How Democracies Die
by S. Levitsky, D. Ziblatt 
Summary by
author/editor Walter Antoniotti 3/20/24

Ten Discoveries

Author Videos


Editor's Thoughts

Return to 2024 Election Information

Ten Discoveries
1. Best way to stop authoritarians-make sure they never come to power.

2. Our constitution alone is not enough to prevent authoritarianism
3. Six Democratic Norms, If Abused, Could Bring Down Our Democracy!
4. Checks and balance and Democratic Norms protected our constitution
5. Political norms have been unraveling for two or three decades.
6. America has always had an extremist fringe

Constitutional Hardball tactics

8. Has not-do become a norm?
Some politicians were not accepting forbearance.
10. Trump Authoritarian Strategies

Author Videos:
S. Levitsky, D. Ziblatt
Why we wrote the book 4 min    
Authors Answer Questions 64 min
Forum 102 min
Book Review 8 min


Discovery 1
Stop authoritarians by making sure
 they never come to power.

21st Century Dictator Methods:
Pre Cold War-Military Coup
Post Cold War-Win Elections, then take control

Two change in the US nomination process
opened a door for a modern day US demigod.
Through the 1968 election, party leaders picked he candidate at a convention.
This smoked room process did not always result in appropriate candidates, but it did keep extremists out.
By 1972, primaries, conducted over many months, became binding.
The filtration process was gone. Authoritarian had an easier path to the Presidency.
The Democratic Party created super delegates who can vote for anyone,  hopefully,
to act as a gatekeeper by refusing to support extreme candidates.
Of course, they could abdicate this responsibility and overlook candidate violations.

Democracies failed in
1920's Italy, 1930's Germany, and 1990's Venezuela.
There, political party leaders, hoping to tap into a  demagogy's popularity, 
made and eventually lost, a Faustian-bargain.
The US has had a few politicians, especially during war, who were not limited by their party.
President Lincoln had a free hand and a civil war was needed to maintain our constitution.
The Roosevelt's lead a long list of authoritarian presidents

Discovery 2
Our constitution alone is not enough
to prevent authoritarianism from destroying the fabric of our democracy.

Two Norms of Democracy are required for stability.
They are the soft Guard Rails Norms of Democracy.

a. Mutual toleration: public and private acceptance of an opponent's legitimacy.

 b. Institutional forbearance: under utilization of one's power
by accepting the other party's legitimacy and not following the letter of the law.

Problem: Politian's are throwing forbearance to the wind.
Note: Fights to the death brought down many 1930' European Democracies

c. Historical Analysis: Over a Rocky Road, U.S. Soft Rails Democratic Norms grew slowly.
Hamilton and Jefferson were bitter political enemies.
Both felt the other side would destroy the Republic.
President Washington began presidential norm development.
 But these failed during the run-up to, and conducting of, the Civil War.
After a few decades, the Guard Rail norms returned.
No Impeachments, No Court Packing, Judicious use of Filibusters and
Presidents often refrained from acting unilaterally by bypassing Congress and the courts.

Discovery 3
Six Democratic Norms, If Abused, Could Bring Down Our Democracy!

Presidential Norms

Executive Orders
executive order issued by the Obama administration on visa and foreign visitor processing that aimed "to enhance and expedite travel to and arrival in the United States by foreign nationals was
reversed by Trump. This was one of many trump roll backs of Obama Rules.

Presidential Pardons
numbers have dropped dramatically in the last 100 years. Trump may set a new low.
This is an example  of Institutional Forbearance

Supreme Court Packing
was first tried by the first President Adams. FDR's famous court packing failure illustrate the respect many have for political norms.

Congressional Norms

are crated by the lack of a senate speaking time limits Attempts to limit the time for debate include Budget Act of 1974
that created the budget reconciliation and
changes made in 2013 and 2017 that required only a simple majority to invoke cloture on nominations. But, most legislation still requires 60 votes. This is an example of Mutual Toleration.

Appointments Advise and Consent Clause
The Senate rejected only 27 (20%) of the 149 nominees to the Supreme Court made between the nation's founding and 2005.
This is an example  of
Institutional Forbearance.

