A Review of How Democracies Die

Challenges and Threats of Modern Democracies: Some Lessons from the U.S. Experience For Latin American Democracies

by | Sep 18, 2020

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (New York: Crown Publishing, 2018)

How Democracies Die analyzes the main dangers that modern democracies face. As the authors warn, 21st-century democracies do not die in one fell swoop, in a violent way, by hands that do not always belong to the political system. On the contrary, modern democracies die slowly and from the inside, even by the hand of their main representatives.

Although the book focuses particularly on U.S. democracy since the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, there are lessons to be learned for the entire continent and beyond. The authors point out that “the assault on democracy begins slowly. For many citizens, it may, at first, be imperceptible.” They stress that since elections are still held, independent media still exists, and opposition politicians still sit in Congress, adding, “The erosion of democracy takes place piecemeal, often by baby steps. Each individual step seems minor—none appears to truly threaten democracy. Indeed, government moves to subvert democracy frequently enjoy a veneer of legality.”

Throughout the nine chapters in the book, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt analyze the current threats faced by U.S. democracy diagnose possible solutions based on experiences in the United States and comparative world events, particularly in Latin America. The cases they analyze have one thing in common: all political leaders in these cases came to power by democratic means and they all end up destroying democracies from the inside. In almost all their examples, leaders were populist and with extraordinary charisma: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Hugo Chávez, Getulio Vargas, Alberto Fujimori, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Viktor Orbán.

No democracy is exempt from the emergence of populist and authoritarian leaders and the dangers they bring with them. The key is therefore how to constrain them or keeping them out of power. And here is when political parties appear. Political parties act like filters. Popular vote or the reaction of citizens against authoritarian behavior is not sufficient, as the authors point out; it is necessary that political parties keep those kind of leaders at bay. Therefore, political parties pay a pivotal role in the defense of democracy, they are “democracy’s gatekeepers,”—in Levitsky and Ziblat’s words.

But how can do pro-democratic parties keep authoritarian leaders in line? First of all, those authoritarian leaders must be recognized, and the authors lay out an effective road map of key indicators of authoritarian behavior.

The authors provide many examples in which the political system was successful in preventing the emergence and the rise of demagogue politicians, as in Belgium with Leon Degrelle and two authoritarian far-right parties, the Rex Party and the Flemish nationalist party in the 30’s; in Finland with the Lapua Movement which burst onto the political scene in the late 1920s; or the most recent case of Austria with Norbert Hofer and the radical-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the 2016 elections.

In all these cases, were the political parties were the ones who limited, constrained and even expelled authoritarian and extremist leaders. Chapter One analyzes in great detail these events; in Chapter Two, the authors show how this filtration role has been working within the two U.S. parties, the Republican party and the Democratic party, and how they excluded important public personalities with huge popular support such as Louisiana governor Huey Long, Senator Joseph McCarthy and Alabama governor George Wallace, two of whom (Lang and Wallace) aspired to the presidency with strong possibilities.

This book is most valuable in showing us how formal institutional designs, even when they are perfectly designed, are worthless if not accompanied by democratic behaviors that sustain and give sense to their norms. In this regard, taking from the U.S. political experience, the authors identify two types of unwritten rules crucial for the survival of the democratic system and the very foundation of the admired system of check and balances: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Mutual toleration refers to the idea that political rivals have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern (2018:102). Institutional forbearance, in turn, means “patient self-control; restraint and tolerance,” and “the action of restraining from exercising a legal right” (2018:106).

Acts contrary to these two unwritten rules, undermine the democratic system, jeopardize the whole system, which is gradually eroded and, ultimately, can be destroyed. Paradoxically, this behavior dos not break the law neither it is outside the law. The book gives numerous examples of circumstances or situations in which demagogic leaders have cunningly used their institutional prerogatives to weaken and break the democratic institutional order. These are powers given by the same constitution to the branches of government. Authors analyze six constitutional powers, including executive orders, presidential pardon, and court packing on the part of the president, and three Congressional powers, the filibuster, the Senate’s power of advice and consent, and impeachment” (2018:127).

The good functioning of the system requires “that public officials use their institutional prerogatives judiciously” (2018:127). On the contrary, when politicians use those powers as weapons, the system inevitably will fall into deadlock, dysfunction and even democratic breakdown (idem). The authors stress that one of the reasons why the U.S. system works so well is that U.S. political actors used them all with remarkable forbearance. The Latin American region should pay careful attention to this insight since it could be presented as the opposite example of this judicious use of constitutional prerogatives.

