How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Educated, liberal-minded Americans have great difficulty working out how to respond to Donald Trump, and this book does not offer them much help. Its authors, who are professors at Harvard, begin with a ridiculously naive question: “Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking.”

How conceited of them. Every schoolchild knows the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and anyone faintly conversant with American history can see that there as elsewhere, democracy has often been in danger.

It is perhaps this liberal conceit which helped prepare such fertile ground for Trump. Educated America insulted uneducated America by ignoring its small-town concerns about jobs and immigration, and preaching a superior, universal morality to which all are expected to pay at least outward respect.

An unsatisfied demand developed for a candidate like Trump who not only took uneducated America seriously, but insulted the liberal elite.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wish to draw general lessons about what has gone wrong, a mission which is by no means unreasonable, for the Zeitgeist blows in mysterious ways around the globe, and reactions against liberalism which are to some extent cognate with Trump’s can be found in many different places.

But while searching for universal patterns, they tend to pay very little attention to such important questions as how long a democracy has been established, and what pre-existing traditions, such as respect for the rule of law, it is able to draw on.

Conservatives observe with delight the American reverence for Magna Carta and the common law. Liberals tend to find that sort of argument faintly impolite, as it might be taken to imply that different societies have different chances of becoming, and remaining, democratic.

Levitsky is an authority on Latin America, while Ziblatt, drawing in particular on the history of Britain and Germany since the 19th century, has pointed out in a recent volume, favourably reviewed on ConservativeHome, that democracy only tends to endure in countries where a strong conservative party develops, which can defend the interests of the pre-democratic elite.

The truth is that for the purposes of this volume, the authors are, quite understandably, far more interested in the United States than in any other country.

And here they become deeply concerned about the decline in various “norms” of behaviour, and the deepening partisanship which leaves each side unwilling to accord the other even the most elementary respect. They admit “the process of norm erosion started decades ago”, and quote a ferocious address delivered in 1978 by Newt Gingrich to a group of College Republicans at Atlanta Airport Holiday Inn:

“You’re fighting a war. It is a war for power… This party does not need another generation of cautious, prudent, careful, bland, irrelevant quasi-leaders… What we really need are people who are willing to stand up in a slug-fest… What’s the primary purpose of a political leader? … To build a majority.”

The most valuable part of How Democracies Die is perhaps the account of how the Republican Party failed to keep Trump off the ticket. Levitsky and Ziblatt rightly observe that one of the key functions of a party is to act as a filter, so that people who are morally or intellectually unfit for office are prevented from becoming candidates.

They quote Alexander Hamilton’s observation, at the start of the Federalist Papers:

“History will teach us that…of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

The Founding Fathers devised the Electoral College, which in Hamilton’s words was supposed to exclude candidates with “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity”, and ensure that “the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”.

But the Electoral College was almost at once overtaken by the rise of political parties, in whose smoke-filled rooms the deals were made which determined who would be the presidential candidate.

During the 20th century, such Trumpian figures as Henry Ford and George Wallace were held in check by the party establishments. But how does one spot when a demagogue is going to develop into an authoritarian? According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, drawing on earlier work by Juan Linz,

“We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.”

Trump met all four of these criteria – more, according to the authors, than any other major presidential candidate in modern US history.

The authors do not follow Alexis de Tocqueville in asking, as he does in his immortal work Democracy in America, “Why the most distinguished men in America frequently seclude themselves from public affairs.” But this surely is a great part of the problem, and became apparent as soon as the great men who founded the United States passed from the scene.

Levitsky and Ziblatt instead blame the Republican Party, which they describe as “the main driver of the chasm between the parties”, after which they deliver the following somewhat prosy lecture:

“Reducing polarisation requires that the Republican Party be reformed, if not refounded outright. First of all, the GOP must rebuild its own establishment. This means regaining leadership control in four key areas: finance, grassroots organisation, messaging, and candidate selection. Only if the party leadership can free itself from the clutches of outside donors and right-wing media can it go about transforming itself. This entails major changes: Republicans must marginalise extremist elements; they must build a more diverse electoral constituency, such that the party no longer relies so heavily on its shrinking white Christian base; and they must find ways to win elections without appealing to white nationalism, or what Republican Arizona senator Jeff Flake calls the ‘sugar high of populism, nativism, and demagoguery’.”

The Republicans must, it seems, become more like the Democrats, or at least more like the Republicans used to be. Far be it from this reviewer, who gazes with admiration at the past, to deny that such an ambitious transformation might be desirable.

But is it not also possible that the Democrats need to take more seriously the deep anxieties of Republican voters, and show that to alleviate these present-day worries, there is no need to vote for the oaf who now occupies the White House?