Top critical review
Well Written, But Totally Clueless
September 25, 2018
This may be the worst well-written book I have ever read. That is, most awful books are bad in their writing, bad in their organization, bad in their reasoning, and bad in their typesetting. No such badness is evident here—"How Democracies Die" hits all the points it intends to, and reads crisply and smoothly. But it is ruined by a meta-problem: its utter cluelessness and total lack of self-reference. The authors, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, are very much like the Ken Doll in the Toy Story movies—vain, preening, and, most of all, utterly unable to realize, not that the joke is on them, but that they themselves are the joke.
This is the last book I am reviewing of a spate of recent similar books. I am glad to reach the end, and this book is the right capstone, since it exemplifies its genre, and is also the one that has gotten by far the most attention. All these books were inspired by Trump’s election, and they all take as their theme that Trump represents, or heralds, an erosion of democracy. What such erosion is, to what degree erosion is occurring, and what should be done about it, are the main axes of difference among these books But they are all variations on the Shire’s warning bell in "The Lord of the Rings": “Fear, fire, foes: awake!” Or get woke, at least.
Before I trash this book, let’s talk about its skeleton, the framework of analysis it offers. Levitsky and Ziblatt are a typical modern type—the left-wing academic ensconced in the left-wing ecosystem, in this case as professors of government at Harvard. (Is “government” an actual department nowadays? Weird.) The dust jacket says they’ve written for both the New York Times and Vox; which tells you pretty much what you need to know about their background and approach, that they treat those two publications as comparable and both worthy of mention. They are leftist popularizers and chasers after the crowd.
Sorry, I’m trashing the book, or at least the authors, when I said I’m not up to that yet. It is just so hard not to do. The Introduction frames the matters to be discussed by noting a difference between a classic coup d’etat and “elected autocrats,” who “maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.” Such evisceration is said to consist not of illegal actions, but of some other set of actions that runs counter to the spirit of democracy, which is deemed to constitute “backsliding.” Most of all, backsliding is not violation of the law, but of “democratic norms.” It is around this idea of norms that Levitsky and Ziblatt organize their book, with the claim that the erosion of such norms, the “guardrails of democracy,” “began in the 1980s and 1990s and accelerated in the 2000s.”
The authors then add specifics to this generalization. This first section of the book revolves mostly around the claim that what is necessary to permit erosion of democratic norms is “the abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders.” In other words, “political elites” must “serve as filters” and as “democracy’s gatekeepers,” in order to prevent undesirables from being elected by the great unwashed. This means never allying with undesirables (Hitler and Mussolini are trotted out, then put back in the stable, but not allowed to get comfortable, for soon enough, the authors will need them again), and taking aggressive action to suppress any trace of them in political life.
Of course, to serve as a filter, one must know what to filter. Thus, the authors offer four “key indicators of authoritarian behavior.” (“Authoritarian” is used by all authors in this genre as an undefined and never coherently explained doppelganger of “erosion of democracy.”) These are rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game; denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; toleration or encouragement of violence; and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. (By “civil liberties,” the authors seem to mean only First Amendment free speech rights. We can be sure they don’t mean the Second Amendment, or freedom of religion for orthodox Christians.) For each of these four, the authors offer a table with several queries illustrative, such as, with respect to violence, “Have they or their partisan allies sponsored or encouraged mob attacks on opponents?” The idea is that those who are identified by the filter must be cast into the outer darkness, but political opponents who pass the filter should be, if not embraced, at least worked with to expunge those who fail the filter from political life.
To illustrate this, the authors give us a brief historical tour, mentioning 1930s France (where they seem unaware of what a “Popular Front” is), and offering obscure examples like the Lapua Front in 1929 Finland. They then turn to more recent foreign examples, citing European political parties combining with their opponents to deny all political power to right-wing parties that win democratically, praising this as wonderful and the height of “democratic gatekeeping,” even though it seems to sit uneasily with, you know, actual democracy. Finally, they offer American historical examples, such as Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and George Wallace (where at least they are honest enough to mention that Wallace was a serious contender for the 1972 Democratic nomination). Then, citing Henry Ford getting no traction as a politician, they explicitly endorse the old “smoke-filled room” method of choosing Presidential nominees, because it prevents “the election of a demagogue who threatens democracy itself.” I wonder of whom they could be thinking?
