How Democracies Die


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The year is young, but Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die is going to be one of its most important books. It will be read as a commentary on Donald Trump, which is fair enough, because the book is, in part, a commentary on Donald Trump. But it deserves more than that. It is more than that.

How Democracies Die is three books woven together. One summarizes acres of research on how democracies tumble into autocracy. The second is an analysis of the troubling conditions under which American democracy thrived and the reasons it has entered into decline. The third book is a fretful tour of Trump’s first year in office, and the ways in which his instincts and actions mirror those of would-be autocrats before him.

Of these, the book about Donald Trump is the least interesting, and so in this interview, I didn’t focus on it. Instead, this is a discussion about how modern democracies fall, and the ways in which American democracy has been creeping towards crisis for decades now.

Viewed this way, Trump is much more a symptom of our democratic decline than its cause. So let's talk about the cause.

Books and Articles Mentioned

The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger

The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 by J. Morgan. Kousser

The Path to Power (The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volume 1) by Robert Caro

Political Order in Changing Societies by Samuel P. Huntington (edited)

Donald Matthews' book about the Senate in the 1950s

Julia Azari's piece, Weak parties and strong partisanship are a bad combination:

Rosenthal political polarization

The webcomic Ezra mentioned, "Different"

James Carse's book, Finite and Infinite Games

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