Book Summary

How Democracies Die

Steven Levitsky (a professor of government at Harvard University who focuses on comparative government) and Daniel Ziblatt (an American political scientist who specializes in the study of historical economies) remark that democracies have stopped going out with a bang, but rather a whimper. In this article, Akshita Krishnan explores these “whimpers” noted in the book, How Democracies Die.

To quote the Washington Post (and consequently, our former Managing Director Mckinley Paltzik’s final round speech at the 2022 NSDA Nationals), “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” And this darkness can be defined in numerous ways, entailing a shift away from the democratic ideals that corrupt the health of democracies all over the world.

Published in 2018, How Democracies Die is a manual on ridding this darkness and fixing American democracy by example. The first few chapters explore the pitfalls of other democracies across the world, and the second half discusses some interesting political theory and solutions to slow democratic backsliding in the United States. 


The book was written during the era of Trump, when America’s democracy score tarnished, and a lot of norms were broken. While we are technically away from Trump’s presidency (or maybe not, depending on current primary predictions), the book still speaks volumes about the function of democracy today.

The EIU, the Economist’s sister company, creates a ranking of democracies all over the world, and America’s rank has fallen into a “flawed democracy” instead of a full one. Additionally, the general health of the global democracy hasn’t increased by all that much, despite predictions that the loosening of Covid restrictions would see a bounceback.

Some areas of utmost concern include Latin America and Africa, both of which face leaders such as Nayib Bukele and Abiy Ahmed who have been specifically harsh in cracking down on crime, to a point where they’re cutting out personal freedoms. 

The conversation that this book opens up is incredibly valuable: not only does it include a history of the fall of democracies like those in Italy, Argentina, and Germany, but it also provides an alternative approach by singling out countries that have been able to keep their democratic principles through times of crisis like Austria. 

For anyone getting into IX, the contents of this book are both riveting and informative. A must read in my opinion. 

Part One: Democratic History


“History doesn’t repeat itself. But it rhymes.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt open strategically with a look at the persistence of democracy—after all, it’s been around since the Romans invented it, and some context is useful in seeing how the death of democracy in other countries can become a lesson to be learned.

This chapter surrounds the rise of authoritarian leaders: the authors walk us through a detailed explanation of Mussolini’s rise to power, and introduces us to the pathway that some of these dictatorial figures take. The concerning thing here, from Mussolini to Alberto Fujimori of Peru, is the fact that they came in from the inside. With the help of party leaders, they were able to consolidate power for themselves: this can even be seen with Hitler’s rise. He was appointed as chancellor before he began the Gleichschaltung, a process that brought Nazi ideals to light. 

Levitsky and Ziblatt note that this window of opportunity to autocrats is given by older party officials because they want to appeal to a certain audience, often with the mindset that they’ll be able to control this newcomer. This doesn’t always go as planned. Take for example a situation that unfolded in Venezuela in the early 90s. In order to be able to win another term as President, party staple Rafael Caldera decided to boost a young Hugo Chavez’s campaign after he gained national recognition for being a hero. In an attempt to boost his own political stature, Caldera miscalculated the amount that Chavez could consolidate: Chavez became the President in 1996, and Caldera couldn’t even bring himself to deliver the oath, departing from tradition.

Additionally, a note that the book offers here is the signs to watch out for when dealing with an autocrat: while party leaders would like to gain popularity, they should stray away from people who

  1. rejects in, words or action, the democratic rules of the game,
  2. denies the legitimacy of opponents,
  3. tolerates or encourages violence,
  4. indicated a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.

(By the way—Trump did all of these!)

The rest of the first chapter covers the role of a party gatekeeper, discussing how it is the duty of the mainstream parties to keep extremists out. In America, the two-party system succeeded in doing so, until 2016. More information about this is covered in chapter two.


“In short, Americans have long had an authoritarian streak.”

This part of the book really divests itself in exploring America’s history when it comes to the autocrats that appear in politics. In fact, many of these dictatorial figures gained a large following like the Share the Wealth society started by Huey Long, or the appearance of McCarthyism as a response to the Cold War. 

