The innocence of a white background nailed by sharp red triangular spikes arranged in neat order─ the jacket couldn’t have been more apt for a book which probes into the garb of democratic sweet-talk.
In our first rendezvous with political nonfiction, Rudradip Biswas shares his experience of reading How Democracies Die, a book that The Guardian considered to be ‘a guide for defending democratic systems under threat…’
I was speaking with a friend one evening in February when she cared to mention that she’d been gifted a very interesting “political non-fiction” book which she’d been reading. She thought I would quite like that book and asked to me to read it if I could. This book was 𝘏𝘰𝘸 𝘋𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘤𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘋𝘪𝘦: 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘏𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺 𝘙𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘢𝘭𝘴 𝘈𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘖𝘶𝘳 𝘍𝘶𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦 by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, both of whom are Professors of Government at Harvard University. I had heard about this book; it had only come out the month before, in January, and had probably come across an extract from it in a newspaper, but I hadn’t really thought that I’d be staring at a physical copy of it anytime soon. Still, something about the way my friend spoke about its many merits got me intrigued.
I started reading it straight away and, frankly, finished reading it in less than two days. The authors essentially look at how democracies in many a country have been imperilled, over history, by a variety of factors; they investigate how the dangerous paths that the democratic institutions in those countries have gone down have led government scholars to note down some “symptoms” that those scholars have since come to associate with the impending ill health of democracies, and then they look at the contemporary political situation in the US to see if any of the said symptoms are visible or detectable. The four key indicators of authoritarian behaviour, as noted by the authors, are “Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game”, “Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents”, “Toleration or encouragement of violence”, and “Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media”. The book goes on to illustrate, in quite a sound scientific fashion, how during the election campaign and since getting sworn into office, Donald Trump has done or promised to do all these things and more.
The book, overall, was quite an enjoyable, yet often worrying, read. I learned a lot of startling historical facts about many an important political and social event/episode of the last few centuries (how racial exclusion played a major
part in bipartisan reconciliation post the American Civil War; how Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) tried to stack up the Supreme Court in the 1930’s and failed; how the Christian Democrats and the Socialists joined forces to topple the Chilean dictator Pinochet in the late 1980’s, etc. The Chilean example was discussed to provide a precedent for political parties with different sets of values coming together to build effective resistance against a common political foe). I was really impressed by the very mathematical nature of the way in which the authors presented their criticism of an infinitude of policies and objectives as proposed by and ideas as endorsed by the Trump campaign and, later, the Trump administration. Moving forward, they proposed reforms or put forward suggestions to better the political landscape and make American democracy more inclusive, among other things.
I wish I could write an actual review of this book and expand on many of the interesting academic/semi-academic concepts discussed within its chapters. One such concept is that of the “constitutional hardball”. A political party or a group can be said to have indulged in playing constitutional hardball when they can be seen to have started expressing authoritarian and essentially anti-democratic or un-democratic tendencies while still managing to conduct their actions without resorting to illegal means; to what extent and with what frequency parties try to act this way can be a good indicator of the overall health of the democracy in which they’re functioning. There are fascinating American examples, going all the way back to the 18th century, of political groups/parties passing vague-sounding legislations while, in effect, meaning to and, to some degree, succeeding in virtually criminalizing criticism of the government─ the Sedition Act, passed by the Federalists in 1798, served precisely this purpose. Playing constitutional hardball has not always been a case of objectively sinister behaviour though. One such example, as cited in the book, would be the reducing of the size of the Supreme Court from ten to seven by the Republican Congress in 1866 which was done at a time when the Congress had good reasons to suspect that the then Democrat president Andrew Johnson could be the gravedigger of post-Civil War Reconstruction by making troublesome nominations for Supreme Court judges. Let me highlight the importance of the concept of “constitutional hardball” one last time by taking you through a small part of a chapter where possible futures for a post-Trump America are discussed. The authors concede that although the most optimistic of these futures is one of “swift democratic recovery”, the darkest of them is one where the presidency, both houses of the Congress, most statehouses, and even the Supreme Court continue to be controlled by pro-Trump Republicans post 2020 and that this latter “dark” situation would enable said Republicans to “use the techniques of constitutional hardball to manufacture white electoral majorities.”
This book is as well-elaborated and well-articulated a piece of contemporary political prose as any. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to educate oneself about the currently unfolding political situation in the US and, at the same time, doesn’t mind being given enough ammunition to look at things from a historical perspective. There are a couple of interesting literary references (Shakespeare’s 𝘙𝘪𝘤𝘩𝘢𝘳𝘥 𝘐𝘐 and Philip Roth’s 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘗𝘭𝘰𝘵 𝘈𝘨𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘴𝘵 𝘈𝘮𝘦𝘳𝘪𝘤𝘢) as well. Richard II is mentioned to educate the readers about how Richard of Bordeaux, the eponymous protagonist in Shakespeare’s play, had “abused his royal prerogatives to expropriate and plunder” and how even after all that his acts were far from illegal. Roth’s novel is mentioned in connection to its central theme of a right-wing Nazi-sympathising political outsider winning the 1940 US presidential election against an incumbent FDR.
Although in the last few years there have been attempts by many a well-known essayist to shed some sort of historical light on the Trump phenomenon (Pankaj Mishra’s excellent Trump-Rousseau essay, as published in 𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘕𝘦𝘸 𝘠𝘰𝘳𝘬𝘦𝘳 two years ago, is a good example in this regard; Mishra’s ending words were “..Rousseau would not have been surprised to see that today’s revolt against the elites has empowered a Twitter troll in the very heartland of modernity.”), in my personal judgment, none of them have been as evidence-based and, dare I say, scientifically thorough as 𝘏𝘰𝘸 𝘋𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘤𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘋𝘪𝘦.
Just before I sign off, I am going to leave you with an “answer” that Elwyn Brooks White submitted to the U. S. Federal Government’s Writers’ War Board when he was asked by this board to compose a short response to the question “What is democracy?” during the darkest days of World War II─
Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the “don’t” in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.
- 𝘏𝘰𝘸 𝘋𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘤𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘪𝘦𝘴 𝘋𝘪𝘦: 𝘞𝘩𝘢𝘵 𝘏𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺 𝘙𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘢𝘭𝘴 𝘈𝘣𝘰𝘶𝘵 𝘖𝘶𝘳
𝘍𝘶𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘦 by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky.
Published 25th January 2018
144mm x 222mm x 30mm
If this piece has made you feel like gorging on the book, then let me make sure you can have a bite on a couple more of them:
1) Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine Albright
Harper Collins, Published 10th April 2018, 304 pages
2) How Democracy Ends by David Runciman
Profile, Published 10th May 2018, 256 pages
Title Art by Trinamoy Das
Next Post On 1st August