How Democracies Die Book Summary, by Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

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Overview

Dictators don’t come out of nowhere. Rather, they are the result of erosion of democratic norms and increased polarization in society. The authors argue that this has been happening for some time in the US, and it’s being made worse by the actions of Trump administration. However, while these factors do not guarantee an autocracy, they should be a cause for concern and active resistance among voters and political leaders who must adhere to democracy principles.

Since the 2016 presidential election, there’s been a lot of unconventional political news. Some people say that American politics needs to be shaken up and that Donald Trump is a breath of fresh air. However, these key points investigate how this compares to situations where democracies in other nations have collapsed.

According to the authors, democracy can only survive when there are rules and a pro-democratic code of conduct. They claim that by looking at cases like Venezuela and Peru we can see that similar attitudes have led to the rise of dictatorships.

Levitsky and Ziblatt explain how democracy in the US has been troubled in the past. They also provide readers with hope that we can weather this storm.

In this article, you will discover how the two-party system has been a strong gatekeeper in the past. You will learn about how Sweden’s leaders stepped up to clear house and why Republican leaders need to do that today. You’ll also find out how Republicans went from being the party of Lincoln to becoming the party of Trump.

Big Idea #1: An autocrat may be hard to identify in advance.

When we imagine a demagogue coming to power, we may think of an armed mob storming the presidential palace. However, that doesn’t happen anymore. Today’s demagogues come into power by aligning themselves with established politicians who are losing support from voters. The establishment will then turn to an anti-establishment figure in order to regain popularity among voters and get reelected.

In this situation, a person or group of people who are not part of the establishment will be brought in to help with some task. However, once they’re in, they can exploit their power and influence to gain more control over the organization.

The German establishment made a mistake in the 1930s when it appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor because he wasn’t going to be controlled. Within two months, Hitler had taken control of the government and outlawed opposition parties. This led to World War II, one of history’s great tragedies.

This passage shows us that there are dangerous demagogues out there. To spot them, you can look for four warning signs:

The first is when people reject the rules of democracy. They claim that election results are invalid and suggest that the constitution needs fixing.

The second sign of danger is when someone falsely discredits their opponent. Is the person saying that an opponent should be jailed or calling them a state enemy? The third warning sign is if they tolerate or encourage violence. Does this person conduct business with members of organized crime? Do they support militant groups?

The last sign of a potential fascist is the desire to reduce civil rights. This includes people who support governments that silence journalists and protesters. These are all red flags that suggest someone would likely favor autocracy if given power. However, it depends on how the establishment acts, which we’ll discuss next.

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Big Idea #2: Democracy needs the Media

Political parties are gatekeepers of democracy. They determine who is allowed to enter mainstream politics by accepting and promoting candidates in upcoming elections.

Political parties have a responsibility to protect democracy. However, they sometimes fail at their jobs and allow dictators to rise to power. One example of this is Venezuela in the 1990s when Hugo Chávez rose as a dictator.

By 1992, Chávez was already known to be a threat. He tried to overthrow the Democratic Action party and was arrested for treason.

But Chávez was still popular, which is why Caldera publicly supported him. It worked: he won the election. He gave his approval of Chávez and later got him released from prison. However, it also validated Chavez as a mainstream political contender and further cemented his status as a hero to the people – practically assuring that he would win the 1998 presidential election, which he did by a landslide.

Chávez followed the typical pattern of a dictator. He filled the supreme court with sycophants, silenced independent media channels and sent his rivals to exile or prison.

This is why it’s important for political parties to reject extremists. The best way to do this is by quickly eliminating members who are extremist, like the Swedish Conservative Party did in 1933. That year, 25,000 young members were kicked out of the party because they had fascist sympathies. This cost them votes during elections that year but was worth it to protect democracy from anti-democratic forces entering into mainstream politics.

A way to avoid extremism is to not appear as if you’re normalizing it. This was a mistake the German conservatives made in the 1930s, and Caldera also did this when he sympathized with Chávez’s anti-democratic acts.

Big Idea #3: For a long time, gatekeepers in the United States were good at their jobs.

Throughout the twentieth century, there was political extremism in the US. In fact, throughout that time there were 800 radical right-wing organizations. However, they never achieved any power because the major political parties kept those groups from gaining too much influence.

