Book Reviews

A Whimper, Not a Bang

By Alan Z. Rozenshtein
Thursday, September 13, 2018, 3:15 PM

PDF Version.

A review of Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Crown, 2018).



What does the twilight of modern democracy look like? That’s the question two Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, set out to answer in their new book, “How Democracies Die.” It’s a terrific entry in today’s erupting debate over the future of American democracy—including whether it has one.

Their answer? In today’s world, democracies die more often with a whimper than a bang. Levitsky and Ziblatt have looked at examples over the last century of democratic “deconsolidation” around the world, and they’ve concluded that the primary danger to contemporary democracies is not from military coups or paramilitary brown-shirt-and-jackboot takeovers. Rather, would-be authoritarians prefer to undermine democracy from within, scoring legitimate electoral wins on populist platforms and then slowly (and, in a perverse irony, often in the name of preserving or reforming democracy) undermining liberal democratic institutions like the separation of powers, the rule of law and civil liberties.

Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” in Hungary is what the path looks like, and Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism in Russia is what the journey offers by way of destination. What makes “How Democracies Die” so relevant to understanding what’s happening in America today is that it applies its analysis of democratic deconsolidation to American politics itself. The book concludes that, though one cannot predict where America’s democratic institutions will wind up through the Trump era and beyond, America is not exempt from the possibility of rising authoritarianism and democratic decline.

One of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s key observations is that the authoritarian tendencies of populist demagogues are often clear from the very beginning, at least to those who can stomach the truth. Despite the common post-election surprise at the would-be authoritarian’s behavior, demagogues are easy to spot. The tell-tale clue is the willingness to engage in any of the following political behaviors: (1) rejecting democratic rules; (2) denying the political opposition’s legitimacy, (3) tolerating or even encouraging violence; and (4) being willing to curtail civil liberties, including press freedoms.

Levitsy and Ziblatt convincingly demonstrate that Trump is a classic would-be authoritarian (albeit one whose psychological flaws luckily temper his malevolence with incompetence). During the campaign, Trump repeatedly exhibited each of these four signs of political authoritarianism: He questioned the legitimacy of the election and was unwilling to say that he would abide by its results if he lost (1). He called for Hillary Clinton’s prosecution and explicitly invited Russia, a hostile power, to hack and leak her emails (2). He tolerated, and at times even seemed to encourage, violence at his rallies and at Clinton herself (including with his infamous “Second Amendment people” comment) (3). And he threatened to “open up our libel laws” to go after critical media outlets (4).

All these examples took place just during the campaign. But they didn’t stop with the election and Trump’s inauguration. In his first year as president—the period covered by “How Democracies Die”—Trump has continued to attack American democracy. He has, for example, tried to “capture the referees” (for example, institutions of justice, including law enforcement agencies). He has tried to sideline key institutions outside of government that serve to support democracy and a democratic society, most importantly the independent news media, which he routinely calls the “enemy of the people.” And he has taken first steps toward rewriting the underlying rules of the democratic process (for example, through the infamous and fortunately short-lived voter-fraud commission).


Although Trump has so far been checked in his attempts to remake democratic, there’s no reason to get too comfortable. A central point of “How Democracies Die” is that democratic deconsolidation is a process—a creeping, sometimes imperceptible, institutional decline, not a sudden collapse. Authoritarian attacks on democracy might be blunted by political or institutional opposition, but such victories can be pyrrhic, leaving democratic institutions permanently weakened, especially if the response to the authoritarian’s norm-breaking itself violates key democratic norms.

Thus, Levitsky and Ziblatt point out that many ultimately successful authoritarians— including Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori—succeeded in doing only limited democratic damage in their first year, before ultimately consolidating authoritarian power. The U.S. corollary is that even if our political system ultimately rejects Trump, some of the norm-breaking at the heart of the distinctive “Trumpist” style of politics will undoubtedly continue. (And God help us if Trump wins reelection in 2020.) If nothing else, Trump will have normalized a level of bald-faced public lying and attacks on democratic institutions, particularly the media, that previous American presidents had only flirted with.

