Even as freedom rings, danger lies within
Democracies don’t just die; people kill them.
That’s the conclusion of authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their carefully researched and persuasive new book, How Democracies Die (Crown, 320 pp., ★★★g).
As tempting as it is for opponents of President Trump — whom the authors, Harvard University professors, call a “serial norm breaker” — to blame him for what ails our democracy, he is just one of many who have changed the traditions of our national political fabric.
“The process of norm erosion started decades ago
— long before Trump descended an escalator to announce his presidential candidacy,” they write.
At the root, they say, is racism, particularly racism inspired by passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. Couple that with the passage the same year of landmark immigration reform, which empowered non-white Americans and created an animus among white Americans that has triggered a series of moves to counter diversity and preserve white influence.
The authors deftly mine world history for other examples of how politicians have distorted their nations’ less-robust democracies to enhance their own power. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez used his support among the country’s lower classes to propel himself into the presidency. He used his advantage to strip away the opposition’s ability to fight back and eroded what remained of Venezuela’s wobbly democratic traditions.
In nearby Peru, former president Alberto Fujimori used many of the same techniques to dominate his nation. By April 1992, he dissolved congress and the constitution. “Less than two years after his surprising election, the long-shot outsider had become a tyrant,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write.
The United States is not Venezuela or Peru. Its judicial system is strong and independent, and enough people in both parties are firmly committed to the rule of law and democratic traditions.
The authors show the fragility of even the best democracies and caution politicians who think they can somehow coopt autocrats without getting burned.
If not a jeremiad against the current president, How Democracies Die provides a guide for Americans of all political persuasions for what to avoid.
Authors Steven Levitsky, left, and Daniel Ziblatt.