How Democracies Die Summary – March 2022

Author: Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

Short Summary
How Democracies Die (2018) summary will tell us how leadership has an impact on democracy. Besides this, the authors have shed light on the threats to democracy and highlighted how Donald Trump’s election is a threat to a democratic system. Moreover, the book guides us in the ways we can protect democracy.
how democracies die summary
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Detail Summary

The book is written by two Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt who have evaluated the democratic collapse in the United States. He has highlighted the threats to the democratic system and what we can do to protect it. But especially concentrates on U.S. democracy following Donald J. Trump’s election as President of the United States.

Firstly, in order to understand democracy, we need to go into the history like what happened after the Cold War and how democracies died after that. According to the authors, democracies die gradually through weakening of democratic norms and institutions even by the hand of their main representatives and the so-called protectors. In the book, the authors have discussed some cases and the situations they look at all have one thing in common i.e. they all rose to power by democratic processes, and they all end up undermining democracies from within.

How Democracies Die Summary Key Points

It’s important to keep extremists away

According to the authors, gatekeepers must keep extremists hidden from view in order to protect democracy. One method that is suggested in the book is for political parties to rapidly reject extremists so that they do not become normalized. When the Swedish Conservative Party removed fascist supporters in 1933, they did so. They lost party votes as a result, but the most important thing to them was to defend democracy by opposing any anti-democratic influence.

Another strategy to keep the public at bay is to avoid doing anything that can be perceived as normalizing extremism. In the 1930s, German conservatives made this error by allowing joint rallies with Hitler followers, effectively normalizing their radicalism.

But sometimes, this process fails and then autocrats succeed in coming to power. Authoritarians use three main tactics to dismantle democracy:

  • Capturing the referees
  • Side-lining their opponents
  • Changing the rules of democratic competition

Role of institutions and norms to protect democracy

Next in the How Democracies die summary, the authors guide us on how we can protect the democratic system. According to the authors, institutions like courts are supposed to keep autocratic leaders in check and it’s their duty to hold them responsible for their actions. But they can be worn down in small steps to improve democracy.

Just like the institutions, norms such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance also play an important role to protect democracy because they are vulnerable to keep subversion by autocrats. Here mutual toleration refers to the idea that political rivals have an equal right to exist and compete for power. Whereas institutional forbearance is the unwritten rule by which political actors agree not to weaponize their control of institutions to marginalize their opponents. In the American democracy, norms were not strong enough in the beginning which resulted in putting democracy in danger but later on, norms got straightened when southern states were allowed to remove civil and voting system from African Americans. And so, the democracy got secured. But these norms are weakened again in recent years putting democracy in danger.

So, we get a lesson that formal institutions are worthless if they are not accompanied by democratic behavior that gives sense to their norms.

Don’t play with the fire

The book suggests the readers to Resist the desire to fight fire with fire. This is because maintaining a democracy is far from simple. Especially when one considers the wide range of political opinions found in the United States. However, there are several things you may do to assist in its protection and resisting the desire to fight with fire is one of them.

If we look back in 2016 when Trump was elected, many defeated Democrats wanted to return to the Trump campaign’s dirty practices. However, doing so may have the opposite effect. Not only will this exacerbate polarisation by driving away moderate voters, but it will also make the fighting more extreme if both sides go outside the scope of democracy.

Instead, opposing extremism should always be done within the bounds of democracy, which necessitates finding a middle ground. Republicans, for example, might take a hard line against white nationalism and be more sympathetic to international economic accords. Democrats may combat poverty in a variety of ways other than through means-tested benefits, which compensate poor people depending on their income level. Many middle-class voters are opposed to these because they believe it solely benefits the poor while harming them.

It would also be beneficial if political activists prioritized cooperation over divisiveness. It only damages the democratic principle of mutual toleration when we don’t offer practical alternatives. Protesters may come from a wider spectrum of races and beliefs, and instead of division, they should focus on establishing common ground.

Who would I recommend How Democracies die Summary to?

How Democracies Die summary is recommended to those who love history and are interested in knowing more about democracy- its threats and how to protect it. Moreover, anyone who has an interest in politics should give it a read. It will surely increase their knowledge.

Link: https://amzn.to/3OzpCzX