How Democracies Die | Steven Levitsky

Summary of: How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future
By: Steven Levitsky


Get ready to delve into the book ‘How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future’, authored by Steven Levitsky. This eye-opening summary exposes the patterns of politicians who rise to power through seemingly legitimate means, only to use their positions to undermine democracy and turn it into autocracy. Through historical examples such as Hitler and more recent figures like Trump, discover the four warning signs of a dangerous demagogue, the importance of political parties acting as gatekeepers, and how adherence to unwritten rules sustains democracy. Equip yourself with the knowledge of how democracies can be saved and the role we play in protecting our future.

Spotting Dangerous Demagogues

Learn the warning signs and history of demagogues rising to power and how the establishment sometimes makes the mistake of thinking they can control them.

You might think of demagogues rising to power alongside a horde of armed supporters, but such violent takeovers are largely a thing of the past. Today’s demagogues rise to power through an unlikely scenario: aligning themselves with established politicians. The powers that be might turn to a populist outsider when they feel they’re losing voter support. This sets up a dangerous situation when the establishment brings in someone they assume they can control. The demagogue can then make a grab for power.

This was the case when Adolf Hitler became the chancellor in 1933. After the Great Depression devastated the German economy, the conservative leaders made a last-ditch attempt to gain voter support. They made the populist champion, Hitler, the chancellor. The establishment made the mistake of thinking they could capitalize on Hitler’s popularity while still keeping his power in check. Within two months of being appointed chancellor, Hitler had outlawed opposition parties and essentially made himself a dictator.

To spot dangerous demagogues, there are four warning signs to look out for:

1. Someone rejecting the rules of democracy by claiming that election results are “invalid” or suggesting that the constitution needs fixing.
2. A politician trying to falsely discredit their opponent by making unsubstantiated claims that they should be jailed or that they are an enemy of the state.
3. A tolerance of, or encouraging attitude towards, the use of violence by conducting business with figures in the mafia or supporting the actions of militant people.
4. An expression of a desire to reduce the civil rights of a person or institution, such as claiming that the country would be better without a free press, or praising a government that’s actively silencing journalists or protesters.

These warning signs suggest someone would likely favor autocracy should they be given power. Whether or not this will happen depends on how the establishment acts, which we’ll delve into next.

Gatekeepers of Democracy

Political parties have a duty to protect democracy by keeping extremists out of mainstream politics. This was not the case in Venezuela in the 1990s when the popular figure of Hugo Chávez rose to power with the help of a centrist political party. By publicly sympathizing with Chávez, the party validated him as a contender and helped him win the presidential election, which led to the dismantling of Venezuela’s democratic system. To protect democracy, gatekeepers should reject any extremists and avoid normalizing or justifying their actions. This is exemplified by the Swedish Conservative Party’s decision to expel members with fascist sympathies in 1933. Political parties must do their part in maintaining democracy and preventing anti-democratic influences from entering mainstream politics.

The Rise of American Democracy

The breakdown of establishment gatekeepers allowed for greater democratic participation in American elections through primary voting, but the question of how much democracy is too much remains.

Throughout the twentieth century, political extremism was present in the US, with 800 radical right-wing organizations in the 1930s alone. However, these groups never gained power due to the vigilance of the major political parties. Political parties in the US have been responsible for electing presidential candidates since the early 1800s, with party leaders gathering to decide who had the best chance of being elected and representing the interests of the party. With this practice in place, no one could move into the White House without establishment backing. For instance, Henry Ford’s right-wing extremism and anti-semitism prevented him from entering a presidential race, thanks to establishment gatekeepers.

The breakdown of these gatekeepers led to greater democratic participation but eventually raised the question of how much democracy was too much. For example, in 1968, the Democratic Party nominated Hubert Humphrey without using primaries, leading to violent protests at the convention. Humphrey was defeated by Richard Nixon in the elections, leading to the formation of the McGovern-Fraser Commission. This led to primaries becoming mandatory and binding, with party members choosing delegates who are responsible for choosing official candidates. The days of smoke-filled rooms and party leaders making decisions were over, but the debate over the appropriate extent of democracy in American politics continues.

Trump’s Surprising Ascent

In “How Democracies Die,” the authors analyze the unanticipated rise of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Trump overcame early opposition from the Republican establishment through a campaign fueled by controversy and media attention. By challenging democratic institutions, promoting false claims against his opponents, and inciting violence, Trump raised “demagogue red flags” that were not properly addressed by political gatekeepers. Despite some prominent Republicans refusing to endorse him, his opponents failed to unite behind a single candidate, leaving the path clear for his victory.

The Three Stages of Autocracy

Autocracy can be gradual and fueled by actions that undermine democracy. Alberto Fujimori’s rise to dictatorship highlights the three stages of dismantling democracy: capturing the referees, sidelining opposition players, and changing the rules to work in favor of the autocrat.

Autocracy is not always sudden but can be a result of gradual and incremental steps that undermine democracy. The 1990 election of Alberto Fujimori as the president of Peru is a classic example of how a democracy can unravel and lead to a dictatorship. Fujimori’s election victory was based on a platform of economic reforms aimed at revitalizing Peru. However, his attempts to pass legislation were foiled by Congress, which led him to resort to undemocratic tactics. Fujimori gradually took the law into his own hands, ignoring the courts and constitution and releasing criminals from jail. On April 5, 1992, Fujimori suspended the constitution and dissolved Congress, officially becoming a tyrant.

Fujimori’s ascent to dictatorship reveals the three stages that always happen when democracy is dismantled. The first stage is known as capturing the referees, which involves replacing current lawmakers and judges with loyalists who can rule in favor of the autocrat. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán filled the Constitutional Court and Central Statistical Office with loyal sycophants upon returning to power in 2010.

The second stage of dismantling democracy is sidelining the opposition players by means of bribery or blackmail. Fujimori’s intelligence advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos, videotaped members of the opposition engaging in illegal activities, including bribery and visiting brothels, later using the evidence to blackmail opposition members and neutralize resistance.

The third stage involves changing the rules to favor the autocrat. Democracy’s core principles are jeopardized when rules are changed, as happened with the Reconstruction Act of 1867 in the US, which complicated voting ballots and imposed a poll tax, effectively keeping newly freed black voters from voting Republican. With time, these new rules became standard practice, and the Democrats regained power in the South.

In conclusion, the three stages of autocracy, capturing the referees, sidelining opposition players, and changing the rules to favor the autocrat, are always present when a democracy is dismantled, and Fujimori’s rise to dictatorship exemplifies this process. These stages must be understood and stopped early before autocracy takes hold and true democracy is lost forever.

The Fragile State of Democracy

The US Constitution has its limitations. It fails to prevent a president from engaging in undemocratic practices, such as filling independent government agencies with obedient servants and issuing executive orders at will. The foundation of democracy lies in two unwritten principles: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Mutual toleration means respecting all contenders, while institutional forbearance is the act of refraining from undermining the democratic spirit, regardless of legality. These principles go hand in hand, and when one is ignored, democracy becomes vulnerable. In Chile, mutual toleration eroded with growing political rifts, where the left accused the right of being outdated, while the right accused the left of trying to take over. President Salvador Allende’s threatened use of executive powers to push his agenda through Parliament gave the military coup leaders the perfect opportunity to take over, resulting in Allende’s suicide and 17 years of dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet.

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