Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro attends a rally after submitting his presidential registration application CARLOS BECERRA/AFP/Getty Images

How Democracies Are (re)Born

There can be no stable democracy if it must co-exist with a large, competitive political party devoted to destroying it. That is the lesson of Venezuela today, just as it was the lesson of post-war West Germany.

CAMBRIDGE – Much in life looks obvious after the fact. The challenge is to understand events and trends earlier, which is especially important when the issue is the demise of democracy.

In their excellent new book How Democracies Die, Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt use international experience to examine the question. In recent cases, such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and Venezuela, or in older ones such as Italy, Germany, Argentina, or Peru, the cause was not the overthrow of an elected government, but the actions of elected leaders.

The modus operandi is surprisingly similar. An elected populist demagogue eliminates or weakens the checks and balances on his authority by undermining the independence of the courts and other bodies, severely restricting the freedom of the press, tilting the playing field to make elections easier to win, and delegitimizing and imprisoning political opponents.

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