How Democracies Die

We tend to assume that democratic processes, norms and structures are 'sticky' and rarely 'die'. The cases we might think about are those that ended due to war and conflict, with the emergence of dictatorship in the form of fascism or military rule. In "How Democracies Die" (2018) Levitsky and Ziblatt provide a clear counter-narrative, and one seemingly much more relevant than the war and conflict narrative. In sum, that counter-narrative is: "Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chavez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box" (p. 5). It is democratic processes themselves being used to unravel themselves.

Many commentaries of late have focused on the power of the people, and their vote, as a way to ensure democratic processes reflect what people expect of them. Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that there is more to understanding why democratic governance has been sticky in the American context: political parties, and specifically the gatekeeping involved in those political parties that kept outsiders and radicals out. To be clear, these political party gatekeeping processes were not democratic: "candidates were chosen by a small group of power brokers who were not accountable to the party rank and file, much less to average citizens" (p. 38). Oddly, non-democratic (often elite run and non-transparent) processes are held up as a key source for democratic continuity.

The authors also point out a gradual change of norms: "Democracies work best – and survive longer – where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms. Two basic norms have preserved America's checks and balances in ways we have come to take for granted: mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives" (p. 8-9). They continue, later in the book: "Some polarization is healthy – even necessary – for democracy. And indeed, the historical experience of democracies in Western Europe shows us that norms can be sustained even when parties are separated by considerable ideological differences. But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs. This may encourage the rise of antisystem groups that reject democracy's rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble." (p. 116)

  163 Hits
163 Hits

Post-doc Fellowship: Literature, Science and the Arts Program

The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan is excited to announce the LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, a major initiative aimed to promote a diverse scholarly environment, encourage outstanding individuals to enter academia, and support scholars committed to diversity. After reviewing the materials here, if you have questions about this program, please contact Devin Walker.

Fields: Applications for study in any field represented in LSA are welcome. Applicants with interdisciplinary research interests may have joint appointments. Predoctorates are available in the fields of economics and political science.

The purpose of the LSA Collegiate Postdoctoral Fellowship Program is to support promising scholars who are committed to diversity in the academy and to prepare those scholars for possible tenure-track appointments in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at U-M. U-M will appoint recent recipients of the Ph.D. as postdoctoral fellows for a two-year term beginning July 1, 2017. The Postdoctoral Fellows will receive a starting salary of $55,000 plus benefits, and $7,000 for conference travel and research expenses. The predoctoral fellows will receive a starting salary of $50,000 plus benefits, and $7,000 for conference travel and research expenses. During the two-year term of appointment, the fellow will teach one course a year in the host department. All fellows are expected to be in residence during the academic year and to participate in departmental seminars and related activities. The remainder of the fellow's time will be devoted to pursuing research. Each fellow will receive career advising from a mentor during their fellowship.

The College seeks extraordinarily promising scholars whose research, teaching, and service will contribute to diversity and equal opportunity in higher education. The program is particularly interested in scholars with a demonstrated interest in bringing to their research and undergraduate teaching the critical perspective that comes from their non-traditional educational background and/or understanding of the experiences of groups historically underrepresented in higher education.

More details.

  337 Hits
337 Hits

2017-18 Social Science Fellowship

Each year, the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, invites between 20 and 25 scholars to be in residence for the full academic year to pursue their own research. The School welcomes applications in economics, political science, law, psychology, sociology and anthropology. It encourages social scientific work with an historical and humanistic bent and also entertains applications in history, philosophy, literary criticism, literature and linguistics. Applicants must have a Ph.D. at time of application. Each year there is a general thematic focus that provides common ground for roughly half the scholars; for 2017-2018 the focus will be The Social Sciences in a Changing World. The application deadline is November 1, 2016. Applications must be submitted through the Institute's online application system, which opens June 1 and can be found, along with more information about the theme, at

  516 Hits
516 Hits
Subscribe to receive new blog posts via email