How Democracy Dies & What To Do About It

(I’m starting a series of #BookBite posts to reflect on books I’ve read. This is not meant as a review or evaluation of how good a book was. This is more of a summary of key insights and how it applies to me and the world at large.)

#BookBite: How Democracies Die (Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt)

A quarrel had arisen between the Horse and the Stag, so the Horse came to a Hunter to ask his help to take revenge on the Stag. The Hunter agreed, but said: “If you desire to conquer the Stag, you must permit me to place this piece of iron between your jaws, so that I may guide you with these reins, and allow this saddle to be placed upon your back so that I may keep steady upon you as we follow after the enemy.” The Horse agreed to the conditions, and the Hunter soon saddled and bridled him. Then with the aid of the Hunter the Horse soon overcame the Stag, and said to the Hunter: “Now, get off, and remove those things from my mouth and back.” “Not so fast, friend,” said the Hunter. “I have now got you under bit and spur, and prefer to keep you as you are at present.”

The Horse, The Stag, & The Hunter – Aesop’s Fables

I read this book because I felt that the spirit of democracy was in decline in many parts of the world, including mine. From all I’ve learned from high school and college social studies classes, I’ve surmised that, though democracy is flawed, it is favourable compared to tyranny. With recent turn of events, it seemed that the world was veering away from the former and towards the latter. This scared me, and the only way I could confront that fear was to learn about it.

How Democracies Die outlines the ingredients necessary to hurt – and eventually, kill – a democracy. It explores the history of countries that have transformed slowly from democratic states into authoritarian governments. It discusses the trends in these transformations and even gives a 4-step checklist on how one can identify a would-be authoritarian (see below).

Levitsky & Ziblatt’s Four Key Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior

  • Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
  • Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
  • Toleration or encouragement of violence
  • Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media

What struck me about the examples in the book was the common pattern of transformation. Levitsky and Ziblatt propose that the real gatekeepers of democracy are not voters, but political parties.

Roughly, a radical outsider or extremist steps up to the political machine and gains popularity (usually because the masses are angry with the status quo and want radical change). Ideally, established political parties should be able to smell the potential tyranny in the outsider and snub him or her, thereby safeguarding democracy. Instead, they use the outsider’s popularity, adapt to an extremist stance, and yet assume that they will be able to control the extremist once he or she assumes power. When the outsider does assume power (usually through an electoral process), the political party loses control and there can be no stopping the tyrant as he or she deploys heinous means to consolidate power.

In short, when political parties legitimize radical outsiders or extremists, the delicate balance of democracy tips over. Levitsky & Ziblatt called it ‘collective abdication’.

Collective abdication – the transfer of authority to a leader who threatens democracy – usually flows from one of two sources. The first is the misguided belief that an authoritarian can be controlled or tamed. The second is what sociologist Ivan Ermakoff calls “ideological collusion”, in which the authoritarian’s agenda overlaps sufficiently with that of mainstream politicians so that abdication is desirable.

Once they are in power, demagogues are made to play a political game that they don’t want to play. Traditional politicians – however much we hate them – can play the game and accept losses. Outsiders can’t, and so they seek to dismantle the game altogether.

Democracy is grinding work. Whereas family businesses ad army squadrons may be ruled by fiat, democracies require negotiation, compromise, and concessions. Setback are inevitable, victories always partial. Presidential initiatives may die in congress or be blocked by the courts. All politicians are frustrated by these constraints, but democratic ones know how to accept them. They are able to weather the constant barrage of criticism. But for outsiders, particularly those of a demagogic bent, democratic politics is often intolerably frustrating. For them, check and balances feel like a straitjacket.

The solution? They’d rather “break free”.

They break free by controlling the “referees” – installing loyalists in the judicial system, law enforcement bodies, tax and other regulatory agencies. They discredit, bribe, jail, or weaken the opponents who truly threaten them – opposition politicians, business leaders or groups funding the opposition, media, and religious figures or celebrities who malign the administration. They reform the constitution and the “rules of the game” in their favor.

And as a result…

Many dissenters decide to stay home rather than enter politics, and those who remain active grow demoralized. This is what government aims for. Once key opposition, media, and business players are bought off or sidelined, the opposition deflates. The government “wins” without necessarily breaking the rules.

The book provides detailed examples of how these scenes play out; and there are many more, equally rich insights to be found aside from the few I mentioned above. For anyone whose interest was piqued by reading the insights above, I suggest to read the book in its entirety (I bought this at Fully Booked).

