How Democracies Die …

democracies die -3There is a new book coming out on Tuesday, 16 January 2017.  No, this one isn’t a juicy tell-all like last week’s Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, but rather a. provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.  The book is written by two Harvard professors of political science, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America.

In the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four criteria that warn a leader is on a path toward authoritarianism:

  1. The leader shows only a weak commitment to democratic rules.
  2. He or she denies the legitimacy of opponents.
  3. He or she tolerates violence.
  4. He or she shows some willingness to curb civil liberties or the media.

“A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern. With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major-party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century. Donald Trump met them all.”

The authors posit that today, the biggest threat to a democracy comes from within, at the hands of insiders who gain power initially through elections.

“This is how democracies now die. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

One of the biggest safeguards of our democratic republic is built into the Constitution:  3 independent branches, and most especially the independent judiciary.  Look back, if you will, at that list of four warning signs, and think about how Trump has attempted to undermine the institutions the independence of our political system: judges, the Justice Department, law enforcement agencies like the F.B.I., the intelligence community, the news media, the opposition party and Congress. Think how he rallies and rants against anyone … anyone … who disagrees with him.  Remember how he has been quietly padding the judiciary with ultra-conservative judges, starting with Neil Gorsuch in the Supreme Court. Think of how he has questioned the legitimacy of judges who interfered with him. Remember how just a couple of weeks ago he referred to the U.S. Department of Justice as a “deep state”?  And how he referred to the mainstream media as the “enemy of the American people”?

Trump has largely failed in his attempts to undermine the Constitution, and the dam has, for the most part, held back the floodwaters, but for how long? Constitutions must be defended—by political parties and organized citizens, but also by democratic norms, or unwritten rules of toleration and restraint. Rules, for example, that say no matter what your platform or ideology, violence, racism and bigotry are always to be condemned.  Rules that say an opponent is just that – an opponent – not an enemy and not somebody to be taunted, harassed and bullied, nor called a criminal and jeered with chants of “Lock her up!”

democracies dieAmerican conservatives lacked courage. Once he was nominated, the only way to stop Trump was to endorse Hillary Clinton, and for a number of reasons, none sound, republicans were not about to do that!. Every senior Republican opposed Trump because he ticked the boxes on the authoritarian leader checklist. He talked the language of civil war: Clinton was not just an opponent but a criminal. Trump despised democratic liberties and said he wanted to remove restrictions on public figures suing for libel.

Trump incited violence at his campaign rallies. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato,” he told supporters, “knock the crap out of them, would you?” In power, he has fired the head of the FBI for doing his duty, just as Putin, Orbán, Chavez and Erdoğan have fired public officials they could not control.

Donald Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republican Party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue from gaining the nomination.

“Yet, when it came to it, every serving Republican leader – McCain, McConnell, Rubio, Ryan and Cruz – put party before country and endorsed a demagogue they knew was a threat to free institutions.”

The authors note that protest is of significant value in holding up the institutions, but that protest needs to be targeted against injustices, in defense of civil rights and institutions, not merely against the ruler and his followers.  In essence, exactly what we all know we should do, what I have duly noted, but often failed to do.  Anything else simply adds to the divisiveness, the polarization, and that is not beneficial to the protection of our democracy.

I found this book relevant, thought-provoking, and spot on in the authors’ analysis of how we came to be where we are, and what we can do to stop the downward spiral.   Nicholas Kristof over at the New York Times interviewed the authors last week, and you might find his take interesting. There is also a review of the book by Kirkus Reviews, in case you’d like a bit more.


38 thoughts on “How Democracies Die …

  1. Pingback: Populism endangering democracy | Marcus Ampe's Space

  2. Pingback: In Response to jilldennison’s “How Democracies Die …” – Braving Sirens

  3. It is opinion such as this, that are somewhat presumptuous. In that a] when was democracy so alive and at which point was its zenith? b] Is Democracy the true type of government system we have now? c] is the system Democracy one best suited for the people?
    Because when I read such clickbait types of headlines, it makes want to scream? [sorry for melodramatics[ For it makes too many presumptions. BTW. what has “Democracy”, been supplanted by? Cheers Jamie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, while democracy can be a fairly broad term, in this context I am using it as a government where the people have a voice … a voice that is listened to and acted upon. What is it being replaced with? A plutocracy … an autocracy? One of the other. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes it is a broad term, Jillybean. Democracy, so easily fiddled. Especially when there are only 2 candidates. It seems from here to be an Oligarchy, masquerading as Democracy. This is reflected throughout society. Many of the candidates especially the successful ones, all belong to a secret society. When applying for a job, you place the lodge number and membership number under “Other interests”. Cheers Jamie

