How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
  • Title: How Democracies Die
  • Subtitle: None
  • Author(s): Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt
  • Publisher: Crown
  • Year: 2018-01-16
  • ISBN-10: 1524762954
  • ISBN-13: 9781524762957


In “How Democracies Die,” authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt delve into the alarming question of how democracies can erode and ultimately crumble. Drawing from years of research and examples from around the world, the book provides a comprehensive analysis of the various factors that contribute to democratic backsliding.

Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the breakdown of democratic systems is not typically caused by dramatic events, but rather by a gradual erosion of norms and institutions. They outline four key warning signs of democratic decay: the rejection of democratic rules of the game, the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, the tolerance or encouragement of violence, and a willingness to curtail civil liberties. The authors highlight how these warning signs have emerged in many historical case studies, spanning from interwar Europe to contemporary Latin America.

One of the book’s most compelling arguments is the importance of “gatekeeping” to democratic stability. Levitsky and Ziblatt emphasize the role of political parties in determining who is allowed to participate and hold power. By examining cases of democratic failure, such as the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, the authors illustrate how breakdowns in gatekeeping can enable the ascent of anti-democratic leaders.

Through their analysis, Levitsky and Ziblatt raise crucial questions about the fragility of democracy and provide readers with valuable insights into the necessary measures to protect and preserve democratic institutions. “How Democracies Die” serves as a chilling reminder that the survival of democracy requires constant vigilance and a commitment to upholding democratic norms and values. With its engaging style and thorough research, this book is an essential read for anyone interested in the current state of democracy and its future prospects.


Book Review

Unveiling the Erosion of Democracy: A Harrowing Examination in "How Democracies Die"

How Democracies Die, written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, offers a profound exploration of the causes and consequences surrounding the demise of democratic systems. With meticulous research, insightful analysis, and a collection of compelling case studies, the authors deliver a wake-up call to citizens and policymakers alike. This thought-provoking book unravels the gradual erosion of democratic norms and institutions, while emphasizing the importance of gatekeeping and the vital role political parties play in safeguarding democracy.

Levitsky and Ziblatt pinpoint four warning signs of democratic decline: the rejection of democratic rules, the denial of political opponents’ legitimacy, tolerance or encouragement of violence, and the curtailment of civil liberties. To illustrate their claims, they present a myriad of historical examples, starting with the demise of the Weimar Republic in Germany. The authors emphasize how the undermining of democratic institutions during this period enabled Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. By disregarding democratic norms and practices, Hitler exploited existing loopholes to seize control, spelling disaster for German democracy.

Throughout the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt examine numerous cases of threatened democracies and undemocratic impulses across different continents. In Latin America, the authors explore the fall of Chile’s democracy under Pinochet and the subsequent rise of populism in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. These case studies shed light on how authoritarian leaders come to power not through coups or revolutions, but by exploiting democratic structures and norms. The authors’ meticulous analysis traces the incremental steps in democratic erosion, leading to devastating outcomes.

Levitsky and Ziblatt’s notion of “gatekeeping” emerges as a central theme in the book. They argue that political parties play a crucial role in preventing anti-democratic forces from capturing power. Drawing insights from European democracies during the twentieth century, particularly Germany and Italy, the authors explain how weak political parties and their failure to effectively impose democratic criteria precipitated democratic decay. By permitting anti-democratic candidates into the political arena, these parties paved the way for authoritarian regimes. Additionally, the authors demonstrate how the Republicans’ refusal to act as gatekeepers during the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election may have had far-reaching consequences for American democracy.

One of the most illuminating aspects of the book is its ability to connect historical events with contemporary political developments. Levitsky and Ziblatt explore democratic backsliding within Western democracies, including Hungary and Poland, where illiberal leaders exploit democratic institutions to consolidate power. These real-world examples emphasize the relevance of the book’s arguments in the current political landscape.

How Democracies Die” does not only highlight the dangers to democracy but also outlines potential courses of action to protect and promote democratic values. The authors advocate for strengthening political parties, embracing bipartisan cooperation, and reaffirming democratic norms. By underscoring the importance of civic engagement, they inspire readers to be active participants in the defense of democracy.

In conclusion, “How Democracies Die” is an eye-opening book that offers a timely examination of the threats to democratic systems. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s articulate analysis, together with their integration of historical case studies, leaves a lasting impact on readers. This book serves as a crucial reminder that democracy is fragile, and its survival requires continued vigilance, engagement, and a commitment to democratic principles. For those interested in the state of democracy and its future prospects, this book is a must-read.