Political parties have been in charge of electing presidential candidates since the early 1800s. The popular image is of party leaders gathering together in a smoke-filled room to decide who would be best for the job and represent their interests.

The Republican Party made sure that no one who wasn’t a part of the establishment could become president. In the 1920s, they kept Henry Ford from becoming president because he was anti-Semitic and supported Hitler.

The gatekeepers are supposed to make sure that the people’s voices are heard. However, they have become unrepresentative of what the people want and need. This is because they have been making backroom deals with big companies who don’t care about ordinary Americans.

The Democratic Party nominated Hubert Humphrey in 1968, but he was not popular among the people. The party did not use primaries to select their candidate. This caused an uproar at the convention because of violent protests and a riot that spilled into the convention hall.

After Humphrey lost the election to Richard Nixon, a committee was formed by the Democrats. This McGovern-Fraser Commission made it mandatory for primary elections to be held and that delegates would choose the candidates.

In the past, party leaders made decisions without input from others. However, that changed with the introduction of primaries. Now people could vote for their preferred candidates, which seemed like a good thing at first but eventually raised questions about how much democracy is too much?

Big Idea #4: Donald Trump is a business mogul who has been able to get many things done without the help of gatekeepers.

On 15 June 2015, reality TV show star and businessman Donald Trump announced he would run for President of the United States. Although people initially saw this as a publicity stunt, they later realized it was serious.

Before the official primaries, there were some unofficial ones. These are when candidates compete for endorsements from established political figures within their parties. Trump didn’t get any of those.

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But Trump surprised everyone when he bypassed the gatekeepers and ran his campaign with a lot of free publicity. The money allowed him to do this without approval from the Republican establishment. He was in the news all the time because he kept making controversial statements, so it didn’t matter that he wasn’t part of the mainstream political class.

Donald Trump eventually won the Republican nomination, and he was endorsed by several prominent Republicans. The authors of this article point out that there were four signs that indicated he would be successful at appealing to a large number of people: He questioned the legitimacy of the election results, claiming voter fraud; he made false claims about his opponent’s character; and encouraged violent behavior at his rallies.

Donald Trump’s campaign raised red flags, but the gatekeepers didn’t do enough to prevent him from winning.

Although many Republicans endorsed Hillary Clinton, they were mostly business leaders with no influence. The only elected official to endorse her was Congressman Richard Hanna of New York, who had nothing to lose. Many prominent Republican leaders refused to back Trump but didn’t support Hillary; this left the door open for Trump and made it easier for him to march in through that opening.

Big Idea #5: Democracy can be dismantled gradually.

You may not think it’s possible to accidentally become an autocrat, but that’s not as far-fetched as you might think. It can happen gradually over time if someone acts against democracy. For example, the events surrounding Alberto Fujimori’s election in Peru show how he became a dictator.

Fujimori won the election on a platform of economic reform. He tried to implement his plan using legal, democratic methods but was blocked by Congress. So he retaliated against them and called them unproductive charlatans in the press. He also took the law into his own hands and released thousands of small-time criminals from jail.

On April 5, 1992, Alberto Fujimori became a dictator. He dissolved the congress and suspended the constitution. This is an example of how democracy can be dismantled in three stages: capturing the referees (firing judges/lawmakers) so that they rule in your favor; then you have to rig elections; finally, you get rid of anyone who opposes you.

For example, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán returned to power in 2010. He appointed loyal sycophants to the Constitutional Court and Central Statistical Office. The second stage of his plan was sidelining opposition players by bribing or blackmailing them.

Fujimori’s intelligence advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos, had judges and other members of the opposition videotaped engaging in illegal activities. He used this evidence to blackmail them into compliance with his demands.

The third stage of dismantling democracy is to change the rules so that an autocrat can stay in power. This has happened many times throughout history, including when black people were freed after the Civil War. They started voting for Republicans because they wanted to be free and vote like everyone else.

The Democrats, fearing that blacks would vote Republican because of the new voting rights, introduced a poll tax and made it harder for illiterate people to vote.

The new rules were made to stop blacks from voting. They also prevented the Democratic Party, which supported black rights, from becoming a dominant party in the South for many years. This undermined democracy because people should have been able to vote freely without any restrictions or obstacles.

