How Democracies Die

by Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 12, 2024
How Democracies Die
How Democracies Die

What are the big ideas? 1. Gatekeeping: Unique Role of Political Elites in Preventing Extremist Politics: The book emphasizes the crucial role political elites play

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Gatekeeping: Unique Role of Political Elites in Preventing Extremist Politics:

The book emphasizes the crucial role political elites play in preventing extremist and antidemocratic parties and figures from gaining power through gatekeeping. It explores various strategies and historical examples, such as Belgium's Catholic Party, Finland's Lawfulness Front, and Austria's ÖVP, where political elites successfully prevented extremists by working together despite ideological differences or taking unpopular decisions within their own party (Chapter 1). 2. Shift in American Democracy: Political Realignment and Polarization: The book describes the significant realignment of American politics between the 1960s and 2010s, resulting in two major parties: the Democratic Party becoming predominantly liberal and the Republican Party primarily conservative (Chapter 7). It discusses the deep roots of polarization, including ideological sorting, civil rights legislation, immigration, and the rise of evangelical Christians within the GOP. The book also suggests that universalistic policies could help reduce polarization by building bridges across racial and socioeconomic divides (Chapter 9).

  1. Unwritten Rules of American Politics: Historical Challenges to Democratic Norms: The book discusses how America's democratic institutions have been challenged throughout history, including the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, McCarthyism, and the Nixon administration's authoritarian behavior (Chapter 6). It explains that these challenges were effectively contained, allowing democratic norms to persist. However, it also acknowledges that America's democratic norms were rooted in racial exclusion, which contributed to bipartisanship but prevented civil rights from being a major political issue for decades (Chapter 6).
  2. Autocratic Behavior and Crises: Subverting Democracy through Crises: The book explores how democracies can be destroyed through a gradual erosion of checks and balances, often justified by claims of protecting national security or maintaining order (Chapter 4). It discusses how autocrats may exploit crises to justify power grabs or invent crises to consolidate power. The book also highlights that public support for an authoritarian leader can increase significantly during a crisis and that the combination of a would-be authoritarian and a major crisis can be particularly dangerous for democracy (Chapter 4).
  3. Mutual Toleration: Guardrails of Democracy and the Importance of Compromise: The book emphasizes the importance of mutual toleration as a crucial element of democratic stability, allowing political rivals to accept each other's existence and compete peacefully within the rules of the game (Chapter 5). It explores how the erosion of democratic norms can result in a cycle of escalating constitutional brinksmanship and how the collapse of the English monarchy in the 1640s and Chilean democracy in the 1970s serve as examples of this (Chapter 5). The book suggests that for mutual toleration to be maintained, political elites must resist viewing their opponents as existential threats and instead engage in good-faith dialogue and compromise.




  • Democracies can die at the hands of elected leaders who subvert democratic institutions, rather than through military coups.
  • The process of democratic breakdown is often gradual and subtle, making it difficult for citizens to recognize.
  • In Venezuela, for example, Hugo Chávez initially came to power democratically but later took steps toward authoritarianism.
  • Elected autocrats use the very institutions of democracy to subvert it, including packing courts, buying off media, and rewriting political rules.
  • The United States failed the first test of preventing extremist demagogues from gaining power when Donald Trump was elected in 2016.
  • American democracy is currently facing challenges, including the weakening of democratic norms and extreme partisan polarization.
  • Historical lessons can help us identify warning signs and strategies for defending democracy.
  • Breakdown is not inevitable, but it requires awareness and action from citizens to avert it.


“Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking. We have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing, and teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times—Europe’s dark 1930s, Latin America’s repressive 1970s. We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession.”

“But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places.”

“Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections.”

“But there is another way to break a democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive. 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. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.”

“Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

“On the electoral road, none of these things happen. There are no tanks in the streets. Constitutions and other nominally democratic institutions remain in place. People still vote. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.”

“Because there is no single moment—no coup, declaration of martial law, or suspension of the constitution—in which the regime obviously “crosses the line” into dictatorship, nothing may set off society’s alarm bells. Those who denounce government abuse may be dismissed as exaggerating or crying wolf. Democracy’s erosion is, for many, almost imperceptible.”