Despite the somber topic the book dwells on, reading How Democracies Die actually injected me with a wave of optimism because it begged me to see the big picture:

  1. Democracy is not dying everywhere. Having been bombarded by political news from the Philippines and the US, I ended up falsely generalizing that whatever is happening here and there, may be happening in all parts of the globe. But, as the book shares, there are many countries right now where democracy continues to be strong, and may even be growing stronger.
  2. There is hope. Democracy cannot be broken in one fell swoop. If tyrants tip the scale in their favor, political parties, the opposition, and the masses can always tip the scale back – one little step at a time. Another favorite book I’ve read, Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, argues the same: small, incremental changes can eventually make or break nations. It’s never ‘game over’.
  3. Though I can be upset because of specific people and actors and political parties at this point in time, it’s futile. It’s useful to realize that the threats to democracy in the Philippines are not new at all. From the limited knowledge I have, it even feels as though democracy here is constantly threatened. It’s a weak, delicate structure that can be so easily manipulated by demagogues, selfish interests, and the powerful few. But therein lies the opportunity.

The challenge for us Filipinos is not so much to keep democracy from dying. The challenge lies more in strengthening it and getting it to a point where it realizes its purpose of working for the benefit of most.

How can we do that?

Levitsky & Ziblatt cite that, aside from the constitution, what keeps tyrants in check are unnamed political norms that are not legally enforced but are part of a democratic decorum. Two of these norms are mutual toleration and forbearance. In an opinion column on The New York Times, Levitsky & Ziblatt provide a neat summary of these two important norms:

To function well, democratic constitutions must be reinforced by two basic norms, or unwritten rules. The first is mutual toleration, according to which politicians accept their opponents as legitimate. When mutual toleration exists, we recognize that our partisan rivals are loyal citizens who love our country just as we do. The second norm is forbearance, or self-restraint in the exercise of power. Forbearance is the act of not exercising a legal right. In politics, it means not deploying one’s institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it’s legal to do so.

Mutual toleration says, “You are my opponent, but not my enemy.” Forbearance says, “I can do this to benefit myself and harm others, but I won’t.” Mutual toleration and forbearance are useful values – even outside politics. Tolerance itself is a fitting answer to address political discrimination, tension across religious lines, among other things.

The challenge now is how to teach these norms. I have very little knowledge and experience of politics (and it would be great if those in politics can weigh in on this), but I have dabbled in the field of education. And, among other things, I feel it is particularly important to educate the next set of leaders such that they will exercise democratic values.

The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.


Of course, in the Philippines, it will also be necessary to address the deterrents that discourage young people from a career in politics in the first place (e.g. “I’ll be eaten up by the system”, “I’ll never succeed because I don’t have money or a famous family name”, “Those who go into politics only want to get rich”).

This is not to say there is no more hope for those currently in power. From my own experiences having been exposed to those in politics, I have personally gotten to know a few who act more as “public servants” rather than “politicians”. They’re sincere, hardworking, resourceful and optimistic. The question now is – how can their brand of politics be more prevalent than the selfish, abusive, manipulative kind?

Another model that may strengthen democracy is the concept of the Middle Way. Buddhism encourages the exercise of a Middle Way: a path that exists in the midst of two extremes and seeks to reconcile the duality of two modes of thinking. Compromise can often be seen as a dirty word, but the price we pay in rejecting compromise can often be enmity and divisiveness. Nonetheless, it would benefit society to teach the young that thinking in black and white reduces the richness of opinions, nuances, and stories that exist in the shades of gray.

Finally, democracy will always be at risk if no steps are taken to address the structural forces that pull it apart. Dictators and tyrants are opportunists; they use existing grievances because of inequality, poverty, economic crises and war to turn the system to their side.

While I wrote this, a question hung in the air: is aiming for a “perfect” democracy the right thing to do? Some states are not democratic, but their people are getting richer and more powerful (e.g. China). Some countries have also used elements of authoritarian rule to develop fast (e.g. Singapore). I’ll leave this question for another time.

Now, what I would like to conclude this exploration of democracy with is a simple question from an imperfect statesman who sought to guard an imperfect democracy for an imperfect electorate.

In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope?

Barack Obama

Between fear and apathy and optimism and action, I continue to hope we will audaciously choose the latter two.


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