Big Idea #6: In addition to laws, there are also some unwritten rules of democracy that prevent autocracy.

The US Constitution is a wonderful document, but it has flaws. For example, it doesn’t prevent presidents from appointing people who agree with them to important positions in government agencies or using executive orders to bypass Congress and rule by decree. What really keeps democracy going are the unwritten rules of the game. In particular, democracy thrives on two things: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance.

Mutual tolerance means that people in a democracy treat their political rivals as legitimate contenders for power and not enemies or criminals.

Institutional forbearance is the practice of refraining from actions that would undermine democracy, even if they aren’t illegal. It’s closely linked with mutual toleration because when one isn’t followed, it often leads to a decline in the other. For example, George Washington set an example by only serving two terms as president and everyone else followed suit until Franklin D. Roosevelt who broke this tradition during the Great Depression and World War II. In 1951, there was a constitutional amendment passed limiting presidents to two terms so now every president follows this tradition of institutional forbearance and mutual toleration except for FDR who didn’t follow either one of them which led to their decline at that time since he was in office longer than anyone else before him which wasn’t allowed at that point in history but after his presidency ended both traditions were restored again leading up to today where both are still being practiced successfully without any issues or problems arising out of it.

When mutual toleration is absent, leaders are more likely to take extreme actions against their opponents rather than those they respect. For example, in the 1960s in Chile, as the left and right became increasingly polarized, President Salvador Allende – who was a Marxist from the left – threatened to use executive powers against a parliament where most of its members were conservative.

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Tensions in Chile reached a boiling point when the Chamber of Deputies declared the government unconstitutional. A month later, a military coup led by right-wing powers resulted in Allende’s suicide. Chile spent 17 years under dictatorship before returning to democracy.

Big Idea #7: After the Civil War, the US tried to restore democracy. However, it began a history of voter discrimination.

During the 1850s, there was a divide in the United States between North and South. The Republican Party had just been formed and their anti-slavery platform threatened plantation owners in the south who were supported by Democrats.

Political tension in the US was rising, and even members of Congress were not immune to it. From 1830 to 1860, there were over 125 acts of violence committed by representatives and senators including brandishing or using pistols, canes and knives.

The southern states seceded from the Union in 1861, which led to a civil war. Therefore, democracy was clearly broken and needed repair. This wouldn’t happen until the Compromise of 1877.

In this compromise, both parties agreed to elect Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president in exchange for the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and allowing Democrats to use poll taxes and literacy tests to prevent blacks from voting.

This was the basis for a bill that would eventually be passed in 1890, but it did not pass. This led to more decades of undemocratic elections and brought the two parties closer together. Since Southern Democrats were no longer afraid of black voters ousting them from power, they became more tolerant toward Republicans, with whom they shared conservative views. Conservatives began bridging the gap between the two parties.

While bipartisanship improved at the start of the 20th century, black civil rights were largely ignored. The civil rights movement in the 1960s would test American democracy and bring about change.

Big Idea #8: In the US, divisive issues are based on race, religion and heated rhetoric.

It’s not hard to find signs that US politics are intensely partisan. For example, in 2016, Republican senators made an unprecedented move: they unanimously refused to consider Obama’s nomination for a Supreme Court justice after Scalia died.

The modern divide was created in the 1960s when party politics became increasingly about race and religion.

One of the turning points was the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This was supported by many Democrats, such as President Lyndon Johnson and opposed by Republicans like Barry Goldwater, who ran for president that year. Since then, Democrats have been more supportive of civil rights while Republicans represent a conservative status quo.

During the 1960s and 70s, black voters became increasingly loyal to the Democratic party. Meanwhile, white married Christians were becoming less likely to vote for Democrats. Also during this time period, Republicans began using more aggressive tactics in politics than they had before. Much of this change can be traced back to Newt Gingrich who represented Atlanta in 1979 as a Republican representative. He was known for verbally attacking his opponents and comparing them to Benito Mussolini of Italy’s fascist regime.

Newt Gingrich helped create the GOPAC committee, which taught other Republicans how to use these tactics. He used them himself and became a powerful politician.

