Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In late 2016, shortly after the U.S. presidential election, two Harvard political scientists posed a bleak question in The New York Times: “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” Now they’re out with an even more bleakly titled book—How Democracies Die—that seeks to answer that question by drawing on a year’s worth of evidence.

At the core of the book is an apparent contradiction. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who have studied the collapse of democracy in Latin America and Europe, respectively, write that they are witnessing in the United States “the precursors of democratic crisis in other places.” They contend that democratic norms were “coming unmoored” in America long before Trump’s ascent to power, hastened by political polarization. And they maintain that Trump himself—in rejecting democratic rules, denying the legitimacy of political rivals, tolerating political violence, and considering restrictions on the civil liberties of critics—tests positive as an “authoritarian.” Yet they note that “little actual [democratic] backsliding occurred in 2017” in the U.S.

So how can both of these things—American democracy’s acute vulnerability and stubborn resilience—be true? In an interview, Levitsky and Ziblatt explained the seeming paradox. They told me that while democracy is “not dying” in the United States, certain “alarm bells” are ringing. They pointed out that the first year in office of a democratically elected, would-be authoritarian is an unreliable indicator of future democratic breakdown, and compared the United States with 1930s Spain, 1970s Chile, and contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela. They rejected the argument recently advanced by The Wall Street Journal, among others, that fears of rising anti-democratic forces in the U.S. amount to a liberal fever dream, while warning that Trump’s opponents on the left could stoke those forces themselves.

“Our democratic institutions have weakened and we have, for the first time in our memory, elected a [president] who is not fully committed to democratic rules of the game,” Levitsky said. What happens next depends on a number of factors, including whether the United States experiences a security crisis such as a war or terrorist attack. “George Bush Junior saw his approval ratings soar to 90 percent” after the 9/11 attacks, Levitsky recalled, and Bush “governed with quite a bit of forbearance despite that popularity. What Trump would do with 90 percent approval—who knows.”

Below is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.


Uri Friedman: What’s the state of American democracy in January 2018?

Steven Levitsky: U.S. democracy remains intact. We do not think that either before or after Trump American democracy has broken down or entered into constitutional crisis or anything like that.

What motivated us to write the book is that, looking at developments of the last two years, certainly accelerating around the 2016 election, we saw signs, for the first time, of American democracy potentially being under threat.

U.S. democracy is not dead. U.S. democracy is not dying. But there are some alarm bells ringing.

Friedman: What are the loudest alarm bells?

Levitsky: First of all, the election of a president who is demonstrably not fully committed to constitutional and democratic rules of the game. In our book, we develop a litmus test for [authoritarian politicians] and Trump tests positive. He has exhibited the kind of behavior and the kind of language characteristic of other authoritarians.

The other one, perhaps even more serious, is the underlying erosion of democratic norms—the unwritten rules that have sustained our democracy for many decades. This unraveling of democratic norms is rooted in intense partisan polarization.

Friedman: What norms are you most worried about?

Daniel Ziblatt: The most important are two of what we think of as meta-norms: the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance. What we mean by the norm of mutual toleration is politicians’ willingness to treat their rivals as competitors for power, not as enemies, [who] have a right to compete for office. They are citizens and they love their country; they just disagree. That’s one critical norm that has eroded over the last 30 years.

The second norm, which is very much related to the first, is forbearance. What we mean is the under-utilization of a legal right or power. These are not guaranteed in the constitution as written rules.

Friedman: How is forbearance declining?

Levitsky: One is Senate obstructionism. Rules of Senate obstructionism historically, going back to the 19th century, were used very rarely. The filibuster has been a right for Senate minorities for decades and decades. Beginning in the [19]80s and ’90s, and really soaring in the 2000s, you see the transformation of the filibuster from a little-used procedural weapon of last resort, which meant under-utilized power, [to] a routine measure in the Senate.

Another example is the 2016 Merrick Garland case: The Senate’s legal decision not to allow Barack Obama to fill a Supreme Court vacancy that was open to him. It was entirely constitutional for the Senate not to even initiate hearings for Garland, but it was what constitutional scholar Mark Tushnet calls “constitutional hardball”: using the letter of the law in a way that violates its spirit.

The Clinton impeachment is an earlier example of constitutional hardball. And if the Democrats were to control Congress in 2018 and turn around and impeach Trump without a bipartisan consensus, that would be yet another example.

