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Book Review: How Democracies Die

I was a little bored watching my wife’s choice of TV. I grabbed my Kindle reader and found I didn’t have any outstanding ebooks on my queue. So I went to the recommended reads and saw “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. It seemed to have been on a bestseller’s list and won a few awards. So I parted with $11.99.

This book was written one year into the Trump presidency. And the authors do not like Mr. Trump.

I got only a few Kindle pages into the book when the authors claimed that Mr. Trump’s presidency could be blamed on the upper echelons of the Republican Party. The authors thought this group should have done more to stop the rise of Mr. Trump.

I almost stopped reading, chastising myself for donating to an anti-Trump cause. This “upper echelon” solution was not a solution in my books. But for some reason, I kept reading—maybe trying to get my money’s worth. I’m glad I did. This book is an easy read, with all sorts of democratic workings inside and outside of the USA. There were some good lessons on the complexities of western democracy.

According to the authors, the failure of the upper echelons of the Republican Party started about 1970,. At that time, both American political parties reconstructed their primary electoral processes. This new way took powers away from the upper echelons of the parties and gave them to rank-and-file party members. No longer could the men in the smoke-filled back rooms make deals to select the candidates that would be offered to the public.

This change in democracy solved the bad optics of the men in smoke-filled back rooms. But it created another: the American political system lost a tool to thwart the rise of someone like Mr. Trump.

The authors discussed Latin America. They pointed out that most of these countries used a reasonable facsimile of the U.S. Constitution to model their system of governance. And yet these countries have still not established a mature democracy within their borders. Why do the authors make this point? Well, they are pointing out that a well-designed and well-written constitution is, by itself, not enough to bring  strong democracy to a country. The authors refer to “soft guardrails” of democracy: traditions, conventions, practices, etc. that are not written down.

One of these guardrails has been one political side accepting that the other side is a legitimate representative after it has won the election. Latin America never really developed this tradition. The USA is losing this guardrail—and other informal conventions of political decency.

So the authors do not put the blame on Mr. Trump. They say this loss of good tradition started back in 1965 with passing of the Civil Rights Act.

Before 1965, the American South was more or less a one-party state: the Democrats. The real election were the internal Democrat elections (with a lot of influence in the back rooms), with the general election being a coronation of whomever the Democrats put up.

In most of the rest of the country, Democrats and Republicans were both viable contenders in many elections. There was a relatively friendly and even competition between these two parties. When Congress was in session, the white, male Republican representatives and the white, male Democrat representatives treated each other civilly and with respect—and worked with the formal rules of the Constitution and informal rules of good political practices. They believed their adversaries deserved their elected positions. And many bills often had bipartisan support.

But those times were also times when African Americans were disenfranchised with American democracy. They either did not vote or were discouraged to vote. For a century after the civil war, this demographic had little political power.

Whether the Civil Rights Act was meant to do the right thing or was a means solidify the Democrat hegemony in the American South, African Americans finally had a say in politics. This demographic finally had influence in elections to better reflect the size of its population.

There were three ramifications of this change. First, the white nationalist Americans in the South shifted their political allegiance toward the Republicans. The Democrats of the South became more liberal, similar to their colleagues in the rest of the country. Then the conservatives of the South shifted their allegiance toward the Republicans. If nothing else, the Civil Rights Act broke the one-party monopoly of the American South. Both parties were contenders. 

According to the authors, the passing of the Civil Rights Act was when the elected politicians started treating each other with acrimony. Politicians began following the party lines more often. Co-operation between the parties was less common. Ad hominem attacks became more popular than logical debate. The authors blame Newt Gingrich as the person most responsible for this change.

If the author is correct about the Civil Rights Act being responsible for Democrats and Republicans coming to disrespect each other, this leads to a profound understanding of the American psyche: (1) If white people are exclusively in the decision-making realm, they will get along reasonably well, and (2) if African Americans are brought into the decision-making realm, the elected white people will split into two distinct camps that have no intention of getting along. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this social/political change.

As mentioned earlier in this review, this book was written a year after the Trump political experiment started. The authors have correctly predicted further splitting of democratic soft guardrails by Mr. Trump. And with this review coming after January 6, 2021, the authors’ prophecy that the splitting of harder guardrails will follow the softer guardrails has also been conclusively proven.

Toward the end of the book, the authors offered a second solution for the time the book was written. They advised the Democrat Party to take the high road as the country navigates its way through the rest of the Trump presidency. For example, they advised that unless there is bipartisan support, there should be no impeachment of Mr. Trump. We know that did not happen. But I wonder if the Democratic base would have stayed intact had the Democrats not taken this move—even knowing failure was likely. Political authors may be good at giving advice. But they are on the outside; they have the luxury of not having to navigate with the reality of politics. We could argue whether the high road was the best path or how well the Democrats adhered to it.

On November 3, 2020, Mr. Trump proved that he was still a viable contender for the job of President of the United States. Had a fellow by the name of George Floyd and a virus called COVID 19 happened after November 3, Mr. Trump would have probably won the race. Then, according to the logic offered by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the democracy of the USA would have followed a natural, recognizable path into a dictatorship that has been observed in other failing democracies in modern history.

The result of the November 3 election had more to do with the timing of these two historical events than with the Democrats taking the high road or not. The solution of the authors has become a moot point. It never was a solution that would pack much punch to change things.

Since I purchased this book, my Kindle feed has had a lot more books with titles like “How Democracies Die.” I suspect these books too have solutions that fall short of what we really need to do.

Published on Medium 2021

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