Democratic breakdowns: part II

I have written extensively about How Democracies Die on this blog – both in English (link) and Polish (link, link, link, link, link). Since my „Democratic Transitions” class is now over, I would like to provide an overview of the second half of the book and offer some general comments about its promises and limitations.

The „Subverting Democracy” chapter was my favorite. In it, the authors lay out a „blueprint” that would be authoritarianism follow when trying to consolidate power. The question is: how do elected authoritarian rules undermine democratic institutions? First, it is necessary to undermine the autonomy of the courts and other watchdog agencies. Then, political opponents – politicians, media, cultural figures, and business leaders – have to be either intimidated or bought off. The next step is to re-write the rules of the game, so it is no longer fair. This can be done by amending electoral rules, for example. Finally, exogenous shocks are always helpful, just like when the popularity of the Nazi party was aided by the great depression.

The major premise of the book is that formal rules alone are not sufficient for democracy to thrive. A well-designed constitution is not enough because every democracy also needs informal norms (see also here). The authors focus on two of them – mutual toleration and institutional forbearance – and convincingly demonstrate that American democracy is eroding as both of these rule are increasingly violated. Even though Donal Trump has accelerated this process of erosion, it did not start with him. Trump is a product of democratic backsliding rather than his creator.

The main contribution How Democracies Die therefore, is that it helps us understand that contemporary democracies wear away slowly. This, ironically, is also the major limitation of the book because it does not help us distinguish between institutional evolution vis-à-vis democratic breakdown. The introduction of Reed Rules, for instance, can be seen as an example of both institutional evolution and democratic breakdown. To be sure, we can judge past decisions based on the type of outcomes they produce, but that is a bad evaluation criterion (link).

Readers of How Democracies Die will should appreaciate how open Levitsky and Ziblatt are about the value and limitations of political participation. They argue, for instance, that introduction of primary elections has opened the door for outsiders like Trump. Conversely, when party bosses controlled their parties, political demagogues were kept at bay. Levitsky and Ziblatt thus demonstrate that more democracy is not always the best solution. That is not a popular argument to make.

And yet Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude their book on a very enthusiastic note. In their last chapter, they are particularly optimistic about the prospects of democracy in the United States. America certainly has a lot of experience with democratic governance, but the chapter visibly contrasts with pages that come before it. Not everyone is so optimistic. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Dan Slater was much more cautious about the immediate future of democracy in America.

Furthermore, Levitsky and Ziblatt offer specific policy recommendations that they believe would make American democracy more robust. They advocate for a strong welfare state to address economic inequalities. This, in turn, should encourage minorities to participate in politics and eventually will lead to a first multicultural democracy. These are lofty goals, and I am guessing that few social scientists would disagree with them – but the goal instead is to convince ordinary Americans. To be fair, every book has its limitations, but How Democracies Die could certainly use another chapter that focuses on the importance of the state. Something along the lines of The Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt. Judt’s arguments in favor of social democracy are both fresh and practical, and his book should be read as an extension of How Democracies Die. Overall, Levitsky and Ziblatt wrote an accessible book that will be of interest to political scientists and non-specialists alike. In many ways the book is already a must read.

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