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Book Review: How democracies die. Steven Levitsky y Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How democracies die. New York: Broadway Books.
Estudios de Filosofía Práctica e Historia de las Ideas / E-ISSN 1851-9490 / Vol. 22
Revista en línea del Grupo de Investigación de Filosofía Práctica e Historia de las Ideas / INCIHUSA - CONICET
www.estudiosdefilosofia.com.ar / Mendoza / 2020 / Comentarios de libros (1-4)
Jorge Gonzalez Arocha / How democracies die (Comentario de libro)
Estudios de Filosofía Práctica e Historia de las Ideas / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.5 AR)
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Jorge Gonzalez Arocha
1
How democracies die.
Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. New York:
Broadway Books. 320 pp. ISBN 9781524762940.
ustification of democracy has become an essential theme in the current literature on
political philosophy. Different factors have created the conditions for this to happen, but
mainly they can be resumed in two characteristics. On one side, that democracy is in
crisis due to the rise of extremist politicians from every side of the political spectrum. On the other
hand, due to the escalating polarization in some contexts, provoked by the increased economic
discontent. It seems this is a moment of transition in which the interrogation for our fundamental
values is at stake.
The most recent collaboration of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both Harvard professors,
with the title How democracies die is, in the first place, a testimony of the hidden subtleties of that
concept. In the second place, it also constitutes an essential questioning of democracy and its
scope in the contemporary world. Finally, it is a theoretical attempt to tackle this situation,
particularly in the United States of Donald Trump.
Both authors are outstanding references in the academy regarding political sciences and
democracy studies. Steven Levitsky is a Harvard professor of government. He has been
interested in political parties, authoritarianism, and democratization, focusing primarily on Latin
1Editor General Revista Publicando. jaroch6666@gmail.com
J
Estudios de Filosofía Práctica e Historia de las Ideas / E-ISSN 1851-9490 / Vol. 22
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America. Among his works, we can find Informal Institutions and Democracy: Lessons from Latin
America (2006) and The Resurgence of the Left in Latin America (2011). His partner, Daniel
Ziblatt, studies Europe and the history of democracy. He is author of Conservative Parties and
the Birth of Democracy (2017) and Structuring the State: The Formation of Italy and Germany
and the Puzzle of Federalism (2006). Currently, he is working in the research project Legacies of
Destruction: Violence, Social Disruption, and Democracy asking if violence can be a precondition
for democracy.
Given the above, the book is an outstanding outcome of the activity of two reliable researchers.
At the core of this collaboration lies the idea that democracy should not be given for granted. Not
only because it can be discussed or even violated by authoritarian leaders, but also because it
has faced the criticism of several thinkers throughout the history of Western Civilization. What
both authors want to introduce is a simple idea, democratic values, like freedom and tolerance,
can deny themselves passively. Well seen, it is not entirely disparate to think that implicitly, in
democratic societies, there is a potential for the emergence of authoritarian politicians.
The beginning of the analysis leads us to reconsider the misconception that democratic
breakdowns are caused by acts of violence like dictatorships, wars, coupsd “état. Alternatively,
in their absence, leaders or politicians that endanger the citizenship. Nonetheless, the truth is that
in the last decades, the situation is different; democracy dies “slowly, in barely visible steps” (p.
4). The fact that violent breakdowns are not anymore undermining the democratic process
constitutes a real problem for honest politicians, scholars, and, ultimately, citizens. There is no
way to know when democracies are dying or not if we do not have clear evidence of it. “Since the
end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and
soldiers but by elected governments themselves” (p. 6). The book comes accompanied by a
historical description of well-known cases of democratic breakdowns, from Venezuela to Turkey,
from Hungary to Peru and Ecuador, and last but not least, the United States of America.
Since the introduction, the authors define what democracy is. For them, it is “a system of
government with regular, free and fair elections, in which all adult citizens have the right to vote
and possess basic civil liberties such as freedom of speech and association” (p. 8). However, it
seems that America is in danger due to the increasing deterioration of democracy in the last years.
With the election of Donald Trump, it has been demonstrated that no matter how stable the
institutions are, would-be authoritarians can win the presidential chair. Therefore, a question is on
the table: Can democratic institutions combat the emergence of such figures? Is there any formal
device that can help us to detect the real authoritarian leader?
