How Democracies Die. A Look around the world and how to rescue our own Democracy


Is America's Democracy in Danger? Democracies are always fragile. For the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and with clear authoritarian tendencies is elected President.Why? 

How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, The People Vs. Democracy by Yascha Mounk and Can It Happen Here?  Authoritarianism in America, edited by Cass Sunstein are recent books to sound the alarm on how democracies can die-- not at the hands of military force, but by the acts of elected leaders who subvert the process that brought them to power, often under the guise of efforts to improve democracy by combating "corruption", cleaning up the electoral process, making the judiciary more efficient, censoring the press as "the enemy of the people", buying off the media  and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents, often labeled as the "elite" who are against "the people".

These books and essays discuss the importance of democratic norms and their breakdown as rooted in intense partisan polarization, which goes beyond policy differences and has moved into an existential conflict about our race and culture.

Levitsky and Ziblatt look at other countries to show that polarization can kill democracies, but can teach us that breakdown is not inevitable or irreversible . Mounk illustrates how two core components of liberal democracy--individual rights and the popular will are at war with each other, people have become disillusioned with our political system, and willing to turn to authoritarian Populist leaders.

This SDG will examine the current turmoil in democratic government in America,  the recent turn toward authoritarianism, the creation of and role of polarization of people in subverting democratic norms, values and governance. We will analyze the authors' ideas and prescriptions for what citizens must want and actively do to ensure 'it can't happen here'.

Weekly Topics

  1. Introduction: Democracy, Tyranny, Authoritarianism:  Levitsky, Introduction,;   Mounk, Introduction, "Losing our Illusions"

  2. A History of Falling into the "Trap of Authoritarianism":  Levitsky, Ch. 1, 2

  3. The Crisis of Democracy and How Constitutional Democracy Failed:  Mounk, Ch. 1, 2; ( Sunstein, (Ginsburg and Huq essay, "How We   Lost Constitutional Democracy, pp. 135-155--reference reading, not required) 

  4. The Guardrails of Democracy:  Levitsky, Ch. 5, 6;  (Sunstein, Sunstein essay, "Lessons from the American Founding,"pp. 58-80...reference reading, not required)

  5. Subverting Democracy:  Levitsky, Ch. 4, Mounk, Ch. 4,5,6.

  6. The Unraveling of Tradition and the underpinnings of American Democratic Institutions: Levitsky,Ch. 3, Ch. ,7.

  7. Trump against the Guardrails:  Levitsky,Ch. 8; 

  8. How Democracies Perish :  Sunstein, (Holmes essay, "How Democracies Perish, pp 387-424); (Kuran essay, Another Road to Serfdom: Cascading into Intolerance," pp. 233-270.

  9. Saving Democracy :  Levitsky, Ch. 9, Mounk, Ch. 7,8.

  10. Conclusion: Where are we Today, What does it Portend, and Where do we Go from Here?:  Mounk,Ch. 9, Conclusion: Other reference material may be added for final session to reflect events and analyses made nearer to the time of SDG  offering.


How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, 2018

The People Vs. Democracy,  Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It, Yascha Mounk, 2018

Can it Happen Here: Authoritarianism in America, Ed. by Cass Sunstein  (17 essays), 2018

Additional Background References

 On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century, Timothy Snyder, 20108

"American Democracy is in Crisis," Hillary Clinton, The Atlantic, Sept. 2018

"A Warning from Europe: The Worst is Yet to Come," Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic, Oct. 2018, pp. 53-63

The Populist Explosion, John Judis, 2016