“A comparative approach also reveals how elected autocrats in different parts of the world employ remarkably similar strategies to subvert democratic institutions. As these patterns become visible, the steps toward breakdown grow less ambiguous—and easier to combat. Knowing how citizens in other democracies have successfully resisted elected autocrats, or why they tragically failed to do so, is essential to those seeking to defend American democracy today.”

“Institutions become political weapons, wielded forcefully by those who control them against those who do not. This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy—packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it.”

“Donald Trump’s surprise victory was made possible not only by public disaffection but also by the Republican Party’s failure to keep an extremist demagogue within its own ranks from gaining the nomination.”

“Democracies work best—and survive longer—where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms. Two basic norms have preserved America’s checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives.”

“Many Americans are justifiably frightened by what is happening to our country. But protecting our democracy requires more than just fright or outrage. We must be humble and bold. We must learn from other countries to see the warning signs—and recognize the false alarms. We must be aware of the fateful missteps that have wrecked other democracies. And we must see how citizens have risen to meet the great democratic crises of the past, overcoming their own deep-seated divisions to avert breakdown.”

Chapter 1: Fateful Alliances


  • Political elites play a crucial role in gatekeeping, preventing extremist and antidemocratic parties and figures from gaining power.
  • Gatekeeping can occur through both internal party mechanisms (such as expelling members who express extremist views) and external coalitions with rival parties to defeat common extremist threats.
  • Successful gatekeeping requires political courage, especially in cases where parties must put the survival of democracy ahead of their own ideological purity or electoral interests.
  • Gatekeeping is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Different contexts and circumstances call for different strategies, but the goal remains the same: to prevent extremists from gaining power.
  • Historical examples include Belgium's Catholic Party's successful gatekeeping against the Rex Party in the 1930s and Finland's Lawfulness Front's rejection of the Lapua Movement in the 1930s, as well as more recent cases like Austria's ÖVP's decision to support the Green Party candidate against the Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer in 2016.
  • Successful gatekeeping requires political elites to resist the temptation of allying with extremist parties on their own ideological flanks, even if it means working with rival parties or taking unpopular decisions within their own party.


“Some version of this story has repeated itself throughout the world over the last century. A cast of political outsiders, including Adolf Hitler, Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, came to power on the same path: from the inside, via elections or alliances with powerful political figures. In each instance, elites believed the invitation to power would contain the outsider, leading to a restoration of control by mainstream politicians. But their plans backfired. A lethal mix of ambition, fear, and miscalculation conspired to lead them to the same fateful mistake: willingly handing over the keys of power to an autocrat-in-the-making. … If a charismatic outsider emerges on the scene, gaining popularity as he challenges the old order, it is tempting for establishment politicians who feel their control is unraveling to try to co-opt him. … And then, establishment politicians hope, the insurgent can be redirected to support their own program. This sort of devil’s bargain often mutates to the benefit of the insurgent …”

“Despite their vast differences, Hitler, Mussolini, and Chávez followed routes to power that share striking similarities. Not only were they all outsiders with a flair for capturing public attention, but each of them rose to power because establishment politicians overlooked the warning signs and either handed over power to them (Hitler and Mussolini) or opened the door for them (Chávez).”

“Although mass responses to extremist appeals matter, what matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.”

“Building on Linz’s work, we have developed a set of four behavioral warning signs that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one. 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.”

Chapter 2: Gatekeeping in America


  • The presidential nomination process in the United States underwent significant changes beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, moving from a system dominated by party insiders to a more democratic one based on binding primaries.
  • The McGovern–Fraser Commission's recommendations led to the adoption of a primary system where a majority of delegates were elected based on primary results rather than selected by party leaders.
  • This shift made it easier for outsider candidates to challenge established party figures, but it also required substantial resources and organization to win primaries in multiple states.
  • The party establishment remained influential through various means, such as "superdelegates" representing around 15-20% of national delegates for the Democrats or maintaining a more democratic nomination system for the Republicans.
  • Political scientists initially expressed concerns about primaries potentially leading to extremist candidates or demagogues, but outsiders like Jesse Jackson (Democrats, 1984 and 1988), Pat Robertson (Republicans, 1988), Pat Buchanan (Republicans, 1992, 1996, 2000), or Steve Forbes (Republicans, 1996) all lost during this period.
  • The Democratic Party's early 1980s reforms included superdelegates to balance primary voters and provide party leaders a mechanism to fend off candidates they disapproved of. Republicans chose to maintain a more democratic nomination process without the counterbalance of superdelegates.
  • Primaries, while more democratic, weakened parties' gatekeeping function, potentially leading to outsider candidates and demagogues who bypassed party allegiances and made absurd promises or stirred up mass hatreds.

