Irrespective of political bent, everyone can agree on one thing; something big is afoot. Catalysed by the 2008 financial crisis, but with even deeper roots going back to decisions made in the mid-20th century, popular discontent with the lingering elitism of political life in the West has burst to the fore over the last decade. Trump, Brexit, Orban, Bolsonaro…..the list of stunning political about-turns goes on. What does it all portend? Is democracy witnessing its dying days, or is it about to undergo a phoenix-like rebirth from its own ashes? Our top ten books on the subject below offer the most penetrating analysis of the subject, and provide practical guides for the bumpy road ahead. Let’s dig in!
Twilight of Democracy
by Anne Applebaum
Applebaum, an acclaimed historian of the Soviet Union, has been warning of a broad trend towards authoritarianism in Western societies for several years. As the wife of a former Foreign Minister of Poland, she’s had an uncomfortable front row seat to Poland’s descent into reactionary nationalism, which has sharpened her own sense of smell for sniffing out similar decay in other countries. In Twilight of Democracy she turns her inimitable pen towards charting the rise of several authoritarians around the world, focusing on their gradual undermining of democratic institutions in their respective countries, ranging from Poland, and Hungary, to Spain, England and America. Applebaum has plenty of enemies on the right, many of whom have already piled in to criticise her book as being another example of the left’s confusion of “democracy” with “liberal democracy”. We’re not interested in that (interminable) argument. What we’re interested in is Applebaum’s riveting prose, mixing an accomplished journalist voice with impressively thorough research. Irrespective of political bent (perceived, real or otherwise), Applebaum’s voice is a unmissable part of the unfolding story of tectonic change happening within Western societies at the start of our young millennium.
The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic
by Benjamin Carter Hett
Hett, a Professor of History at Hunter College and a noted expert on the history of Germany in the 20th century, delivers a multi-award winning tour de force in The Death of Democracy. Tracing how the conservative elites of the Weimar Republic complacently sought to co-opt Hitler and his Nazi Party to stave off a rash of populism sweeping through the nation in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Prof. Hett demonstrates with alarming clarity how Hitler overwhelmed these very elites, bringing his Nazi Party to an unassailable position of power. The parallels with today are both uncomfortable and sharply delineated by the author’s learned pen. This has resulted in some criticism of the work; that it is no more than an anti-Trump tirade masquerading as serious history. We’re not convinced; and Prof. Hett’s dazzling prose combined with his impressive learning, written in an accessible and compelling style, begs to be enjoyed, and studied further.
How Democracies Die
by Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt
Levitsky and Ziblatt, both Professors of Government at Harvard, bring their decades of experience in studying, respectively, developing world states, particularly Venezuela, and European governments from the 19th century to the present. How Democracies Die explores the processes by which historically democratic states have succumbed to an insurmountable rot from within. For Hollywood, the narrative of collapsing states adheres to a plot of adrenaline fuelled coups and bloody counter-coups, but here the authors demonstrate a much more terrifying common process of institutions being hollowed out from within, while the media and independent courts are co-opted and subverted for political purpose. Sound familiar? Released in early 2018, it’s difficult not to view the book as part of a liberal wave of soul-searching in the wake of Trump’s 2016 election victory. Does that undermine the authors’ scholarship and message? We’ll leave you to decide for yourself. For our reviewer, Levitsky and Ziblatt offer a deeply researched discourse on the perils of assuming the ‘end of history’ is ever at hand.
How to Save a Constitutional Democracy
by Tom Ginsburg, Aziz Z. Huq
Huq and Ginsburg, both Professors of Law at the University of Chicago, lay out the flaws in America’s sacred founding document that make its institutions startlingly easy to undermine, if a determined demagogue put his mind to it. Drawing on their decades of experience as constitutional scholars, the authors tease out the design flaws of the founding fathers, in the process diminishing the lustre of such sacred legal cows as the First Amendment. What marks How to… out from the crowd of woe-is-me lamenters of democracy’s demise is the authors detailed and deeply considered constitutional remedies. Not only does the book give the reader an unparalleled insight into the bugs in the code of American democracy, it also shows how these bugs can be patched and the edifice restored to its previous lustre.
Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone
by Astra Taylor
Taylor’s work takes a different tact from our previous books above. Rather than lament democracy’s current state, the author chooses to confront deeper structural questions, inviting the reader to consider what we really mean by ‘democracy’. It should go without saying that a perfectly egalitarian form of democracy has never existed, and thankfully Taylor breezes past the obvious in search of much more ruminative treasures. Is democracy the means or the end? Process or outcomes? In which parts of our lives should democracy play a role, and what if presumed outcomes of democracy, such as freedom, peace, economic development and a politically active citizenry, might be achieved through non-democratic means? Taylor’s relentless pursuit of this philosophical approach draws her readers into considering the oft-ignored paradoxes of democracy, and why the system of governance may have much more longevity than some currently ascribe to its future.