All this is clear enough, and takes up the first quarter of the book. The rest of the book is an application of the framework, alternated with a fleshing out of the framework, shot through with ascribing all blame to the Right and trumpeting the moral and political purity of the Left. We begin with a claim that Republican gatekeepers failed miserably, and repeatedly, in the great moral challenge of their lives, by permitting Donald Trump to be nominated. They should never have allowed him to enter the primaries; they should have made him lose the primaries; and they should have ensured he lost the election. Why? Well, because he failed the filter the authors offer, of course. At this point, the reader realizes their entire framework is set up around Trump, or rather, around a left-wing vision of how Trump behaves. He “questioned the legitimacy of the electoral process” when he “made the unprecedented suggestion that he might not accept the results of the 2016 election.” He denied the legitimacy of his opponents by countenancing “birtherism” and suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s criminal activities made her a criminal. He “tolerated and encouraged violence” by his statements about people disrupting his rallies, and his supporters are just like Mussolini’s Blackshirts. He showed “a readiness to curtail the civil liberties of rivals and critics,” again by wanting Hillary Clinton’s criminal activities treated as criminal activities, and by calling the media dishonest, suggesting libel laws should be loosened. The authors then helpfully reprint their initial table-format framework, bolding all the areas where, they say, Trump failed. And good, approved, housebroken Republicans failed most of all, by not aggressively working to elect Hillary Clinton, as they should have, as proven by the authors’ irrefutable and totally neutral framework.
Having set up the point of the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt pull back the camera to analyze supposed analogues abroad, in places where democracy has allegedly eroded more than in America. We start with Alberto Fujimori, and Hugo Chávez is mentioned (he serves as a foil in this book, to show that the authors have found a leftist regime they claim not to like), but mostly we get with a discussion of “referees.” The authors mean “various agencies with the authority to investigate and punish wrongdoing by both public officials and private citizens,” including “the judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies.” “In democracies, such institutions are designed to serve as neutral arbiters.” If a politician controls the referees, that is, he can get away with things he should not be able to get away with. By this Levitsky and Ziblatt do not mean Barack Obama’s subversion of the rule of law or the FBI and the Justice Department being turned into a bludgeon against Republicans. Oh no. They mean men like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who dare to replace “civil servants and other nonpartisan officials and replace them with loyalists.”
This is the crux of this book’s cluelessness. The authors appear to actually imagine that the referees, the civil servants, the employees of the federal government, who are a left-wing monolith, voting and donating 90+% to the Democratic Party, are “neutral.” They think the American press, also utterly dominated by the Left, is “neutral.” They think that the (formerly) Communist-dominated judiciary in Hungary and Poland is “neutral.” For the authors, dominance by the Left is natural and immutable, and any attempt by voters to elect people who erode the dominance of the Left is an “attack on democracy.” What they mean by democracy, in other words, is merely a permanent global stranglehold by the Left on power. Erosion of the Left’s power is therefore ipso facto erosion of democracy. There are thus two keys to all the analysis in "How Democracies Die." The first is that anybody in power who is on the Left is “neutral” and “professional.” The second is that anytime government, the press, business, or any other organ of influence is dominated by the Left, it’s awesome, tasty, full democracy. Through this prism, you can see that any power the Right has is always biased, unprofessional, and the opposite of tasty democracy. Similarly, any bad behavior by the Left (e.g., illegally weaponizing the IRS or the judiciary system to suppress conservative groups and votes) is irrelevant and not worth mention. Once you have those keys, you can write the rest of the book yourself. Though why you would want to so beclown yourself, I don’t know.
Doubtless seeing the transparency of their bias, though never acknowledging it in any way, the authors next try to insulate themselves by crying “Hitler!” and talking about suppression of the black vote in the South (by Democrats, historically, but never mind). We get talk about how the Nazis destroyed the Prussian Rechtsaat. We get talk about the Spanish Civil War, how the parties there failed to recognize that “our political rivals are decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens,” and bad things resulted. Levitsky and Ziblatt alternate between calling for civility and comity, and excoriating anyone who doesn’t work actively for Left hegemony as a racist and Nazi. Necessarily, therefore, by “decent and patriotic” Republicans, the authors mean exclusively those Republicans who work as “gatekeepers.” Which is to say, those who work elect Democrats or liberal Republicans who don’t contest Left hegemony. All others must be excluded from political life no matter how many votes they get. And let’s not forget that John McCain, now praised by liberals, when he was actually running for President was slandered as a hateful racist and disgusting human being. This supposed view by the Left of some Republicans as decent and patriotic is never, ever, in the present tense unless such Republicans are actively assisting the Left. The reader gets bored.
The reality is that if you apply the authors’ framework, it actually applies much better to suggest that the Left is “eroding democracy,” by their own terms. Let’s take just one of their four key factors: “toleration or encouragement of violence.” Supposedly, because Trump suggested that people disrupting his rallies be beat up (not that any were), he fails this factor. Nowhere mentioned are events such as when Trump had to cancel rallies because of the mass violence threatened by the Left against his supporters, violence openly organized by elected Democrats and their allies in pressure groups. Nowhere mentioned are the hundreds or thousands of incidents of actual violence during and since the election against Trump supporters merely minding their own business on the street. Nowhere mentioned are the mobs who descend on Trump officials eating dinner or having drinks, assaulting them and driving them out, proudly posting video and never facing any consequences. I see upon waking this morning that Senator Ted Cruz and his wife got that treatment last night, which is, of course, reported nowhere in the news-setting media.