The authors’ careful, sober description of Trump’s authoritarian record is particularly valuable because it clarifies what precisely about Trump’s behavior is uniquely troubling. Levitsky and Ziblatt provide a useful corrective to those who try to conflate Trump’s platform with his authoritarianism. Those parts of Trump’s agenda that are standard GOP fare—tax cuts, environmental deregulation, attacks on Obamacare and conservative judicial nominations—are not, contrary to some views on the progressive left, evidence of authoritarianism. If you’re trying to answer the question, “Is Trump policy X evidence of authoritarianism?” and you can imagine a moderate President Rubio or even a hard-conservative President Cruz supporting it, the answer is no. Even some of Trump’s policies that are obviously inspired by white-nationalist anxieties—the push to limit legal immigration, the undermining of international alliances, the obsession with divisive culture-war issues—are not, strictly speaking, authoritarian, even if they are noxious.

This distinction is important because reserving the label of authoritarianism for only those instances where it clearly fits is critical for any pro-democracy strategy. A successful “coalition of all democratic forces” relies on its members being willing to work with groups on the other side of the policy spectrum. Levitsky and Ziblatt’s authoritarian litmus tests are therefore useful in clarifying not only what’s wrong with Trump, but also what’s right with potential allies: No matter what a potential ally’s views are on a policy issue, if they’re on the right side of the authoritarianism test, they deserve a spot on the team.

But where is this coalition in America today? Why didn’t establishment Republicans, many of whom clearly saw Trump as manifestly unfit for office, oppose him more vigorously during the campaign? Demagogues, Levitsky and Ziblatt observe, are constantly floating around democratic political processes, including in the United States. Trump’s forerunners include such figures as Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic, fascism-supporting priest and 1930s radio host; the populist Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long; the red-baiting Joseph McCarthy; and the segregationist Alabama governor and later third-party presidential candidate George Wallace. But why do such figures, whether in the United States or other democracies, rarely get close to the highest levels of power?

The reason, according to “How Democracies Die,” is political parties. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that parties play a critical and largely underappreciated role in keeping authoritarians out of democratic politics—or at least banishing them to the margins. “Peer review” by party elites plays a vital “filtration role” that keeps extremists from capturing party nominations.

This observation may be to the chagrin of many readers, given that citizens of democracies often think poorly of political parties and of career politicians in general. The phenomenon is acute in the United States, where the bulk of Americans lack confidence in the parties and hold Congress in particular contempt. But Levitsky and Ziblatt convincingly argue that strong, moderate conservative parties—they offer Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union as a model for the GOP—are crucial to checking the present wave of authoritarian demagoguery, which today comes primarily from the right.

Unfortunately, America has seen its parties steadily weaken. Levitsky and Ziblatt explain how the Republican party became so weak that it managed to get itself captured by someone who wasn’t even a Republican until a few years ago. (Despite supporting whatever establishment GOP priorities come out of Congress, Trump’s views are hardly in line with Republican orthodoxy; he’s always struck me as essentially a Dixiecrat, just from Queens.) Here the authors tell a compelling story of how, since 1968, both parties have become simultaneously too democratic and not democratic enough. They’re insufficiently democratic in that the views of ordinary Americans have scant impact on what policymakers do. The left’s version of this critique is that legislators and party elites are captured by big-money donors, while the right’s version is that a sprawling and unaccountable administrative state has taken sovereignty away from the people and their elected representatives.

But American parties have become too democratic as well, in that too much power has flowed from party elites to the grassroots. Part of this is due to structural factors like primary-process reforms that deprive party elites of the ability to override the results of primaries and caucuses, or state-level rules that allow voting in primaries regardless of party membership. (These post-60s party reforms explain why there was never a realistic chance that the GOP establishment would be able, at the convention, to wrest Trump of his legitimately won nomination. It’s also why Democrats might want to reconsider their rush to weaken the role of their “superdelegates,” the large chunk of convention delegates chosen by party elites rather than primary voters.) Levitsky and Ziblatt focus on party elites as gatekeepers and do a good job reminding us why smoke-filled rooms have their merits: They may have given us mediocrities like Chester Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes, but they also kept out demagogues like George Wallace. Levitsky and Ziblatt remind us of the critical role of the now-defunct “invisible primary”—the gauntlet of party-elite-support gathering that served as the modern-day equivalent of smoke-filled rooms. In doing so, they provide a useful corrective to the naive view, initially made popular by progressive reformers but today the rallying cry of grassroots forces on both the right and left, that “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

When Trump secured the Republican nomination—saddling one of America’s major parties with a candidate with only the most tenuous connection to the “party” as an institution—he confirmed the death of the old “the party decides” tradition of presidential nominations. The most remarkable feature of the 2016 campaign was thus not the general election, which looked pretty much like what you would expect given the fundamentals: among other things, sluggish economic growth, a two-term president (Obama) with relatively low approval ratings and the historical rarity of a party winning three consecutive presidential elections. Rather, the critical moment in the 2016 election was when Trump became the Republican nominee. As political scientist Julia Azari has explained, if “parties are weak while partisanship is strong,” if there are only two major ones, and if true independents don’t exist (regardless of what those “independents” say to pollsters), then most general elections come down to a coin toss, no matter who’s at the top of the tickets.