        Liked by 1 person

        • I was actually referring to it as an oligarchy untiil I realized the role that great wealth was playing. Really, a plutovracy is a form of an oligarchy. Doesn’t much matter, though, what we call it … it damn sure isn’t a democracy, nor even a democratic republic, as was intended. Sigh. Cheers Jamie

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I shouldn’t really take on political experts but there is one ingredient lacking from the mix Jill and that is a skilled, intelligent operator who has honed their political knife in the hard school. They know how to circumvent and they know how to exploit; they also know how to ‘read’ a nation (ie The Majority of the people).
    Can anyone truly tell me if this oaf sitting in The Whitehouse has displayed any of these skills?
    Don’t sell yourselves short USA. Sure Trump is bad, sure he’s ruining lives and he’s doing damage, but dismantling a democracy? He couldn’t take over Snoozesville. As (Any State)!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, he has not displayed any of these skills. But … he is very, very good at one thing: he is a conman. And it seems he has conned enough people in the right places that he doesn’t need to concern himself with the ‘majority’. He is rather like the serial killer who dresses nice, and knocks on your door with smiles and an official badge indicating he is from the water company and needs to check your meter, but then once you’ve let him in the door, the mask comes off and you are dead meat. There is something very rotten in him, and he has found ways around the will of the majority. I’m not disagreeing with your assessment at all … just wondering if this may prove to be the exception. Sigh.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sorry to disagree with you Jill but I don’t even rate as a conman. Doonesbury cartoon strip ran one years ago where he was threatening to jump off a Trump building, several strips had people being interviewed not caring or encouraging him. As we say in the UK ‘He’s got form’ (reference to a bad police record).
        He just got there because a lot of people were fed up with the professionals.
        He’s a Nothing. A symptom. An argument to be used in the future against those who don’t vote.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Under the circumstances, I am happy for you to disagree with me! I really like your line of reasoning better … far better … than my own. Perhaps I am too ensconced in this muck … you know the saying, “can’t see the forest for the trees”? It’s just that it is having such a negative impact on everything over here. You can feel the toxicity wherever you go. Perhaps it doesn’t help that I wear my “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted For Hillary” shirt wherever I go! 😀 But still, it seems that daily, the rhetoric is more hateful, his supporters become more vocal and spiteful, and I don’t see an end in sight. But again … perhaps a bit of distance would help.

          On a brighter note, I awoke this morning and the mind bounce has finally settled! I was able to sit and write an entire post without once taking off on a tangent! HOORAY!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Hey mind-bounce brought to heel!! 👏
            I can understand how you feel Jill, being in the middle of it. In the days of ‘Thatch’ I was far from sanguine. Brexit really ticked me off.
            Being outside looking in this pattern forms in the USA ‘body politic’ from time to time. The vitriol that poured out when Al Smith ran for President (he was a catholic) and was also witnessed with JFK ran was comparable.
            When we were back in the day in the 1960s we might have thought everyone was really against the Vietnam war, but that split the US too.
            What we are seeing here is the ability of the unsavoury and the would-be demagogues being able to get more national coverage than they would have had in days of yore.
            But I still believe the majority of the USA is better than this and there will be a backlash against the excesses of these unpleasant creatures.
            One thing them seem to have a problem with is a low-level, somewhat ‘boring’ and factual style of riposte. They only being wired for abuse and screeching.
            On places other than WP I’ve tried this out, and no one gets back at me. Of course I could be sending them off to sleep. My darlin’ girl says my ability to drone is a fearsome weapon in debate.

            Liked by 1 person

            • What you say makes much sense, and one thing in particular sticks out: “demagogues being able to get more national coverage than they would have had in days of yore”. Technology, most especially the internet, has acted as a magnifying glass. A magnifying glass with a filter, unfortunately, that seems to filter out the good while magnifying the hate, the debauchery, for those are far more entertaining to the masses. Until Trump is but a memory, I suspect hings will only continue to escalate, but perhaps after that, with time, the nation will right itself again. Unfortunately, these things all take time, and I want it NOW!!! 😠 Yes, yes, I know … patience, grasshopper.

              I do not think you drone, and you never put me to sleep, however dear Sheila is subjected to much more of you than I, and has been for much, much longer, so I won’t argue against her opinion. 😉 (such is the way of old married couples, y’know … in truth, she would be worried if someday you had naught to say! 👴 👵

              Liked by 1 person

              • John D Loudermilk wrote the song ‘Bad News’, which starts off:
                ‘Bad news travels like wildfire.
                Good news travels slow…..’
                and there’s the old saw:
                ‘No news, is good news’
                Trumwobble being the ‘circus freak’ of politics is naturally as source of morbid fascination, though his legacy is likely to be one of derision which will be hell for a thin-skinned egotist.
                Sadly Jill no nation progresses ever onwards and upwards, we are all prone to out breaks of Terminal Stupidity. The lessons to be learnt here are: (A) The professional politicians need to get back a sense of vision and contact. (B) Every vote counts- the argument against those who say they don’t bother will be ‘Donald Trump’ (C) Dialogue – always dialogue even when it’s tough.

