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First, some level-setting. I tried reading this book when it first came out, but was so frustrated by the framework the authors declare that I put it down. But The Daughter had to read it for a college class and ran into the same problems so I picked it up again. Next, I yield to no one in my contempt for Donald Trump personally and politically. As a matter of personal character his life-long corruption, racism/sexism, history of sexual assaults, etc. all make him a man who is unfit for public office. As an ideologue, his opposition to free trade, immigration, democracy promotion, globalism generally, civil rights, etc. made him a natural heir to the racist third party tradition of Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Ross Perot, David Duke, Pat Buchanan and company, but unfit to be a member of the Republican Party, nevermind its nominee. But, finally, at our BrothersJudd blog over the past four years we have consistently preached the strength of the Deep State--which in our republic is not just the constitutional institutions but the voters themselves--noted how little he could and has achieved, and counseled that the American electorate would dispose of him at the first opportunity. So the Trump presidency has played out pretty much as one would have expected: he's disgraced himself, the office and the nation but not done any lasting damage; the only things he's accomplished in governmental terms have been by executive orders which his successor is poised to overturn; he has piled up criminal actions that are being investigated by various jurisdictions and by a Special Counsel preparatory to charging him once he leaves office, after he survived impeachment; he has made free trade and immigration historically popular simply by opposing them in such obviously racist fashion; he went from losing to Hillary by 3 million votes to losing to Joe by 7 million; and the judges that the Federalist Society seated have over-ruled him at every turn. In the end, while his term of office was unpleasant and was genuinely harmful to refugees and immigrants we might have admitted under an actual Republican president and he obviously butchered Covid, though not much worse than several other Western leaders, more than anything else, the lesson is that the system worked to thwart his authoritarian urges. Which brings us to the book.

The biggest problem with this text is that the need to attack Donald--which, as I've stated, I'm down with--forces the authors to contort inappropriate historical and contemporary examples of successful authoritarian takeovers in an attempt to apply them to America. For instance, let us accept for the sake of argument that America in 2015 was a reasonably functional democratic republic that had endured for over 200 years even allowing for slavery, Civil War, segregation, etc. and that neither the Democratic Party of Obama/Clinton nor the GOP of the Bushes/McCain/Romney represented a significant existential threat to said republic. What can it possibly mean to compare this America to the Spain and Chile that were threatened by Communism or the Peru that faced the Shining Path? What can the experience of Turkey, with its routine military coups whenever democracy emerges and the steps taken by Erdogan, who has already been deposed by coup once, tell us about 21st century America, which has never had such a coup and is at no risk of one? What does Russia, with no tradition of democratic governance, really have to show us, no matter how much Donald loves Vlad? If anything, and it becomes germane as they look more closely at America, it is the differences among their examples that are instructive. In particular, the fact that authoritarian regimes of the right so often destroyed existential threats from the Left and then evolved back into democracies ought to give as pause. The ease with which nations like Spain and Chile transitioned and the undeniably superior economic condition they enjoyed at the point of transition--especially as compared to peers who succumbed to Communism--suggests that there may be points where less democracy, or even a brief abandonment of democracy altogether is in the long term interest of democracy.

This observation is salient because in what is quite the best portion of the book, the authors argue that one of the main tools that has historically helped America and others to repel demagogues is the strength of political parties. They make an altogether convincing case that things like open primaries and limits on the old "smoke-filled room" process of selecting nominees leave modern American parties vulnerable to a Trump. This is a constant theme of Jonah Goldberg and others. It's not to say that parties ought not use some kind of primary system to get a feel for which candidates and ideas are viable: after all, though it was Democrats who drove the opening, it was Republicans who benefited most from reforms that allowed conservatives to win instead of allowing Eastern power brokers to foist Wendell Willkie's and Tom Dewey's on the party. Rather, as with the Democrats eventual adoption of super-delegates, the party needs to maintain some way of braking a potentially runaway train. It is ridiculous that my own state, New Hampshire, dictates to the parties when the presidential primary takes place and the rules of participation. While the people they help elect become public servants, parties are private entities and ought control their own processes. Likewise, though they do not discuss it, another useful reform would be to rewrite corporations law so as to allow contributions to parties but ban them to individuals, ban bundling and ban independent political expenditures. Control of the strings of a well-filled purse would shift power back to the parties.