But what explains this strong partisanship? After all, Trump’s hard-core base of support was limited to at most a third of the electorate, and tens of millions—recognizing his obvious incompetence and lack of fitness for high office—cast only clothespin votes for him. So why couldn’t Republican elites have convinced their voters to cross party lines and reject him?

Here Levitsky and Ziblatt point the finger at polarization. Some polarization comes from background social conditions: for example, ethnic, religious, regional or linguistic divisions, especially when such divisions all align behind party identification. (Thus, at the end of the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt urge policies that would decrease economic inequality as a way to reduce polarization; all else being equal, countries with robust, broadly shared economic growth metabolize the social strains of diversity better than ones with sputtering economies or where economic gains accrue mostly to the rich.) Other forms of polarization come from the modern media environment, which amplifies and rewards each side’s extreme views.

But whatever the causes, polarization made it impossible for Republican elites to convince their voters to vote against their party, hand the election to Clinton and wait four years to put forward a candidate who would advocate for traditional Republican policies. Instead, Republican elites fooled themselves into thinking that they could take advantage of Trump’s political inexperience and naivete and control him once in office. This is a common delusion of parties seeking to accommodate popular demagogues: as the historical record shows, from Hitler’s rise to power in Germany to Hugo Chávez’s ascendance in Venezuela, the demagogue frequently outsmarts and then marginalizes his would-be handlers.

Having assumed power, Trump has not, to his chagrin, been able to run the country after the fashion of strongmen leaders like Putin and China’s Xi Jinping whom he so clearly admires. Yet despite periodic pushback from the courts and the bureaucracy, Trump has largely been protected by congressional Republicans. (The fiasco that was the HPSCI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is only the most obvious example.) The first question that ought to weigh on the minds of the coalition of all democratic forces is what will happen if Trump crosses some obvious authoritarian “red line,” like firing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Specifically, will Congress, other governmental institutions and non-governmental democratic actors try to push back, and, if so, how?

Here the book takes a depressing turn, focusing on the breakdown of democratic norms in American constitutional politics. Levitsky and Ziblatt define norms as “shared codes of conduct that become common knowledge within a particular community or society—accepted, respected and enforced by its members.” In the American political context, this means the principles that govern how political elites behave irrespective of the formal rules outlined in the Constitution. One of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s key contributions is to highlight the importance of norms in constitutional analysis. They explain why both scholars and the public tend to overlook norms when accounting for the stability of a political system: “Because [norms] are unwritten, they are often hard to see, especially when they’re functioning well. This can lull us into thinking they are unnecessary . . . . [But l]ike oxygen or clean water, a norm’s importance is quickly revealed by its absence.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt emphasize two norms that contribute to democratic stability: mutual toleration and forbearance. Mutual toleration means viewing one’s opponent as a legitimate participant in politics rather than a mortal enemy who must be crushed. Forbearance means using one’s formal legal authority judiciously, rather than engaging in “constitutional hardball” and using power to the legal hilt. (In the American context, an example of constitutional hardball would be a Senate that flatly refuses to confirm any of the president’s nominees, or a president that uses the pardon power to undermine the ability of courts or Congress to hold him or his associates accountable.)

When parties—and the underlying body politic—become sufficiently polarized, they stop viewing their political opponents as legitimate opposition and see them instead as a dangerous “enemy of the people” that threatens democracy itself. Levitsky and Ziblatt characterize democracy as “a game that we want to keep playing indefinitely,” with mutual toleration and forbearance as the key norms that make the game’s repeat nature possible. But when one thinks that the opposition is a danger to the game itself, the rational strategy is to preemptively strike; if the game is to end, better on your terms than on your opponent’s. And as mutual toleration and forbearance give way to partisan bloodsport and political gridlock, polarization naturally increases.


