A Book Review of How Democracies Die
I am a conservative and proud of it. I often have debates and discussions with my progressive friends. They are all against Trump. I, on the other hand, am a Trump convert. I did not vote for him in 2016 but since his election, I witnessed how he governed, and I am impressed. So much so, I decided to support Trump and defend him against the never Trumpers.
I have an on-going dialogue with my colleagues. Recently, I recommended the book The United States of Trump by Bill O’Reilly as the best book on the market today to understanding the man. In response, my friends point to this book, How Democracies Die, by Levitsky and Ziblatt as a counter point.
- Nov. 2019
- updated 11/30/2019 (Thanks to Marie Flint, a fellow hubber who has contributed to the editing of this article and has improved the readability tremendously.)
This book was first published in 2018, one year after Trump was elected President of the U.S. in a major upset. Hillary Clinton, by all polls, was to win in a landslide. However, it was not to be. The confluence of various factors change the course of history. A non-politician with zero experience and no previous public service ran for President, beat out 16 other contenders, then beat out the smartest women in the room and won. It was unheard of in U.S. politics.
How did this happen?
I am an average citizen with 50-plus years living in America. I am also a first generation immigrant from Asia. I have followed politics in our country since Nixon. I generally have a good sense about political scene and how it relates to the populous. I was a strong supporter of Reagan in the 1980s. I also voted for Carter with regret. In recent years, as the Democratic party moved more left, I am left with no choice but to vote Republican. In some years I voted with my hand holding my nose, as with John McCain in 2008. He was not my first or second choice.
My Detailed Review
Before I start my review, I usually like to read what others have said about the book. It is with anticipation that I start on this book being a NYT bestseller and also an Editor’s Choice by the NYT Book Review. I am not a fan of the NYT Book Review since in the past, I have found them to be extremely biased against conservative authors. Cases in point, both Bill O’Reilly and Mark Levin are best selling authors with many books on the NYT best-selling lists and yet, not one book by these two popular authors were reviewed. Why?
So, after reading the introduction, I already saw the writing on the wall. Here is a quote from that section...on page 2, “And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies, was elected president.”
We know in one paragraph what these two authors, undoubtedly Democrats, think of Trump.
It was clear that they see this as a bad thing even though the American people made the decision at the ballot box. Isn’t that the very definition of democracy?
So, you would have to conclude that these two author's think the people made a bad choice in electing Trump and, therefore, it may be a threat to our democracy.
Reading a bit further, I was relieved to read that the authors do admit that “the erosion of our democratic norms began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s. By the time Barack Obama became president,..., Donald Trump may have accelerated this process, but he didn’t cause it.”
That is good to know. In the long view of history, the authors recognized that the current state of affairs is the result of decades of decline.
They end the introduction with an observation and a warning. “Many Americans are justifiably frightened by what is happening to our country...History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes...the hope of this book is that we can find the rhymes before it is too late.”
I must say, I disagree with that assessment. Many Americans are not frightened but overjoyed. They are happy at a booming economy and a new sheriff in town who is not a bureaucrat of old but wants new directions for our government and ineffective foreign policies. History indeed does repeat, if we are not careful and failed to learn the lessons of our history.
Chapter 1 - was a history lesson of Europe and previous dictatorships...I have no problem with this. I am a student of history and believe in learning our history.
Chapter 2 - Gatekeeping in America - historically accurate but I am not sure about their conclusion. In the early part of our democracy, the founders did not trust in the people to make direct choices. That was true. However, as we matured as a nation, we, the people are more educated and the the right to vote was extended to women and blacks... We are less dependent on party machines picking the candidates. The old smoke rooms where party bosses decide on who to run are long gone. However, in recent years, our system has been corrupted by politicians and by career politicians who get reelected year after year and Washington insiders or elites who feel entitled to power. They are the problem, and the people have been cut out of the decision making. The gatekeepers is no longer valid. To look at this another way, look at the results. The gatekeepers have not done a good job in picking the best and the brightest as presidents. Hence the arrival of Trump, as the ultimate outsider.
Chapter 3 - Republican Abdication - A review of the 2016 election. The authors claim that if mainstream Republicans would do their job as gatekeepers, Trump would not have succeeded. This is the wrong takeaway from the election of Trump. Here is my theory. The people were fed up with the current state of our government. We had eight years of Bush under Republican rule and 8 years of Obama under Democratic rule. Yet, from their standpoint, nothing changed. Our government just got bigger and spent more, and the politicians talk a good game but have done little to help the little guy. This was especially true with the illegal immigration crisis. Each year, the problem just get worse and they just kick the can down the road. The election of Trump was a repudiation of the past business as usual in D.C. The people were fed up with the elites in Washington and the special interests and the big lobbyists getting what they want against the will of the people. Trump, as the outsider, won to get rid of those swamp creatures and fix some of the problems we care about, like stopping illegal immigration...and stop outsourcing and bringing jobs back to the U.S., and reduce our tax burden...and stop our entanglement overseas...
The 4 indicators of authoritarian behavior according to the authors are:
1. rejection of democratic rules of the game
2. denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
3. toleration or encouragement of violence
4. readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media
I agree with these attributes but disagree with associations with the Trump campaign or Trump administration.
In fact, what is described in the first 3 are what Democrats do.
1. The DNC is the one that rejected the rules of the game when they cheated Bernie Sanders out of the nomination. It was Donna Brazile who admitted in her book that the DNC skewed the nomination to Hillary Clinton.