These ideologies were extreme, and they weren’t one-offs, but the important thing that Levitsky and Ziblatt mention is the fact that these concepts never had a mainstream platform to project on because of the “smoke-filled back room.”

Granted, this backroom political process is still undemocratic because a small number of people have the power to select a new leader, but this intense vetting allows for candidates that are more likely to adhere to democratic norms.

In a way, the Electoral College, as the authors mention, serves a similar purpose, but it poses an increasingly prevalent dichotomy: if democracy is about giving power to the people, why do we need to have checks to ensure that authoritarians don’t arise?

Either way, the rest of the chapter zeroes in on other figures that have been blocked from this rise, but as open primaries become the norm across the country, backroom politics have reduced. Levitsky and Ziblatt end with a remark about how Trump was the first autocrat to ever become President in the United States. 

The gatekeepers were unable to keep him out. 


“In August 2015, two months after Trump declared his candidacy, Las Vegas bookmakers gave him a one-hundred-to-one odds of winning the White House.”

There are volumes to be spoken about the fact that Trump ever had the opportunity to begin with, but the way that it happened revealed that the general power of party leaders and their “invisible primary” was much diminished.

Trump came dead last in the invisible primary because no actual political leader had endorsed him, but the issue was centered around the fact that they didn’t need to anymore. The proliferation of social media meant that information was being shared at a rapid rate, and there wasn’t much time for someone to check for misinformation. When combined with open primaries, it made it incredibly difficult for the gatekeepers to, well, gatekeep.

That’s a part of the reason as to why Trump was able to pull ahead.

Another thing that Levitsky and Ziblatt mention about the growth of Trump as a candidate: polarization. This is the part that I feel is most pertinent to pay attention to because it opens up some of the theory that extemper’s can use from this book. 

More and more people were beginning to conform to party loyalty at that time, and slowly, voting with party lines became the norm: step out of that line, and you’ll be persecuted. 

This blind loyalty to a political party is problematic because it hinders the ability of the party to grow and take constructive criticism, but also facilitates the rise of lawmakers that are elected solely because they were not part of the other side (cough cough, Marjorie Taylor Greene, cough cough).

This is where the party institution crumbled—they were no longer protected against the politically polarized climate, and, as the authors note, had to begin playing an intense game of Russian Roulette that was entirely out of their hands. And, this is how, despite what everyone said at the time, Trump won the nomination for President.

After this happened, Trump began showing danger signs underneath the litmus test that Levistky and Ziblatt proposed by attacking Hillary Clinton, calling the election fake, and painting the media as a perpetrator of fake news. Party leaders such as Mitt Romney and John McCain warned of the danger that Trump posed, but their warnings went largely unheard.

A few months later, Trump was President, and these ideas of polarization became profitable in the cloth of American democracy. 

Part Two: Democratic Theory


“To better understand how elected autocrats subtly undermine institutions, it’s helpful to imagine a soccer game.”

The subversion of democracy is complicated. I noted in the summary of this review that Levitsky and Ziblatt make it a point to say that the death of democracy often happens in a whimper, not a blast. This is kind of where their point really comes into play.

Many of these demagogues, often only elected because of the frustration that the ordinary people have with elites, start by pushing back when their power is checked. Take Alberto Fujimori of Peru: he ran on an anti-elitist platform, but when a traditional Congress refused to allow him to pass his desired legislation, he took it as a sign “to govern Peru alone—from his laptop.” 

This change goes undetected by the people because democratic institutions continue to exist—opposition party leaders are in Congress, elections are still held, and the media is technically allowed to continue their report of the leader’s term. The issue is that the institutions will still be undermined. 

As Levitsky and Ziblatt put it, the “soccer game” of subverting democracy entails “captur[ing] the referees, sidelin[ing] at least some of the other side’s star players, and rewrit[ing] the rule of the game to lock in their advantage.” A combination of these things slowly erode away at democracy’s institutions, and we [the general public] don’t even realize it. 

