Top positive review
Not just preaching to the choir
Reviewed in the United States on January 20, 2018
This book is better than I expected. I teach in Japan about comparative constitutional law and politics, and bought this out of a sense of professional duty: I figured it would just be some Ivy League liberal professors using a few historical examples to explain (again) why Trump is dangerous. There already are a number of books with that message, such as Jan Werner Müller's excellent "What is Populism?" (2016). Yes, this book does have that message too, and it uses some of the same examples as Müller, including Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey. But it also goes beyond partisan diatribe in a couple of valuable ways.
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.