Even as free­dom rings, dan­ger lies within

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Ray Locker

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.

STEPHANIE MITCHELL

Au­thors Steven Le­vit­sky, left, and Daniel Zi­blatt.

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