Thus at the core of the book’s account is a dangerous feedback loop between polarization and the decline of democratic norms. Once that loop sets in, it is hard to keep it from spiraling out of control, let alone reverse it. Even apparently stable democracies can fall apart relatively quickly, as has occurred repeatedly in Latin America and Europe, the two geographical regions in which Levitsky and Ziblatt built their comparativist expertise.

The authors put most of the blame for the decline of forbearance and mutual toleration on the Republican party. Starting with the Gingrich Revolution that swept hardline conservatives into power in the House of Representatives in 1994, Republicans have systematically engaged in increasing levels of constitutional hardball and partisan obstruction, a high point being the Clinton impeachment. Democrats, of course, have responded in turn, leading to the judicial-confirmation standoffs of George W. Bush’s second term. And that, of course, generated a predictable response during the Obama administration: as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell infamously remarked in 2010, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

This take-no-prisoners sentiment was manifest in high-risk maneuvers by the GOP like risking a breach of the debt ceiling (which would have led to a U.S. default on its obligations and a potential global financial crisis). It culminated, near the end of Obama’s term, in the Senate’s refusal to even consider Merrick Garland to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat. As Levitsky and Ziblatt note, never in the 150 years since Reconstruction had the Senate denied a president the opportunity to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.

The Republicans’ behavior during the Obama administration led to some norm-breaking on the part of Democrats, too. Particularly visible was the (then-Democrat controlled) Senate’s elimination of the filibuster for lower-court judges. Likewise, Obama’s increased use of executive orders—most notably his sweeping DACA program that deferred deportation for certain categories of young undocumented immigrants—represented a muscular assertion of executive power vis-à-vis Congress.

Levitsky and Ziblatt’s focus on the Republican party has led to protest from conservatives, who emphasize that Democrats act just as poorly. But the authors are far from alone in characterizing Republican tactics as different in kind; others have been making this argument for years. More to the point, it doesn’t matter who started it if what you’re worried about is how to undo the damage. Democrats, especially as the party moves to the left, are preparing to make up for lost time; if one’s concern is institutional stability, it’s far from clear how to engineer a de-escalation.

If Democrats win the House in 2018 (as seems increasingly likely), we can expect a level of congressional investigations meant to overwhelm and paralyze the White House (even beyond the legitimate investigations into Russian electoral interference and the Trump administration’s impressive series of ethical lapses). A Democratic House would also raise the specter of impeachment. If Democrats manage to win the Senate, it’s quite possible that they’ll refuse to confirm a single additional Trump judicial appointee at any level of the judiciary. And, of course, the chance that Democrats will work with Trump to pass bipartisan legislation is close to zero, and not just because Trump is such a feckless leader; Democrats have learned from the GOP’s tactics during the Obama years that intransigence is the best way to a weaken a sitting president, who inevitably gets blamed when nothing gets done.


Levitsky and Ziblatt’s discussion of norms is the most conceptually rich part of the book, and, for legal scholars, it is likely to be most applicable to their own work. But it is also where the authors’ account encounters difficulties.

First, the discussion of norms is incomplete because it does not include an account of how norms come to be. Levitsky and Ziblatt are good at explaining the role that certain norms play in sustaining constitutional law, but that does not explain why and how those norms arise. (To rely solely on norms’ salutatory effects would be to commit the fallacy of functional explanation.) The literature on norm creation is vast, including sophisticated accounts grounded in both game theory (specifically repeated games in which reputation plays a key role) and evolutionary psychology. Given the book’s short length and its (quite admirable) pitch to a general audience, it’s understandable why the authors did not spend a substantial amount of time exploring this literature. But the lack of any discussion of how norms arise becomes a problem when, at the end of the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt offer their main prescriptions for fixing American democracy: rebuild norms of forbearance and mutual toleration, especially by fixing income inequality, which Levitsky and Ziblatt argue is a key driver of norm dissolution. But is this enough to reinvigorate American democratic norms? Without an account of how norms come to be, there’s no way to know.

To be sure, Levitsky and Ziblatt do a good job of showing how low levels of polarization after the Civil War led to strong norms of mutual toleration and forbearance—as exemplified, for instance, in a Senate culture of courtesy and consensus—that underpinned a century of political stability. But here the authors run into the most serious challenge to their account: how to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate norm violations? As the book’s critics on the left have noted, Levitsky and Ziblatt use the polarization over slavery that led to the Civil War as a key example of norm erosion. But it was the abolitionists, not the slaveholders, who were engaged in the most serious norm erosion; after all, slavery was not just a norm, but—through the Three-Fifths and Fugitive Slave Clauses—a constitutionally recognized institution.

