My Renaissance Society class “Top 10 issues in the U.S.”, mentioned in the linked post, has started me reading a lot of political books. One of the best was Hedrick Smith’s Who Stole the American Dream, but Mclean’s Democracy in Chains was an exceptional book and introduced political influences such as the Koch organizations. I also really enjoyed Robert Reich’s book The Common Good. But the most recent book I’ve read by Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die was the most sobering of all. A short summary might help readers, without spoilers, I hope.
The authors talk about how the U.S. Is creeping toward authoritarianism as our democracy begins to fail. They begin with a little history lesson about how presidents in a democracy have been selected as candidates and then elected to office. These examples from Germany, South America and the U.S.
They describe how “gatekeeping” functions evolved from: Politicians picking candidates in the 18th century, then Party Leaders in the 19th and early 20th century, then the primary system was instituted in 1972 and the electorate became involved in selecting the candidates.
The invisible primary began in the early-20th century, where political endorsements counted most (due to the need for PAC monies) even before the state primaries even began.
None of this, however, worked against Trump. Even with no support from party leaders and limited funding, he won successive primaries. And, Trump’s outrageous tweets and statements at campaign rallies got him an estimated two billion dollars’ worth of free marketing.
The next section of the book talks about the four key indicators that predict authoritarian behavior.
- Rejection of democratic rules of the game
- Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
- Toleration or encouragement of violence
- Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents including media
Those of us who ever lived through the 2016 election might see where the book was heading. “With the exception of Richard Nixon, no major party presidential candidate met even one of these four criteria over the last century.” Donald Trump, however, met all of them. The primary process had failed in its Gatekeeping role and allowed him, as unfit for office as he is, if to run as a mainstream party candidate. The authors argue that “when Gatekeeping institutions fail, mainstream politicians must do everything possible to keep dangerous figures away from the centers of power.” Instead, leading republican politicians endorsed Donald Trump. That normalized the election. Republicans backed the republican candidate and democrats backed the democratic candidate. The authors maintain that had republican leaders publicly opposed Trump the electorate would have split with some heeding the warnings of the party leadership and the election would have gone the other way.
Published in 2017, the authors submit three likely scenarios that have our democracy turning into an authoritarian dictatorship although one of them has the electorate wake up and begin to restore the democracy in the United States. Probably one of the best explanations of how the politics over the last 30 years has evolved.