Ziblatt: On the Garland case, to give a sense of how unprecedented that was: Between 1866 and 2016—150 years—never once did a Senate refuse to seat a president’s nominee for the Supreme Court.

Friedman: Which country that you have studied, past or present, does the United States most resemble at the moment?

Levitsky: There is not a case that is even remotely similar. The United States is much wealthier and its democracy is much more stable than any democracy that’s ever broken down. Which of course is good news: It means that, in all likelihood, U.S. democracy is going to survive.

That said, Chile was an established democracy with a set of democratic norms of elite consensus-seeking and negotiation that were in some ways similar to the United States. [But Chile] grew very polarized in the 1960s and early 1970s between an anti-communist right and a Marxist left. First, democratic norms eroded in a context of extreme polarization. Then, eventually, democracy succumbed to a military coup. Now I am not predicting a military coup in the United States. But that process of a consolidated democracy founded in stable, informal norms, eroding in a context of intense polarization—that’s the best parallel I can come up with.

Ziblatt: What makes that case most similar is the age of democracy in Chile and the degree to which it was stable. There are other countries in which democracy was not as old: Europe in the inter-war years. Spain, for example, where democracy was brand new but where the level of polarization looks similar [to the present-day United States, though] it certainly was more extreme in Spain. Where the left and the right both treated each other as illegitimate contenders for power. Where the extremes of the left and the right discredited the mainstreams of the left and the right. People in the middle couldn’t talk to each other because they were being pulled to the extremes by their own extremes. That case spiraled out of control with the civil war.

Levitsky: Maybe the best comparison case is U.S. democracy itself. The U.S. has had a couple of periods of intense polarization in which democratic norms either had not yet emerged, like in the 1790s, or rapidly fell apart, like in the 1850s. The 1850s is a period where intense polarization over the future of slavery led to a rapid erosion of norms of mutual toleration and eventually the breakdown of the system. Again, I’m not predicting a military coup or civil war. There are good reasons to think that U.S. democracy today is more stable than it was in the 1850s, or Chile in 1973.

Friedman: Shortly after Trump’s election you wrote that Trump possessed the attributes of an “anti-democratic politician.” Looking back, do you think that was an exaggeration or do you stand by that assessment?

Levitsky: I think that’s been completely affirmed. Trump’s behavior toward the media, his desire to use neutral state agencies like the FBI or the attorney general’s office against his opponents and his critics—this is very authoritarian behavior. Now, to say that Trump has authoritarian inclinations is not to say that he governs like a dictator in the United States. The U.S., thankfully, has a strong opposition, a strong media, and strong democratic institutions that have constrained him. Trump may have an authoritarian personality but thus far he hasn’t been able to put that into practice.

Friedman: I want to read you something The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote a year into Donald Trump’s presidency: “We’re pleased to report that there hasn’t been a fascist coup in Washington. This must be terribly disappointing to the progressive elites who a year ago predicted an authoritarian America because Mr. Trump posed a unique threat to democratic norms. But it looks like the U.S. will have to settle for James Madison’s boring checks and balances.”

Levitsky: First of all, we don’t feel particularly alluded to because we didn’t predict a fascist coup. That’s irresponsibly exaggerated.

Second of all, one year is early. Many authoritarian regimes, many democratic breakdowns, are years in the unfolding. [The party of Recep Tayyip] Erdogan comes to power in 2002, and it’s not for a decade that Turkey slides into authoritarianism. Alberto Fujimori [in Peru] was an outsider who, in some ways, was similar to Trump in that he came [into power] very inexperienced and without much of a blueprint. It was about two years before democracy broke down.

Most importantly, we’re concerned about an underlying erosion of democratic norms that are in fact affecting how our checks and balances are working. If you look closely, our checks and balances are not working very well—if you look at the role of Senate and House investigative committees and whether they are serving the watchdog role that they’re supposed to serve or whether they are protecting the president, meaning they’re serving a partisan function rather than a Madisonian check. To me, the record of congressional checks and balances in the last year has not been good.

Ziblatt: The editorial is misdiagnosing what the potential source of threat is. The threat is not simply Donald Trump. The threat is a process that began as far back as the 1990s in which norm-erosion is taking place. [It’s] looking at Donald Trump over his first year as one of the symptoms of these deeper processes unfolding in front of our eyes.

