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How Democracies Die Summary

This How Democracies Die summary looks at an interesting book on how democracies can be subverted from within. We often think democracies are overthrown, but the truth is that they are often broken from within.

Democracies are susceptible to being turned into authoritarian states. As the book shows, it happened in Peru, Chile and has happened in Hungary since the late 2010s.

The instruments to overthrow democracies lay within them. Packing courts, and controlling the apparatus of the legislature, it’s unsettling how easily it can be done.

This often happens when the norms of democracy have been broken. Think of Donald Trump calling the media fake news and haranguing judges and you have an idea of how the norms of democracy can be overturned.

How Democracies Die maps out how this happens, what methods demagogues use and how we can arm ourselves to ward off the threat of authoritarianism.

If you’re interested in politics this is a must-read, and if you’re not, I think it’s even more important you read it. Democracies are fragile, and the key to their survival and prosperity is a well-informed public.

Reading this book will help you with that.

How Democracies Die summary

Takeaway 1 – Democracies are fragile

When we think of democracies we tend to think they are indestructible. That no matter what happens, democracy will prevail. A quick glance through history will tell you this is misguided.

Democracies are inherently fragile. They rely on the goodwill of those in power and those in opposition to function.

It’s why if you look through history, there are numerous examples of democracies being overturned into despotic regimes. The apparatus to do so are in place.

This is especially true in Presidential systems, where the President wields enormous power. Should they use this power to crush their opposition, they can do so with tremendous force.

A good example of this is Viktor Orban in Hungary. Since his re-election in 2010, he has slowly dismantled the democratic institutions of the country.

Indeed, in light of the Coronavirus pandemic, he has introduced emergency powers which give him the power to rule by decree indefinitely.

Ten years ago, Hungary was a functioning democracy. Now, it is hard to consider it one. Whether Orban relinquishes his emergency powers when the crisis is over will reveal if it still is.

This backsliding of democracy over a course of ten years shows how fragile democracy is if we are not vigilant. A major issue is that the general population doesn’t release what is happening until it’s too late.

The gradual erosion of rights and backsliding isn’t noticed when it’s done, but rather further down the line when it’s obvious things have changed.

Democracy may seem like the natural endpoint for political systems, but this is by no means certain. The very nature of democracies makes them fragile to corruption by unscrupulous figures.

Takeaway 2 – Guardrails are central to democracy

One of the core tenets of any democracy is one that many people don’t know about, guardrails.

Two of the most important guardrails are mutual toleration and forbearance. Mutual toleration refers to those in power respecting the opposition and vice versa, while forbearance refers to the intentional restraint of one’s power to uphold the spirit of the law.

These are fundamental parts of a democracy, yet they are not so obvious. For instance, if those in power deem the opposition to be a threat and do not tolerate them, democracy is imperilled.

Likewise, should those in power decide to exercise their power for their own benefit or to crush their opponents, such as how regimes in Argentina and Chile did, which Naomi Klein explains in The Shock Doctrine, democracy starts to backslide.

It’s necessary to think of democracy as teetering on a tightrope. To successfully navigate the tightrope those walking it must be balanced, while those at either end, must not sabotage the tightrope, thus destroying it.

When these guardrails are threatened, democracies are weakened. This has happened in America where the mutual tolerance between the Democrats and Republicans has sunk to an all-time low since the election of Trump.

With both sides wary of each other and a lack of bipartisanship, politics has become increasingly polarised. This is not helped by President Trump’s relinquishing forbearance in order to attack those he deems as against his regime.

When these two norms are broken, democracies head down a dangerous path. 

Takeaway 3 – Unwritten rules are sometimes more important than written ones

Much like guardrails, unwritten rules in democracies are almost as important as written ones.

When they are respected, democracies function as normal. When they are subverted and not respected, democracy comes under threat.

The authors of the book use the brilliant example of pickup basketball, an informal game of basketball, to make their point.

In pickup basketball, there are several informal rules which all players agree to without realising. If the rules aren’t adhered to, the game cannot function. Therefore, it requires the tacit acknowledgement of both sides for these unwritten rules for the game to be a success.

While democracies do have written rules, they are best supplemented by adherence to unwritten rules. Mutual toleration and forbearance are important, but so are respecting the freedom of the press and the right to protest.

It’s accepted that governments will allow these to occur even if they don’t agree with the sentiments expressed.

Once these norms are violated, it’s hard for either side to trust each other going forward. This can often result in democracy sliding towards a no-holds-barred conflict.

Rules are important, but as in sports, respecting the spirit of the law is just as important.

Favourite Quotes

  • “Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders – presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power.”
  • “We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.”
  • “When norms of mutual toleration are weak, democracy is hard to sustain. If we view our rivals as a dangerous threat, we have much to fear if they are elected.”
  • “Citizens have a basic right to information in a democracy. Without credible information about what our elected leaders do, we cannot effectively exercise our right to vote.”
  • “History shows us that it is possible to reconcile democracy with diversity.”

How Democracies Die review

My How Democracies Die summary has touched briefly on the issues discussed in the book.

As someone with a keen interest in politics, I found this book fascinating. I learnt a lot about the democracies can be corroded to suit the aims of the ruler in power.

The scary thing was how easy it is to do. The book recounts several examples of leaders who subverted the democratic process for their own ends.

How Democracies Die is a good overview of how democracies can slip into tyranny. It presents the processes that occur and how they can be averted.

It’s not a guidebook on how to stop it from happening, but it shows us how democracies fail.

People who want a more rigorous look at this might be disappointed, as there could be more depth, but it’s a good primer on the topic.

If anyone is interested in politics, believes in democracy and wants to do all they can to uphold these values, then reading this book is a must.

It’s an important read in an age where democracies are under threats not seen since the 1930s.

Who should read How Democracies Die?

Anyone interested in politics should read How Democracies Die. It’s important to understand how democracies can be corrupted, so we can guard against it happening in the future.

Someone starting a politics degree at university will get a lot of this book, as will many sitting politicians too for that matter!