How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Second paragraph of third chapter:

But the primary system had opened up the presidential nomination process more than ever before in American history. And openness is always double-edged. In this new environment, a wider range of politicians, from George McGovern to Barack Obama, could now compete seriously for the presidency. But the window was now also open to true outsiders—individuals who had never held elective office. In the twenty-three years between 1945 and 1968, under the old convention system, only a single outsider (Dwight Eisenhower) publicly sought the nomination of either party. By contrast, during the first two decades of the primary system, 1972 to 1992, eight outsiders ran (five Democrats and three Republicans), an average of 1.25 per election; and between 1996 and 2016, eighteen outsiders competed in one of the two parties’ primaries—an average of three per election. Thirteen of these were Republicans.

A grim warning of the threat of authoritarianism and fascism in the United States, written at the end of the first year of the 2017-21 Trump presidency, and looking at historical precedents for the dismantling of democratic systems of government, notably the rise of Hitler and Mussolini and the more recent case of Chavez in Venezuela. (A cynic would pause here and note that the authors do not pick examples from regimes that the USA had good relations with, though one would be spoiled for choice.) You can get it here.

It’s a somewhat frustrating book because it’s half analysis and half exhortation; the exhortation is to those Republicans who actually care about the US Constitution to unite with Democrats and get rid of Trump before American democracy is destroyed. Seven years on, the danger has certainly increased and the likelihood of a positive resolution decreased.

Personally I tend to feel that the rot set in thirty years ago, when the Republicans won the 1994 mid-terms by effectively declaring war on the legitimacy of the Democrats to govern at all, and they have no incentive to abandon a strategy which has kept them in the White House for half of the twenty-first century despite winning a majority of the vote in only one election since 1996.

(Nobody under the age of 37 has voted in a presidential election where the Republicans got more votes. Nobody under the age of 53 has voted in two presidential elections where the Republicans got more votes.)

I also felt that the authors critique the cultural assumptions of those they disagrees with, but fail to address the problems of American governance. Not all of the popular disaffection with the political establishment is down to Trumpian propaganda. Americans live shorter lives and have a worse health-care system than citizens of any other advanced democracy. Study after study shows that while the rich are getting richer, the middle classes as well as the poor are all getting poorer. As I said above, both parties have been in power for half of the twenty-first century, so both must share the blame. But it’s not a recipe for political stability.

Obviously I hope that Trump loses the election in November, and the polls are really too close to call right now (Wikipedia’s running average has Trump on 51% and Biden on 49%). But even if he is defeated, there is an awful lot else that needs to be fixed.

This was my top unread book acquired in 2022 which is not by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Next on that pile is Our Share of Night by Mariana Enriquez.