Saving our democracy will not be easy. We cannot simply “restore” what was, nor can we “kill it to save it.” (More)

This week I’m reviewing the new book How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Wednesday we saw how gatekeepers in healthy democracies keep would-be autocrats away from power, and why they failed in 2016. Yesterday we looked 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. Today we 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.

“This is America’s great challenge. We cannot retreat from it.”

Although journalists like Joshua Kurlantzick describe “democracy in retreat” worldwide, Levitsky and Ziblatt disagree:

The number of democracies rose dramatically in the 1980s and 19902, peaked around the year 2005, and has remained steady ever since. Backsliders make headlines and capture our attention, but for every Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela there is a Colombia, Sri Lanka, or Tunisia — countries that have grown more democratic over the last decade. The vast majority of the world’s democracies – from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru to Greece, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Romania, to Ghana, India, South Korea, and South Africa – remain intact. Although some European democracies face many problems, from weak economies to EU skepticism to anti-immigrant backlash, there is little evidence in any of them of the kind of fundamental erosion of norms we have seen in the United States.

But Trump’s rise may itself pose a challenge to global democracy.

The authors note that the U.S. has, with notable exceptions, “used diplomatic pressure, economic assistance, and other foreign policy tools to oppose authoritarianism and press for democratization in the post-Cold War era.” However, the authors see that changing under the God-King, in part due to his “America First” rhetoric and his open admiration of autocrats, and in larger part because:

America is no longer a democratic model. A country whose president attacks the press, threatens to lock up his rival, and declares he might not accept election results cannot credibly defend democracy.

In that thesis, the God-King’s Twitter tantrums and authoritarian policy proposals threaten democracy not only in the U.S., but around the world. They foresee three possible futures:

  • “A swift democratic recovery” — The God-King fails politically and is not reelected, perhaps even impeached or forced to resign. That implosion not only sweeps Democrats to victory but also motivates voters to demand reforms that restore critical democratic norms and perhaps even improve our constitutional structures. “This is certainly the future many of us hope for,” they write. “But it is unlikely.”
  • “President Trump and the Republicans continue to win with a white nationalist appeal” — In this “much darker future,” GOP leaders fall in line with the God-King and keep winning national and state elections. They install loyalists in the courts and federal agencies, allowing them to “use the techniques of constitutional hardball to manufacture durable white electoral majorities.” They suborn federal and local law enforcement, and perhaps encourage private militia groups, to suppress dissent in the name of “law and order” and impose a “profoundly antidemocratic” agenda. “Such a nightmare scenario isn’t likely,” they write, “but it also isn’t inconceivable.”
  • “Democracy without solid guardrails” — This future is “marked by polarization, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare…. President Trump and Trumpism may well fail in this scenario, but that failure would do little to narrow the divide between parties or reverse the decline in mutual toleration and forbearance.” The authors see this as the “most likely” future … unless we act firmly, but carefully.

Carefully, in that the authors emphasize that Democrats cannot merely “fight like Republicans” — demonizing the GOP in our rhetoric and blindly obstructing any policy merely because the God-King or GOP propose it, and playing “constitutional hardball” at every opportunity to cement Democratic partisan advantages. They argue that this would be “misguided,” explaining:

First of all, evidence from other countries suggests that such a strategy often plays directly into the hands of authoritarians. Scorched-earth tactics often erode support for the opposition by scaring off moderates. And they unify progovernment forces, as even dissidents within the incumbent party close ranks in the face of an uncompromising opposition. And when the opposition fights dirty, it provides the government with justification for cracking down.[…]

Even if Democrats were to succeed in weakening or removing President Trump via hardball tactics, their victory would be Pyrrhic — for they would inherit a democracy stripped of its remaining protective guardrails. … This sort of escalation rarely ends well.

Instead, they argue:

Opposition to the Trump administration’s authoritarian behavior should be muscular, but it should seek to preserve, rather than violate, democratic rules and norms. Where possible, opposition should center on Congress, the courts, and, of course, elections. If Trump is defeated via democratic institutions, it will strengthen those institutions.

Protest should be viewed in a similar way. Public protest is a basic right and an important activity in any democracy, but its aim should be the defense of rights and institutions, rather than their disruption.

That also means finding and working with allies on issues where we agree, even when we disagree on other key issues. We cannot abandon principled stands on those “other key issues,” but those differences should not automatically disqualify would-be allies on issues where we agree:

We may disagree with our neighbors on abortion but agree with them on health care; we may dislike another neighbor’s view on immigration but agree with them on the need to raise the minimum wage. Such alliances help us build and sustain norms of mutual toleration. When we agree with our political rivals at least some of the time, we are less likely to view them as mortal enemies.