During Gingrich’s time as House Speaker, budget negotiations were often shut down. In 1995, there was a five-day stalemate and in 1996, there was a 21-day shutdown.

In 1998, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led an effort to impeach President Bill Clinton for perjury. This was hardly a treasonous crime and nothing like the kinds of crimes that usually lead to impeachment trials.

Since then, things have gotten worse. There was a lot of fighting during the 2016 election because it was divided by issues of race and religion. As a result, democracy is still vulnerable.

Big Idea #9: In the Trump era, democracy is at risk. The future of democracy depends on political leadership and the public.

The question now is whether Trump really wants to be a dictator. The authors claim that he has followed the authoritarian playbook in many of his actions. For example, he tried to capture the referees by having dinner with former FBI Director James Comey and asking him for loyalty. When it became clear that Comey had no such intentions, he was fired.

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Likewise, Trump has tried to undermine and sideline opponents like certain journalists. He has repeatedly criticized them as “fake news” sources.

Trump has been accused of voter fraud after the 2016 election. He created a commission to look into it, but his real goal was to make stricter ID laws for voters who support Democrats. How far will he go? This depends on three factors: how Republican leaders react, public opinion and whether or not judges and media are willing to stand up against him.

The third factor is the risk of impending crises: Whenever a crisis occurs, it gives leaders permission to act as they see fit. In other words, after 9/11, no politician questioned whether George W. Bush’s Patriot Act was unconstitutional.

Many people think that Trump will deport millions of non-white immigrants and manipulate election laws to create a white nationalist political majority. They also believe he will use militarized police officers to silence any protests against this. However, the authors don’t think it’s likely for these events to happen because Trump is more likely to be impeached before they do.

We can expect that the guardrails of democracy will continue to be torn down, as they have been for the past thirty years.

Big Idea #10: The way to avoid authoritarianism is by upholding democratic norms.

Maintaining democracy is very important. It can be hard in a country as diverse as the US, but it’s not impossible. One of the keys to upholding democracy is resisting fighting fire with fire. However, this strategy backfired in Venezuela when Hugo Chávez was elected president and his opponents tried to fight him with dirty tricks used by Chávez himself. This resulted in a failed coup by his opponents and eventually led them to boycott elections altogether, which only motivated Chavez to act undemocratically by purging the police force and other government officials who were opposed to him from their positions.

Even if drastic action outside the realm of democracy gets results, it only increases polarization by scaring off moderate voters. This ultimately leaves both parties without a way to reach any understanding or compromise on matters of race and religion.

Instead of extremism, we should use the tools of democracy to come up with solutions. One solution is for Republicans to be more open-minded about trade agreements and immigration so they can attract minority voters. Meanwhile, Democrats could address poverty in a way that doesn’t rely on means-tested benefits because middle class taxpayers don’t like them and feel they’re only helping poor people. Another solution would be to expand health insurance coverage or increase the minimum wage so everyone has enough money for basic necessities such as food and shelter. A better idea would be universal basic income which gives every citizen an unconditional sum of money just for being alive

The anti-Trump activists would also benefit from cooperating with one another, instead of just protesting. When they cooperate and protest at the same time, it results in a more democratic society. That’s because protesters will be able to provide realistic alternatives that can help change things for the better.

Stability in the United States government would be beneficial for both protesters and CEOs. Looking at past examples, we can see that a stable administration will promote democracy by allowing people to voice their opinions without fear of oppression.

Full Summary of How Democracies Die

Overall Summary

How Democracies Die (Crown, 2018) is a nonfiction book by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The authors take examples from history to explain how democracies die out in modern times. They argue that most democracies don’t fall because of violent overthrow but due to the slow erosion of democratic norms and institutions. In doing so, they analyze threats facing the United States in this century through tools of political science and warn about the possible dangers we face as a nation.

The book is broken down into nine essays that explore how democracies can be undermined by autocratic leaders. The first few chapters detail how other countries were affected, and the final chapters explain why America is at risk of being undermined as well.

In Chapter 1, the authors describe how politicians have been in a situation where they align with an outsider candidate to help them gain support. However, this tactic backfires when that candidate gains more popularity than the politician and becomes more powerful. The best way for politicians to avoid this is by identifying potential autocrats (using their litmus test) and working with rivals from other parties despite short term political losses.

