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Thursday, February 17, 2022

Review: How Democracies Die

 How Democracies Die was published in January 2018, two years before the January 6th, 2020 insurrection. I mention this because if you read this book, you're getting a rosy-eyed view of the prospect for American democracy, while a realistic view would note the events after January 6th, and realize that things are far worse than what this book describes.

The book has a major thesis, which is that the main guardrails of democracies isn't the constitution, the institutions, the rule of law, or the practice of elections. The main guardrails are social norms that cause political parties to respect the conventions of a democratic society to practice forbearance, not using every tool available to legally win, but respecting the spirit of elections.

Well, from 2016-2020, the USA elected a norm-breaking president. But the authors point out that even  before Trump, the Republicans have long been on a path to delegitimize the opposition, and are now at a point where any election they didn't win is declared to be fraudulent. If things continue down this path, the authors predict that there's a good chance that an authoritarian takeover of the American government is imminent. The authors point out previous instances in history (such as the events prior to the civil war) of breakdown in society, and point out that the compromises that gave Americans back a civil democracy were achieved by agreeing to deny civil rights to minorities and maintaining white supremacy as the policy for the country.

Is there any hope that American democracy can recover? The authors say yes:

A refounding of America’s major center-right party is a tall order, but there are historical precedents for such transformations—and under even more challenging circumstances. And where it has been successful, conservative party reform has catalyzed democracy’s rebirth. A particularly dramatic case is the democratization of West Germany after the Second World War. At the center of this achievement was an underappreciated development: the formation of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) out of the wreckage of a discredited conservative and right-wing tradition...The rebuilding of German conservatism, of course, followed a major catastrophe. The CDU had no choice but to reinvent itself. The question before Republicans today is whether such a reinvention can occur before we plunge into a deeper crisis. Can leaders muster the foresight and political courage to reorient what has become an increasingly dysfunctional political party before further damage is done, or will we need a catastrophe to inspire the change? (Kindle loc 3122-3148)

I don't know about you, but that slim hope is just grasping at straws. If it took defeat during a major war and having the country divided up by foreign powers to get the German right-wingers to become reasonable people I'm not hopeful for the future.

Well, the book's a downer, but you'd have to be blind and not paying attention if the events of the past few years haven't alarmed you. In that sense the book's well worth reading.


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