But it’s not just this minor physical violence and intimidation. Let’s review the past few week’s headlines—not, of course, in the news-setting media, which had small squibs on these at most, but on conservative media. “Suspect tries stabbing Republican candidate.” “Mass shooting tweet threatens Trump hotel event.” “Secret Service probes actress calling for [Trump] assassination.” “Wyoming GOP office set on fire.” “Conservative columnist goes into hiding after rape, death threats.” There are, of course, no equivalent headlines for any targeted people on the Left. I went looking for them, but I didn’t really need to, since even a single, solitary, equivalent would be splashed in banner headlines across all news media for days, if not weeks. The reality is that the Trumpian “violence” that the authors claim exists was isolated events and boastful talk by Trump, nothing at all compared to anti-Trump violence during and after the campaign, and that any minor Trumpian “violence” was responsive to attacks on Trump, not the coordinated campaign of mass intimidation to which all Trump supporters were and are now subjected.
And, of course, let’s not forget mass murderer wanna-be James Hodgkinson, flushed down the memory hole after he tried to assassinate the entire Republican congressional leadership in 2017. Do Levitsky and Ziblatt think with a straight face that if a conservative had tried to assassinate the entire Democratic congressional leadership, and nearly succeeded, we would not still now, every single day, be reminded multiple times in every major news outlet? If they think otherwise, they are liars or insane. Yet Hodgkinson’s name and actions are never mentioned today. He’s certainly not mentioned in this book. I just did a Google News search for his name. Of the top five results, the first is an article from the world-bestriding Waterways Journal, noting the Nola Propeller Club, a boat organization in New Orleans, honoring Steve Scalise (whose district they’re in), which mentions Hodgkinson briefly as background to Scalise’s life. The second is an article from the left-wing group Think Progress, about a recent domestic violence incident, claiming that domestic troubles explain most mass shootings, which in passing ascribes Hodgkinson’s shooting to the same reason (without any evidence). The third and fifth are from conservative blogs. The fourth is a news squib from the famous "Cosmetics Business" magazine, announcing that “FrankenChemie becomes Surfachem Deutschland,” and giving (a different) James Hodgkinson as the press contact. You get the idea, or rather, you get the reality, as opposed to Levitsky’s and Ziblatt’s fantasies.
That’s just one of the framework items that, if properly parsed, shows the opposite of the authors’ claims. I could do the same with the with others—what is the entire “Resistance” but an attempt to “deny the legitimacy of political opponents?” But I want to shift the view back from America a bit, as the authors intermittently do as well, because this demand that “democracy” be equated with “Left hegemony” is a universal demand among the global ruling classes today, which must be a clue to something. Totally aside from Levitsky and Ziblatt, we can examine a recent lengthy article in the "Atlantic" by Anne Applebaum, a famous expert on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, no leftist but definitely a member in good standing of the globalist elite. It is called “A Warning From Europe: The Worst Is Yet to Come.” We are not being warned of the Muslim invasion, or looming demographic disaster, or even of more mundane, say environmental, problems. No, the warning is that “Recent events in the United States follow a pattern Europeans know all too well.” That pattern is that formerly reliable contributors to Left hegemony have betrayed their masters and voted to support the Right, including, gasp, people that Applebaum knew, trusted, and even socialized with! The focus is on Poland; I have eviscerated the claims of “creeping authoritarianism” there elsewhere, and Applebaum adds nothing that counters my evisceration, though she does add the new claim that conservatives are hiring incompetents, but when leftists get a job, it is only ever on merit, so quality is going down. (To be fair, though, at least Applebaum admits she is personally biased by her husband’s expulsion from what is now the ruling party in Poland, the Law and Justice Party.) All Applebaum manages to demonstrate is that, once again, when democrats elected on the Right legally use the mechanisms of power to erode Left (or here, more properly, ex-Communist) dominance, they are accused of, through a neat inversion, being “anti-democratic,” a term which is conveniently never defined. Also never defined are other terms Applebaum uses for democratically elected European conservatives, such as “illiberal.” No, what we get is a long cry that vague horrors are descending because democracy is being perverted by allowing people to choose for whom they wish to vote.
Buried within Applebaum’s long article (longer than this review!) is an inadvertent admission of what is going on. Trying to tie the Law and Justice Party to Communism, another neat inversion, she says “[T]he Leninist one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power. It works because it clearly defines who gets to be the elite—the political elite, the cultural elite, the financial elite.” All true. What she really means, though, is that the Left must always be the elite, and if conservatives somehow become the elite, all is lost. Hitler and apartheid-era South Africa also allowed the elite to not be dominated by the Left. And now, Poland and Hungary are just as bad. Don’t forget, too—Hitler! And Mussolini!
[Review completes as first comment.]