The authors discuss how democracy has kept extremist candidates at bay in the past. They note that many political parties have failed to keep such candidates out of power, and they analyze what makes a candidate an autocrat. The authors also talk about Donald Trump’s candidacy for president as a test case for their theories on authoritarianism.

The authors argue that institutions and norms are critical to preserving democracy, but they can be worn down in small steps. Autocratic leaders may do this while claiming to improve democracy. For example, over time democratic courts may lose their power and therefore not keep autocratic leaders in check. Democracy is also protected by certain norms such as mutual toleration: the idea that all parties should tolerate each other’s existence even if they disagree with one another. It’s important for these ideas to remain intact because many tragic breakdowns of democracies were preceded by a loss of respect for basic principles like mutual toleration.

The authors begin by establishing the importance of norms in society. They note that as time goes on, they strengthen and help to ensure a functioning democracy. But then they discuss how these norms have weakened in recent years, with politicians referring to their rivals as traitorous and anti-American, obstructionism preventing judicial appointments from being made, and presidents using executive action to bypass Congress. The book also explores Trump’s attempts at authoritarian tactics during his first year in office.

In Chapter 9 the authors outline a plan to reverse democratic decline in the United States. This is done by shoring up values of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. To do so, they suggest that citizens form a coalition that supports democracy, as well as reforming the Republican Party to reduce outside donors’ influence on it and its reliance on appealing to white nationalism. They also advocate reducing economic inequality among citizens with different political views.

Introduction

In the introduction, Levitsky and Ziblatt note how odd it is to ask whether American democracy is under threat. They’ve spent years studying other countries that have risen to authoritarianism, so they know what signs are present.

Some democracies end dramatically, as happened in Chile in 1973. The military took control of the country and killed president Salvador Allende.

Democracy can be undermined in a variety of ways. In Venezuela, an outsider candidate was elected who promised to bring back democracy. However, within ten years, he had blacklisted and exiled opponents and stifled the media. In 2017, Venezuela was widely considered to be an autocracy. This is now more common than overt anti-democratic measures because it’s difficult for people to recognize that it’s happening.

The authors then discuss the question of whether America is susceptible to a breakdown. To answer this, they examine how other democratic societies have failed in the past and use those lessons to defend American democracy from similar threats. They note that even though there are signs of trouble, it’s still possible for us to avert a democratic breakdown if we learn from history.

Chapter 1: “Fateful Alliances”

In the beginning of chapter 2, Ziblatt and Levitsky talk about Mussolini’s arrival in Rome. The authors use this anecdote to illustrate how many political outsiders came into power: incumbents who invited them in out of fear.

After the depression, Germany needed a leader. They chose an outsider who was popular and thought they could control him. However, he took over completely and became a dictator.

These two cases (as well as other examples) show how when democracies are under pressure, establishment politicians often try to co-opt an outsider with their popular following. This benefits both the outsiders and the politicians, but in different ways.

Ziblatt and Levitsky note that other democracies have survived despite threats posed by charismatic demagogues. They also dismiss the idea that citizens are inherently attached to democracy, though. Instead, countries managed to defeat these individuals through political parties.

The first step to preventing authoritarianism is identifying the people who are most likely to be authoritarians. They follow a certain pattern, such as attempting and succeeding in coups or being elected into power. It’s also possible that they aren’t obvious antidemocratic leaders; some of them may seem democratic but reject democratic rules, accept violence from their supporters, and want to curtail civil liberties for opponents. There are ways we can control who runs for office: parties should resist nominating extremists if it means losing elections; they should expel extremist elements from within the party; avoid alliances with other antidemocratic groups and candidates by isolating those forces; form a united front against authoritarian forces even if you have to work with opponents—this will prevent extremists from winning power, which can save democracy.

The authors use Belgium as an example of how this can be done. In the 1930s, there were two authoritarian parties that wanted to take over the country and strip away its rights. The Catholic Party removed their own members who held these beliefs, then joined forces with their rivals—the Socialist Party. They put aside their differences for the greater good because they knew it was important for them to work together if they hoped to keep out those far-right parties from gaining more power in government.