Chapter 3: The Great Republican Abdication


  • Donald Trump displayed multiple indicators of authoritarian behavior during his presidential campaign, including rejection of democratic rules, denial of legitimacy of political opponents, tolerance or encouragement of violence, and readiness to curtail civil liberties.
  • Republican leaders' collective abdication to Trump despite his authoritarian tendencies paved the way for his election, as they failed to unambiguously reject him and instead endorsed him or remained silent.
  • The historical precedent of conservative politicians in Austria and France endorsing ideological rivals to prevent extremists from gaining power offers a lesson for American Republicans.
  • Republican leaders' decision to close ranks behind Trump normalized the election, making it a tight race that hinged on contingent events.
  • If Republican leaders had publicly opposed Trump and endorsed Hillary Clinton based on his authoritarian behavior, it could have disrupted the tightly contested red-versus-blue dynamics of recent elections and potentially led to Clinton's victory.


“There is always uncertainty over how a politician with no track record will behave in office, but as we noted earlier, antidemocratic leaders are often identifiable before they come to power.”

“The second category in our litmus test is the denial of the legitimacy of one’s opponents. Authoritarian politicians cast their rivals as criminal, subversive, unpatriotic, or a threat to national security or the existing way of life.”

“The third criterion is toleration or encouragement of violence. Partisan violence is very often a precursor of democratic breakdown.”

“But when faced with a would-be authoritarian, establishment politicians must unambiguously reject him or her and do everything possible to defend democratic institutions—even if that means temporarily joining forces with bitter rivals.”

Chapter 4: Subverting Democracy


  • Democracies can be destroyed through a gradual erosion of checks and balances, often justified by claims of protecting national security or maintaining order.
  • Autocrats may exploit crises to justify power grabs, as was the case in Germany under Hitler, Turkey under Erdoğan, and the Philippines under Marcos.
  • Elected autocrats can also invent crises, as Ferdinand Marcos did with the Manila bombings in 1972.
  • Constitutions often permit the expansion of executive power during a crisis, making it easier for elected autocrats to consolidate power and suppress opposition.
  • Public support for an authoritarian leader can increase significantly during a crisis, as was seen in the case of President Bush following September 11.
  • The combination of a would-be authoritarian and a major crisis can be particularly dangerous for democracy.


“These attacks can be consequential: If the public comes to share the view that opponents are linked to terrorism and the media are spreading lies, it becomes easier to justify taking actions against them.”

“It always helps to have the referees on your side. Modern states possess various agencies with the authority to investigate and punish wrongdoing by both public officials and private citizens. These include the judicial system, law enforcement bodies, and intelligence, tax, and regulatory agencies. In democracies, such institutions are designed to serve as neutral arbiters. For would-be authoritarians, therefore, judicial and law enforcement agencies pose both a challenge and an opportunity. If they remain independent, they might expose and punish government abuse. It is a referee’s job, after all, to prevent cheating. But if these agencies are controlled by loyalists, they could serve a would-be dictator’s aims, shielding the government from investigation and criminal prosecutions that could lead to its removal from power. The president may break the law, threaten citizens’ rights, and even violate the constitution without having to worry that such abuse will be investigated or censured. With the courts packed and law enforcement authorities brought to heel, governments can act with impunity.”

“Likewise, when Peru’s Constitutional Tribunal threatened to block President Fujimori’s bid for a third term in 1997, Fujimori’s allies in congress impeached three of the body’s seven justices—on the grounds that, in declaring Fujimori’s effort to evade constitutional term limits “unconstitutional,” they themselves had breached the constitution.”

