This is a provocative and readable book, but in the end it is also an unsatisfying one. It shares the weakness of too much contemporary political science, by treating history as a useful guide to the future, despite the paucity of the dataset, the superficiality of much of the evidence, and the long track record we have of being surprised by what comes next. I say this as a historian: if we want to know how our democracies might die, we have to stop looking to our yesterdays.
How Democracies Die, takes apart the idea of American exceptionalism, suggests ways in which other democracies have gone astray and examines how it could run aground in the US. They are political scientists — Ziblatt is the author of a good book, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy — and use dry, orderly prose. Their most emotional outburst is to describe Trump as a “serial norm breaker”.
The sobriety is welcome and it adds a quiet, understated chill to the text. Yet beneath the scholarship there is a dull throb of anxiety. Chapters such as Trump’s First Year: an Authoritarian Report Cardend up in the same place as the pamphleteering chest-bangers — full of dread.
“How Democracies Die” is a lucid and essential guide to what can happen here. Levitsky and Ziblatt show how democracies have collapsed elsewhere — not just through violent coups, but more commonly (and insidiously) through a gradual slide into authoritarianism.... But our current moment is so fraught that “How Democracies Die” is never dull, even if the writing can be. “If partisan animosity prevails over mutual toleration, those in control of congress may prioritize defense of the president over the performance of their constitutional duties.” This might be blanched prose, but it also sounds like a sly subtweet of the Republican Party.