However, that must not mean “restoring” a democracy of white, Christian men … debating white, Christian men … about issues that matter to white, Christian men:

In a New York Times op-ed, Mark Penn and Andrew Stein urged Democrats to abandon “identity politics” and moderate their stance on immigration to win back white working-class votes. Though rarely voiced, the core message is this: Democrats must reduce the influence of ethnic minorities to win back the white working class.
We think this is a terrible idea. Seeking to diminish minority groups’ influence in the party – and we cannot emphasize this strongly enough – is the wrong way to reduce polarization. It would repeat some of our country’s most shameful mistakes.

Threading that needle would be an unprecedented achievement.

As our colleague Danielle Allen writes:

The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority and where political equality, social equality, and economies that empower all have been achieved.

This is America’s great challenge. We cannot retreat from it.

Part of the challenge lies in a confluence of timing, they write. “Today’s racially tinged partisan polarization reflects the fact that ethnic diversity surged during a period (1975 to the present) in which economic growth slowed, especially for those at the bottom end of the income distribution.”

That led to the false but compelling belief that ethnic diversity – and, I’ll add, reduced gender inequality – created the slower economic growth. In its most simplistic form: “There would be plenty of opportunities for white, Christian men if women, people of color, LGBTs, and other minorities weren’t taking everything.”

That belief may ‘feel true,’ but data show that white, Christian men still have wildly disproportionate shares of wealth, income, professional and governmental leadership posts, media voices, and other indices of opportunity. A “democracy” based on the notion that women, people of color, LGBTs, and other minorities should get nothing unless and until every white, Christian man has everything he might want … is not a “populism” that reflects our populace.

One solution, the authors argue, is to shift the social safety net from means-tested to universal:

Means-tested programs create the perception among many middle-class citizens that only poor people benefit from social policy. And because race [and gender, I’ll add] and poverty have historically overlapped in the United States, these policies can be racially [and gender] stigmatizing. […] Welfare became a pejorative term in America because of a perception of recipients as undeserving.

Undeserving, fundamentally, because most of those recipients were not … white, Christian men.

The authors suggest that Democrats propose more universal programs:

Comprehensive health insurance is a prominent example. Other examples include a much more aggressive raising of the minimum wage, or a universal basic income[.] Still another example is “family policy,” or programs that provide paid leave for parents, subsidized day care for children with working parents, and prekindergarten education for nearly everyone. […] Finally, Democrats could consider more comprehensive labor market policies, such as more extensive job training, wage subsidies for employers to train and retain workers, work-study programs for high school and community-college students, and mobility allowances for displaced employees. Not only do these policies have the potential to reduce the economic inequality that fuels resentment and polarization, but they could contribute to the formation of a broad, durable coalition that realigns American politics.

[…]It is, after all, more than a question of social justice. The very health of our democracy hinges on it.

But while those are sound policies that might broaden Democrats’ appeal, it will be very difficult to restore our democracy when one of our two major parties remains in thrall to white, Christian male supremacy framed as “cultural survival.”

The authors cite only two examples of a country’s dominant party abandoning such “cultural survival” frames. The first is Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, formed “out of the wreckage of a discredited conservative and right-wing tradition,” that is, the wreckage left by the Nazi Party and World War II. The second is Chile’s Democratic Concertation, where several parties committed to “consensus politics” and worked together to end the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The U.S. is nowhere near Germany 1945- or Chile 1980-level ruin, and the authors offer no example of a major party that rejected “cultural survival” rhetoric until such ruin forced that change. That historical absence is … sobering indeed.

Despite or perhaps because of that sobering challenge, the authors conclude, we have the opportunity to become what we have long claimed to be:

To save our democracy, Americans need to restore the basic norms that once protected it. But we must do more than that. We must extend those norms through the whole of a diverse society. We must make them truly inclusive. Americans democratic norms, at their core, have always been sound. But for much of our history, they were accompanied – indeed, sustained – by racial [and gender and religious] exclusion. Now those norms must be made to work in an age of racial equality and unprecedented ethnic diversity. Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic. That is our challenge. It is also our opportunity. If we meet it, America will truly be exceptional.

We’ll soon find out whether “American Exceptionalism” is real … or just an empty nationalistic slogan.


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


Good day and good nuts