In a healthy democracy, gatekeepers keep would-be autocrats away from power. In 2016, they failed. (More)

For the next three days, I’ll review the new book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Today we’ll see how gatekeepers in healthy democracies keep would-be autocrats away from power, and why they failed in 2016. Tomorrow we’ll look at the authors’ “guardrails” of healthy democracies – unwritten but vital norms of mutual tolerance and forbearance – and how those eroded in the U.S. over the past 20 years. Friday we’ll conclude with whether the U.S. is on a path toward autocracy, and how we can stop it.

Steven Levitsky and David Ziblatt are Professors of Government at Harvard University. Both research the structure and durability of democracies, with Dr. Levitsky focusing on Latin America and Dr. Ziblatt on Europe.

“Fateful alliances”

The authors offer a four-part test to identify would-be autocrats:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game, such as: (a) rejecting the Constitution or expressing a willingness to violate it; (b) suggesting a need for antidemocratic measures such as canceling elections, violating or suspending the Constitution, banning certain organizations, or resisting basic civil or political rights; (c) using and/or endorsing the use of extraconstitutional means to change the government, such as military coups, violent insurrection, or mass protests aimed at forcing a change of government; (d) attempting to undermine the legitimacy of elections, such as by refusing to accept credible election results.
  2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, such as: (a) describing their rivals as subversive or opposed to the existing constitutional order; (b) claiming their rivals constitute an existential threat to national security or to the prevailing way of life; (c) baselessly describing their rivals as criminals whose supposed violations of the law disqualify them from full participation in politics; (d) baselessly suggesting their rivals are foreign agents, secretly working in alliance with (or the employ of) foreign governments. [I’ll add claims that rivals are secretly in alliance with non-state enemies such as terrorist groups.]
  3. Toleration or encouragement of violence, such as: (a) having ties to armed gangs, paramilitary forces, militias, guerillas, or other groups that engage in illicit violence; (b) sponsoring or encouraging mob attacks on opponents; (c) tacitly endorsing violence by supporters, by refusing to unambiguously condemn and punish it; (d) praising (or refusing to condemn) other acts of political violence, in the past and/or elsewhere in the world.
  4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media, such as: (a) supporting laws or policies that restrict civil liberties, such as expanded libel or defamation laws, and laws restricting protest, criticism of the government and/or favored civic or political groups; (b) threatening legal or other punitive action against critics; (c) praising repressive measures taken by other governments, in the past and/or elsewhere in the world.

As they document, the God-King meets all four parts of that test … but so have other figures in U.S. history:

We know that extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace. An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place — by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them, and when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates. Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads to established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.

In healthy democracies, then, political parties are the principal gatekeepers against would-be autocrats, and the authors note two ways that parties can fail in that essential gatekeeping role.

First, party leaders may make what the authors call “fateful alliances” with a would-be autocrat. They document how this happened in Italy in 1921, Germany in 1933, and Venezuela in 1993. In each case, leaders of established parties believed they could profit by the popularity of a demagogue – Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Hugo Chávez, respectively – and also curb his autocratic impulses. And in each case, those “devil’s bargains failed.” The party leaders overestimated their clout and/or underestimated the autocrat, and soon the autocrat either coopted or replaced them with loyalists.

Second, a party structure may lack the tools to block a would-be autocrat. For most of U.S. history, party leaders chose our candidates, either in the proverbial (and sometimes literal) “smoke-filled rooms” or by funding and local party commitments. But as our party primary system developed after 1968, party leaders’ influence began to decline. That waning accelerated with the advent of extra-party PACs and other outside sources that reduced candidates’ reliance on the party for funding. Couple that with personal celebrity and a knack for seizing media attention – as the God-King did – and GOP leaders had no mechanism to force him out of the primary race.

Worse, with 17 candidates in the race, the God-King needed only a small but consistent slice of GOP voters to finish at or near the top of the early primaries. To block him, GOP leaders would have had to narrow the field, dramatically, so non-Trump voters could coalesce around a more mainstream alternative. But the only leaders with the power to accomplish that were … the other candidates themselves … and none were willing to cede their personal opportunities in favor of a mainstream rival.

Thus the God-King won the GOP nomination, and party leaders had only one remaining means to stop him: to explicitly renounce him and endorse the rival party candidate, Hillary Clinton. The authors concede that this might not have tipped the balance in the general election. But the margins in key states were close enough that it could have. Instead, every primary rival either endorsed the God-King or remained silent … as did every major GOP leader in Congress. Not a single one endorsed Clinton.

In so doing, they told GOP voters the God-King was acceptable, and the election coalesced along party lines. The fundamentals – Democrats had held the White House for two terms, economic trends, etc. – had always forecast a close race, and in a close race the God-King could and did eke out a narrow Electoral College victory …

… and the many of the same reforms that allowed him to win the GOP primary – such as binding Electors to popular results – also eliminated the Framers’ final barrier to autocrats: an Electoral College veto. While many pundits and online activists breathlessly opined about how the College might reverse the outcome, that was never a realistic option as a matter of law.

And that’s how a demagogic would-be autocrat became President of the United States. The next question would be whether our institutions – Congress, the courts, and administrative agencies – could manage what their Italian, German, and Venezuelan counterparts could not: curb his autocratic impulses.

We’ll look at that tomorrow.


Image Credits — Democracy: Bryce Durbin (; Cracks: MothvalleySage (DeviantArt); Smoke and Painting effects: Crissie Brown (


Good day and good nuts