In the first chapter, Fateful Alliances, the authors examine precisely the sort of coalitions that
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political parties have to make to avoid the emergence of authoritarian leaders. This is the core of
the book not only because it clarifies how these pacts and approaches have to be made to face
authoritarians leaders, but also because it defines that: “what matters more is whether political
elites and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s
gatekeepers” (p. 24). Along with the vital role of these gatekeepers, we find a set of Four Key
Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior to detect the authoritarian politicians from before. These are
the rejection, in words or actions, of the democratic rules of the political game; the refusal of any
legitimacy on the opponent’s side; the tolerance or encouragement of violence; the evident
willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the Media.
It is under this set of rules that one can assess, define, and identify a would-be authoritarian.
However, this is not the end because, after the identification, political parties must apply a strategy
to oppose the would-be authoritarian. Pro-democratic organizations can root out the extremists in
the necessary level of their parties, systematically isolate the anti-democratic politicians and
establish partnerships against the common enemy, even if that means to cross the lines of the
party.
In Gatekeeping in America, they show how no demagogues have won the presidential chair in
America. The latter is basically due to the creation of alliances and the job done by the
gatekeepers. To support that idea, some historical examples are shown. Among other
characteristics, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States is the story of
“ineffective gatekeeping.” This story is told in the chapter The great republican abdication, where
the reader can also find a clear definition of why and how Donald Trump fulfills the profile of the
authoritarian leader. Then, in Subverting Democracy, they attempt to show how “elected
authoritarians shatter the democratic institutions that are supposed to constrain them (p. 93).
This moment can also be seen as a practical implementation of the framework that they defined
before. Here the reader may again find one of the most important takeaways of the book: “the
very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion. Would-be authoritarians
often use economic crisis, natural disasters, and especially security threats - wars, armed
insurgencies, or terrorist attacks- to justify anti-democratic measures” (p. 113).
Sometimes well-designed democratic institutions cannot save citizenship; something else is
necessary. In The guardrails of democracy, they define which are these guardrails: “Unwritten
rules are everywhere in American politics, ranging from the operations of the Senate and the
Electoral College to the format of presidential press conferences. However, two norms stand out
as fundamental to functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance (p.
125). As the reader can see, in addition to laws and institutions, the authors think that they need
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Jorge Gonzalez Arocha / How democracies die (Comentario de libro)
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norms and unwritten rules to sustain the political practice. In The unwritten rules of American
Politics, they describe the origin, function, and importance of many of these rules.
The Unraveling and Trump against the Guardrails describe the United States of America in
present days and how Trump has tried to impose his political style. Finally, the book tries to close
with an optimistic note in Saving Democracy. The ultimate inquiries here are: what democracy is?
Furthermore, how major political parties can overcome the situation and meet in the middle to find
a solution? In this regard they will give three possible scenarios, one pessimistic, one optimistic
and one with a continued polarization. The answer depends on the ability of active citizenship and
political parties to awake the hidden norms of the democratic game. Here we will face a new
situation that is already shaping America and part of western societies. That is, to build a
democracy without racial exclusion: “Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial
and genuinely democratic. That is our challenge. It is also our opportunity” (p. 285).
Despite the positive values of the text already pointed out throughout this review Vome
elements lead us to some criticism. The first obvious one is regarding the role of political parties
as gatekeepers of democratic institutions; we think the fruitful continuation of this research it may
be in the direction of making their model more concrete at the basic levels, in the roots of the
political organizations. In the second place, the text barely mentions the role of traditional media,
social media, and the different ways information is shaping our lives. Not only because of the well-
known role of Cambridge Analytica during the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump but also
because of how citizenship approach politics today. Big Data and new technologies are changing
the way we see the world. One has the impression and the perception that there is too much noise
to understand each other properly in this political game. Lastly, in the research, there are several
historical omissions. For example, in some cases, they do not mention the questionable role of
American secret services, non-governmental organizations, private Media, and corporations in
many of the political processes that they depict.
Regardless of all that, we consider along with the authors, that democracy is not a mere set of
rules that we find thrown or just some empty words. Instead, it is the possibility condition to
conduct our lives in a meaningful world, freely and fraternally with the other always in front of us.
If today’s democratic institutions are in crisis, the book of Ziblatt and Levitsky has helped us to
find the way back to it.
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