top of page

How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky·Daniel Ziblatt

"Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders--presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power."


"Because there is no single moment--no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution--in which the regime obviously "crosses the line" into dictatorship, nothing may set off society's alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy's erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible."

p. 7

"An essential test for democracies is not whether such figures emerge but whether political leaders, and especially political parties, work to prevent them from gaining power in the first place--by keeping them off mainstream party tickets, refusing to endorse or align with them, and when necessary, making common cause with rivals in support of democratic candidates. Isolating popular extremists requires political courage. But when fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled."

p. 8

"Despite their vast differences, Hitler, Mussolini, and Chávez followed routes to power that share striking similarities. Not only were they all outsiders with a flair for capturing public attention, but each of them rose to power because establishment politicians overlooked the warning signs and either handed over power to them (Hitler and Mussolini) or opened the door for them (Chávez)."

p. 22

"Collective abdication--the transfer of authority to a leader who threatens democracy--usually flows from one of two sources. The first is the misguided belief that an authoritarian can be controlled or tamed. The second is what sociologist Ivan Ermakoff calls "ideological collusion," in which the authoritarian's agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians that abdication is desirable, or at least preferable to the alternatives. But when faced with a would-be authoritarian, establishment politicians must unambiguously reject him or her and do everything possible to defend democratic institutions--even if that means temporarily joining forces with bitter rivals."

p. 81

"Democracy is grinding work. Whereas family businesses and army squadrons may be ruled by fiat, democracies require negotiation, compromise, and concessions. Setbacks are inevitable, victories always partial. Presidential initiatives may die in congress or be blocked by the courts. All politicians are frustrated by these constraints, but democratic ones know they must accept them. They are able to weather the constant barrage of criticism. But for outsiders, particularly those of a demagogic bent, democratic politics is often intolerably frustrating. For them, checks and balances feel like a straitjacket."

p. 93

"One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion. Would-be autocrats often use economic crises, natural disasters, and especially security threats--wars, armed insurgencies, or terrorist attacks--to justify antidemocratic measures."

p. 113

"In just about every case of democratic breakdown we have studied, would-be authoritarians--from Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini in interwar Europe to Marcos, Castro, and Pinochet during the Cold War to Putin, Chávez, and Erdoğan most recently--have justified their consolidation of power by labeling their opponents as an existential threat."

p. 130

"In the absence of these norms, this balance becomes harder to sustain. When partisan hatred trumps politicians' commitment to the spirit of the Constitution, a system of checks and balances risks being subverted in two ways. Under divided government, where legislative or judicial institutions are in the hands of the opposition, the risk is constitutional hardball, in which the opposition deploys its institutional prerogatives as far as it can extend them--defunding the government, blocking all presidential judicial appointments, and perhaps even voting to remove the president. In this scenario, legislative and judicial watchdogs become partisan attack dogs."

p. 155

"Consider this extraordinary finding: In 1960, political scientists asked Americans how they would feel if their child married someone who identified with another political party. Four percent of Democrats and five percent of Republicans reported they would be "displeased." In 2010, by contrast, 33 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans reported feeling "somewhat or very unhappy" at the prospect of interparty marriage. Being a Democrat or a Republican has become not just a partisan affiliation but an identity."

p. 206

"This grim scenario highlights a central lesson of this book: When American democracy has worked, it has relied upon two norms that we often take for granted--mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. Treating rivals as legitimate contenders for power and underutilizing one's institutional prerogatives in the spirit of fair play are not written into the American Constitution. Yet without them, our constitutional checks and balances will not operate as we we expect them to."

p. 261

"We may disagree with our neighbors on abortion but agree with them on health care; we may dislike another neighbor's views on immigration but agree with them on the need to raise the minimum wage. Such alliances help us build and sustain norms of mutual toleration. When we agree with our political rivals at least some of the time, we are less likely to view them as mortal enemies."

p. 270

"Ultimately, then, American democracy depends on us--the citizens of the United States. No single political leader can end a democracy; no single leader can rescue one, either. Democracy is a shared enterprise. Its fate depends on all of us."

p. 283

"Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic. That is our challenge. It is also our opportunity. If we meet it, America will truly be exceptional."

p. 285

Recent Posts

See All

Barbarian Days, William Finnegan

"I continued to doubt. But I was not afraid. I just didn't want this to end." "But surfing always had this horizon, this fear line, that made it different from other things, certainly from other sport

Emotions Revealed, Paul Ekman

"Emotions determine the quality of our lives" "Emotion is a process, a particular kind of automatic appraisal influenced by our evolutionary and personal past, in which we sense that something importa


bottom of page