“How Democracies Die”


If nothing else the Trump presidency has hopefully scared Americans into understanding the real fragility of their democracy. At just the right time two professors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, team up to publish a study of what can happen when democracies take themselves for granted.

This book is due out Tuesday. From reviews I have read this is the right book at the right time. Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt are highly regarded in the field of democracy studies.

Since I have not read the book myself, I will turn to the Washington Post and let them give us a flavor of what is in “How Democracies Die”:

“To this, Levitsky and Ziblatt offer a cool and persuasive response. For one thing, they note, the United States has never been immune to democratic breakdown: “Writing this book has reminded us that American democracy is not as exceptional as we sometimes believe.” The Founding Fathers themselves indulged in emphatically zero-sum politics. The country’s first two political parties, the Federalists of Alexander Hamilton and the Democratic-Republicans of Thomas Jefferson, wanted to annihilate each other.

That era of confrontation gradually gave way to a period of partisan coexistence and compromise, until the mid-19th century, when U.S. politicians began displaying open contempt for the rules of fair political play. The authors cite one historian who has tracked 125 examples of violence — “including stabbings, canings, and the pulling of pistols” — on the floor of the House and Senate between 1830 and 1860. And of course, the Civil War, which took 600,000 lives, was not exactly a high point in the story of American liberty.

In the 20th century, populist demagogues such as Henry Ford, Huey Long and Charles Coughlin showed that large numbers of Americans were willing to tolerate open challenges to democracy. And even the lionized Franklin Roosevelt, in a stunning display of illiberalism, tried to pack the Supreme Court, prompting a bipartisan backlash.

The postwar period was another era of trans-party cooperation, at least for a while. “The process of racial inclusion that began after World War II and culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act would, at long last, fully democratize the United States,” the authors note. “But it would also polarize it, posing the greatest challenge to established forms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction.”

This looks like a book that anyone concerned with our present situation may want to turn to to gain a much better understanding and historical perspective.

About Dave Bradley

retired in West Liberty
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