Democracies die not with a bang, but with a slowly unfolding whimper.

That’s the crux of the book How Democracies Die, by political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, which Ezra Klein very usefully summarizes today at Vox. Klein’s account actually isn’t nearly as chilling as it could or should be. He only implies what certain bipartisan analysts have been asserting for years: that “The Republicans are the problem.” And he ignores such outrages as Republican voter suppression and Trump’s anti-immigrant fear-mongering.

But Klein’s piece nonetheless provides a guide to what’s undoing our democracy. It cuts much deeper than Trump. Read it and weep.

Or if you don’t have time, here are a few key excerpts:

Demagogues and authoritarians do not destroy democracies. It’s established political parties, and the choices they make when faced with demagogues and authoritarians, that decide whether democracies survive…


[Quoting the book:] This is how democracies now die. Blatant dictatorship — in the form of fascism, communism, or military rule — has disappeared across much of the world. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections. Democracies still die, but by different means. Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box…


[Quoting the book:] The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion. The stability of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s was rooted in an original sin: the Compromise of 1877 and its aftermath, which permitted the de-democratization of the South and the consolidation of Jim Crow. Racial exclusion contributed directly to the partisan civility and cooperation that came to characterize twentieth-century American politics….


a June 2017 survey asked, “If Donald Trump were to say that the 2020 presidential election should be postponed until the country can make sure that only eligible American citizens can vote, would you support or oppose postponing the election?” A majority of Republicans supported postponement…


What if, instead of a louche, undisciplined, boorish, and insulting demagogue, Trump were a smooth, calculating, strategic, and disciplined demagogue? What if it were not Trump who had won the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, but John Kelly — a four-star general who shares many of Trump’s cultural grievances and his xenophobic intuitions but could wrap himself in the flag, in the rhetoric of patriotism, in the dangers that lurk beyond our borders?

I’m tempted to end this post there. But that would paint us all as all too passive in deciding what happens here. Whether it’s a matter of taking it to the streets or to the ballot box, it’s up to us to take up this challenge to democracy in the months and years to come.



Based in Oakland, California, Stephen Golub writes, consults and teaches about international development, with a particular focus on justice, democracy, human rights and governance issues. Currently teaching part-time at Central European University in Budapest and previously at the University of California at Berkeley, he has worked in over 40 countries and with such organizations as Amnesty International, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Ford and Open Society Foundations, the U.K. Department for International Development, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank

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