For the first part of this discussion, we must understand what “capturing the referees” means. In a broad sense, it means getting the investigators, the law enforcement officials, and anyone who could potentially have the power to check you on your side. This mostly entails packing and a selective enforcement of the law. This can be seen when Viktor Orban filled the constitutional Court with partisan allies in 2010 or when Alberto Fujimori’s intelligence advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos, secretly gathered information on the opposition, choosing to ignore the abuses within the ruling party.

When you have the referees on your side, it becomes easier to make the rules of the game fit your perceptions. This can also be done by muzzling the media, taking away any real power that they could have. 

At that point, your autocracy is confirmed, and no one can stop you. 

Next, we can look into the “sidelining” of key players. This is mostly done by buying them off. When you pay money to a media outlet to make yourself look more favorable, or agree to finance the needs of the opposition if they reduce their resistance to your rule, you reduce the obstacles along the way. As an example, Recep Tayipp Erdogan in Turkey punished the opposition media by bankrupting them. This outlet was significant in publishing the corruption and power that Erdogan wielded, which meant that this blow pushed away the key players who blocked him. 

The third and final way—as described by Ziblatt and Levitsky—that a democracy can be subverted, is through the rewriting of rules. This part is pretty self explanatory: it is when the autocrat in training begins to consolidate power by changing the legal rules itself (i.e. the abuse of power becomes legal). A key example of this is portrayed in the era of Reconstruction. As the Civil War ended and the formerly enslaved people began to gain basic rights, including suffrage, lawmakers shifted the goal a little bit further away. In order to deny these people representation and any real voice in politics, the Southern Democrats began to implement rules such as poll taxes and the grandfather role, hindering their ability to vote.

In effect, as a ruler does all of these things, they push into the fabric of democracy, and kill it. 

And, the saddest part is how all of it is legal. 


“Democracy is, of course, not street basketball.”

In order to keep democracy alive, there need to be a certain set of rules that hold it intact. While Constitutions are technically such determinants, they do not always prove helpful (see: Argentina’s Peronist Revolution under Juan Peron). 

The guardrails that Ziblatt and Levitsky set are the concepts of mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. 

Mutual toleration is simply accepting that alternative opinions exist, and allowing for a space that creates discussion. This is integral to ensuring that a democracy can survive because citizens are not limited to one point of view, or extremely persecuted for having an alternative one. Historically, these rights have been curbed through the Alien and Sedition acts in the United States, but the political climate of today is so naturally polarized that true toleration doesn’t really exist. The problem with this is that it creates the fear of the other; however, the most important impact is how it forces gridlock in legislative bodies, decreasing their efficiency (cough cough, our government almost shutdown because of this, cough cough). 

Institutional Forbearance is more about tradition. It relies on following rules that aren’t entirely written, but are agreed upon because they create better, more democratic outcomes, and leave the players in the game of democracy happy. Take for example term limits: the United States did not have official rules for term limits until the mid-1900’s, but a majority of Presidents (excluding FDR) served two terms or less out of respect for tradition. A contemporary example of this being violated are the various election scandals across the world. In both the US and Brazil, the heads of state refused to accept defeat, even though they had lost. This lack of regard for tradition creates a free for all, and erodes democracy.

In the next chapter, Ziblatt and Levitsky also discuss how mutual toleration is a precursor to institutional forbearance: the more you listen to each other, the more likely you are to focus on ensuring the continuation of democratic norms.


“The Civil War broke America’s democracy.”

American democracy is constructed with checks and balances in mind. Power is split across three branches, and each of them carry out a different task that is important to retaining their power. 

But, it is important to note that power imbalances aren’t entirely out of the book when it comes to American politics. 

In a way, Ziblatt and Levitsky argue, Presidential power is nearly infinite. The checks that the other branches provide are easy to circumvent. While the general person might act cautiously and be aware of this power, an autocrat is more likely to push against it. 

This opens up the first “unwritten rule:” restraint. Without it, a President (or the other two branches) can easily choose the options that subvert democracy

In the Senate, these norms have been viewed throughout history as well (I mean minus the times that senators used to publicly cane each other on the floor). The power of the filibuster has not been invoked until more recently, during Bill Clinton’s presidency. 

