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The Big Answer


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How Democracies Die

a book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

(our site's book review)

Is Our Democracy in Danger?

The Amazon blurb says that Donald Trump’s presidency has raised a question that many of us never thought we’d be asking: Is our democracy in danger? Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have spent more than twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America, and they believe the answer is yes. Democracy no longer ends with a bang—in a revolution or military coup—but with a whimper: the slow, steady weakening of critical institutions, such as the judiciary and the press, and the gradual erosion of long-standing political norms. The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one.

Interstate 75 SB weigh station, Lowndes County, exit ramp
The good news is that there are several exit ramps on the road to authoritarianism. The bad news is that, by electing Trump, we have already passed the first one

How Democracies Die—and How Ours Can Be Saved

Drawing on decades of research and a wide range of historical and global examples, from 1930s Europe to contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela, to the American South during Jim Crow, Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies die—and how ours can be saved.

“Cool and persuasive... How Democracies Die comes at exactly the right moment.”—The Washington Post

Levitsky and Ziblatt use historical narratives to show how the disappearance (or nonexistence) of unwritten standards of behavior that are followed for an extended period of time (norms) in other countries allowed society to slide down the slope into authoritarianism. The U.S. just happens to be a multi-ethnic society. No ethnicity is in the majority. Levitsky and Ziblatt highlight the fact that, to date, they haven't been able to identify any other multi-ethnic society which is both a democracy as well as a society where all ethnicities are empowered politically, socially and economically. However, recent shenanigans at the polls in the USA might just change the word empowered to the word semi-empowered.

How Democracies Die is not a 'Chicken Little' book screaming hysterically to the already-persuaded about how terrible Donald Trump is
How Democracies Die is not a "Chicken Little" book screaming hysterically to the already-persuaded about how terrible Donald Trump is

How Democracies Die is not a "Chicken Little" book screaming hysterically to the already-persuaded about how terrible Donald Trump is. Rather, while pointing out some of the dangers posed acutely by Trump's handling of the presidency, it also identifies some much more long-term problems.


To Protect Our Democracy, We Must First Study Failed Democracies Historically

"A comparative approach reveals how elected autocrats in different parts of the world employ remarkably similar strategies to subvert democratic institutions. As these patterns become visible, the steps toward breakdown grow less ambiguous –and easier to combat. Knowing how citizens in other democracies have successfully resisted elected autocrats, or why they tragically failed to do so, is essential to those seeking to defend American democracy today. We know that extremist demagogues emerge from time to time in all societies, even in healthy democracies. The United States has had its share of them, including Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace. An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place – by keeping them off mainstream party tickets . . ." (Source: This is how democracies die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the Guardian)

Since the 1990s, corporations have been happy as pigs in poop since they got what they wanted and they were not really interested in the people's needs anyway, especially since they often were in the way of corporate need filling
Since the 1990s, corporations have been happy as pigs in poop since they got what they wanted and they were not really interested in the people's needs anyway, especially since they often were in the way of corporate need filling

A critical test occurs once a demagogue takes office in a democracy. Will the autocratic leader subvert democratic institutions or will he be constrained by them? Norms of toleration and restraint once protected democray in the USA, but beginning with the bomb-throwing political chicanery of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, winning at all costs was the redefined goal of the Republicans. Why be tolerant or restrained when you are more likely to win with scorched earth politics? What used to be negotiation and compromise turned into war, insults, finger pointing, and dirty tricks. More and more the corporations got their needs attended while the people's business went unattended, and each party blamed the other for the failure. And yet the corporations were happy as pigs in poop since they were not really interested in the people's needs anyway, especially since they often were in the way of corporate need filling.

The ladder of class mobility has been rigged to keep the nonrich nonrich
The ladder of class mobility has been rigged to keep the nonrich nonrich


Beginning with the bomb-throwing political chicanery of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, winning at all costs was the redefined goal of the Republicans
Beginning with the bomb-throwing political chicanery of Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, winning at all costs was the redefined goal of the Republicans

Government degenerated into a tool for elites to use to increase their wealth at the expense of the citizens. The government colluded with the oligarchs to rig the ladder of class mobility to keep the nonrich nonrich. The author knows that many of our citizens are rightfully afraid. It will help a lot if we stay mindful of the mistakes that have wrecked other democracies and stop short of repeating them. See:


The Problems in American Democracy Run Far Deeper than Trump

"In most modern cases, 'democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.' They rot from the inside, poisoned by leaders who 'subvert the very process that brought them to power.' They are hollowed out, the trappings of democracy present long after the soul of the system is snuffed out. Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the problems bedeviling American democracy. (Source: How democracies die, explained: The problems in American democracy run far deeper than Trump, Ezra Klein, Vox)

Trump's conduct has set off all four warning signals of democratic breakdown: dissing opponents and media, instill mistrust of everyone but him, contempt for rules, willingness to violate the constitution, encouraging violence
Trump's conduct has set off all four warning signals of democratic breakdown: dissing opponents and media, instill mistrust of everyone but him, contempt for rules, willingness to violate the constitution, encouraging violence

How Democracies Die "starts by giving us a readable but thorough look at democratic breakdowns in societies around the world. [The authors] then compare those incidents with current developments in the United States — and arrive at some disturbing conclusions. [The 4] warning signs [of democratic breakdown]: Contempt for democratic rules of the game, such as a willingness to violate the constitution. Attacks on the legitimacy of political opponents. Tacitly encouraging violence and a readiness to curtail civil liberties, including freedom of the press. [Trump did 'em ALL.]" (Source: Can American democracy withstand its latest assault?, Christian Caryl, the Washington Post)

Nero 1
Nero Claudius, an unhinged emperor that made a mockery of republican institutions, undid the collective nervous system of a country, and degraded the whole of public life

“Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations [Twitter and Facebook] the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome — to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions, undo the collective nervous system of a country, and degrade the whole of public life . . . ”—The Increasing Unfitness of Donald Trump, David Remnick, New Yorker

Future scholars will sift through Trump’s tweets the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome — to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions, and degrade the whole of public life
Future scholars will sift through Trump’s tweets the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome — to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions, and degrade the whole of public life

Most Trump Voters Figured the 2016 Election Was the Last Chance to Stop America’s Decline

"A poll conducted by PRRI and the Atlantic immediately after the election found that more than 60 percent of Trump’s voters believed the 2016 election was 'the last chance to stop America’s decline.' . . . Since the election, similar fears of impending doom for our republic have overwhelmed some critics of Trump. They say that Trump is an autocrat in the making, intent on crushing dissent, repressing the free press, quashing congressional oversight, delegitimizing the courts, and ultimately killing our democracy. Even when they are not put so starkly, implicit fears of such looming autocracy color much of the resistance to Trump." Smialowski's main focus is on how the book overstates its case that Trump will be an autocrat—Trump may be a wannabe strongman but he is weak, ignorant, crude, impulsively rash, and not strong at all. True, but if the rightwing flunkies around Trump push him to act out their power fantasies, Trump's weakness will be an irrelevancy. (Source: How Democracies Panic, Brendan Smialowski, the Weekly Standard)

Implicit fears of looming autocracy color much of the resistance to Trump
Implicit fears of looming autocracy color much of the resistance to Trump

"There's a very important role for mainstream political parties in keeping authoritarian figures out of power. U.S. parties, throughout our history, have done a phenomenally good job of [that]. In the interwar period in Europe, right-wing parties struck these Faustian bargains with extremist candidates — the Liberal Party in Italy in the early '20s, the conservatives in Germany with Hitler in the late '20s and early '30s. The comparison we make is that the Republican Party completely abdicated [their responsibility for keeping authoritarian figures out of power] in 2016 in nominating Trump, in not distancing itself from Trump and now increasingly serving as his lap dog." (Source: Trump attacks on Russia investigation threaten U.S. democracy, authors say, Michael Finnegan, LA Times)

The Republican Party completely abdicated their responsibility for keeping authoritarian figures out of power in 2016 in nominating Trump, in not distancing itself from Trump and now increasingly serving as his lap dog
The Republican Party completely abdicated their responsibility for keeping authoritarian figures out of power in 2016 in nominating Trump, in not distancing itself from Trump and now increasingly serving as his lap dog

What Can Voters Do to Protect the Democratic Process?

What are some practical steps the two parties and average voters can take to protect the democratic process? For one thing, Republicans need to pull away from Trump. The Republican Party needs to become something more than an apocalyptic cult of armageddon-craving fundamentalist wackos, Scientology for rednecks who think that embryology, evolutionary biology and geology are “lies from the pit of hell," climate change deniers who'd rollback the Enlightenment if given the chance. The campaign to undermine public trust in climate science has been described as a "denial machine" organized by industrial (Big Oil), political and ideological interests, and supported by conservative media and the Kochs. See The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted

The Party Is Over: Republicans went crazy, Democrats became useless, and the Middle Class got shafted (or is it Trumped?)
The Party Is Over: Republicans went crazy, Democrats became useless, and the Middle Class got shafted (or is it Trumped?)


The Republicans and fake news outlets had the country convinced Hillary was an evil witch in 2016—sadly, U.S. cultural maturity is a century away from being ready to vote for a woman
The Republicans and fake news outlets had the country convinced Hillary was an evil witch in 2016—sadly, U.S. cultural maturity is a century away from being ready to vote for a woman

For another thing, one easy strategy to protect the democratic process is to stop voting radical wackos and stealth candidates into office, and Democrats need to take back control of Congress from these radical Republicans, and get a less controversial candidate ready for President in the 2020 race, someone who knows how to deal with email. A quarter of the people who voted for Trump wanted to vote Democratic but decided even Trump was better than Hillary.

According to Mike Lofgren, 'both parties are rotten, but Republicans take the prize for sailing off the rails and taking all manner of common sense and duty to the republic with them'
According to Mike Lofgren, "both parties are rotten, but Republicans take the prize for sailing off the rails and taking all manner of common sense and duty to the republic with them"

Rich People—Especially Oligarchs—Hate Democracy

What it gets down to is this: Rich people—especially oligarchs—hate democracy. They try to minimize it in as many ways as they can. They'd be happy to drop the pretense and create a system based on aristocracy where they sit on thrones all day, waited on hand and foot by the serfs. This may happen someday, but for now, the rich just make sure that things run like an oligarchy rather than a democracy. To pacify the sheep/citizens, the oligarchs continue to call it a democracy, and they wink at one another when no one is looking. Folks, it is NOT a democracy. The U.S. is an oligarchy. See Democracy—an American Delusion.

As long as corporations are the main deciding force in elections rather than the citizens, democracy will be impossible
As long as corporations are the main deciding force in elections rather than the citizens, democracy will be impossible

One can run around screaming with glee about living in a democracy until one is blue in the face, but it won't change the facts: The American Democracy ideal still exists, but the reality is something quite different. We live in an oligarchy that is slipping inexorably toward something few have dared contemplate: feudalism, complete with serfs (you and us) and aristocracy (the greedy rich who have rigged the game so it’s mostly zero-sum, win-lose, with us as servants, field workers, and ass kissers). Our rights will be simple: you'll have the right to choose between doing as you're told or lying down in a dirty alleyway and dying. Spoiler alert: the elites won't miss you when you're gone.

The oligarchs would be happy to bury democracy six feet under in order to maximize their wealth
The oligarchs would be happy to bury democracy six feet under in order to maximize their wealth