This year, participants in APSA’s Public Scholarship Program attended the APSA Annual Meeting and wrote reflections on the panels they attended. In this piece, Maryann Kwakwa writes about the roundtable Author Meets Critics: “How Democracies Die” with Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Presenters in this panel included: Christopher S. Parker, Amel F. Ahmed,Tom Ginsburg, Gretchen Helmke, Frances McCall Rosenbluth, Ian Shapiro, Michael Kazin, and Rick Perlstein.
Is American democracy in danger? Steven Levitsky (Harvard University) and Daniel Ziblatt (Harvard University) suggest that this might be the case in How Democracies Die. Using a comparative approach to analyze the process of democratic decline in several countries, Levitsky and Ziblatt find that democracies “die” when politicians weaken democratic safeguards against authoritarian rule. Simply put by Gretchen Helmke (University of Rochester), How Democracies Die is about “the role that party elites play or fail to play in the process of democratic backsliding.”
How Democracies Die was published to high critical acclaim. It was not only discussed in mainstream outlets like The Guardian, NPR, and The Nation, but it also made the New York Times’ Best Seller list in 2018. At one of APSA’s Author’s Meets Critics panels, political scientists, historians, and journalists gathered to offer Levitsky and Ziblatt feedback about their book.
Christopher Parker (University of Washington) argued that some of the book’s claims “are difficult to reconcile with contemporary political science research.” In his own words, “the fact that American democracy is unstable is only surprising if you do not recognize the existence of racial inequality in the States.” Although How Democracies Die is not necessarily about U.S. politics, Parker took issue with the fact that Levitsky and Ziblatt do not include racism as a “fundamental facet of American exceptionalism.”
Are tolerance, restraint, and deference useful markers of democratic health? Rick Perlstein (The Village Voice) argued that “norms of mutual toleration” are not actually “guardrails of democracy.” Instead of “exploiting fetishized consensus norms…to convince the democratic majority that we…have them,” Perlstein contended that the book would benefit from an analysis of whether American society truly relies on democratic processes like communal decision-making.Perlstein contended that the book would benefit from an analysis of whether American society truly relies on democratic processes like communal decision-making.
For Michael Kazin (Georgetown University), many of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s arguments are based on an overly optimistic interpretation of the past. He argues that it is not useful to view politicians like Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Chávez, and Donald Trump as “similar types of dictators with similar authoritarian governments,” and challenged them to address well-established research that contradicts their findings. Kazin concluded that How Democracies Die “doesn’t really help us understand our current situation” in the United States.Although How Democracies Die does not give us all of the information that we need to combat authoritarian dictators, Levitsky and Ziblatt ultimately conclude that “politicians must believe that they will win again and that defeat will not bring calamitous consequences” to keep democracy alive.
Levitsky and Ziblatt were keen to discuss the unfinished work of their project. They acknowledged that they have “stunningly few answers” when it comes to question of what we should do about dying democracies. In their view, any solutions to democratic decline in the U.S. “will not work if the Republican Party remains reactionary.” This is because, as Ziblatt put it, “democracy requires that politicians lose graciously.” As long as Republicans are driven by “the fear of losing,” they may compromise democratic systems to win. Although How Democracies Die does not give us all of the information that we need to combat authoritarian dictators, Levitsky and Ziblatt ultimately conclude that “politicians must believe that they will win again and that defeat will not bring calamitous consequences” to keep democracy alive.
- Maryann Kwakwa is a postdoctoral fellow Georgetown University who completed her Ph.D. in American Politics at the University of Notre Dame. Her research interests include civic engagement, education, race/ethnic politics, and democratic citizenship. In her dissertation, Maryann uses a mixed-methods approach to analyze the effect of undergraduate college experiences on civic engagement in the United States. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Law and Society and a minor in Politics. Maryann has published two, co-authored journal articles, which appear in Politics, Groups, and Identities, a virtual review article for the American Political Science Association, and a blog post for Psychology Today.
- About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.