The international best-seller “How Democracies Die” was recently awarded the Goldsmith Book Prize (trade-press category) by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. It has been a more than a year since the book was published, highlighting the historical precedents for liberal democracies like ours declining into autocracy. In that time, elections around the world have brought further disruptions, while here in the U.S. the midterms wrought further changes, and the start of congressional investigations. The Gazette discussed recent events both here and abroad — and whether there is any hope for liberal democracy — with the book’s co-author, Daniel Ziblatt, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government and acting director of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University.
GAZETTE: You and your co-author, Professor of Government Steven Levitsky, have traveled widely talking about this book. What are you hearing?
ZIBLATT: Overall in the world, there’s really a sense that democracy’s facing a set of challenges that people in the last 25 years never expected. There are a lot of new democracies that are facing serious setbacks. Countries that we had previously thought were totally secure, are no longer.
GAZETTE: Are you referring to countries like Brazil?
ZIBLATT: Yes, that’s one example. My co-author visited Brazil last summer, invited by a group of business leaders who were very nervous about [Jair Messias] Bolsonaro and were concerned that people were underestimating the threat to democracy that he represented. But, despite their efforts, in the end, Bolsonaro was elected to Brazil’s presidency last October. Voters embraced him but too many important people, who knew better, stood by silently. Now in office, he’s a more rampant norm-breaker than even the American president.
We finished our book before Bolsonaro came into office, but the way that he came to power fits to a T the process that we described more generally — where establishment politicians embrace an outsider, helping them into power.
GAZETTE: Your book has been translated into 15 languages, underlining the urgency of the topic. In Germany, it was awarded the NDR Kultur Sachbuchpreis 2018, a prestigious literary prize. Why is this a subject of interest there?