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.