Book Reviews

“Relevant reading as Nov. 3 approaches”

By Michael Kelley

August 26, 2020

Some readers may see alarming parallels between current events and the historical crises outlined in fascinating detail by Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their 2018 New York Times best-selling book, How Democracies Die. Others may scoff at the notion that our American democracy could die.

But if Chile can lose its democracy, why can’t the United States? American exceptionalism becomes a less compelling argument as evidence mounts that Americans might be unexceptional in some tasks. Just look at our failed efforts to control the spread of the Coronavirus and forge a return to normal life.

“Will American democracy survive?” is not an academic question, folks. We’re not as special as we might have believed not long ago. Remember, we yanked voting rights right out from under African American feet in the post-Reconstruction South. And in the last several presidential elections, voter intimidation and suppression have deprived the right to vote to over a hundred thousand people and arguably have changed the result of at least one of them.

Levitsky and Ziblatt remind us of that and other unsettling facts in this important publication, revealing history that helps us understand what some may consider an abstract concept. From the Philippines to Turkey, to Poland, Russia and the like, history has repeated itself over and over, with autocratic regimes installed and maintained through one of two basic methods – force or neglect.

It’s important to remember that dictatorial power can be seized without storming a palace or firing a shot. “Elected autocrats,” write Livitsky and Ziblatt, “maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.”

This study of failed democracies and successful rescues of democracies in peril – resonates deeply two years after the publication of How Democracies Die. The book is essential reading for those of us who have become active in organizations such as RepresentUs New Mexico to promote campaign finance reform, ethical and transparent government practices, fair and logical congressional district boundaries, the protection of voting rights, lobbying reform and the like, all of which serve as guardrails along democracy’s perilous path.

In this endeavor we face a powerful enemy: apathy. This is an important lesson to be learned from mid-20th Century Germany and Italy and late-century Venezuela, among others, where “outsiders with a flair for capturing public attention … rose to power because establishment politicians overlooked the warning signs and either handed over power to them (Hitler and Mussolini) or opened the door for them (Chavez),” Livitsky and Ziblatt write.

Politicians typically start their seizure of autocratic power on the strength of strong populist appeal. They capitalize on the fears and grievances of people who sense that elites are deaf to their concerns. They follow an established playbook, encouraging violence, threatening the prosecution of political rivals, censoring media, exercising partisan intolerance, promoting polarization and the like. Often there is also an existential threat that prompts countrymen to rally around their leader during a period of distress. Some recent developments in the United States can be seen as typical turns on the road to authoritarianism: the chilling chants of “LOCK HER UP!” at big political rallies; Neo-Nazis, enabled by rhetoric from the top and lax gun laws, coming out of their closets to scare the bejeezus out of ordinary citizens; weaponizing departments of the government for political gain.These are key elements in a playbook that autocrats have used throughout history to gain and hold onto power.

The authors explain how the system many of us depend on to sustain our democracy – checks and balances among the three branches of government, for example – do not serve their purpose by themselves. They must be accompanied by the political and institutional norms that unofficially govern behavior. Norms, they write, “are the soft guardrails of democracy,” which “have been weakening [in the United States] for decades.”

Unless powers granted by the constitution are “used … with remarkable forbearance (one of those norms),” they become effective tools in the hands of people who are only seeking power or wealth. Until recently, politicians for the most part have politely passed on opportunities to exercise their powers to their full extent.

Other guardrails include the political parties, whose roles in a well-functioning democracy include distancing themselves from extremist candidates. The authors point to numerous cases, here and abroad, when parties aligned with members of the opposition treated a demagogue like an uncouth uncle at Thanksgiving, putting what’s good for their country above party affiliation. Republican Senators could have acted to find the President guilty of impeachment on thoroughly proven grounds earlier this year. Unfortunately, they demurred.

Which leads us to the election of 2020, which has been described without hyperbole as the most important presidential election in modern history. The last remaining rampart defending our democracy – the right to vote — is going to have to come through big-time.

Michael Kelley is a retired journalist from Memphis, TN. He and his wife moved to Santa Fe, NM several years ago. He joined RepresentUs New Mexico earlier this year.