That segway’s into the most pressing concern of this chapter: how these checks and balances have eroded over time. As American democracy is so old, it will never really go away, but it is still easily subverted. Events such as the Great Depression (and FDR’s response to it), along with McCarthyism and the Patriot Acts weakened the checks and balances and norms of American democracy.

As individual events, they don’t mean much, but when combined under a polarizing climate, an increasingly autocratic leader, and are placed in succession, they weaken American democracy.

Part Three: Trump & American Democracy


“If twenty-five years ago, someone had described to you a country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election or establishing a dictatorship, and parties used their legislative majorities to impeach presidents and steal supreme court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. You probably would not have thought about the United States.”

The quotation above is probably exactly what Trump would have said about Latin American nations throughout his Presidency, so it is a little ironic that this fate made it to the shores of the United States. 

Norms are integral to sustaining a democracy: this is why the United States had a powerful regime. As long as the norms survive over time, Ziblatt and Levitsky put forth, so can democracy. 

The unique thing about Trump’s rise to power wasn’t just his own actions and rhetoric, but it was combined with an increasingly radical Republican party that wanted to defy everything that the “other” side did. (Example: not wanting to confirm Merrick Garland as a successor to Scalia because it was an election year.)

This particular unraveling had been going on for quite some time, and can be traced back to Obama’s Presidency. Throughout 2008-2016, rumors about Obama’s birthplace, the passage of Obamacare, and financial crisis increased extremism from the right, which added an obstacle to decision making in the legislative bodies. 

Because of this movement to the extreme, it isn’t surprising that Trump was able to rise to power. What is surprising, however, is how much power he was able to wield by forgoing these societal norms. 


“Trump’s rhetoric was often threatening.”

The best way to start this, I think, is with another quote from Mckinley’s 2022 final round speech: “You can tell a lot about a world leader from their Twitter page.” I don’t think there is anything more notorious than Trump’s Twitter: you can almost see his devolution as a demagogue through it. 

Mostly, his Twitter interactions were insults, thrown at various people who were mean to him. It’s funny to think about it, but there was a larger consequence because Trump broke rule after rule in the book concerning democratic rule: he forgoed mutual toleration and institutional forbearance for his own political motives.

Levitsky and Ziblatt note a couple of examples of when he did this: Trump tried sending out antitrust laws to hinder the ability of Twitter and Facebook to post stories exposing him (rare Trump action against Big Tech?), pushed for laws that reduced the power of voters, and handicapped the Office of Governmental Integrity. 

The impacts of this are harrowing because norm breaking at the highest level encourages norm breaking at the lowest level. Since this book was written in 2018, it doesn’t cover the insurrection, but I would argue that this is the most apparent example of this impact. Trump’s lack of respect for multiple opinions devolved into his supporters adopting a similar mentality. Democracy is like a domino in that sense. 

Part Three: Applications & Solutions


“This is America’s greatest challenge. We cannot retreat from it.”

If you’ve made it this far, congrats. This is the part that most applies to the sourcing that you would use under a theory/application substructure. 

There are a couple of hiccoughs when it comes to fixing American democracy because of the complex nature of it. While we could adopt models like Nordic countries, regions that have faced little to no democratic backsliding, America faces a challenge because of our population: it is not homogenous. 

A lot of politics revolves around the social identities of people, so a solution must be found to delicately balance this emphasis while still fixing the democratic troubles that the country faces.

The main solution that Ziblatt and Levitsky advocate for is for the reform of both parties in four key areas: finance, grassroots organization, messaging, and candidate selection. The logic here is that a lack of pressure from outside donors would make the party less likely to take on polarizing viewpoints. 

Another solution that would help the country move towards a less polarizing view is one of economic stability. In America, social welfare programs rely heavily on means tested welfare, which would only be beneficial if you make below a certain threshold. This model leaves middle class voters unsatisfied, and pushes them to support identity politics instead. Alternatively, the European model is more universal, which means that the middle class will also gain these benefits. This in turn would help reduce polarization. 

Final Thoughts

Overall, I think that this book offers a myriad of examples which are really important to read for my IX’ers who are just learning the histories of all of these countries. The theory is well written, and it goes by quickly.

Happy reading!

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