                My drones😴 are the antidotes to my rants 😤, they calm me down.
                It true what you say, there are I am sitting pondering ‘something’ and a voice comes across: ‘Are you alright love? You seem a bit quiet ‘😏

                Liked by 1 person

                • Your three points are spot on. The politicians DO need to go back to having platforms, ideologies, that are in the best interest of the nation and the people, and realie tht they weren’t elected for their own enrichment. And yes, voter apathy is going to be a bigger problem than ever this year, I fear, for the electoral college vs popular vote rather made a mockery of the entire election process, and then when you add in the Russian interference … people are just shrugging and saying, “why bother?” And yes, civil discourse, dialogue. More often than not, it turns into vitriolic bombast on both sides.

                  You are a lucky man … your Sheila is a doll!!! Give her a hug for me!

                  Liked by 2 people

                  • The populist right-wing scandal sheet ‘The Sun’ ( paper us lefties love to hate), once made sense. Before an election it ran this line:
                    ‘If you don’t vote in this election, you lose the right to complain for the next five years’.
                    If enough people vote Jill The Electoral College is just a formality. There cannot be apathy with Trump’s fat butt in the Oval Office, the concepts are mutually antagonistic.
                    Yes, discourse is a minefield, the senses need to be dulled and the intellect take over, which can be paradoxical…..
                    Yep I am a lucky man!!🤗

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • I think one of my major goals this year will be to try to fight apathy, to try to inspire and motivate those voters who might otherwise shrug their shoulders and say, “why bother?” Now if the democrats would just find some inspiring candidates that I could promote, and develop a platform that makes sense … something besides “Never Trump” … then I would be good to go.

                      Yes, and our mutual friend Keith Wilson is the best I know at biting the tongue and always speaking from the head not emotions. I, unfortunately, get angry too easily.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Me too Jill. Polemicists together!😤😤. In an ideal world I would enjoy seeing Keith going face to face with one of the Whitehouse circus, Keith has this wonderful air of dignity.
                      Your notion to motivate people to vote is a sound and solid idea. Concentrate your energies on that and when the mid-terms have taken place you will know you played your part.😺

                      Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. It is both maddening and frightening to realize how few see their jobs as being to work for the best interest of the nation and its people. We have been largely forgotten and ignored, until it comes time to either pay taxes or vote!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    THIS … I will never forget …
    ‘Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republican Party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue from gaining the nomination.
    “Yet, when it came to it, every serving Republican leader – McCain, McConnell, Rubio, Ryan and Cruz – put party before country and endorsed a demagogue they knew was a threat to free institutions.”

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Dear Jill,

    Back to my favorite book store, my local Barnes & Noble to purchase the book, “How Democracies Die/” What peoples, even me after a year of President Trump, is that I will never again take our US Democracy for granted and most of us have to be diligent to protect our democracy’s health.

    Hugs, Gronda

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Well said, kerosen, but I fear that is no longer relevant. Some American people (okay, lots of American people) seem to think their lives are easier when they are being told what to do. In a previous Internet incarnation I spoke with a number of American housewives who refused to take part in the running of their households. They had contouring husbands, and they said they loved it that way. So it’s not that big of a stretch to imagine people wanting to be told what to do, and only the Republicans are brazen enough to do that. Democrats, I think, would prefer to have input from the American people. Republicans, on the other hand, actually believe they know best, and they are capable of being autocrats. DT especially thinks he is capable of being an absolute leader. I think it will be necessary to convince the sheep to become wolves. But at what cost?
    Jill, how did you get ahold of the advance copy.? Great work. Keep the intel coming. Someday it is going to pay off.


  8. Does backsliding really begin at the ballot box ? Surely it begins with the propaganda that persuades the ballot outcome , just think of the enormous expenditure required to campaign which means only the wealthy have the means to enter the race. The word backsliding brings many things to mind but it is centred on selfishness taking command of our actions. There is a theory that as we grow older our political views move to the right fitting in with a wealthier more prosperous lifestyle. Firebrands become stable modal citizens as they fit into the system.
    Communists suddenly find they have bank accounts and family responsibilities.


    • Thanks, my friend … yes, it sent chills down my spine. What is most frightening is that some 37% of our nation still approve of the job he is doing. I suddenly feel like a stranger in my own land, y’know? I feel like I don’t recognize this world, like I was just dropped here by accident and don’t really belong. Sorry … having a bit of a moment.


I would like to hear your opinion, so please comment if you feel so inclined.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s