How Democracies Die front cover(How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt: Crown, 2018, 312 pp., $26.00)


It’s often worthwhile to point out the obvious, as Levitsky and Ziblatt have done here: the U.S. is undergoing a stress test of its democratic institutions, the increasingly authoritarian Republican Party is primarily responsible for the stress, and the means used by authoritarian parties to destroy democracy tend to be quite similar across the world.

The authors do a good job of outlining the commonalities of would-be dictators:

  1. Rejection of (or weak commitment to) 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.

The authors cite several examples to illustrate these points, including the Erdogan regime in Turkey, the Chávez regime in Venezuela, and the Trump regime (more politely, the Trump Administration) in the U.S.

They also cite three common tactics employed by authoritarians undermining democracy:

  1. Capturing the “referees” (especially the courts);
  2. Sidelining opponents (e.g., via slanderous charges and trumped-up criminal charges);
  3. Changing the rules (e.g., restricting the right to vote).

Again, they provide numerous examples, and again Trump and his Republican enablers are prominent among them.

These examples, these case studies of the attitudes and tactics of authoritarians, are the most valuable part of the book.

As for the analysis of why things have gotten so bad in the U.S., not so much. The authors are conventional liberals who see nothing fundamentally flawed in what, from its start, has always been a weak democracy with, almost from the start, a two-party duopoly under the control of the rich. (The authors don’t mention it, but George Washington, for all his virtues, was the richest man in the 13 colonies.)

While they’re not entirely uncritical of America’s past — for example, they include a good but quite brief history of the political aspects of Jim Crow in the wake of Reconstruction — they paint a remarkably rosy picture of America’s “democratic” past, with “backroom candidate selection . . . keeping demonstrably unfit figures off the ballot and out of office.” And this in reference to Warren G. Harding(!), arguably the most corrupt and incompetent U.S. president until Trump.

The authors are also rather obtuse regarding the underlying economic reasons for the current crisis in what passes for American democracy. They blame post-1975 “economic growth slowing” plus increased ethnic diversity as being the reasons for the current breakdown of political norms.

This is simply wrong. Since real wages peaked in 1972-1973, productivity growth has averaged roughly 1.75% per year, while wages have grown not at all. This means that the amount of goods and services produced per hour worked have approximately doubled over the last 45 years, with almost all of the gains going not to those who do the work, but to those who own the corporations. As well, there has been a distinct redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top over the same period, with the top 1% now owning nearly 50% of the nation’s wealth — a trend which Obama didn’t even try to address, and which is worsening under Trump.

Is it any wonder that people are fed up? That so many voters are so fed up with their stressful economic state and the corporate-controlled two-party duopoly — essentially a choice between evil and greater evil — that 41% of those eligible to vote in the last election didn’t even show up at the polls? Is it any wonder that so many feel so much economic pain that they’ll listen to demagogues who scapegoat minorities?

The authors’ prescription to put U.S. democracy back on the rails? To oversimplify, a return to civility between Democrats and Republicans. That might involve (they say this is a remote possibility) a reformed Republican party casting out the white nationalists and other authoritarians (good luck on that), plus the Democrats fighting Trump et al. in court and on the ballot, and the Democrats advocating a few minimalist common-sense reformist measures, such as universal healthcare coverage and a significantly higher minimum wage.

In the end, the authors see nothing fundamentally flawed in the present system. If you’re looking for bold strategies to address the fundamental inequities, injustices, and outright horrors in present-day America, you won’t find it in How Democracies Die.

The book’s value, though, lies in its clear presentation of the attitudes and tactics of dictators and would-be dictators, and its many case studies of authoritarian figures and regimes.


“What could possibly go wrong? I haven’t felt this good since 2006.”

(on Trump’s economic policies)

Monogamy graphic by J.R. Swanson from "The Devil's Dictionaries"

LOVE, n. The recognition of another’s ability to increase one’s happiness; 2) A form of temporary insanity. The cure, as Nietzsche points out, often costs no more than the price of a new pair of eyeglasses; 3) The motivation of religious folk when they inflict pain upon you for your own good.

* * *

— from The American Heretic’s Dictionary (revised & expanded), the 21st-century successor to Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary. (The link goes to 50 sample definitions and illustrations.)

American Heretic's Dictionary revised and expanded by Chaz Bufe, front cover

Donald Trump claims that “We love the Dreamers” (using, of course, the royal “we”).

In days gone by, the prescription was, “If you love someone, set them free.”

Times have changed. Trump hasn’t said so in so many words, but his new prescription is blindingly obvious: “If you love someone, hold them hostage.”


Mark Twain

“The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave.”

–Letter to Asa Don Dickson, November 21, 1905

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“If you are bored with writing, you will bore the reader.”

— “16 Tips from García Márquez for Aspiring Writers

(The too literal translation of this quote in “16 Tips” reads, “If one is bored of writing, one will bore the reader.”)

(It’s time to start preparing for your summer garden. There are plenty of blogs and sites that tell you how to do this, but not many that provide information to nongardeners on making themselves welcome in their friends’ gardens. Hence this slightly revised repost from a couple of years ago.)

basil plants

If you know people who garden — and you don’t do it yourself — here are a few tips about making yourself welcome.

Don’t walk in vegetable beds unless they tell you it’s okay to do so. The soil in beds is usually (at least it should be) loose, which is good for the spread of vegetable roots and for water absorption. Walking on soil compacts it, which isn’t good for those roots or for absorption.

This should go without saying, but don’t pick anything unless they invite you to do so.

Don’t be pushy. If you can see they only have a small amount of something, don’t ask for it. If you do, they might give it to you, but they’ll probably resent doing so and quite possibly won’t invite you back.

It’s okay to ask if they have anything extra, but unless you can see they have a lot of what you want, don’t specifically ask for it.

If they invite you to help yourself, they’re probably assuming that you can do the gardening equivalent of walking while chewing gum. Well, unless you’re a gardener, you probably can’t. If you don’t ask for guidance you’ll quite possibly do something destructive that will induce face-palm time in your host. If you’ve never, for instance, harvested lettuce or other greens, ask how to do it.

Help out. Even small gardens require a lot of work, and gardeners appreciate those who lend a hand. They’ll appreciate even five minutes of weeding. (Unless you’re familiar with local weeds, ask what to pull and what to leave alone.)

Do all of these things, and your gardener friends will likely be generous with their produce and will very likely ask you back — especially if you help even a little.