Given their focus on the threat that Donald posed when they were writing, the authors also deserve credit for identifying pretty precisely the methods he would use to try to become an authoritarian. They emphasize four tendencies that he has demonstrated in spades:

(1) Rejection of (or weak commitment to) the democratic rules of the game

(2) Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents

(3) Toleration or encouragement of violence

(4) Readiness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media
One can't help but notice that these pathologies afflicted Democrats for most of our history, as they used Constitutional provisions, slavery, Civil War and then Jim Crow to maintain a solid South. But that does not excuse the openly neo-Confederate Donald for importing them, however temporarily, into the GOP. Turnaround is not fair play when it is morally repulsive. On the other hand, when the authors advise that we might want to destroy the Republican Party and rebuild it because of this one aberration they appear to be sinking into the same partisanship they elsewhere decry. Similarly, if, as I believe, Donald's greatest sin is his Nativism and hostility to immigration, it is necessary to recall that Senator Obama helped place a poison pill in W's immigration bill to help kill it and then forged an extremely checkered presidential record of his own along the Mexican border. Even his own vice president has called their policies a mistake. Thankfully, negative partisanship has forced Democrats to suddenly become immigration enthusiasts, but their historic opposition prior to 2016 did not require disposing of their party altogether. Parties make some bad decisions and sometimes even persist in them longer than we'd like, but they are never going to be perfect and the necessity of building coalitions in order to succeed means that pragmatism, even moral compromise, is inevitable.

As for the particular hostility to democratic norms that Donald has been guilty of, not only is it "Republican" judges who are defending the guardrails (building the wall) that prevent him from his desired coup, consider what Democrats were talking about before Joe Biden won. From Court packing to adding new states if they'd reliably elect Democratic Senators, they were hardly modeling the behavior of guardians of the Republic. Mind you, this is not a mere "me-tooism" argument. Donald has been uniquely awful, our most racist and anti-democratic president since Woodrow Wilson. But to turn answer his partisanship with such a partisan text is to exacerbate the problem you're meant to be ameliorating. Ultimately, the book is frustrating precisely because its good points are obscured by some equally bad ones.


Grade: (C)


See also:

Steven Levitsky Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Steven Levitsky
    -FACULTY PAGE: Steve Levitsky, Professor of Government (
    -GOOGLE SCHOLAR: Steven Levitsky
    -WIKIPEDIA: Daniel Ziblatt
    -CV: Daniel Ziblatt
    -WIKIPEDIA: How Democracies Die
    -BOOK SITE: How Democracies Die (Penguin Random House)
    -ETEXT: How Democracies Die (PDF)
    -EXCERPT: from How Democracies Die
    -SUMMARY: How Democracies Die (Allen Cheng)
    -SUMMARY: How Democracies Die (ShortForm)
    -TEACHERS GUIDE: How Democracies Die (Penguin Random House)
    -ESSAY: This is how democracies die: Defending our constitution requires more than outrage (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, 1/21/18, The Guardian)
A comparative approach reveals how elected autocrats in different parts of the world employ remarkably similar strategies to subvert democratic institutions. As these patterns become visible, the steps toward breakdown grow less ambiguous –and easier to combat. Knowing how citizens in other democracies have successfully resisted elected autocrats, or why they tragically failed to do so, is essential to those seeking to defend American democracy today.

We know that extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace.

An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them and, when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates.

Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled.

Once a would-be authoritarian makes it to power, democracies face a second critical test: will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or be constrained by them?

Institutions alone are not enough to rein in elected autocrats. Constitutions must be defended – by political parties and organized citizens but also by democratic norms. Without robust norms, constitutional checks and balances do not serve as the bulwarks of democracy we imagine them to be. Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not.

This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy – packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.

