How Democracies Die: An Interview with Steven Levitsky, Co-Author of How Democracies Die

Information Access, Intellectual Freedom Issues

By: Rebecca Hill

Since 2016, more than 300,000 books from Turkish schools and libraries have been destroyed by the Ministry of Education as part of a government crackdown on Fethullah Gulen, an enemy of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party.  While the destruction of books often equates with the onset of a totalitarian government, Turkey has long been a democracy even though they have become increasingly authoritarian since Erdogan became president. In Turkey, the destruction of books is just one more signal of an unhealthy democracy.  In the United States, we see signs that signal too that our democracy is in jeopardy.   

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Recently I spoke with Steven Levitsky, co-author of How Democracies Die and a professor of government at Harvard University. Levitsky’s research focuses on Latin American and the developing world. According to Levitsky, most democracies die a slow death, and it’s what we see now in the United States, he claims. 

RH:  Let’s start with the basics.  Explain to me the key elements of democracy:

SL:  The most fundamental element what separates a democracy from any other political systems is that democracy allows people to regularly and peacefully remove through elections governments that they don’t like. No other political system in society enables its citizens to peacefully and regularly remove governments they no longer want, meaning that not only are elections clean and fair, but citizens have a wide range of liberties- the right to organize, the right to free speech, publish and the right to protest. 

On the other hand, an authoritarian government is everything that is not a democracy. Some have to do with elections while others are either run by the military or a single party.  But no authoritarian government gives citizens the right to change the government.  

RH:  You have said that in writing this book, it reminded you that our democracy is not as exceptional as we sometimes believe it is.  Do you think that our democracy is in a fragile state?

SL:   Typically, I study Latin American politics, and for the book, I learned a lot about American political history.  My research reminded me that our democracy is hardly exceptional in two senses. First, as Americans, we tell ourselves that we have the oldest and most successful democracy on earth. But by most standards, this is not true. 

If you take a mainstream political science definition of democracy, the United States didn’t become a full democracy until 1965 with the Voting Rights Act because it did not have full adult suffrage until 1965.  But we have had a very stable, old Constitutional system with many democratic features even though that system was a mess in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the 1850s, our democracy destabilized enough that it eventually broke down during the Civil War.

After the Civil War, the Reconstruction era in the 1870-1880s with Jim Crow laws in place was very volatile.  Only in the late 19th century that we begin to take for granted the stability of the American political system that followed into the 20th century because that stability was based, in part, on the overt exclusion of African Americans.  The 20th century was a striking successful political system, but it is not quite the story that we tell ourselves.  Almost all of us took the stability of our democracy for granted no matter who we elected, thinking that we couldn’t break our democracy. 

While I believe it is likely that our democratic systems will survive, the events of the last two years are a warning sign and suggest that we can no longer take the stability of our democracy for granted.  American democracy is hard to kill, and our institutions are strong, but if you weaken them over time, they become vulnerable. 

All of our politicians, leaders and citizens must seriously consider the consequences of our behavior because we are electing politicians who are engaging in ways that are weakening our institution like the politicization of the Supreme Court, the erosion the independence of our judicial institutions, and the dramatic weakening of congressional oversight. 

RH:  If we didn’t become a full democracy until 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, is it “growing pains” or are we redefining ourselves as a result of becoming a full democracy?

SL:  I think so.  I believe that there is something to that.  I believe that one can trace the troubles that we are having now to when we became a full democracy in 1965. Two things have changed our society a lot over the last fifty years.  One is the effect of the Civil Rights movement and the political incorporation of African Americans. 

The second is large scale immigration.  We have become a much more diverse society.  Although we have not achieved racial equality, we are becoming a society where ethnic minorities aspire to fundamental rights.  Early on, our democracy was built, sustained, and reached its golden age where the political community was limited to White Christians. 

We are now having to adapt and make our democracy work in a multi-ethnic society.  This challenge began in 1965. We are now facing a transition to be a genuinely multiracial and ethnic democracy.  So, either we will be a multiracial democracy, or we will not be a democracy. 

Right now, we are coming to terms with being a multiracial democracy. The polarization that we are suffering through is mostly a reaction to a change in our society of becoming a truly multiethnic society. I am optimistic that we will get there.  But as we say in the last chapter of the book, I can’t think of a democracy that has made a transition from one in which a previously dominant majority ethnic group loses its dominance status and remain a democracy. It is unprecedented.  

RH:  What happens as democratic institutions gradually decline?

SL:  Citizens often have a difficult time seeing that their democracy is chipping away. During the Cold War and throughout the 20th century, democracy, for instance, in Spain and Chile died swiftly and clearly. Generals seized power. The president was exiled to jail, and the Constitution was suspended so no more elections.  It was evident that a coup had occurred, and democracy was dead. 