The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality
by Nancy Isenberg, Andrew Burstein
Isenberg and Burstein, both Professors of History at Louisiana State University, deliver an essential retrospective on the lives and presidencies of America’s first two presidents to fail at re-election; the father-son duo John Adams (JA) and John Quincy Adams (JQA). Prolific intellectuals who refused to engage in the worship of their more well-known contemporaries, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Jefferson and Jackson, the two were not afraid of taking contrarian positions (perhaps a contributing factor to the whole not-getting-re-elected thing……). JA and JQA were particularly concerned about what they identified as the people’s desire to worship idols, and the risk of elites subverting the fragile foundations of a young democracy. Utilising an extensive archive of correspondence between father and son, Isenberg and Burstein have produced a meditation on the nature of power in democratic societies that resonates across the centuries.
The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century
by Thant Myint-U
The previous books above have all focused overwhelmingly on Western societies in their analysis of democracy’s perceived decline. The Hidden History of Burma corrects this imbalance. Thant Myint-U, a renowned historian of his country’s history, tackles one of the most incredible international relations narratives of the last decade; Burma’s (also known as Myanmar) much trumpeted opening to the world at the start of the 2010s, swiftly followed by rigged elections, the murder of opposition lawyers, and to top it all off, a genocidal eviction of ethnic Rohingya Muslims from the country’s far western province, Rakhine. The country’s whipsaw turn from dazzling debutante to maligned pariah in the space of a decade has prompted many observers to consider what was wrong with the democratisation formula that it could have so badly derailed as it did. Professor Thant’s compelling analysis of the internal contradictions that have only just begun tearing his nation apart makes for urgent reading, not just for country or regional specialists, but for all those who promote democracy around the developing world.
The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy
by Stephen Holmes, Ivan Krastev
In a similar vein to The Hidden History of Burma, Holmes and Krastev take post-Soviet Eastern Europe as their territory for deconstructing the supposed allure of Western liberal democracy, and the cultural backlash that has resulted from an ill-considered push for blanket liberal reforms in countries with proud native political traditions and identities. As The Light that Failed makes clear, Western politicians and media have all too often been blind to the damage wrought by the insulting suggestion that nations emerging from the shadow of authoritarian governments should leap wholeheartedly and thankfully into the suffocating embrace of Western governance models and institutions. Eastern Europe’s voters, most notably in Hungary and Poland, have in recent years responded with a resounding rejection of liberal political parties and turned toward authoritarian, paternal figureheads. What does this mean for the spread of democracy as a universal political dream? Krastev and Holmes have provided a dark insight into the increasing identification of democratic values with those specifically of the Anglophone world. As this portion of the world’s population withdraws from its previous pre-eminence, democracy as we have known it up to now looks set to follow them into the shadows.
Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason
by William Davies
Davies, a political economist at the University of London and a prolific writer and magazine contributor, explores the decline of Enlightenment values in modern society. By documenting the rise of emotion and personal feeling as the acknowledged final arbiter, rather than dispassionate fact, Davies shines much needed light on our descent into identity politics, reality TV politics, and politicisation of the media. Davies’ long-term perspective is much welcome in the genre of books lamenting the current state of politics, and democracy in general. However, his focus on Enlightenment philosophy and ideals does again bind us inevitably to Western societies, Europe and America, in considering democracy’s apparent decline. Nevertheless, the author’s consideration of fundamental philosophical and historical processes allows the dialogue to rise above the crude tone of nationalist identity politics which many other works can become trapped in. The western world’s governance is a product of historical processes far greater than any one statesman, or even one particular historical period. Nervous States opens the window to broader forces at play in contemporary society, and in doing so leads us to consider where these forces may lead us in the future.
Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency
by Larry Diamond
A Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and a former advisor on governance to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in the early noughts, Diamond has cut his political chops both in the secluded world of academia, and the messy aftermath of invasion and rebuilding. He is an undeniable patriot, and Ill Winds holds no punches in its forthright defence and advocacy for America to uphold its roll of Leader of the Free World™. Many readers may feel, perhaps rightly, that this leads us back into the trap of viewing democracy solely as an Anglophone institution whose exact transposition onto other non-European societies remains fraught with misinterpretation and missed connections. However, as a stirring call to action in the defence of America’s open, democratic society, and a broad range of suggestions to revitalize the current impasse of polarised domestic politics and inequitable distribution of voting rights, you will find no more impassioned writer, and seasoned veteran of promoting democracy around the world, than Larry Diamond.
And there you have it – our TOP TEN books on the end days of democracy as we know it. It was tough whittling our list down to just ten; the genre of lamentations for the dying Western order remains a bright light in publishers’ eyes and the glut of books on the matter looks set to only continue expanding. There are so many related topics which we had to be careful to not crossover into; that’s why you’ll find little about the link between rising economic inequality and ruptures in traditional democratic systems. We’re saving that topic, and others, for future articles. So stay tuned to our Current Events page for further updates!
In the meantime, let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Is democracy really in decline, or is it just the institution adapting to present social and political tides?
Until next time.