Chapter 2: “Gatekeeping in America”

Levitsky and Ziblatt look at the United States in Chapter 2, asking why American democracy has survived despite various authoritarian threats. The reason is not a strong commitment to democracy, but political parties. For example, they use an incident from June 1920 when a group of influential people chose fourth-place candidate Warren G. Harding as their presidential nominee. Although this was undemocratic, it did serve as a gatekeeper by keeping unfit candidates off the ballot and out of office.

In a presidential system, it is particularly important for the gatekeepers to do their jobs well because there’s no natural filter on who can become president. Unlike in parliamentary systems where parties choose candidates, which then run in elections, anyone with enough support can become president of the United States. The Founding Fathers were worried about this and created the Electoral College as a solution; however, they didn’t anticipate political parties changing how it worked. Parties became agents that chose candidates rather than the Electoral College doing so. Therefore, political parties are now more important than ever before when choosing presidents.

The way presidential candidates were chosen wasn’t very democratic because party insiders typically chose those who would be nominated. This meant that many people—especially the poor and politically unconnected, women, and minorities—were prevented from participating in nominations. But it also kept unfit candidates like Henry Ford out of office.

In the late 20th century, political parties changed. There were protests and violence at conventions in 1968. The result was that candidates no longer had to be chosen by party insiders but could win on their own merits through primaries. While there were fears that this would lead to extremist candidates, those fears failed to materialize for decades until 2016 when Donald Trump won the Republican nomination with little support from party leaders.

Chapter 3: “The Great Republican Abdication”

In the third chapter, Levitsky and Ziblatt explore how more people outside of politics ran for office after the primary system changed. But they were not successful at first. For example, Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015 with a lot of money and celebrity but it seemed as if he’d follow a similar trajectory to those who didn’t succeed before him.

In the past, it was difficult for outsiders to raise large sums of money and get a lot of name recognition. However, there were several reasons why that changed in 2016. First, the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling made it easier for outsider candidates to raise large sums of money; second, cable news and social media made it easier for outsiders to get name recognition; finally, gatekeeping failed in 2016.

The first point of failure in the gatekeeping process was during the invisible primary, which is when a candidate does not have any endorsements from influential politicians. However, Trump had support from right-wing media figures such as Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, who gave him free coverage despite his controversies. As a result of this dynamic, Trump became more popular than other candidates during the invisible primary phase.

The authors then move on to the general election. Trump’s rhetoric was described by supporters as “mere words,” but his conduct in the campaign met all the criteria in their litmus test for autocrats, yet Republicans did not try to sideline him.

To determine whether someone is an autocrat, we must look at how that person behaves. If he or she suggests not accepting the election results, questions his opponent’s status as a criminal, encourages violence towards protesters and threatens to limit civil liberties of critics, then this person might be an autocrat.

However, in the 2016 American presidential election, rather than supporting democracy by backing Hillary Clinton as most Republicans did in other countries when faced with authoritarianism, they normalized Trump’s candidacy. This led to an extremely close race that resulted in a win for Trump.

Chapter 4: “Subverting Democracy”

Chapter 4 begins with a description of how former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori rose to power in the early 1990s. A university administrator with no political experience, he won by promising to fight terrorism and enact economic reform while having only a vague idea of how to accomplish either goal. When he encountered opposition from congress, he lashed out and resorted to executive decrees. Two years after his election, Fujimori shut down congress, making him a tyrant.

This anecdote illustrates that a breakdown in democracy can be gradual. Chavez and Fujimori insulted their opponents or labeled them terrorists, which polarized society and fomented mistrust. Meanwhile, authoritarians who were used to the slow work of democratic politics got frustrated with it, so they tried to find other ways of doing things that would get them what they wanted.

By taking over the institutions of a country, an authoritarian leader can break laws and violate people’s rights without being punished. For example, when Fujimori took over Peru, he packed the courts with his loyalists and blackmailed many judges into supporting him. He also impeached uncooperative judges and created new courts to silence dissenters. By doing this, autocrats can keep their opponents from speaking out against them without breaking any laws themselves.

The next step for authoritarians is to change the rules so that they can stay in power. For example, they might rig elections by gerrymandering districts or making it harder for certain people to vote. An even more notable example of this is what happened in the United States after the Civil War: African Americans composed a majority of voters in many Southern states, and those states changed laws like poll taxes and literacy tests to keep black voters from voting.