    -VIDEO LECTURE: How Democracies Die: US Democracy Three Years After Trump's Election (Steven Levitsky gave the first public lecture of his Andrew D. White professorship on Nov. 7, 2019, CornellCast)
    -VIDEO LECTURE: How Democracies Die (Steven Levitsky, Mar 26, 2019, Kellogg Institute)
    -ESSAY: How a Democracy Dies: Donald Trump’s contempt for American political institutions is only the latest chapter in a history of opportunistic attacks against them. This has been happening for decades. (Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt, December 7, 2017, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Why Republicans Play Dirty: They fear that if they stick to the rules, they will lose everything. Their behavior is a threat to democratic stability. (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Sept. 20, 2019, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism (Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, Journal of Democracy)
    -ESSAY: We are lifelong Zionists. Here’s why we’ve chosen to boycott Israel (Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl, October 23, 2015, Washington Post)
    -INTERVIEW: The State of American Democracy with Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt : After a year of Trump, how worried should we be? (ISAAC CHOTINER, JAN 16, 2018, Slate)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: 'How Democracies Die' Authors Say Trump Is A Symptom Of 'Deeper Problems' (DAVE DAVIES, January 22, 2018, NPR: Fresh Air)
    -INTERVIEW: How Democracies Die (David Goodman, Medium)
    -VIDEO INTERVIEW: Steven Levitsky on How Democracies Die (C-SPAN, 03/20/2019, Washington Journal)
    -VIDEO DISCUSSION: Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, "How Democracies Die" (Politics and Prose, Feb 6, 2018)
    -VIDEO DISCUSSION: How Democracies Die: An Interview with Steven Levitsky (Steven Levitsky, 6/13/19, The Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt: Revisiting “How Democracies Die” (Chris Riback's Conversations, 2/17/20)
    -INTERVIEW: How Democracies Die with Steven Levitsky (Rebecca Hill, August 28, 2019, Intellectual Freedom Blog)
    -PODCAST: How Democracies Die (The Ezra Klein Show)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: An interview with Steven Levitsky, Harvard professor and co-author of “How Democracies Die” (Global Americans, August 15, 2019)
    -VIDEO DISCUSSION: Competitive Authoritarianism: A Conversation with Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way (Brent Kallmer, February 11, 2020, Journal of Democracy)
-PROFILE: The ‘lifelong Zionists’ who called for an Israel boycott: In a Washington Post op-ed, professors Steven Levitsky and Glen Weyl urged economic sanctions on Jewish state (GABE FRIEDMAN, 27 October 2015, Times of Israel)
    -ESSAY: A Constitutional Check-Up: Is U.S. Democracy Dying? (Clay Oxford, Mar 16, 2020, Harvard Political Review)
    -ESSAY: 30 Years of World Politics: What Has Changed? (Francis Fukuyama, January 2020, Journal of Democracy)
    -ARCHIVES: steven Levitsky democracies (YouTube)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt (Alan Z. Rozenshtein, LawFare)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Sanford Levinson, Democracy)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Christian Caryl, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Jason Willick, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (David Runciman, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Adam Tooze, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (David Frum, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Kirkus)
    -REVIEW SYMPOSIUM: of How Democracies Die (Perspectives on Politics)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (David Frum, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Emily Holland and Hadas Aron, LSE)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Matthew Kolasa, Fair Observer)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Rosolino A. Candela, Independent Institute)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (European Council)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Martin Ayankaa Ihembe, Politikon)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Cristian Altavilla, ReVista)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Jennifer M. Welsh, International Journal: Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Ezra Klein, Vox)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Felix Kloman, LymeLine)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Nick Cohen, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Edward Luce, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Ray Locker, USA TODAY)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Paul Krugman, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Matthew Yglesias, Vox)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Jonathan Chait, New York)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Irshad Rashid and Manzoor Ahmad Padder, Mainstream)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Anne Armstrong, International Affairs Review)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Bruce Ledewitz, SSRN)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Coyle Neal, Christian Humanist)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Eliane Glaser, Times Higher Ed Supplement)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Roger Boyes, Times uk)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (American Educator)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Stevellie Wheeler, Hack Writers)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Sasha Soriano, CERSP)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Darrell Arnold Ph.D., Reason and Meaning)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Colin Kidd, London Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (the Stacks)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Jedediah Britton-Purdy, Dissent)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (Roger I. Abrams, NY Journal of Books)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracies Die (The Economist)

Book-related and General Links:

    -ESSAY: Strengthen the Guardrails of Democracy: Joe Biden should spend political capital fixing what Trump broke (CHRIS TRUAX DECEMBER 16, 2020, The Bulwark)
    -REVIEW: of How Democracy Ends by David Runciman (Financial Times)