How Democracies Die: In America, Part Farce, Part Fearful Spear


At one point last year, I think shortly before the inauguration that wrenched us across the border into this absurd and terrifying period, I woke up with a palimpsest of thoughts, the first a video-like replay of the moment during the debate where Hillary Clinton accused then-reality-star Trump of being a Russian puppet.

If you remember, he leaned into the mic and said, “No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.” At the time, we all knew there was something hinky going on with Russia, but the next layer of thought in that morning black wasn’t about his deflecting the truth, but the artless and childish and idiotic way in which he did it. There was a moment of disconnect for me, where I thought how amazing it was that someone so dumb could come close to the Presidency. And even as that thought flickered through my gauzy dawnish brain, the horrible truth of what happened next came roaring like an unstoppable train.

For me, that is one of the worst parts of this horrible period, where the Republican Party is going all in on undermining every one of our institutions, subverting the rule of law in order to protect one man. It’s not just that they are breaking our democracy, it is that they are breaking our democracy for this schlub, for this witless dummy and his graspingly moronic children.

But that’s just for me. I have the luxury of having semi-removed despair. For those on the spear-end of racial authoritarianism, there is no remove. For those who are being ripped from their country and torn apart from their familes, or who are in the crosshairs of a new push toward massive incarceration, there is no distance.

In their incredible and powerful new book, How Democracies DieSteven Livitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline the ways in which democracies can be eroded from within, slowly and then very quickly. They talk about the way in which norms are ignored, and more importantly, how allies give up any pretense of democratic leanings in order to protect their primary representative, whether that is Hugo Chavez or Donald Trump.

The cover isn’t subtle, but then, neither is what is happening. 

But most importantly, in the American context, they put into stark relief how central a role race and racism play in our democracy. They make the now-obvious but to me unremarked upon point that post-Civil War, democratic comity was dependent upon both parties agreeing to ignore civil rights.

It was only when the moral force of that issue was no longer ignorable, thanks to the bravery of the activists, the cruelty of the perpetrators, and the unrelenting and unmistakeable humanity of those ground under Jim Crow’s footsteps, that movement was made. And once the Democrats shook off their racist roots and became the party of Civil Rights, and the GOP became the home of apartheid, that our norms started fraying.

In this accelerated period, we see it in stark relief. Really, we see both sides. For people like me, protected from the worst by race and class and circumstance, the sudden capsizing of our democracy is playing out as farce. For those who are paying with their lives for the Republican reliance on racial animosity, it is tragedy.

The two sides are connected. If we really want to understand what is happening here, we have to look at both sides.

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