“To entrench themselves in power, however, governments must do more—they must also change the rules of the game. Authoritarians seeking to consolidate their power often reform the constitution, the electoral system, and other institutions in ways that disadvantage or weaken the opposition, in effect tilting the playing field against their rivals. These reforms are often carried out under the guise of some public good, while in reality they are stacking the deck in favor of incumbents. And because they involve legal and even constitutional changes, they may allow autocrats to lock in these advantages for years and even decades.”

“So they changed the rules—and did away with democracy. “Give us a [constitutional] convention, and I will fix it so that…the Negro shall never be heard from,” former Georgia senator Robert Toombs declared as Reconstruction was coming to an end. Between 1885 and 1908, all eleven post-Confederate states reformed their constitutions and electoral laws to disenfranchise African Americans.”

“To comply with the letter of the law as stipulated in the Fifteenth Amendment, no mention of race could be made in efforts to restrict voting rights, so states introduced purportedly “neutral” poll taxes, property requirements, literacy tests, and complex written ballots.”

“These “reform” measures effectively killed democracy in the American South. Even though African Americans constituted a majority or near-majority of the population in many states, and even though black suffrage was now enshrined in the Constitution, “legal” or neutral-sounding measures were used to “insure that the Southern electorate…would be almost all white.”

“The drift into authoritarianism doesn’t always set off alarm bells. Citizens are often slow to realize that their democracy is being dismantled even as it happens before their eyes.”

“One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion. Would-be autocrats often use economic crises, natural disasters, and especially security threats—wars, armed insurgencies, or terrorist attacks—to justify antidemocratic measures.”

“For example, Fujimori took office amid hyperinflation and a mounting guerrilla insurgency, so when he justified his 1992 presidential coup as a necessary evil, most Peruvians agreed with him. Fujimori’s approval rating shot up to 81 percent after the coup.”

“A security crisis also facilitated Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian turn. In September 1999, shortly after Putin was named prime minister, a series of bombings in Moscow and other cities—presumably by Chechen terrorists—killed nearly three hundred people. Putin responded by launching a war in Chechnya and a large-scale crackdown”

Chapter 5: The Guardrails of Democracy


  • Mutual toleration is a crucial element of democratic stability, as it allows political rivals to accept each other's existence and compete peacefully within the rules of the game.
  • When mutual toleration breaks down, politicians may abandon forbearance and engage in hardball tactics that further undermine trust and norm compliance.
  • The erosion of democratic norms can result in a "cycle of escalating constitutional brinksmanship," as each side grows more intolerant and less willing to compromise.
  • The collapse of the English monarchy in the 1640s and the downfall of Chilean democracy in the 1970s are examples of how the degradation of democratic norms can lead to political crises and even democratic breakdown.
  • To maintain mutual toleration, it is essential that political elites resist the temptation to view their opponents as existential threats and instead engage in good-faith dialogue and compromise.


“Some of history’s most tragic democratic breakdowns were preceded by the degrading of basic norms.”

“Beginning in the 1960s, however, Chile’s culture of compromise was strained by Cold War polarization. Some on the left, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, began to dismiss the country’s tradition of political give and take as a bourgeois anachronism.”

“Polarization can destroy democratic norms. When socioeconomic, racial, or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose worldviews are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain. Some polarization is healthy - even necessary - for democracy. And indeed, the historical experience of democracies in Western Europe shows us that norms can be sustained even where parties are separated by considerable ideological differences. But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs. This may encourage the rise of antisystem groups that reject democracy's rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble.”

Chapter 6: The Unwritten Rules of American Politics


  • America's democratic institutions were challenged several times during the twentieth century, but each challenge was effectively contained, allowing democratic norms to persist.
  • The presidency of Theodore Roosevelt tested the guardrails of American democracy through his unilateral actions and attempts to seek a third term, but these excesses ultimately did not result in autocracy due to bipartisan opposition.
  • McCarthyism posed a threat to norms of mutual toleration in the early 1950s, as Republicans used red-baiting for political gain. However, McCarthy's tactics were eventually discredited and the practice of red-baiting declined within the dominant factions of both parties.
  • The Nixon administration's authoritarian behavior in the 1970s included wiretapping, surveillance, and sabotage of political opponents, culminating in the Watergate scandal. Democratic and Republican institutions worked together to contain this abuse of power, ultimately leading to Nixon's resignation.
  • However, America's democratic norms were also rooted in racial exclusion, which contributed to bipartisanship but also prevented civil rights from being a major political issue for decades. The process of racial inclusion that began after World War II led to polarization and posed the greatest challenge to established forms of mutual toleration and forbearance since Reconstruction.