2. It was the Democrats who denied the election of Trump as legitimate, and use the Russian collusion narrative to get Trump out of office.
3. It was the Democrats and some of their radical elements that turned to violence in confronting Trump supporters. Most Trump rallies are conducted with enthusiasm and the few incidents of violence was at the hands of protesters and disruptors.
4. The only one that does not apply to Democrats is attacking the media because they have no reason to, as the media are biased and on their side as cheerleaders.
Trump has attacked the media as "fake news" on many occasions and because he was right and he exposed the corruption of the main stream media who walk in lockstep in attacking Trump and cover him negatively 90% of the time.
In the conclusion of this chapter, the authors try to make the case that it was the Republican leaders that failed as gatekeepers by not opposing Trump that lead to his election victory. That is just not the case. Trump was elected precisely because the Republican leaders were not perceived to be on his side. They were the insiders along with Democrats that was the problem with Washington.
My Personal Views...
I think the authors missed the bigger picture. Our democracy was on a slide long before Trump. If anything Trump was elected to fix what was already broken. We had a corrupt system where regardless which party was elected to power, the same policies persisted. It seems they were not listening to the voters, but were doing the bidding of donors and lobbyists.
Washington D.C. is corrupt to the core. You have career bureaucrats that feel entitled. They can do whatever they want with impunity. They are protected by the strong union and from each other. They take care of their own and are the ultimate insider. The deep state is alive and well. Elected officials come and go but they are there forever. Congress with no term limits is another sickness. We have people that are elected and re-elected to Congress for 30 years or more with little accomplishments to show.
The authors think it is Trump who is the cause of the problems. I disagree. The problem was there all along and it took a person like Trump to expose the deep corruption that is in DC and in our media.
Our democracy is strong and it will survive. I have a different take on why. It survived a civil war, and it survived assassinations and it survived a weak president like Jimmy Carter. It will survive Trump as well whether he is president for four or eight years. The reason is our constitutional government backed up by the 2nd Amendment. No other countries mentioned in the book have what we have. That is why they failed and died. A good example is Germany in the 1930s. Hitler came into power and shortly after confiscated all firearms from the public. We, on the other hand, will survive and thrive. Presidents come and go, but our republic will remain the best and freest in the world. Our founders knew the hearts of men and human nature and put in the 2nd amendment as an insurance policy against a tyrant.
We have a set of problems right now. It is an unresponsive Congress who without term limits are failing the people that elected them. We have a corrupt and biased media that is distorting the truth. We have an uninformed public especially the millennials who were never taught properly our system of government and economics. We have large international corporations and banks that put their global interest ahead of our own country’s interests. We have a broken immigration system that make us like a third world nation.
These problems are correctable. With the right people in charge, we can restore our nation to prosperity and world dominance. Not that we want to dominate but to maintain peace.
Comparing Trump to past dictators is just insane. Trump has not done any of the things that dictators do. For example, Hitler came to power in Germany and one of the first thing he did was to confiscate guns. That was how he consolidated his power and took the weapons away from the masses so they could not resist. Trump, on the other hand, is a strong proponent of the 2nd Amendment.
In the final chapter, Saving Democracy, the authors postulate 3 different scenarios of a post-Trump America.
It stated that "[...]there's nothing in our Constitution or our culture to immunize us against democratic breakdown." I beg to differ. There is and it is called the 2nd Amendment.
It is our insurance policy against a tyrannical government.
Here are the 3 scenarios:
1. Trump failed as president, either by impeachment or forced to resign or failed to be re-elected. This is the most optimistic...
2. Trump and Republicans continue to win with White Nationalist appeal... This is the darker future...
3. The most likely, is a more polarized world where democracy without solid guardrails...
These are three imaginations that exists only in the mind of the authors. I reject all three. The bias of the authors are on full display here. They believe the best outcome is if Trump is removed from office. Or, somehow, white nationalists will take over. (playing the race card). Finally, a divided America with no limitations.
Here is my alternative reality - post-Trump Era
1. Trump succeeds and wins re-election in 2020. His detractors are proven wrong in all cases and America is on the mend. The media are exposed as the corrupt medium and many will falter or go out of existence, replaced with an honest media (best case.)
2. Trump failed to win re-election and America will swing far left with progressive policies that will devastate our economy for decades (worst case.)
3. Trump will go down in history as the most consequential president in modern times. Whether you like him or hate him, his policies and appointments will endure for many decades. (undeniable fact).
I give this book 2 Stars out of 5.
The 2 stars is given for the historical facts of the first chapter which I have no issues with. Otherwise, the rest of the book would have received only 1 star.
The 1 star rating is for the inherent bias throughout the text. I am not sure the authors even realized this. It made assumptions that we, the audience, all agree with some general statements about Trump. That is clearly an over reach. If we all agreed with them, Trump would not have been elected in the first place.
The authors made no attempt to understand the Trump phenomenon. They assumed they know it all and the people that voted for Trump are the "deplorables" as Hillary suggested.
Lastly, the authors did not acknowledge the role the media played in all this. It was their bias that hurt our democracy. If democracy really died someday, it would be at the hand of a biased media. They have forsaken their duty as the watchdog of people in power. By attacking one party while shielding another, they amplified the divide that exists in America. That will ultimately kill our democracy.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Jack Lee