President Donald Trump meets with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan during a meeting with Republican Congressional leaders on June 6, 2017.Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Why do democracies fail?

It’s suddenly a very urgent and important question. Daniel Ziblatt’s new book arrives just in time to deliver a powerful and supremely relevant answer.

Don’t be misled by the aggressively unsensational title, the careful prose, or the hyper-technical charts (“Median and Distribution of Conservative and Liberal Party Seats Across Varying Levels of Agricultural Districts in Germany and Britain in Years of Suffrage Reform”). Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy is written in fire. It delves deep into long-forgotten electoral histories to emerge with insights of Tocquevillian power, to illuminate not only the past but also the present and future.

The non-rich always outnumber the rich. Democracy enables the many to outvote the few: a profoundly threatening prospect to the few. If the few possess power and wealth, they may respond to this prospect by resisting democracy before it arrives—or sabotaging it afterward.

Yet despite this potential threat to the formation and endurance of democracy, wealthy countries do often transition peacefully to democracy—and then preserve its stability for decades afterward. The classic example is the United Kingdom. Britain commenced a long process of widening the franchise in 1832. By 1918, all adult British men could vote; all British women by 1929. Through that period—and then through the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the construction of the welfare state after 1945—British politics remained peaceful and stable, offering remarkably little space for radical ideologies of any kind. You could tell a similar story about Sweden (universal male voting by 1907; for women by 1921), or—with allowances for foreign military occupation in wartime—about Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Once democracy was extended, it was never again seriously questioned by local elites, even when it taxed them heavily.

But this is emphatically not the story of the rest of Europe, most especially not Germany, but also Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and so on. It’s not the story of Latin America or of the Arab world.

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What makes the difference between those countries in which democracy arrives peacefully and is ever after accepted by all—and those in which it is violently contested and continually challenged? That feels no longer a question about bygone times. It feels very much our question too. Based largely on a study of Western Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, Daniel Ziblatt convincingly offers a surprising and disturbing answer:

The most crucial variable predicting the success of a democratic transition is the self-confidence of the incumbent elites. If they feel able to compete under democratic conditions, they will accept democracy. If they do not, they will not.

And the single thing that most accurately predicts elite self-confidence, as Ziblatt marshals powerful statistical and electoral evidence to argue, is the ability to build an effective, competitive conservative political party before the transition to democracy occurs. That happened in Britain, but not in Germany, as Ziblatt painstakingly details. (If you ever yearned to learn more about German state and local elections under Kaiser Wilhelm II, Ziblatt is here to tell you all about it.)

Why not in Germany? Or Italy or elsewhere? Building a vote-winning political party is hard work—and work that carries few guarantees of success in advance.

Pre-democratic incumbent elites, precisely because they were incumbents, commanded other options that seemed both easier to execute and seemingly more likely to succeed than democratic competition:

  • building counter-majoritarian institutions to protect their interests;
  • electoral manipulation and corruption; and
  • outright repression.

Imperial Germany resorted to all three: a complex constitution that vested real power in ultra-oligarchic state assemblies rather than the national Reichstag; a lively culture of voter intimidation in rural districts; and of course a government that did not ultimately depend on the voters at all.

Imperial German elites controlled the state without the need to win elections—and that taught them to distrust the whole electioneering enterprise. Because they did not need to win elections, they did not build strong parties. And the absence of strong parties, managed by politicians seeking to win the maximum number of votes, left the pre-1914 and post-1918 German right exposed to “outside interest groups” that “quickly and easily overran weak and institutionally porous parties.”

Whereas the pragmatic politicians atop the British Conservative party could restrain ideologically motivated activists, the German Conservatives succumbed to them. The successful British Conservatives could look at Labour governments as unpleasant but ultimately temporary intervals. The Imperial German Conservatives experienced the loss of control of the state after 1918 as an unrecoverable catastrophe to which they could never be reconciled.

One of Ziblatt’s sharpest insights was that the failure to build an effective conservative party left incumbent elites in Germany and elsewhere “too weak to say yes.” They could not join the democratic system. They could only resent and resist it.

Probably you are already hearing some echoes in our own time. It’s been aptly said that the United States is experiencing an era of strong partisanship but weak parties. This phrase describes the American right even more accurately than the American liberal-left. The organized Republican party lacked the strength to deny its presidential nomination to Donald Trump—and once Trump had gained that nomination, the vehement partisanship of Republican supporters secured him their general election votes despite the distaste so many felt for him. Just as in pre-1914 Germany, an institutionally porous party had been quickly and easily overrun from outside.

It’s a striking feature of American politics since 2008 that the Republican right has combined extraordinary down-ballot electoral success with an ever-intensifying pessimism about American society.

If you listen to conservative discussion and debate, it’s hard to miss the rising tone of skepticism about democracy—and increasing impatience with the claim that everybody should have convenient access to the ballot. The pessimism about the society and the weakness of the party have left Republicans vulnerable to an authoritarian populist like Donald Trump. Party rules that would once have screened out a Trump have given way to partisan antagonisms that empower him.

Some conservative intellectuals attribute Trump’s ascendancy to a betrayal of conservative ideals. That’s true so far as it goes. But the more relevant truth, as Ziblatt teaches us, is that Trump arose because of the hollowing out of conservative institutions. The Republican party could not stop him. Now it cannot restrain him. And this weakness of the Republican party—and its craven subordination to the ego, ambition, and will-to-power of one man—now stands as the gravest immediate threat to American democracy: a lesson from the 19th century of frightening immediacy to the 21st.