This reasoning leads to the reader to one of the most important contributions of the work. The major danger modern democracies are facing nowadays is polarization. Polarization usually emerges as a consequence of the rise of populist and demagogic leaders, who are characterized, in turn, for being “norm breakers.” These leaders distinguish themselves by the abusive use of their constitutional prerogatives to encroach and to impose their decisions over other authorities and civil society (especially, the media and the business community). However, in this scenario the reaction of opposition politicians is crucial. Whether they weaponized their own constitutional prerogatives as well or will use them within the legal and customary boundaries, the result will be completely different.

The moment they choose the first option, the system will be entering in what Harvard constitutional law Professor Mark Tushnet, has called “constitutional hardball.” This will be a fatal mistake, since they will be contributing to legitimize the authoritarian leader and will pave the way for the instauration of a non-democratic regimen—as happened, for instance, with the Venezuelan opposition against Chávez.

The second option, instead, will more effectively avoid the rise and empowerment of the totalitarian leader—as was the case with the Colombian opposition to Álvaro Uribe’s undemocratic initiatives.

When political parties—both the government party and the opposition party—involve themselves in these constitutional hardball practices, a scenario characterized by mutual distrust, intolerance, partisan animosity will rise and lead—almost inevitably—to partisan warfare. When this point is reached, it will be harder to return to a normal situation. In Chapters 6 and 7, the authors analyze cases of norm erosion, partisan animosity and extreme polarization, including older cases such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon) and more recent cases such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The work—which has been translated into at least fifteen languages—concludes on an optimistic tone. The authors demystify the alleged wave of global democratic erosion. While it is true that cases of democratic breakdown exist, they have caught our attention by their blatant character: “The number of democracies rose dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s, 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” (2018:205).

But how can a scenario of polarization—which gradually and inevitably lead to democratic breakdown—be counteracted? In the final chapter, Levitsky and Ziblatt tell us, “Political leaders have two options in the face of extreme polarization. First, they can take society’s divisions as a given but try to counteract them through elite-level cooperation and compromise” (2018:220). This first option requires that political parties be reformed—both the Republican party, which “has at times behaved like an antisystem party in its obstructionism, partisan hostility, and extremist policy positions” and the Democratic party.

The second alternative the authors give is to attack social inequalities. One of the main causes of political polarization is precisely social inequality—as much as racial and religious differences. In a context of strong social inequalities, in which the upward mobility seems improbable and inaccessible, social resentment increases, sparking political polarization. In this context, economic and social reforms aimed at a greater and more equitable distribution of wealth will tend to reduce polarization and revitalize democracy. The great challenge the United States faces today—for Levitsky and Ziblatt—is the establishment of a multiethnic democracy, in which no particular ethnic group—quoting Danielle Allen— is in the majority and where political, social and economic equalities empower all at the same time.

In my opinion, this is the key contribution of this work, which provides an analysis that could be applied to any modern democracy. The book is very effective in giving examples from United States and European recent history, but given Levitsky’s breadth and depth of knowledge of Latin America, I wish more space had been devoted to the region. Especially considering that Latin America is experiencing  a very turbulent period in recent years, with the rise of a strong populism in Brazil, hefty social mobilizations and protests in Chile and Colombia, institutional instability in Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, a rising political polarization in Argentina with a widening of the so-called “grieta” (the crack) between elites and between the population itself. All these factors generate a scenario where the possibility of elite-level cooperation and compromise increasingly banish. Nevertheless, How Democracies Die is a political handbook that every citizen and politician should read because of the accessibility of its structure and content.

Undoubtably, some lessons from the U.S. experience contained in the book can be useful for Latin American democracies. In addition, the United States can learn from the Latin America experience.

While it is true that there is not a wave of global democratic erosion, in Latin America one thing is for sure: democracy and political parties are facing a certain degree of wear-and-tear. Political polarization triggered to a large extent by (historically) social inequality is the main challenge of Latin American democracy nowadays. The crisis of representation has been long in the making in the region and it still has been not resolved.

The book is a good material to think and rethink how formal and informal institutions work in Latin American systems. It also challenges us to discover new and innovative solutions to the lack of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance characteristics of the regional political system, in order to avoid partisan warfare and political and social polarization. Latin America has been suffering from current as well as structural problems never solved such mutual distrust, intolerance and a high level of social inequality. These problems will never be resolved without elite cooperation and long-term national policies. Political parties play a pivotal role in this process: they are in charge of impeding populist figures rise to power, but also to impose equalitarian long-term policies. They are facing a great challenge: to cooperate in order to reduce the growing political and social polarization.

The book takes on renewed importance in the context of this Covid-19 pandemic scenario—that authors (and the rest of the entire world) could not have imagined—in which the authoritarian temptation is even stronger and it exacerbates inequalities, but this is a good opportunity to make the cooperation and mutual commitment real and effective.

Spring/Summer 2020, Volume XIX, Number 3

Cristian Altavilla was a 2019 Visiting Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He is an Assistant Professor at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and Universidad Siglo 21 in Argentina.

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