Impeachment Only two U.S. presidents have been formally impeached by Congress- Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton- and no U.S. president has ever been removed from office through impeachment. Only two other U.S. presidents have faced formal impeachment inquiries in the House of Representatives: They were Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Many other presidents have been threatened with impeachment by political foes without gaining any real traction in Congress.  This is an example  of Institutional Forbearance.

Discovery 4
Constitutional checks and balance plus Democratic Norms
are protected our constitution following the Civil War

But political stability was maintained at the price of racial exclusion and authoritarian rule of the South.
Substantial progress was made in fulfilling the goal of Democracy began again in the mid 19f60's.
But so to did a new period of polarization.

Checks and Balances provided by the U.S. Constitution
are not enough to restrain overreaching politicians.
We also rely on unwritten rules, our guardrails.
Political leaders must be  committed to the traditional political norms of
mutual toleration-
accepting the other party as legitimate,
and self-restrain- not always following the letter of the law.

Discovery 5
Political norms have been unraveling for two or three decades.
Early signs in the 1990's when Republicans tried to shut down government and impeach Clinton.
In 2000's got going with during Obama's campaign when he was called a Marxist, Terrorist,. and
 the  Birther Movement questioned his Presidential Legitimacy.
All Democrats were not Real American.

Discovery 6 America has always had an extremist fringe
but these comments were from prominent politicians
who were beginning to deny the opposition's legitimacy.
Politicians had decided to play constitutional hardball and
exploit our Democracy by following the letter of the
U.S Constitutional

Discovery 7 Constitutional Hardball tactics
consisting of stonewalling nominations, court packing and exploiting
 the power of the purse have all been recently used by Republicans.
Both parties have used impeachment.

Discovery 8
Has not-do become a norm?

Filibuster and government shutdowns have became common.
Lack of a budget almost caused the U.S. Treasury to defau
me Court vacancy.
 This had not been done since Post Civil War Reconstruction.
They can do/not-do about anything.

Not-do was becoming the norm?

Discovery 9.
Some politicians were not accepting forbearance.
Any tool to stop the opposition from destroying America was legitimate.

The problem is not that we elected a demigod.
The problem is we did so when our Guard Rail Norms are becoming unmoored.


Discovery 10. Trump Authoritarian Strategies
used to Consolidate power.

Capture the Referees
During week one, Trump demonstrated striking hostility toward
 our law enforcement, intelligence, ethics and court referees.

He demanded loyalty and compliance from many of his Agency Directors:
 He pressured FBI-Comey to drop investigations of recently departed NSD-Flynn.
He pressed DNI-Coats and CIA-Pompeo to intervene in the Comey investigation.
He personally intervened with DNI-Coats and NSA-Rogers wanting them
 to release statements denying the existence of his collusion with Russia.
Both refused. He controversially fired Comey.
One other FBI director had ethical problems and was uncontroversial fired.
He fired Manhattan US Attorney Preet Bharara for continuing his investigation
 of money laundering activities which were reportedly getting close to Trump's inner circle.
His reactions to the Mueller Investigation were at best, controversial. Please Share!


Sideline Key Players

Attacks on the media for being the
enemy of the people because hey broadcast fake news, and conspiring against him.
These were followed by threats to change the libel laws
 to use antitrust actions against CNN
to block the Time-Warner merger, 
to challenge the license of NBC, and other networks.
To date Trump's threats have resulted in no action.

Rewriting Rules Against Opponents

He called for bolstering Republican majority strength in the US Senate by
changing archaic Senate rules including tie Filibuster.
The filibuster t was only eliminated for Supreme Court nominations
which allowed for the Neil Gorsuch confirmation.

He most antidemocratic move may have been creating the
Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity
to uncover election fraud perpetrated by illegal immigrant voters.
Independent studies had show almost no election fraud.
States refused to hand over election data.
He disbanded the commission.

Through 2017, Trump has repeatedly bumped up against the guard rails,
but "he did not break through them."
He did not cross over to authoritarianism.

