How Democracies Die Book Summary - How Democracies Die Book explained in key points
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How Democracies Die summary

Steven Levitsky

And how we can save ours

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29 mins
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    How Democracies Die
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    A potentially dangerous autocrat can be hard to spot in advance.

    Imagining a demagogue rising to power, you may picture a horde of armed supporters storming a presidential palace. But such a violent and sudden takeover is largely a thing of the past. Nowadays, dangerous demagogues rise to power by aligning themselves with established politicians.

    This unlikely arrangement – between an anti-establishment figure and the old guard – can happen when the current establishment is losing voter support. Under these conditions, the powers that be will turn to a populist outsider – someone considered to be a voice of the people.

    In this scenario, the establishment will bring in the outsider with the assumption that they’ll be able to control this rogue element. But once he’s in, the demagogue can make his power grab.

    This is precisely what happened when the German establishment turned to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s.

    By March of 1930, the Great Depression had severely crippled the German economy, resulting in years of political stalemate. In 1933, the conservative leaders made a last-ditch attempt to gain voter support by making the populist champion, Adolf Hitler, the chancellor.

    The German establishment made the mistake of thinking they could capitalize on Hitler’s popularity while still keeping his power in check. But within two months of being appointed chancellor, Hitler had outlawed opposition parties and essentially made himself a dictator. What happened in the decade that followed is one of history’s great tragedies.

    This shows us that sometimes dangerous demagogues can be lying in wait. To spot them, there are four warning signs you can be on the lookout for.

    The first is noticing when someone rejects the rules of democracy. Does he claim that election results are “invalid,” or suggest that the constitution needs fixing?

    The second sign of danger is when a politician tries to falsely discredit his opponent. Is someone making unsubstantiated claims that an opponent should be jailed, or is an enemy of the state?

    The third warning sign is a tolerance of, or encouraging attitude towards the use of violence. Does he conduct business with figures in the mafia or support the actions of militant people?

    The last sign is expression of a desire to reduce the civil rights of a person or institution, such as a claim that the country would be better without a free press/Is there praise for a government that's actively silencing journalists or protesters?

    These are all red flags that suggest someone would likely favor autocracy should he be given power. Whether or not this would happen depends on the way the establishment acts, which we’ll look at next.

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    What is How Democracies Die about?

    How Democracies Die (2018) examines the fundamental principles of democracy, with a look at historical cases – particularly in Latin America – where democracies have turned into dictatorships or autocracies. The authors examine how these democratic downfalls have happened, whether it could happen again in the future, and what could be done to prevent this dangerous and often lethal outcome. Attention is also given to the presidency of Donald Trump, to question his motives and determine whether he qualifies as an American autocrat.

    Best quote from How Democracies Die

    Democracies still die, but by different means.

    —Steven Levitsky
    example alt text

    Who should read How Democracies Die?

    • Anyone interested in current affairs
    • Students of political science or government
    • Readers interested in the historical relevance of the Trump presidency

    About the Author

    Steven Levitsky is a professor of government at Harvard University. His research has focused on Latin America and the developing world. He is the author of numerous journal articles on political science and the co-author of the book Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War.

    Daniel Ziblatt also teaches government at Harvard University, with a focus on modern European history. He is an award-winning scholar and author of the books Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy and Structuring the State: the Formation of Italy and Germany and the Puzzle of Federalism.

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