Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Review of Levitsky and Ziblatt's How Democracies Die

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die (2018) is two political scientists writing a comparative historical analysis of democratic decay in an accessible style. For that alone, this is a good book for a wide audience and you'll learn a lot. They argue that the two cornerstones of democracy in the U.S. are mutual toleration and forbearance, and these have eroded badly. The comparative analysis is really useful for putting all of Donald Trump's actions in their proper context. Like other authoritarian-minded leaders, he breaks democratic norms on a regular basis and they provide ample examples.

But I do have a few analytical quibbles. First is that they never actually define democracy and when we can consider it "dead," or what "dead" really is. This matters so that you're comparing apples to apples across cases. Further, they discuss the problems of gerrymandering, among other things, which happen more in some U.S. states (e.g. North Carolina, which they use as an example) than others. In North Carolina this has ebbed and flowed--is that democracy "dying"? They argue that the civil war "broke" U.S. democracy (p. 122) but is that the same as "killing" it?

Second, they don't mention much about the nature of presidential vs. parliamentary systems. For the United States, this really impacts the way that Donald Trump deals with Congress. When they start to catalog his actions since his election, the institutional relationships matter quite a lot.

Third, their discussion of constitutions mentions how Latin America copied the U.S. model but that didn't stop coups (p. 98). One problem with that argument is that Latin America blended the U.S. model with the Spanish, which allowed considerable leeway for constitutional military intervention. This matters because the erosion of democracy is different in those constitutional contexts than in the U.S.

Their key policy prescriptions are to build a democratic (and multiracial) coalition, to refound the center-right free from extremism (they use Germany as an example), and to decrease economic inequality through universal rather than means-tested policies. Sound suggestions and of course really difficult.


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