Friedman: In the cases you’ve both studied in the past, the first year is an inconsistent barometer for where a country is going under a leader with authoritarian tendencies and weakened institutions, right?

Levitsky: Yeah, the cases are all over the map. We are not predicting authoritarianism after four years either. What we’re saying is that our democratic institutions have weakened and that we have, for the first time in our memory, elected a figure who is not fully committed to democratic rules of the game. If you’d asked me a decade ago the chances of a democratic crisis in the United States, I would have said something close to zero. I think the number is now higher than that. It may only be 10 or 20 percent. But the fact that we are at some risk is worth thinking about. It’s worth discussing.

What eventually happens depends on a lot of things. It depends on Trump’s popularity. It’s more difficult for him to do damage with 35 percent support than if he had, say, 60 percent support. It depends on crisis. Very often security crises—whether it’s war or a terrorist attack—open a window for autocratic-leaning presidents to concentrate power. That, thankfully, has not occurred during Trump’s first year. We don’t know if it will happen in the next three years.

Friedman: You don’t feel we’ve had that kind of crisis yet?

Levitsky: No. But George Bush Junior saw his approval ratings soar to 90 percent after 9/11. As much as I disagree with some of the things that George Bush Junior did, he governed with quite a bit of forbearance despite that popularity. What Trump would do with 90 percent approval—who knows.

Friedman: Do you worry that the ways in which Americans, inside and outside government, are opposing Trump poses a threat to American democracy? You argue that seeing your opponent as illegitimate is a problem, and there are many critics of Trump who don’t see him as a legitimate leader. David Brooks, in a recent column, wrote that “This isn’t just a struggle over a president. It’s a struggle over what rules we’re going to play by after Trump.”

Ziblatt: There are two issues. One is how Democrats constrain Donald Trump, and that’s a short-run issue. What happens in the fall 2018 election? Unlike parliamentary systems, our political system allows for divided government. In Hungary, [the self-described “illiberal democrat”] Viktor Orban came to power in a parliamentary system and had no constraints. We have the benefit of potentially limiting the effects of Trump’s presidency by changing majorities in Congress.

The long-run issue is: Even if Democrats do gain a majority, how do they gain that majority and then how do they behave toward President Trump after they gain that majority? If an impeachment takes place without a broad, bipartisan consensus, it can be treated as a coup and regarded as illegitimate. In order for the political system to stabilize, this bipartisanship is critical.

Friedman: What lessons from other countries are instructive here?

Levitsky: The best way to stop an authoritarian is to prevent him or her from gaining office in the first place.

That said, there is some evidence that oppositions that respond with radical or extremist measures often strengthen the authoritarian incumbent, because government forces close ranks in the face of a very hostile opposition. Middle-of-the-road voters, the center of the political system, often get scared off by the opposition’s extremism. The opposition ends up alienating itself and triggering, in many cases, an authoritarian reaction.

There’s a good argument to be made that the Venezuelan opposition to Hugo Chavez behaved in a way that backfired in trying to overthrow him almost immediately in the early 2000s. Elements of the Turkish opposition that tried to remove [Erdogan’s] AKP government extra-institutionally, same thing.

Friedman: What’s the most likely state of American democracy three years from now?

Ziblatt: The optimistic scenario is that, like after Watergate, there’s a democratic revitalization in response to this—where there’s a recommitment to democratic norms, President Trump is not reelected, and we look back on this period as a terrible interlude in our history and we learn from it.

The pessimistic scenario is a situation where you have hyper-polarized politics. To see what that might look like, we can think about North Carolina, which we describe in the book as a case where you have politics without guardrails. Where you have incredible polarization with a closely contested electorate—it’s a purple state—and the institutions [have] become instruments of power politics. The recent election in North Carolina [witnessed] the challenging of the legitimacy of the governor and efforts to rewrite electoral rules. There’s this constant politics of crisis. That’s a potential future for the United States as a whole.

Levitsky: The most likely scenario in 2020 is that democracy muddles through, and that it’s a pretty close election. [But] the more time passes and the more democratic norms erode, the more vulnerable our democracy becomes. We need to find a way to overcome the polarization that is ripping at our institutions.

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