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New Book Summary: How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Published 2 months ago • 1 min read

In How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain how American democracy is more fragile than we may think and suggests ways to prevent it from dying.

As usual, the key takeaways are below, and you can find the full summary by clicking the link above.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Democracy is hard work, and can be frustrating for all involved.
    • Outsiders may find democracy’s checks and balances too frustrating and seek to bypass them. Elected leaders can kill democracies, by undermining the very systems that elected them.
    • The authors suggest four warning signs to help identify authoritarian leaders — Donald Trump met every one of them even before he became president.
    • But democracy in America has been weakening for decades, long before Trump.
  • The first test for democracy is how well it keeps dangerous demagogues out of power.
    • America’s party establishment used to be quite good at keeping populist outsiders such as Henry Ford out of power.
    • But in 1972, the presidential primary system became the main method of selecting party nominees, which reduced party leaders’ gatekeeping role.
    • America failed this test when Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, and then President, in 2016.
  • The second test is the strength of unwritten democratic norms once an autocrat has come to power. In particular:
    • Mutual toleration — the idea that you see your political opponents as legitimate rivals. Unfortunately, today in America people increasingly see their opponents as “evil”.
    • Institutional forbearance — when leaders and officials exercise restraint in their powers. For example, not stacking the Supreme Court.
    • Mutual toleration and institutional forbearance are linked. If you see your opponents are evil, you’re less likely to exercise forbearance and more likely to use authoritarian measures to defeat them.
    • Both of these have been declining in the US since around the 1990s.
  • Once an autocrat comes into power, they can consolidate their power by:
    • Capturing the referees — judges, law enforcement and regulatory agencies;
    • Side-lining the opposition — political opponents, media, influential public figures, religious leaders;
    • Tilting the playing field — changing the constitution or electoral system to lock in their advantage; and
    • Exploiting a crisis — the courts and the public are more likely to tolerate authoritarian measures during a crisis.
  • So what can we do?
    • Don’t fight dirty.
    • Don’t eschew diversity.
    • Build a broad pro-democratic coalition.
    • Reform the Republican Party.
    • Focus on depolarising economic policies — i.e. universalistic policies over means-testing.

As usual, you can find the full detailed summary on the website. If you found this summary useful, consider forwarding to a friend you think might enjoy it.

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To Summarise

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