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How Democracies Die Mass Market Paperback – January 15, 2019
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- Publisher : Random House LCC US (January 15, 2019)
- Language : English
- ISBN-10 : 1984825771
- ISBN-13 : 978-1984825773
- Item Weight : 7.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 4.13 x 1.42 x 6.85 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #2,274,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Reviewed in the United States on November 17, 2019
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The first is to illuminate the role of "norms" in a constitutional system. In this context, a "norm" is an unwritten standard of behavior that is followed for an extended period of time -- you might think of it as describing some type of behavior that's "normal." US law school profs are prone to point out several such norms, none of which are in the US Constitution as written: such as that US Supreme Court justices are lawyers, that members of the military retire from active duty before joining the Cabinet, and, prior to FDR in 1940, that Presidents not run for a third term. (These sorts of norm are often called "constitutional conventions" by political scientists -- not to be confused with the event in Philadelphia mentioned in the musical "Hamilton.") Individually, though, the loss of any of these highly specific norms wouldn't necessarily have a huge impact on the functioning of the government.
Levitsky & Ziblatt (L&Z) instead focus on some norms that are more abstract, but also more vital to the fabric of democracy. The norms of interest to them are "shared codes of conduct that become common knowledge within a particular community or society -- accepted, respected and enforced by its members" (@101). Two of the most important are (i) mutual toleration, i.e. the belief that political opponents are not enemies, and (ii) institutional forbearance, i.e. "avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit" (@106). In more specific contexts several other such norms also come up, e.g. that presidents shouldn't undermine another coequal branch (such as the court system). Calling such norms the "guardrails of democracy," L&Z provide one of the clearest and most convincing expositions of them that I've read. Many presidents challenge norms -- such as when Teddy Roosevelt had dinner in the White House with a black man (Booker T. Washington), or Jimmy Carter and his wife walked part of the route to his inauguration -- but Pres. Trump stands out, they say, stands out "in his willingness to challenge unwritten rules of greater consequence" (@195). So far, some of his assaults on mutual toleration and institutional forbearance have been more rhetorical than actual: as I write this, he continues to revile Hilary Clinton but hasn't actually "locked her up." Unfortunately, the fact that in his first year Pres. Trump has only bumped into, but not yet broken through, such "guardrails" doesn't necessarily signify much about the future: see Table 3 @108, which shows that the now-authoritarian Erdoğan was at about the same place as Trump at the end of his first year.
But it's not only the president who is capable of breaking the norms -- Congress can as well. L&Z point out how the era of "constitutional hardball," emphasizing the letter over the spirit of the document, has roots as early as in the 1970s, when Newt Gingrich was a Congressional aspirant. It really came into its own after the 1994 mid-term elections, when Gingrich was elected Speaker. Although the Republicans seem to have begun this cycle of escalation, Democrats also participated, such as in removing the ability to filibuster most judicial nominations. L&Z use historical narratives to show how the disappearance (or nonexistence) of such norms in other countries allowed society to slide down the slope into authoritarianism.
The second and more surprising point of L&Z's historical study is that in the US the erosion of these two central norms is linked to matters of race. During most of the 20th Century conservative Republicans could cooperate with conservative Democrats, and liberal Democrats could cooperate with liberal Republicans. The stability of this bipartisanship rested to a great degree on the fact that political participation of racial minorities could be limited in a variety of ways, such as via a poll tax. As the civil rights movement picked up steam, and as the Hispanic population started to increase, it became clear that the Democratic party was minorities' preference. Around the first Reagan election in 1980 the previously traditional party alignments started to break down, and polarization set in. White voters in Southern states shifted to the Republican party. Concurrently, the divisiveness of the abortion issue following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was driving many religious voters toward the Republicans as well.
This is actually the most depressing aspect of the book. Unless he perpetrates a coup, Trump will pass; but the racial and religious source of hardball attitudes augurs ill for American politics into the indefinite future. The US is a multi-ethnic society in which no ethnicity is in the majority. L&Z point out that to date they haven't been able to identify any society like that which is both (i) a democracy and (ii) a society where all ethnicities are empowered politically, socially and economically.
In short, this isn't a "Chicken Little" book screaming hysterically to the already-persuaded about how terrible Donald Trump is. Rather, while pointing out some of the dangers posed acutely by Trump's handling of the presidency, it also identifies some much more long-term problems. The solutions proposed by L&Z, such as that Democrats shouldn't behave like the hardball Republican politicians, may strike some readers as weak and overly optimistic. But no solutions will eventuate if people aren't aware of how deep the problem really is, and for that reason this book deserves to be read widely.
This book crystallizes what I've been feeling for a long time. It's backed by scholarly research from two professors of government whose writing is even-tempered, sober, and has no agenda to push - other than democracy. It carefully discusses worldwide democratic breakdowns, especially in western Europe in the 1930s and Latin America more recently, then cites characteristics that are common to all of them, then draws parallels to events in America. The parallels are shocking: packing the courts with ideologues; squashing voting rights with indiscriminate and cavalier voter ID laws; altering voting districts to favor one party; assaults on the free press. Then there's America's own peculiar dance between corporations and politicians, assuring that legislation is skewed toward the wealthy and powerful. And the Republican Party's dance with powerful special interests, like Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Freedom, as well as its indentured servitude to a vicious and influential conservative media. And this is all BEFORE Donald Trump, a populist outsider and fringe extremist with little concern for the Constitution or civil rights, appealing to voters' most base instincts. The chapter that discusses him, "Trump Against the Guardrails," is stomach-churning.
I wish this book were required reading of everyone who turns voting age. It's that important.
Second, it is quite dispassionate and free of fearmongering or catastrophising. I did find myself very afraid at certain points in the book, but that was due to reading the historical examples and reaching my own conclusions. This book allows the reader space to think themselves.
Third, I was incredibly shocked by some of the data presented, especially on race. I had not known that at one point post-reconstruction black representatives made up 40% of the Louisiana legislature or that black voter turn-out was as high as 96% before black voter suppression became successful.
Fourth, this book made me reevaluate some of my own "resist" tactics and decide that I would do well to focus more on winning future elections and less on impeachment.
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A second weakness has this work too: it takes the democratic system as something good in itself without a critical assessment of its failures and shortcomings, particularly in a time like the present, when there is a price to pay (normally high) for the slow-motion consensus-buildups and decision-making processes typical of the complex system Western democracies are. When rapid and decisive action is required you can’t allow yourself to be stopped into inactivity, which is why the Romans substituted dictatorship for the Republic in times of national crises.
The problem lies with the confusing nature of the book: is it a scientific text or a political manifesto? It is clear the aim leans to the former, but the contrast between the layout of a political science essay and the recurring stimgatising language against the Trump administration and other US politicians is rather striking and seriously risks undermining the underlying scientific validity.
I would certainly recommend this book, but with the caveat of being aware of the fact the book is not entrely scientific.