“The disenfranchisement of African Americans preserved white supremacy and Democratic Party dominance in the South, which helped maintain the Democrats’ national viability. With racial equality off the agenda, southern Democrats’ fears subsided. Only then did partisan hostility begin to soften. Paradoxically, then, the norms that would later serve as a foundation for American democracy emerged out of a profoundly undemocratic arrangement: racial exclusion and the consolidation of single-party rule in the South.”

“We must conclude with a troubling caveat, however. The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion. The stability of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s was rooted in an original sin: the Compromise of 1877 and its aftermath, which permitted the de-democratization of the South and the consolidation of Jim Crow. Racial exclusion contributed directly to the partisan civility and cooperation that came to characterize twentieth-century American politics. The “solid South” emerged as a powerful conservative force within the Democratic Party, simultaneously vetoing civil rights and serving as a bridge to Republicans. Southern Democrats’ ideological proximity to conservative Republicans reduced polarization and facilitated bipartisanship. But it did so at the great cost of keeping civil rights—and America’s full democratization—off the political agenda.”

Chapter 7: The Unraveling


  • The United States experienced significant political realignment between the 1960s and 2010s, resulting in two major parties: the Democratic Party, which became predominantly liberal, and the Republican Party, which became primarily conservative.
  • This realignment was driven by ideological sorting, civil rights legislation, immigration, and the rise of evangelical Christians within the GOP.
  • The polarization between the parties was deepened by the media landscape, with right-wing media outlets exerting a disproportionate influence on Republican voters and politicians.
  • Conservative interest groups, such as Americans for Tax Reform and the Club for Growth, also played a significant role in pushing the GOP toward more extreme positions.
  • The Republican Party's core white Protestant voter base has perceived their social status, identity, and sense of belonging to be under threat, leading to a "paranoid style" in American politics characterized by intense animosity and a belief that "real Americans" are under attack by liberals and the Democratic Party.
  • This perception of declining status and identity has fueled a discourse that distinguishes "real Americans" from those perceived as outsiders, contributing to the erosion of norms of mutual toleration and forbearance in American politics.


“The civil rights movement, culminating in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, put an end to this partisan arrangement. Not only did it democratize the South, at long last, by enfranchising blacks and ending single-party rule, but it accelerated a long-run party system realignment whose consequences are still unfolding today.”

“It was the Civil Rights Act, which Democratic president Lyndon Johnson embraced and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater opposed, that would define the Democrats as the party of civil rights and Republicans as the party of racial status quo.”

“Beginning with Ronald Reagan in 1980, the GOP embraced the Christian Right and adopted increasingly pro-evangelical positions, including opposition to abortion, support for school prayer, and, later, opposition to gay marriage.”

Chapter 8: Trump Against the Guardrails


  • President Trump's violation of political norms, such as his lying, insults towards media and opponents, selective exclusion of reporters from press events, and bullying behavior, have expanded the bounds of acceptable political behavior.
  • His assault on basic norms has been tolerated by the Republican Party, which has helped make it acceptable to much of the Republican electorate.
  • This will have terrible consequences for American democracy, as society becomes overwhelmed and desensitized to deviant behavior, making intolerance towards the media and repression a possibility.
  • The NRA's recruitment videos, featuring Dana Loesch, have used violent rhetoric against Democrats and the media, showing a shift towards politically deviant behavior that was once unthinkable in American politics.


“President Trump exhibited clear authoritarian instincts during his first year in office. In Chapter 4, we presented three strategies by which elected authoritarians seek to consolidate power: capturing the referees, sidelining the key players, and rewriting the rules to tilt the playing field against opponents. Trump attempted all three of these strategies.”

“President Trump demonstrated striking hostility toward the referees—law enforcement, intelligence, ethics agencies, and the courts.”

“Active loyalists do not merely support the president but publicly defend even his most controversial moves. Passive loyalists retreat from public view when scandals erupt but still vote with the president. Critical loyalists try, in a sense, to have it both ways. They may publicly distance themselves from the president's worst behavior, but they do not take any action (for example, voting in Congress) that will weaken, much less bring down, the president. In the face of presidential abuse, any of these responses will enable authoritarianism.”

