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.