Joe Newell introduces a novel that enlightens us on authoritarianism in modern democracies and its instigators
While I’m only halfway through, it’s obvious that this is an important book. How Democracies Die turns the spotlight on the spectre of authoritarianism in modern democracies and those that hold the door for it. Harvard professors Stephen Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt draw parallels between the democracies in recent history that endured, and those that succumbed in an effort to find the patterns of democratic decline. In doing so, the book addresses the well-known examples but also many that have been brushed under the carpet; it was shocking, for instance, to learn about the brief but intensely popular political career of Henry Ford, whose overtly anti-Semitic, authoritarian agenda earned him official commendation from Hitler. Fortunately, Ford’s ambitions were curbed by the vigilance and resolve of the mainstream parties, just as in 1930s Belgium where the country’s right wing resisted the allure of a fascist coalition.
turns the spotlight on the spectre of authoritarianism in modern democracies and those that hold the door for it
Far from the fatalistic impression of its title, How Democracies Die poses itself as a roadmap that draws on the lessons of the past. So far, Levitsky and Ziblatt have successfully walked the line between dense scholarship and over-zealous polemic. A style that is academic in its research, but lucid in its explanations of complex ideas makes for a very readable book, even for a political layman like me. Clearly inspired by the Trump administration, a message of warning about the threat of dictatorship is certainly provocative, and I was afraid I might be in for 231 pages of Trump-bashing. However, the book seems to be sticking to its academic credentials, instead drawing tentative conclusions about rhymes between the administration and collapsed democracies of the past. I have yet to come across any sweeping generalisations like those that compare Trump to various twentieth century autocrats. Levitsky and Ziblatt leave the reader to decide if some of those comparisons are well-founded.
All that being said, I am nervous (and excited) to find out how the book will translate the patterns it identifies into modern-day guidelines, especially when America is addressed in the last few chapters. The historical analysis is very interesting, and the warnings are pertinent, I just hope they aren’t taken too far. Regardless, I would recommend How Democracies Die for its rigorous yet readable style and a message that is all too relevant, even to events of the past few weeks.