Word Count: 584

The problems of American democracy run deeper than Trump's election. Far deeper. Democracies (at least liberal ones) rest on a foundation of mutual toleration. Though citizens may disagree deeply on values and policies, they generally accept one another as legitimate rivals. They don't use their control of the police and courts to suppress rivals. This is no small thing. Democracy depends on losers' consent—on the willingness of the losing side to respect the legitimacy of the winners, even when the electoral outcome is, in the losers' view, profoundly wrong. In American democracy, losers have traditionally followed certain rules of the game, norms such as mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Norms shared by both sides of the political divide have supported a healthy democracy. Yet the norms that once protected our democracy are now under threat.

Key Ideas

The key ideas in the book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky can be summarized as follows:

  1. Warning Signs of Democratic Decay Levitsky and Ziblatt identify four key warning signs that suggest a democratic system may be eroding. These signs include the rejection of democratic rules, the denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, the tolerance or encouragement of violence, and the willingness to curtail civil liberties. By recognizing these warning signs, societies can take proactive steps to safeguard democracy.

  2. Gradual Erosion of Democratic Norms The authors argue that the breakdown of democracies is usually a slow and incremental process rather than a sudden event. They emphasize the importance of maintaining and preserving the unwritten norms and practices that underpin democratic systems. When these norms are eroded, democratic institutions become vulnerable to attacks from anti-democratic forces.

  3. Gatekeeping and the Role of Political Parties Levitsky and Ziblatt highlight the crucial role of political parties in ensuring the vitality and stability of democratic systems. They argue that political parties act as gatekeepers by setting criteria and standards for political candidates. Weakening or bypassing gatekeepers can allow anti-democratic leaders to rise to power. The authors draw upon historical examples, such as the failure of political parties in interwar Germany to effectively block Adolf Hitler, to illustrate this point.

  4. Contemporary Challenges to Democracy The book examines current threats to democracy, both within established democracies of Western Europe and the United States, and in developing nations. Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss the rise of populism, illiberalism, and the weakening of democratic institutions in countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Venezuela. By analyzing these contemporary challenges, the authors emphasize the relevance and urgency of understanding the erosion of democracy in today’s world.

  5. The Role of Individuals in Preserving Democracy Levitsky and Ziblatt stress the importance of individual and collective action in safeguarding democratic values. They argue that citizens must actively engage in defending democratic norms and challenging anti-democratic behavior. By fostering a sense of civic duty and encouraging robust civic participation, societies can better protect the foundations of democracy.

In a nutshell, “How Democracies Die” warns of the danger of democratic erosion and provides readers with a framework for understanding and addressing threats to democracy. By examining historical and contemporary case studies, Levitsky and Ziblatt offer insights into the warning signs, the role of political parties, and the necessary actions to safeguard democratic institutions and values.


Target Audience

The book “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is targeted at a diverse audience interested in understanding the threats to democratic systems around the world. The book is recommended reading for the following audiences:

  • General Readers Concerned about Democracy This book appeals to general readers who have a genuine interest in the state of democracy and the challenges it faces. The accessible writing style and compelling case studies make it engaging for a wide range of readers.

  • Scholars and Researchers “How Democracies Die” provides valuable insights for scholars and researchers studying comparative politics, political science, and democratic governance. The book delves deep into historical examples and employs rigorous analysis, making it a valuable resource for academic exploration.

  • Political Activists and Advocates The book is essential reading for political activists and advocates who are passionate about democracy, human rights, and civic engagement. Levitsky and Ziblatt offer clear explanations of democratic erosion and provide actionable strategies for defending democratic values.

  • Policy Makers and Government Officials For those working in the field of politics and governance, “How Democracies Die” offers vital lessons on preserving and strengthening democratic institutions. The book provides guidance on how to identify and respond to warning signs of democratic decline, making it highly relevant for policy experts.

  • Educators and Students In classrooms and educational institutions, the book serves as a valuable resource for teaching and learning about democratic systems. It prompts critical thinking, encourages lively discussions, and fosters a deeper understanding of the importance of democratic norms and values.

Ultimately, “How Democracies Die” is recommended reading as it provides a rigorous analysis of the factors contributing to democratic decay, offers historical and contemporary case studies as evidence, and provides practical recommendations for maintaining democracy. The book’s relevance to a wide range of audiences ensures that it can effectively contribute to a broader understanding of democratic erosion and the urgent need to safeguard democratic principles worldwide.

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