Of course Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t argue that slavery should have been allowed to continue in the name of democratic norms. So clearly some norm erosion is acceptable, but what kind? Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t say. This omission also makes the authors vulnerable to criticism from the right that asks why, if it’s illegitimate for Trump to deny the legitimacy of his political opponents, should it be legitimate for large swaths of the American electorate, including many political, social and intellectual elites, to challenge Trump’s own legitimacy as president.

The strongest answer to both of those arguments, I think, is that norm violations are legitimate if they are used to combat even greater norm violations—for example, real authoritarianism—and in the service of strengthening liberal democracy. But Levitsky and Ziblatt seem to foreclose this reply when they explicitly argue against a tit-for-tat approach that meets norm violations in kind. The authors’ objection is practical, not ideological. Quoting the political scientist Eric Nelson, they argue that this will lead to a “cycle of escalating constitutional brinksmanship” that will likely only further harm democratic norms and institutions. Comparing the example of Venezuela to Colombia, Levitsky and Ziblatt note that when the opposition uses its own hardball tactics—as Venezuela’s anti-Chávez opposition did through military coups, general strikes and electoral boycotts—such tactics often simply scare and further radicalize the existing authoritarian forces. By contrast, if the opposition can start winning elections, as Álvaro Uribe’s opponents did in Colombia, it can help resist authoritarianism by democratic means. It’s hard to argue with Levitsky and Ziblatt’s advice that where “institutional channels exist, opposition groups should use them.” (This is a particularly important lesson for Democrats to internalize; winning elections is a far better way of defeating Trump than paralyzing the government or impeaching him.)

The (much) harder case is where no such institutional channels exist and seemingly the only recourse for the anti-authoritarian side is to commit its own norm violations. Then one needs to decide whether the benefits of pro-democratic norm violations outweigh their costs. Critically, for this one needs a substantive account of what sort of society we should have, and under what conditions the imperatives of having that sort of society outweigh those of political stability. I suspect that Levitsky and Ziblatt would, if pressed, admit that the radical, norm-breaking antebellum abolitionism was such a case.

Put another way, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s account is most defensible if you think that the underlying socio-political-economic system is fundamentally solid (even if in need of reform). But if you’re a skeptic of the current order, you might agree with political scientist Corey Robin:

If your highest value is the preservation of American institutions, the avoidance of “dysfunction,” the discourse of norm erosion makes sense. If it’s democracy, not so much. Sometimes democracy requires the shattering of norms and institutions. . . . Democracy, we might even say, is a permanent project of norm erosion, forever shattering the norms of hierarchy and domination and the political forms that aid and abet them.

I happen to be on Levitsky and Ziblatt’s side in this debate, but the underlying principle upon which they rely needs to be defended, not just assumed. The book’s purely procedural account of legitimate government cannot supply such a defense.


Given their grim diagnosis of the health of American democracy, Levitsky and Ziblatt end their book on a surprisingly—perhaps, one ought to say, unjustifiably—optimistic note. They urge political elites to come together and rebuild democratic norms, but, especially after reading 200 pages about the fecklessness of our politicians, it’s hard to have put any faith in their ability to suddenly transcend political small-mindedness. Similarly, although the authors’ prescription for policies that would decrease socioeconomic inequality is sound (and is in line with the recent emphasis among legal scholars that constitutional democracy relies on a broad middle class), such policies would entail massive legislative action of the sort that requires precisely those same norms of mutual toleration and forbearance that are currently in such short supply. And more generally, as noted above, the lack of an account of how norms arise makes it difficult for Levitsky and Ziblatt to produce any concrete policy proposals.

Perhaps the best that can be done is to play for time. It’s a strategy that the authors do not mention, but it ought to be of particular interest to those in the national-security field. The idea is to let Trump’s political and administrative incompetence catch up with him while at the same time depriving him of the opportunity for  authoritarian power grabbing. For Levitsky and Ziblatt, the “greatest dangers facing American democracy today” are war or a major terrorist attack. The government’s necessary response would most likely boost Trump’s approval rating—and give him a pretext to “attack political opponents and restrict freedoms Americans take for granted.” (Security crises helped both Putin and Erdoğan consolidate power.)

