Book Review: How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky

In 2020, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan posted a picture of himself reading a book that generated some buzz on social media. Many perceived his picture as a signal of Baswedan’s own views. The book in question? It is none other than How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky.

The picture was widely discussed in Indonesian media, as was the case on Kompas

Quick summary

The book explores how Donald Trump not only won the 2016 election, but also thrived in American politics — something that would be unimaginable just a decade ago. It posits that rules and institutions themselves are not the only ingredients in the recipe to sustain a healthy democracy. Rather, norms are also crucial. In an ironic twist, the book argues that elites are the gatekeepers to democracy.

While the book’s primary focus is on the United States, it draws on examples from other countries such as Venezuela, Peru and Chile to make its case. Extremists have long existed in US politics. However, they were never at the forefront of the country’s politics. Stemming from the deep polarisation that caused their civil war in the 1860s, American politicians developed unwritten rules for the country’s democracy that fostered bipartisanship.

Authoritarian politicians can override the rules and institutions put in place to curb them. Ziblatt and Leviysky explain that to maintain a democracy, politicians practice mutual tolerance (not viewing opponents as the enemy) and institutional forbearance (holding back from abusing political/legal instruments). In times of crisis, the “old guard” politicians, even if they are opponents in normal times, can band together to gatekeep, isolate and defeat threats to the democratic system.

The book also outlines a criteria of what counts as an authoritarian leader summarised below:

1. Rejection of democratic rules2. Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
3. Toleration or the encouragement of violence4. Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents (including media)

The roots of polarisation

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book is the unsettling explanation on how extreme polarisation in American politics began. Long-term stability in US politics was founded on an anti-democratic ideal. With the Compromise of 1877, politicians enacted Jim Crow laws, letting white supremacists govern the South while disenfranchising most Black Americans. Over time, both the Republican and Democratic parties acted as umbrellas embracing different demographic groups with diverse views. Democrats included “liberals, organized labor, second- and third-generation Catholic immigrants, and African Americans, but they also represented conservative whites in the South.” Meanwhile, the GOP comprised of “liberals in the Northeast to conservatives in the Midwest and West.” Evangelical Christians were a part of both parties.

Ziblatt and Levitsky note that Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, where minorities were permitted to vote, marks the point of divergence that still persists today. As the share of racial minorities in the US population grew and political participation democratised, support for the Republican Party from traditionally elite white voters increased. To quote the authors, “America’s democratic norms, then, were born in a context of exclusion. As long as the political community was restricted largely to whites, Democrats and Republicans had much in common.”

Further thoughts and critique

The book nicely complements the ideas put forward in another reading, namely Jane Mayer’s Dark Money. In that book, Mayer talks about the influence of billionaires’ less-than-transparent political spending to influence right-wing political discourse through think-tanks and non-profit organizations. This led to a mainstreaming of far-right beliefs in the Republican Party. While they do briefly allude to Mayer’s findings in the book, Ziblatt and Levitsky focuses on the internal cultural change in the Republican Party. They discussed how Newt Gingrich rose the ranks of the party by vehemently attacking the Left and casting them as enemies instead of rivals, normalising the practice. In turn, he inspired a new generation of politicians that shared the same language and beliefs.

A factor that Ziblatt and Levitsky could have explored further beyond a critical examination of right-wing politics is how left-wing voters became disillusioned with the Democratic party’s elites by the 2016 election. As cited in the media, a whopping 55% of Americans, or 177 million people, did not vote that election year, a historical low for the country. Pew Research found that for many people, their decisions were driven by a “dislike of candidates or campaign issues” or a lack of interest as they “felt [that their] vote wouldn’t make a difference.” To their credit, Ziblatt and Levitsky have pointed out the effect identity politics had on alienating white blue-collar voters.

How democracies die (in Indonesia?)

In the context of contemporary post-Suharto Indonesian democracy, several valuable insights can be gained from the book. As a multiparty system, it is highly unlikely that Indonesian politics would reach the rift that the US and its two-party system experienced. To our advantage, no political party in Indonesia is ideologically rooted in race despite the 41% Javanese majority in large part due to the Indonesian Constitution. That is not to say that identity politics does not exist in Indonesia. Instead of race, identity politics manifests in religion, with Islamist parties present in parliament. However, due to the wide-ranging spectrum of beliefs regarding how political Islam should be like in practice, many Muslim voters either still align with more pluralist parties or are divided themselves.

In fact, the opposite problem could occur. At times, ideological differences between Indonesian political parties may be blurred. For the public seeking to vote, this makes filtering their ideal candidate more difficult, to an extent leading them to rely on judging politicians’ personality rather than their platform. Yet, as a result, it also makes coalition building in Jokowi’s government extremely effective, almost too effective. As an example, we canlook at the controversial Omnibus Law on Job Creation in 2020, where only two out of the parliament’s nine parties opposed the bill. Many of the bill’s deliberations and concessions took place behind closed doors, with a lack of transparency to the public.

With Ziblatt and Levitsky’s framework, we see that after the downfall of Suharto and the reforming of the political system, Indonesian elites have managed to ward off new authoritarian leaders from overtaking its democracy. Outside of campaign seasons, it seems mutual tolerance can muddle clear ideological distinction among parties. However, in the case of Indonesia, the gates that were carefully constructed to keep threats out may have instead been built too high up.

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