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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 26, New Delhi, June 13, 2020

Book Review: Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future | Irshad Rashid and Manzoor Ahmad Padder

Saturday 13 June 2020


Book Review

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future. Viking, Penguin Books Ltd, London, 2018. pp. 312. Notes. Index. Pb. $6.94. ISBN 9780241336496

by Irshad Rashid and Manzoor Ahmad Padder.

In his latest novel The Golden House Salman Rushdie offers an intriguing parable of modern American democracy. At the center of the novel is the story of Nero who shares uncanny resemblance with the current incumbent of the office of US presidency: From having a shady past which he is adamant to keep hidden to his fortune built, at least, partly on real estate to being married to a foreign woman about the same age as the children, the resemblances and echoes with the Trump are quite prominent.

The crux of the novel can be summarized by the Aesop’s fable of the scorpion and the frog. A scorpion persuades the frog to carry it across the water. The frog asks: “But how do I know you won’t sting me?” “Because then we will both die,” says the scorpion – but stings him anyway. “Why?” gasps the frog, as they both sink beneath the water. “It’s my nature,” replies the scorpion.” This fable is a perfect example for explaining the rise of populist leaders in modern democracies like America, who ride to power on the backs of the well-established democratic norms but end up subverting them along the way, thereby sinking along with the democratic norms that help them rise to the power.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the two Harvard Professors in their remarkably eloquent book: “How Democracies die” provide us a succinct diagnosis of how modern democratic regimes dig their own graves on the pattern of the fable. This becomes pretty clear when the authors remark in very introduction of the book: “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.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt pose an immensely pertinent question of our times in the first sentence of the book itself: Is our democracy in danger? The rest of the book attempts to answer this question in the context of recent American politics where democracy has come under unprecedented challenge from the supposedly democratic institutions that are meant to uphold the ideals of democracy.

Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples from 1930’s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, Chile and Venezuela, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die. However, their main concern is to understand and draw lessons from such examples in order to see how American democracy can be saved from the same fate. The book provides us a comprehensive account of various democratic governments that collapsed in recent history at the hands of dictators. They argue that during the cold war era most of the democracies, “died at the hands of men with guns.” Democracies were, “dissolved in a very spectacular fashion, through military power and coercion.” There is no denying the fact that until the end of the cold war, most of the breakdowns in the countries like Chile, Turkey, Venezuela, Hungary and Pakistan have been caused by the generals and soldiers. Today, democracies also die but in a very a different and unspectacular way: Now democracies die not by coups and violent seizure of power but at the hands of the people with ostensible authoritarian tendencies who are elected through a democratic process of electoral politics.
“Democratic backsliding”, Levitsky and Ziblatt observe, “Today begins at the ballot box.”
The authors argue that since the end of the Cold War, most countries have become lost cases to democracy not by the acts of generals and soldiers but by the elected governments themselves. They list a number of examples— beginning with Chavez in Venezuela, an elected leader who subverted democratic institutions through which he assumed power---where elected leaders dismantled the democratic institutions like in Georgia, Hungry, Peru Poland, Russia, and Turkey Ukraine and so on.

In a searingly striking yet simple passage they show how an electoral road to breakdown is “dangerously deceptive”, for it comes without the terrifying fanfare and commotion that accompany the coup-de tat. In the new electoral way, the elected autocrats dismantle democracies without sending tanks on the streets. They don’t need to scrap the constitution. People continue to participate in elections, only that they scarcely have even a semblance of fairness associated with them. Newspapers continue to be published, except that they are either bought off or bullied into self-censorship. “The elected autocrats just maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.”
What is more deceptively unnerving is the fact that people do not realize while all this is happening. They are bamboozled into believing that they live under democracies. The business, as usual, goes on, so to speak as people buy into the canards of these elected demagogues that they are working for the promotion of democracy. However, quite the contrary they are its gravediggers. Think of the current populist leaders in Turkey, Venezuela, India, Russia and Trump himself in the USA, how they delegitimize the opponents and curtail the liberties and unabashedly silence the critics through various means in the name of strengthening democracy. And sometimes condone and encourage violence overtly, sometimes through their refusal to denounce it when it is carried out by their lackeys to literally snuff out the voices of the opponents.

While the norms of democratic polity are being battered by these authoritarian rulers, the lives of many people across the world become unliveable. Because we live in a world which is more interdependent than it ever was,whatt happens in one country doesn’t stay there; it spirals out to places and territories transcending political frontiers and affecting people in ways one might have never imagined. That is why we should all be worried about what happens to democratic norms in America, Turkey, and Greece and so on.