The authors conclude the chapter by noting that aspiring autocrats use crises, like wars or terrorist attacks, to consolidate power. During a crisis, people are more willing to tolerate incursions on civil liberties and grant expanded executive powers. The result is that catastrophes can provide opportunities for autocrats to cement their grip on power.

Chapter 5: “The Guardrails of Democracy”

The authors state that the US Constitution, despite having been effective in protecting democracy in the past, is not an inherently successful tool for doing so.

The United States is not the only nation to have a constitution. Even Germany and Latin America had constitutions at one time, but those documents did not prevent them from becoming autocratic. The issue with constitutions is that they are incomplete and open for interpretation, which can allow leaders to take advantage of loopholes in order to gain power.

Rather than just the written US Constitution, the authors suggest that unwritten rules have been helpful in securing democracy. These norms ensure that political systems function well by ensuring tolerance and forbearance among different parties.

Mutual toleration is the acceptance of opponents as legitimate political rivals and a basic right to exist. This rule is critical for democracy, but it wasn’t always that way in America; people used to demonize their enemies and persecute them. In other countries where mutual toleration was weak, such as Spain in the 1930s, there were civil wars because opponents couldn’t come together peacefully.

Institutional forbearance means that politicians refrain from doing whatever they can to threaten the viability of the whole political system. They do this by following certain rules, such as the two-term presidential limit in America until 1951 and Ecuador’s decision to impeach President Abdalá Bucaram on grounds of “mental incapacity” despite never even debating his capacity.

The authors say that political leaders who tolerate their rivals are less likely to violate norms as a means of maintaining control. On the other hand, when opponents pose enough of a threat, politicians will do whatever they can to keep them out of power. In Chile in the 1970s, for example, intense polarization undermined the legitimacy of President Salvador Allende’s government and led to dictatorship.

The authors use an analogy to further emphasize their point. Pick-up basketball is a game governed by unwritten rules, which all players are aware of and abide by. When these norms are broken, the game falls apart. The same thing happens in government when there’s lack of cooperation or respect for the rules that govern society.

Chapter 6: “The Unwritten Rules of American Politics”

Levitsky and Ziblatt open Chapter 6 with an anecdote of a time when the norms in America safeguarded democracy. In the 1930s, during President Roosevelt’s New Deal, he tried to add more justices to the Supreme Court after they repeatedly blocked his proposals. This would have violated a norm of independence for coequal branches of government. However, widespread opposition from both parties killed this proposal.

The authors then explore the powers available to politicians that institutional forbearance has largely kept in check. The first of these is presidential power, the limits of which are not clearly defined in the Constitution. A variety of tools allow presidents to take unilateral action without congressional approval, or to dodge judicial control, but presidents have largely opted not to violate norms by using the full range of powers available to them. Similarly, norms ensure the relatively smooth functioning of bodies like the Senate, where individual action, through tools like the filibuster, could otherwise result in gridlock. As proof of how strong this norm was, they note that filibusters were rarely used until after 1960. Norms also limit how often senators block presidential appointments even though it has legal right to do so and impeachment has been attempted only a handful times since its creation because it’s a difficult process.

The authors explain that American democracy has been tested in the past. During Roosevelt’s presidency, he issued more executive orders than any president before him and tried to extend his term for another four years. However, a bipartisan coalition of senators blocked this effort. The second instance was when McCarthyism was used by Republicans to demonize Democrats and erode mutual toleration. The third case is Nixon who violated norms by spying on journalists, activists, and Democrats with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), but he was investigated by a bipartisan group of senators who forced him to resign from office.

The authors note that these norms were able to facilitate cooperation because of the exclusion of racial minorities after the Civil War, but when civil rights laws started being passed in the 1960s, there was a shift.

Chapter 7: “The Unraveling”

In 2016, the Senate Republicans refused to consider President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. That move was a clear violation of norms. The roots of that action go back further than 2016 though. In fact, it goes all the way back to when Newt Gingrich encouraged other Republicans to reject civility and bipartisan cooperation in favor of an aggressive approach to politics. This strategy was formalized through training tapes made by Gingrich and disseminated throughout the party. By capitalizing on dissatisfaction among Republican voters, he managed to transform American politics forever. Part of this process involved undermining mutual toleration norms (through casting Democrats as unpatriotic) and institutional forbearance norms (by normalizing a pattern whereby House Republicans refuse to compromise with Democrats).