Editor's Note: I do not know which is most intriguing
that he openly tried to bring back Jim Crow laws
that he thought his attempt to disenfranchise voters might work
that it represents his inability to accept reality
that like many of his actions, it caters to his base

QN Related Studies
Our Founding Father's Constitution 32 min   Mark A. Stoler
Constitutional History of US Federalist Republic
Magna Carta to Trump's Impeachments
Constitutional History of the US
From Jamestown to Selma, Alabama
U.S Constitutional History
Slavery in Jamestown to Brown vs. Board of Education
The Road to Unfreedom (1).pdf. Timothy Snyder
Political Studies
Politics in Our Democratic Federalist Republic
Who Controls Democratic Politics    

Understanding Insurrection and Sedition
Short Road Democracy to Fascism    
Global Economic Growth and the Rise of Populism
Tyranny, Truth and Democracy

Posrscript: The Rise of Totalitarianism in America
6 examples video from J. Peterson  


1. Partisan Polarization Caused by Fear and Loathing
Erode the Guiderail Norms of Democracy

In 1960, four or five percent of both parties reported they would be displeased
 if their child married into the other party. Today it is fifty percent.
In 2017 forty-nine percent of Republicans and fifty-five percent of Democrats
say the other party makes them afraid.
We have not seen this kind of party hatred since the end of reconstruction.

This is not normal liberal/conservative polarization about health care and taxes.

Today, polarization is about Race, Religion and Way of Life.
See The 4G's of Politics

Political leaders must protect the constitution.
But, Polarization has frayed this process in much of the Western World.


 2. Future Possible Post Trump Scenarios

Swift Democratic Recovery as Trump, [like most populist leaders],
loses public support or is impeached of resigns.
But Trump is a result, and not the cause, of building Polarity.

A pro-Trump ultra conservative GOP maintains control
of the presidency, the U.S. Congress and a vast number of state governments.
[Is the Republican control of state governments the result of a lack of
Institutional Forbearance. Was requiring relegiouse companies to pay for abortion insurance required.
Gaining solid control of the Supreme Court could result in changes that result in durable white majorities.
Opposition could cause dramatic political stability.

Political Polarization will continue to grow.


3. Who Controls Democratic Politic

Four theoretical traditions of the study of American politics
Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination,
Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased fffllPl uralism

Each predicts influence over public policy:
 average citizens; economic elites organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.

Empirical research
We use  one statistical model to contrast theoretical predictions against each other.
We used a unique data set  that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.

Multivariate Analysis Indicates Independent Group Impacts on U.S. Government Policy

 Substantial Influence:
economic elites and organized groups representing business interests.
Study support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and Biased Pluralism.

Little or No Independent Influence Study Does Not Support Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism
Source: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (
Editor's Comment: Because the Christian Right and NRA  are made up of average citizens,
how can mass-based interest groups,
"have little or no independent influence."

Return How Democracies Index


Editor's Thoughts
Most Americans look at America through Rose Colored Glasses.
Democracy, like Capitalism, has a Cycle-a Polarity Cycle when Democracy Brakes Down.

Polarity Cycle 1 was the period before the Revolution after which it peaked, and civility return
 as both Democracy and her Guard Rails Norms matured.
The Era of Good Feelings
, associated with President Monroe (1817–1825)
was characterized by the dissolution of national political identities.


Polarity Cycle 2 began gaining steam with the growth of the abolition movement.
Both Mutual Toleration and Institutional forbearance forged a the compromise
 to pass the 1854 Kansas Nebraska Act but it left in an aftermath unhappiness and a Bleeding Kansas.
Eventually Democracy broke down, a Civil War resulted, and the nations democratic ideals were restored.
The military maintained peace in the South as one-part Republican Northern Oligarchs
 maintained dictatorial controls.

Polarity Cycle 3  A Populist Era and a Progressive Movement erupted during the Gilded Age.
Some would say many average citizens were poorly represented
as the Supreme Court protected property rights over human rights.

Polarity Cycle 4
The passage of the 1965 Civil rights Act began the latest polarity cycle.
It accelerated with the Great Society Program and then Roe Wade.
Civility, which had been reasonable for a century, began to decrease.
Global Growth the Rise of Populism is could somewhere on the 4th cycle

Media Divides Our Country

See U.S. Civility


Is Fake News a Problem?

Our Growing Urban Population
May Create Political Difficulties