To the chagrin of those who rightly worry about the sorts of abuses Trump could commit through our foreign-intelligence apparatus, the need to protect American democracy from Trump may (paradoxically) present the strongest argument yet for continuing to support broad surveillance authorities. For example, we know, based on the PCLOB report and other sources, that information from the FISA § 702 surveillance program has been instrumental in foiling terrorist attacks. As long as the intelligence community and law-enforcement agencies maintain sufficient independence from the White House (and I fully concede that this is a pretty big “if”), we may be better off with a strong security apparatus than a weak one, even factoring in the risk of abuse. (This raises the question, which “How Democracies Die” does not address but seems promising as an avenue of research, of the extent to which we can and should rely on the bureaucracy to preserve democratic norms without getting into an actual “deep state” situation of the sort that, for example, categorized Turkish politics in the years before Erdoğan’s authoritarian consolidation.)


Whatever the book’s minor shortcomings, it remains a vital and important contribution. Beyond the details of its diagnosis of America’s democratic dysfunction (which are generally correct) or its recommended course of treatment (which is more contestable), “How Democracies Die” substantially advances our understanding of American constitutional democracy. For American lawyers and legal scholars, in particular, two general lessons stand out.

The first is that constitutional norms are at least as important as constitutional provisions. Norms have long played an important explanatory role in law—both in the way that law can shape norms and how norms can ensure order when there is no law. But norms have not traditionally been a prominent explanatory feature in public-law scholarship. Fortunately this is changing. But the study of norms is not something that can be done solely with the traditional tools of the legal academy. Lawyers (and law professors) are first and foremost readers and interpreters of texts—specifically legal ones. But norms are by definition unwritten (which is perhaps why legal scholars have struggled for so long to give them their explanatory pride of place). To understand norms in their full complexity, we need to use tools from a variety of disciplines, including history (to understand their evolution), sociology and anthropology (to understand how they operate in specific settings and how individuals understand them), psychology (to understand how norms affect both emotional and logical behavior), and economics and political science (to understand their rational, game-theoretic structure).

The second lesson of “How Democracies Die” is that America is “not so different than other nations,” especially with regard to the fragility of its democratic institutions. This comparativist approach is a vital corrective to the parochialism that characterizes so much of constitutional legal analysis: an endless, obsessive re-reading of the Federalist Papers in the hopes of finding something new in Madison’s and Hamilton’s often cryptic and frequently outdated observations about an eighteenth-century, suffrage-limited, pre-industrial agricultural republic whose political institutions were just taking shape and whose most important features—the rise and decline of parties and the growth of both the administrative state and presidential power—lay in the future.

To be sure, the comparative method is not without its dangers. The key to useful comparativist analysis is that the data set consist of examples that are similarly situated to what one is trying to explain. Thus, some political scientists have complained that Levitsky and Ziblatt rely too much on case studies like Russia, Hungary and Venezuela—countries that, unlike the United States, did not have a long history of consolidated democracy before slipping into authoritarianism. (On this view, the danger to the United States is not Venezuelan-style authoritarianism, but imperial collapse, in the fashion of the British Empire, at the hands of resurgent powers like Russia or China.) That being said, one does have to use some data set; other options, such as comparing the United States to past global superpowers like the British Empire or Ancient Rome, have their own obvious dissimilarities. An imperfect empirical comparison would seem preferable to none at all.

The comparative historical record gives warning but also comfort. For every seemingly stable democracy that suffered catastrophic democratic deconsolidation, one can point to another that, despite immense challenges, came through with its democratic institutions not just intact but stronger for being tested. What is perhaps different today is the global, interconnected nature of both democratic health and democratic threat. It is no coincidence that the latest round of authoritarianism has hit Europe and America at the same time, given the challenges that globalization, migration and the global financial crisis have posed to the post-WWII consensus of middle-class social democracy.

But just as democratic deconsolidation can be infectious, so too might be democratic reconsolidation. Perhaps the interconnections, political and economic, that constitute globalization need not simply threaten democratic institutions. Perhaps instead they can offer a way by which democracies can help each other fend off the common foe of creeping authoritarianism. Just as each democracy needs its coalition of all democratic forces, the world may need its coalition of all democratic nations.