There are images that come to mind when we imagine a democracy’s end. Democracies fall in coups and revolutions, burn in fires and riots, collapse amid war and plague. When they die, they die screaming.
Not anymore, argue Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their new book, How Democracies Die. In most modern cases, “democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.” They rot from the inside, poisoned by leaders who “subvert the very process that brought them to power.” They are hollowed out, the trappings of democracy present long after the soul of the system is snuffed out. (Related: I interviewed Levitsky and Ziblatt for my podcast, The Ezra Klein Show, which you can listen to here, or wherever you get your podcasts.)
How Democracies Die is being read as a commentary on Donald Trump, but the analysis of Trump is the book’s least interesting, and least important, contribution. Trump is a symptom, not the cause, of the problems bedeviling American democracy.
The problems in American democracy run far deeper than Trump.