This is a guest post by Lucas Dolan, a PhD Student at American University’s School of International Service. His research deals with the transnational coalition-building of right-wing populist movements. For further information, see his website, or find him on Twitter (@mrldolan).
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (L&Z) have accomplished something impressive. Their new book How Democracies Die (HDD) is a relatively condensed volume that—while clearly written for a popular audience—is also likely to become required reading for scholars interested in authoritarianism and democratic backsliding. Indeed, my institution’s chapter of the 24 university “Democratic Erosion” consortium assigned the book even before it was released. It is a rare scholarly work that has generated substantial discussion in both the scholarly and policymaking communities immediately upon publication. The book draws from the authors’ extensive research on de-democratization in Latin America and Eastern Europe (as well as some instructive episodes of American history) to identify processes of democratic erosion and derive lessons for resisting such processes. These historical and comparative chapters are then used as benchmarks for evaluating the threat to democracy posed by President Donald Trump. Puzzlingly, the book omits a meaningful discussion of the role of populism in democratic erosion—despite one of the author’s influential work on that topic. In this review, I attempt to reconstruct how deeper engagement with populism might have fit with the book’s core contentions. I conclude that Levitsky’s own mobilization approach to populism lacks cohesion with HDD and that Jan-Werner Müller’s ideational understanding of populism interfaces more naturally with the mechanisms of democratic decline proposed by L&Z.