to exiling or imprisoning dissidents.

Regrettably, this isn’t an isolated incident; it’s shown time and again that good gatekeeping is key if democracy has any chance of surviving and thriving.

Fortunately, we can use past examples of successful gatekeeping like when Sweden’s Conservative Party quickly rejected 25,000 young people in 1933 whose sympathies were leaning towards fascism – though this move cost them votes afterwards – it shielded Sweden from an impending anti-democratic rule.

Alternatively, one way we can observe another negative example is found in Germany during 1930s when Conservatives joined forces with Hitler supporters in public rallies – normalizing extremist views and giving them credibility among society as a whole.

We must remember that our democracy is only as safe as its most consistent guardians – politically speaking – make it out to be.

We must hold them accountable and make sure the proper steps are taken to keep any extremists at bay no matter what short-term costs may arise.

The Us Political Establishment Has Struggled To Balance Democracy And Gatekeeping

Us Political Establishment

For a long time, gatekeepers in the United States did their job well.

Since the early 1800s, parties have been responsible for selecting presidential candidates and this practice kept extremists away from elected offices.

For instance, Henry Ford had a large base of supporters who admired his success as an entrepreneur, but his anti-semitic views and right-wing extremism meant that he couldn’t even get close to becoming President.

In the 1920s, the major political parties acted as vigilant gatekeepers and thus prevented extremists from rising to power.

This would all change in 1968 when Hubert Humphrey – an unpopular choice among Democratic primaries – was chosen by party leaders as the Presidential candidate for that year’s election, resulting in violent protests at the convention hall.

This caused a reaction from Democrats who wanted to ensure people were represented more accurately in elections and led to primary polls being made mandatory by the McGovern-Fraser Commission.

Though this was seen as a step in the direction of more democracy for everyone involved, it simultaneously raised questions about how much democracy is too much.

The Gatekeepers Failed To Keep Out Trump: How Money And Free Publicity Changed The Election Game

When Donald Trump decided to run for president, there was little reason to take him seriously.

He lacked support in the party and couldn’t secure endorsements from political figures in the Republican Party.

He was seen as just another attempt at generating publicity.

However, with a lot of money and free publicity, he managed to bypass the gatekeepers and become a legitimate contender.

With little standing in his way, it became clear that his campaign raised four red flags – questioning the democratic process by claiming the election results would be rigged due to voter fraud; making false claims about his opponent’s legitimacy; threatening to restrict free press and change US libel laws so he could sue journalists; and encouraging violent behavior at his rallies.

Despite these warnings, nobody stepped up from within the Republican party to prevent this outcome from happening as prominent members such as John McCain refused to cross party lines and back Hillary Clinton instead.

As a result, Trump achieved enough traction with both voters and members of Congress alike resulting in success during early 2016 primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina which enabled him to get his first Republican endorsement from representatives Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins.

How Autocrats Gradually Undermine Democracy Through Subtle Manipulation

The dismantling of democracy can be a gradual process and is often achieved through a series of actions that go against democratic values.

This was seen in the example of Peru’s former president, Alberto Fujimori.

At first, he attempted to pass his policies through legal democratic channels.

However, every time he did this Congress blocked him leading him to eventually retaliate and start taking the law into his own hands – until he eventually dissolved Congress and suspended the Constitution altogether.

This event reveals three stages that always take place when democracies are undermined: capturing the referees (i.e., those in charge of upholding the laws), sidelining the opposition players (by obtaining compromising information or threatening consequences) and changing the rules so that they work to a leader’s advantage.

This last step could be seen in post-Civil War Reconstruction Era USA or in Hungary when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010; both situations led to changes in legislation such as poll taxes or Dortch Laws which limited voting rights for specific types of citizens.

These examples demonstrate how it can happen almost imperceptibly, with each individual step seemingly small but with huge implications overall on democracy – making it possible for leaders like Fujimori to become accidental autocrats over time.

The Cost Of Neglecting Mutual Toleration And Institutional Forbearance In A Democracy


While laws are important for democracy, there are extra steps taken which help to maintain its lifeblood.

These unwritten rules of democracy prevent autocracy from taking root by means such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

Mutual toleration requires contested parties to treat each other as equals— regardless of circumstance.

When President Washington finished his first term, he exercised the forbearance of stepping down after only two terms despite there being no such law in place at that time.

His decision created a norm, which has been followed by all presidents since then; This kind of decision-making is crucial for preventing a leader from overstepping their power or ambition.

Unfortunately, in some countries this hasn’t always been possible.

This can be seen in Chile during the 1973 coup d’etat led by Augusto Pinochet.

During this period, tolerance between so-called “enemies” was eroded due to political divide and fear which ultimately contributed to Pinochet coming into power, overthrowing a constitutionally valid government led by President Allende and leading the country into 17 years of dictatorship instead of democratic rule.

Thus it is clear that institutions need leaders who adhere to both written law and mental etiquette otherwise democracies can suffer terribly– something Pinochet made easily apparent during his time in power.

The Compromise Of 1877: A Step Towards Repairing A Broken American Democracy

When the US was teetering towards Civil War in the 1850s, and with slavery at the center of that conflict, it was clear that democracy was broken and needed to be restored.

The Compromise of 1877 sought to do that through electing a Republican – Rutherford B.

