How Democracies Die Offers a Stark Warning

In the aftermath of the election results, How Democracies Die offers insight into the importance of protecting the institutions at the highest levels of government. Read on to learn more.

By Sydney Black

As the results of the presidential election came in, one thing was notably missing –  a concession speech. Instead, the United States was met with claims of voter fraud backed with little to no evidence, and lawsuits filed on the part of the incumbent president, Donald J. Trump. Though a concession speech on the outside is just a small gesture, it represents a devotion to a peaceful transfer of power, a cornerstone in American democracy. Without it, the fundamental institutions of our government risk collapse, which further begs the question: What causes democracies to fail? Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt examine this question thoroughly in How Democracies Die. 

Levitsky and Ziblatt explore the argument that  “institutional collapse” rather than military coups or violent revolutions is more likely to cause the deterioration of a democracy. Institutional failure can be seen in four forms: (i) rejecting democratic institutions, (ii) denying the legitimacy of political opponents, (iii) tolerating or encouraging violence, and (iv) limiting civil liberties. 

One highlight of the book is that Levitsky and Ziblatt give us a glance into the concept of “electoral gatekeeping” within governments. Though not a sizable portion of the book, the miniscule segment covering this was crucial to the development of the overall narrative. In the traditional sense, electoral gatekeeping has allowed for the institutionalists to stay in power while it is more challenging for political outsiders to enter the sphere of government. Particularly, the fact that modern legal codes, including the Constitution, are in many cases extraordinarily weak provide a platform for historical examples. More specifically, said lawcodes leave little room for error and one threat to the system could be its downfall. However, the existence of “unsaid rules” in these weaker codes has allowed for democracy to continue on and these range from who is elected to the policy passed. Other rules are written, such as the existence of the electoral college in the United States. The structure of the Electoral College has traditionally allowed for more control over who has been elected. 

There were many strengths of the book, but there were also some areas for improvement. Specifically, I felt the authors often did not use sufficient evidence to support their claims; at times, they were vague in their analysis.  For example, the four factors mentioned above used to analyze leaders do not provide a clear brightline or objective measure for what these look like. The process of delineating a leader’s governing style between authoritarian and promoting democratic norms can be a thin line and this book does not provide a clear solution.  Furthermore, though Levitsky and Ziblatt explain what the four factors are, they offer minimal guidance on how knowledge of these factors can be applied pragmatically. 

Overall, How Democracies Die provides an interesting  perspective on the current election and overall political status of the United States. It offers a further investigation into the functions of American government while also offering a clear reminder to Americans to be cautious, now more than ever, to ensure that our own democracy does not die.