In the 2008 presidential election, Republicans intensified their attacks on Barack Obama by using language that was different from other instances of intolerance in American history. They referred to him as an extremist who would destroy America and its values. This led to a decline in mutual toleration between the two parties during his presidency, when Republicans used filibusters and other tools to block legislation and judicial appointments, while President Obama used executive orders to act when Congress blocked him.

There is a growing polarization of the American population. The authors note that this is due to partisan identity becoming more important than party affiliation. This wasn’t always the case, as parties were once more heterogeneous and able to find common ground on issues like civil rights and voting rights. However, with immigration rising over the latter half of the 20th century and Evangelical Christianity becoming popular among Republicans, partisanship became racially and religiously polarized.

The authors of the book examine why Republicans are more likely to break democratic norms. The answer lies in the way right-wing media and conservative interest groups encourage Republican politicians to take extreme positions, among other things. White Protestant voters who make up part of the Republican base have grown increasingly anxious about their status as a minority in America while Trump stepped into the fray.

Chapter 8: “Trump Against the Guardrails”

In Chapter 8, the authors discuss how other autocratic leaders have attempted to secure their power. They used intelligence agencies and courts in order to remove any obstacles that could threaten their leadership. Trump tried this strategy as well when he removed people from positions of power if they didn’t support him. He also attacked these organizations during his presidency in order to gain more control over them.

Trump also tried to discredit the media and other democratic institutions. For example, he called them “the enemy of the American people” which critics claimed was a term used by Stalin and Mao. He also threatened to change libel laws as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa did to silence journalists who criticized him.

The authors say that Trump has advocated changes to the rules of the political system in order to favor himself. For example, he created a commission on election integrity with hopes of making it harder for people who tend not to vote Republican (minorities) to vote.

Although Trump has attempted to be authoritarian, the United States is still a democracy. However, other countries have been in this position before and slowly lost their democracies. The U.S.’s future as a democracy depends on whether its institutions are defended by governing parties or if public opinion favors Trump, along with any potential security crises that could lead to attacks against his political opponents and curtailment of civil liberties.

Levitsky and Ziblatt note that Trump’s consistent attacks on democratic norms are concerning because they make the behavior seem normal, which desensitizes people to undemocratic behavior. These behaviors have become so normalized that it makes democratic breakdown more likely.

Chapter 9: “Saving Democracy”

Levitsky and Ziblatt note that in the process of writing this book, they have realized that American democracy is not invulnerable. If the United States stops promoting democracy and serving as a model for other nations, it could encourage authoritarianism worldwide.

In the future, historians will look back on Trump’s presidency and either praise him for saving America or condemn him as a tragic mistake. Either way, he’ll be remembered in history books. However, it is more likely that his time in office will lead to an increasingly polarized society with less tolerance and forbearance between people from different groups.

Despite the Republican Party’s violation of democratic norms, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that Democrats should not follow suit. The reason is that if they do so, it could strengthen Trump’s position as well as justify his autocratic methods. They argue this happened in Venezuela when opposition attacks on autocratic leaders weakened the opposition and justified autocratic methods.

The authors argue that anti-Trump forces should build a broad coalition in support of democracy. They suggest that this coalition could be made up of people from different political backgrounds who would otherwise disagree on many issues, but they can agree to work together for the common good. This will reduce America’s partisan divides and encourage mutual toleration between individuals and groups.

Meanwhile, political leaders can overcome polarization in two ways: by cooperating with their rivals and compromising to agree on a solution, or by reforming the Republican Party.

Democrats also need to appeal to more white working-class voters. However, they shouldn’t do this at the expense of ethnic minorities. Instead, Democrats should focus on reducing inequality by expanding social programs and making them more universal.

The authors close by saying that the public has a responsibility to protect democracy. It’s not only up to politicians, but also depends on people sharing their ideas and values with others. By spreading those norms, we can call American democracy unique in its ability to sustain itself while being diverse.

How Democracies Die Book Summary, by Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt
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