COVID Quarantine Book Review: How Democracies Die

by Steven Levitsky
& Daniel Ziblatt

As I continue through my quarantine reading list, I decided to take the advice of former Memphis Flyer writer, Chris Davis, and read How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

This book is a who’s who of 20th leaders that took over democratic nations, and led them to become autocratic regimes. Most of the time, that wasn’t the explicit intent. But polarization, distrust of political rivals, and weakened guardrails of democratic norms lead these nations into the autocratic abyss.

The book explores the fall of Western European nations in the early 20th century and Latin American nations more recently.

In many of those cases, there were long established democratic norms. But populists willing to use language of division to gain power, ultimately led these nations to fall into autocracy.

The idea that an Autocrat is something that can’t happen in America is a convenient fantasy.

Post reconstruction, the formerly breakaway south became an effective autocracy if you happened to be black. African Americans enjoyed years of voting rights, until the 1880’s. From 1885 to 1908 all eleven formerly Confederate states restricted voting rights for black citizens. As we all know, Federal Government did nothing to stop this until the Voting Rights act in 1965.

The Voting Rights Act, set off an ideological realignment and a new wave of polarization. We’re still experiencing that realignment to this day

While there are many ways to head off a populist firebrand from becoming an autocrat, the best way seems to be mutual toleration…turning down the heat.

…when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat.

In an era of social sorting that literally puts Democrats and Republicans in different neighborhoods, mutual toleration is even harder than it was before.

The final two chapters address were we are with our current President, and where we could go from here.

How Democracies Die is a quick but harrowing read. It weighs in at about 211 pages. The type is pretty small, so it punches a little above its weight class.

Written by two Harvard Professors, the book is not preachy, nor does it talk down to the reader. The authors set up their argument early in the first three chapters, then start bringing it into current affairs.

I can see how Republicans might think this book is singling them out for criticism. Its true, the book is critical of the GOP. It points out the changes in the party particularly since 1994.. But the point is about showing how easily things can slide into the abyss. When all people care about is grabbing power things get ugly quickly. The authors point out things Democrats have done as well.

If you’re concerned about the direction of the country, this book will not make you feel more at ease. If anything, it may make the hairs stand up straight.

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