The Atlantic

How's Democracy Holding Up After Trump's First Year?

It’s not dying, but alarm bells are ringing.
Source: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In late 2016, shortly after the U.S. presidential election, two Harvard political scientists posed a bleak question in The New York Times: “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” Now they’re out with an even more bleakly titled book—How Democracies Die—that seeks to answer that question by drawing on a year’s worth of evidence.

At the core of the book is an apparent contradiction. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who have studied the collapse of democracy in Latin America and Europe, respectively, write that they are witnessing in the United States “the precursors of democratic crisis in other places.” They contend that democratic norms were “coming unmoored” in America long before Trump’s ascent to power, hastened by political polarization. And they maintain that Trump himself—in rejecting democratic rules, denying the legitimacy of political rivals, tolerating political violence, and considering restrictions on the civil liberties of critics—tests positive as an “authoritarian.” Yet they note that “little actual [democratic] backsliding occurred in 2017” in the U.S.

So how can both of these things—American democracy’s acute vulnerability and stubborn resilience—be true? In an interview, Levitsky and Ziblatt explained the seeming paradox. They told me that while democracy is “not dying” in the United States, certain “alarm bells” are ringing. They pointed out that the first year in office of a democratically elected, would-be authoritarian is an unreliable indicator of future democratic breakdown, and compared the United States with 1930s Spain, 1970s Chile, and contemporary Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela. They rejected the argument recently advanced by , among others,

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic6 min read
Can’t Impeach Trump? Go After His Cabinet.
On July 21 and 22, 1864, Confederate soldiers under John Bell Hood went on the offensive in an attempt to blunt William T. Sherman’s advance toward Atlanta. Union artillery forces dug in behind fortifications at a place called Leggett’s Hill, east of
The Atlantic5 min read
Emmy Nominations 2019: HBO Ascendant
Game of Thrones dominated a surprisingly open-minded slate of nods that recognized critical favorites.
The Atlantic4 min readScience
California’s Wildfires Are 500 Percent Larger Due to Climate Change
“Each degree of warming causes way more fire than the previous degree of warming did. And that’s a really big deal.”