Hayes – as President, but it also had consequences, with both parties agreeing for Republican-led troops to be removed from the South so that Democrats could enforce undemocratic voting laws such as the poll tax and Dortch Law.

These laws were designed to keep black voters out of elections in order to maintain Democratic control – a move that would unfortunately come to define American politics over the following decades, leading to further discrimination of black voters.

Despite an attempt by Congress with the Federal Elections Bill of 1890 to address these discriminatory practices, it ultimately failed – setting up a long cycle of voter suppression against minority communities while bringing Southern Democrats and Republicans together through conservative beliefs and an ethos of bipartisanship into the early 20th century.

It wasn’t until civil rights movement era when black Americans would finally get access to fair voting rights protection.

The history shows us just how difficult it can be for democracies facing internecine struggles over issues such as slavery and civil rights.

In trying to restore democracy after the Civil War, the US began a history of voter discrimination that has stamped its mark on our nation’s history even today.

The Polarization Of Us Politics: A History Of Partisan Division And The Rise Of Aggressive Tactics

Modern political divides in the United States can be traced back to the 1960s when party politics began to take shape along lines of race and religion.

Two key moments came earlier, in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which was championed by many Democrats but opposed by a great number of Republicans, and when Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater spoke out against it.

This moment crystallized long-standing attitudes and marked a clear partisan divide amongst voters.

Since then, Democrats have been broadly associated with civil rights and black voters while Republicans generally represent a more conservative status quo—a divide that has been strengthened by recent immigration from Latin America and Asia as well as changes in overall voter demographics.

This partisan animosity has festered since then, culminating in increased aggression from Republicans beginning with Newt Gingrich’s rise to power through 1979 into his Speaker tenure 1995-1998, during which he championed attack politics that questioned opponents’ patriotism and often compared Democrats to dictator Benito Mussolini.

He further helped form the GOPAC committee to teach aggressive tactics before leading a House vote for Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998—hardly an example of institutional forbearance within democratic norms.

The heated rhetoric continues today, demonstrating how race and religion have formed hardened divisions between US political parties over the past decades leaving democracy vulnerable.

Is Trump Traversing The Road To Dictatorship? The Three Factors That Will Determine His Actions


As the authors of How Democracies Die state, the future of democracy in the Trump era largely depends on public opinion and political leadership.

The president has engages in many behaviour that align with an authoritarian playbook, from trying to capture referees like former FBI Director James Comey by asking for his loyalty, to attacking sources such as the New York Times and CNN and calling their reports “fake news.” In addition, Trump has attempted to change the rules of the game through measures like stricter voter ID laws, which can be seen as an attempt to manipulate elections in favour a white nationalist political majority.

These attempts will only be successful if mainstream Republican leaders continue to remain silent and if Trump receives public approval for his agenda.

The risk of imminent crises also gives leadership a powerful platform from which they can act freely.

When this occurs, no one is willing to challenge whether these actions are constitutional or not — as we saw post-9/11 with George W.

Bush’s Patriot Act.

However, although it is possible Trump will push further towards authoritarianism, it is likely he will be impeached for his lack of success first before it progresses that far.

It is now up to public opinion and political leadership whether or not we allow our democracy’s guardrails – its vital norms and conventions – to further deteriorate beyond repair.

To Uphold Democracy, We Must Resist Reacting To Extremism With More Extremism

It should go without saying that maintaining a democracy is no small feat.

In the United States, this can be particularly challenging due to its diverse population of various beliefs and opinions.

That said, it’s far from impossible.

When push comes to shove, one of the most critical measures for preserving democracy is to resist fighting fire with fire.

Take the 2016 U.S Presidential election as an example – amidst Trump’s success, many Democrats debated on responding with the same tactics defying democratic principles utilized in Trump’s campaign.

This action, like it did in Venezuela in the 2000s, would only result in further polarization between political parties by scaring off moderates and advocating undemocratic methods such as purging opposition.

Instead of drastic action outside of democracy which often proves unsuccessful, struggle against authoritarianism should be addressed primarily through collaboration utilizing tools already provided by democracy including compromise and forming coalitions amongst diverse faiths and races to create a unified voice.

An effective way to both Republicans and Democrats would be for the former to take a hardline stance against white nationalism while also making themselves more appealing to minority voters & trade agreements with other countries while also restructuring their programs focusing less on means-tested benefits (which are only available only if you meet a certain set of criteria) instead shifting resources towards minimum wage increase and affordable healthcare services for all identities, including offering a universal basic income program backed by democratic policy.

In conclusion , keeping democracies alive require the mutual efforts of protesters & corporations alike striving for federal stability that upholds equality & values mutual toleration while promoting peace at home and abroad – all aspects held true by modernized democrats

Wrap Up

How Democracies Die paints a grim picture of the current US political landscape.

The authors warn that dictatorial governments don’t happen overnight, but instead, take place as the result of a gradual erosion of democratic norms and increasing polarization of society – something we are seeing occur time and time again with the Trump administration.

The key takeaway from this book is to remember the power we all have in preserving democracy in America.

It starts with bridging social divides and implementing policies that promote inclusion and equality for all.

By standing strong against autocracy and following democratic principles, we can ensure that democracies will survive far into the future.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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