“That brings us to a final factor shaping President Trump’s ability to damage our democracy: crisis. Major security crises—wars or large-scale terrorist attacks—are political game changers. Almost invariably, they increase support for the government. Citizens become more likely to tolerate, and even endorse, authoritarian measures when they fear for their security.”

“Trump’s first inaugural address, for example, was darker than such addresses typically are (he spoke, for example, of “American carnage”), leading former President George W. Bush to observe: “That was some weird shit.”

“False charges of fraud can undermine public confidence in elections—”

Chapter 9: Saving Democracy


  • Polarization in the United States has deep roots and is not solely a product of racial diversity. Economic inequality, stagnant wages, and job insecurity have contributed significantly to the intensity of partisan animosity.
  • Means-tested social policies can fuel resentment and polarization because they are perceived as benefiting only certain groups. Universalistic policies that benefit all citizens, such as universal healthcare or a universal basic income, could help reduce polarization by building bridges across racial and socioeconomic divides.
  • The American democratic system is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have led to democratic crises in other parts of the world. To save democracy, Americans must restore basic norms and extend them to include all members of a diverse society.
  • Republican Party leaders can learn from Germany's post-World War II rebuilding of the center-right. By expelling extremists and embracing tolerance and freedom, the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU) helped build a broad base that could support a multiethnic democracy.
  • Democratic Party leaders can help reduce polarization by addressing economic inequality through policies such as universal healthcare, a living wage, family policy, and comprehensive labor market programs. These policies could help build a durable coalition of racial minorities and working-class whites while reducing the economic inequality that fuels resentment and polarization.


“Under Donald Trump, the United States appears to be abandoning its role as democracy promoter for the first time since the Cold War. President Trump’s is the least prodemocratic of any U.S. administration since Nixon’s. Moreover, America is no longer a democratic model. A country whose president attacks the press, threatens to lock up his rival, and declares that he might not accept election results cannot credibly defend democracy. Both existing and potential autocrats are likely to be emboldened with Trump in the White House. So even if the idea of a global democratic recession was largely a myth before 2016, the Trump presidency—together with the crisis of the EU, the rise of China, and the growing aggressiveness of Russia—could help make it a reality.”

“In our view, the idea that Democrats should “fight like Republicans” is misguided. First of all, evidence from other countries suggests that such a strategy often plays directly into the hands of authoritarians.”

“Opposition to the Trump administration's authoritarian behavior should be muscular, but it should seek to preserve, rather than violate, democratic rules and norms. Where possible, opposition should center on Congress, the courts, and, of course, elections. If Trump is defeated via democratic institutions, it will strengthen those institutions.”

“Coalitions of the like-minded are important, but they are not enough to defend democracy. The most effective coalitions are those that bring together groups with dissimilar—even opposing—views on many issues. They are built not among friends but among adversaries. An effective coalition in defense of American democracy, then, would likely require that progressives forge alliances with business executives, religious (and particularly white evangelical) leaders, and red-state Republicans. Business leaders may not be natural allies of Democratic activists, but they have good reasons to oppose an unstable and rule-breaking administration. And they can be powerful partners. Think of recent boycott movements aimed at state governments that refused to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, continued to fly the Confederate flag, or violated gay or transgender rights. When major businesses join progressive boycotts, they often succeed.”

“the fundamental problem facing American democracy remains extreme partisan division—one fueled not just by policy differences but by deeper sources of resentment, including racial and religious differences. America’s great polarization preceded the Trump presidency, and it is very likely to endure beyond it.”

“To save our democracy, Americans need to restore the basic norms that once protected it. But we must do more than that. We must extend those norms through the whole of a diverse society. We must make them truly inclusive. America's democratic norms, at their core, have always been sound. But for much of our history, they were accompanied - indeed, sustained - by racial exclusion. Now those norms must be made to work in an age of racial equality and unprecedented ethnic diversity. Few societies in history have managed to be both multiracial and genuinely democratic. That is our challenge. It is also our opportunity. If we meet it, America will truly be exceptional.”


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