Levitsky and Ziblatt provide a checklist of what these norms are and when their erosion should set off alarm bells. They make a quite banal but apt observation that in order to keep the demagogues out of the power they first need to be identified. And interestingly they have developed four behavioral warning signs to look- out for in a potential demagogue: when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents including media.
No prizes for guessing who in the current political arena of democratic nations perfectly meet these behavioral signs. If Trump would figure at the top of the list, Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, Orban in Hungry, Putin in Russia are too strikingly similar to decide who holds the second spot.

In an interesting observation Levitsky and Ziblatt say that notwithstanding the popular imagination, it is not America’s national political culture (America’s firm commitment to democracy) but the political parties who have worked as gatekeepers to keep would-be authoritarians outside the power. They persuasively explain the rise of Trump because of the weakening of the traditional gatekeeping function of political parties. As party leaders abdicate their role and play with the populist fire, the figures like Mussolini, Hitler and more recently Chavez and now Trump (This is how Mussolini, Hitler, Trump, etc. were given a space by party elites to tap into the popular fervor for securing an electoral victory) have emerged to hollow out democracies of its substance and consequently what remains of it is a mere Skelton. Upbraiding Republican Party establishment for failing to prevent Trump from winning the presidential nomination, therefore putting party before the country, they make a case for renewed role of political parties to act as robust gatekeepers to ensure that such people are precluded from entering the political arena in the first place.

They drive home the point that there has been a continuous strand of would-be authoritarians, who generally gain around 30 to 35% approval support in opinion surveys, in American political culture. The strand runs from Henry Ford in 1930s, the founder of the Ford Motor Company and a popular anti-Semite who was actually quoted with admiration in Mein Kampf, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. Although these figures were quite popular but none of them made it close to the presidency. And what changed in 2016 to enable Trump to crash all the guardrails to ascend to the power?

Two factors explain this change. One, presidential candidates until 1968 were selected by party leaders referred to as a system of peer review by most political scientists and the system of smoke-filled back rooms by Levitsky and Zibalt. Criticizing this system for its disadvantages but quickly adding that this filtration system worked best to keep the authoritarian demagogue out. The fall of this filtration system post-1972 opened the door for demagogues. Trump was a beneficiary of this environment where party gatekeepers were now a shells of what they once were. Besides, the availability of outside money which allowed the candidates to find ways to finance their own campaigns through the internet or by finding a billion financier to fund their campaigns opened the way for marginal and even the candidates with eccentrically dictatorial proclivities to enter the race. This also dented the power of traditional gatekeeping function of mainstream political parties.

Second, the explosion of alternative media spaces like cable and social media opened up the path for over-night fame of candidates bypassing the traditional channels which favored establishment politicians over extremists; no one proved better at exploiting this alternative media space to ride to the cusp of fame than Trump.

The authors take a divergence from the American writer Montesquieu who thought constitutional checks and balances are enough to keep the democracies safe; instead, they believe that it is quite naïve to hold such a view. Constitutional guarantees are to be backed by the unwritten robust democratic norms to keep the potential extremist demagogues—which they point out emerge in all societies, even the healthy democratic ones—at bay.

Besides, the two fundamental norms that Levitsky and Ziblatt think undergird democracy are “mutual toleration” and “institutional forbearance.” They served as what they call the soft guardrails of American Democracy. The weakening of such guardrails began much earlier in the 1980’s and 1990s, expedited in 2000s. However, the last nail in the coffin was provided during the time Barak Obama was nominated the presidential candidate when Republicans began questioning the legitimacy of the political rivals from Democratic Party and had abandoned forbearance in order to win the elections by any means possible.

With the coming of Trump to the power that is precisely what has almost completely disappeared from the scene. However, they recognize that Trump is not the cause but in many ways a symptom of deeper worrying ills that run through the American political system. So certainly the problem runs deeper than Donald Trump: The weakening of America’s democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization – one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.
History does not repeat itself but it rhymes, Levitsky and Ziblatt add this positive thought in the book. The promise of history they assert, after surveying the history of the collapse of many democracies in modern times, is that we can discern the rhymes before things reach to a point of no return. This brings to mind Irish nobel laureate Seamus Heaney’s lines on the similar theme of hope and history: “History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave, but then, once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.” Yet one wonders if this isn’t a misplaced hope on the promise of history? The promise of history that the authors talk about might just be what Freud calls a displacement (When you displace feelings, hopes, interests, and desires from one object to the other without being conscious of it). Levitsky and Zibalt may well be displacing their own wishful thinking of how the future should pan out for democracies on the promise of history,and much like the poet’s idiosyncratic wish, their hope might too be just a poetic reverie. That is where the weakness of the book lies: Treating history as a credible guide, ignoring all signs that point to the contrary. For if there is anything we have learnt from history, it is that it holds no promises for future.

Irshad Rashid is a Ph.D in Political Science and Manzoor Ahmad Padder is a Research Scholar in the Department of political science university of Kashmir.

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