In contemporary society, most democracies die at the hands of its elected leaders especially when an elected leader uses democratic institutions to subvert the democratic process. A leader may use elections, referendums, laws passed through Congress, and the Supreme Court.  It is very, very common today as the first thing that an elected authoritarian does is capture the referees of government by purging or packing the judiciary, Attorney General’s office, the prosecutor’s office and bring the independent arbiters of politics under their control.

Once you capture the referees, you have a shield that allows you to abuse power without the courts’ oversight and punishment because they are in your pocket, eventually allowing you as an authoritarian leader to use the law against your opponent. 

So, tanks do not exist in the streets. Elections still happen. The constitution is there. The Supreme Court is still working.  Congress is still there. But, from the outside to people who aren’t paying attention to politics, democratic life seems like business as usual. If tanks are not in the streets, citizens can remain unaware until it is too late.  But what’s happening is a gradual chipping away of the democratic process. 

RH:  When democracy is dying, what happens to information access to the people?

SL:  It changes over time. It used to be relatively easy to manipulate and destroy and deny people access. The Chinese Communist Party has done a decent job controlling information, but now it is a massive undertaking to control information. But, in the 1940’s Franco Spain, it wasn’t that difficult to keep alternative sources of information from citizens. But these days it is much harder. 

The real threat to democracy in the context of polarization is the disappearance of truth, the loss of authoritative sources of information. So, it’s a double edge. Fifty to sixty years ago that mainstream media offered credible voices to which people on both sides of the aisle listened.  Now that is gone. No matter what happens in one part of the country means that it will have one view of an issue, a certain informational cut at the apple and the other part of the country will have another. It is a challenge. I don’t think that we know quite the extent of this yet. 

Of course, many people in the middle are not paying attention to the news or don’t care, so it’s not all Fox News and MSNBC. But we are in a world where it is common for citizens to each have their own truth. 

RH:  Early on the consensus was that the Internet would be the great equalizer.  What impact has social media had on democracy?

SL:  The Internet is an equalizer and democratizes access to information. We are now in a world where Bernie Sanders can raise as much money as Hillary Clinton by getting donations on the Internet. That is unthinkable and was laughable forty to fifty years ago.  But as a society, the people, politicians, and political parties have not yet adapted to it, so it undermines a sense of community. In a democracy, we must have certain things that unite us as a national community. But that’s become partially undone because of the internet, and our inability tot adapted to it.

RH:  When democracy fails, what happens to libraries as an information access portal?  What have you seen in South America?  

SL:  Not all countries have as an extensive public library system as we have in the United States. The Public library system in the U.S. is a jewel, a treasure, and a crucial part of our democracy.  In many other countries in the world, particularly Latin America, they don’t have that kind of development and libraries are not that important in society. 

Still only the most extreme of authoritarians go after libraries. They must really want to monopolize information to intervene in libraries. Communist and totalitarian regimes do that, but in most authoritarian regimes that have emerged in the last thirty to forty years, you don’ t see that level of control in terms of people’s access to information. As crucial as libraries are to civil society, and the local community, people have so many other ways of getting information, so libraries are not at the top of the list for information access anymore.  

RH:  Can libraries help keep democracy strong by teaching citizens about civics involvement and engagement, and digital literacy? SL:  The role that libraries play in bringing people together, providing civic education, and helping to sustain local civil societies is incredibly essential primarily because civic education has dramatically declined in the U.S.  I’m 50 years old and have never taken a civics course ever whereas a hundred years ago everyone took it. Some scholars believe that this decline has had a significant impact on society, and we are now seeing the effects of it. Think about it.  If each librarian in each local branch reaches twenty to thirty people, well, we have libraries in every community in this country, which is an incredible blessing. So, if all libraries are doing the work of educating five to ten to twenty people and bringing them together, it makes a huge difference in civic education.

Rebecca Hill

Rebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine.  She holds a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.

One thought on “How Democracies Die: An Interview with Steven Levitsky, Co-Author of How Democracies Die

  • But, uh, didn’t the democracies of Latin America die…. often as a direct result of US intervention?

    Each country has a specific set of circumstances, but here’s a list of events worth considering:

    “In addition, the U.S. has interfered in the national elections of many countries, including in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s to keep its preferred center-right Liberal Democratic Party in power using secret funds, in the Philippines to orchestrate the campaign of Ramon Magsaysay for president in 1953, and in Lebanon to help Christian parties in the 1957 elections using secret cash infusions.[1] The U.S. has executed at least 81 overt and covert known interventions in foreign elections during the period 1946–2000.”

    I mean, the United States is widely considered to be not a full democracy *now*.

    Personally, I do not think that this man has a particularly interesting perspective, but thank you Rebecca Hill.

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