'How Democracies Die' author warns US faces perilous authoritarian threat: 'We can't be vigilant enough'

'How Democracies Die' author warns US faces perilous authoritarian threat: 'We can't be vigilant enough'

In the 2018 book "How Democracies Die," political science professor Daniel Ziblatt and his Harvard University colleague Steven Levitsky warned that liberal democracies can easily turn into authoritarian states if a country's checks and balances are eroded — and when Ziblatt appeared on CNN's "Reliable Sources" over Memorial Day Weekend 2021, he warned that U.S. democracy is in peril.

Ziblatt views the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol Building and former President Donald Trump's refusal to accept the 2020 election results as disturbing examples of the authoritarian threat the U.S. is facing.

"One of the main points of our book that we wrote in 2018 was that the way that democracies die today is at the ballot box," Ziblatt told Stelter. "That's a much more frequent way that democracies die — no longer through military coups and attacks of generals. If elections die at the ballot box, it's really critical to have free and fair elections — and what we're seeing in U.S. states right now is an assault on voting rights."

Ziblatt continued, "And so, I think the biggest threat facing American democracy today is that 2020 may have been a dress rehearsal for what's to come in 2022 and 2024. When people challenge the very legitimacy of free and fair elections, democracy is in a very precarious position."

Ziblatt's point about coup d'états is important. In Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary under Viktor Orbán, for example, authoritarianism didn't come about overnight because of a violent coup. Rather, Erdogan and Orbán were voted into office and gradually turned once-liberal democracies into authoritarian states.

Stelter asked Ziblatt how Americans are "supposed to know that something is changing" for the worse in the U.S., and the "How Democracies Die" author stressed that democracies can be eroded gradually.

"Democracies die very slowly," Ziblatt told Stelter. "Often, voters don't even notice what's happening around them. Ten years into Hugo Chavez's presidency, there was a survey done in Venezuela — and the majority of Venezuelans thought they still lived in a democracy. Now, we're in a very different situation here in the United States. Our electoral institutions, at the end of the day, did work in November. But we can't be vigilant enough is sort of the main message I would send."

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