The thesis of How Democracies Die is simple and profound; democracies collapse when mutual toleration and institutional forbearance, none of which is found in the constitution, are neglected.
Two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy: mutual toleration and institutional forbearance. Mutual toleration refers to the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern (102) … institutional forbearance can be thought of as avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, obviously violate its spirit. Where norms of forbearance are strong, politicians do not use their institutional prerogatives to the hilt, even if it is technically legal to do so, for such action could imperil the existing system (106).
The essence of these two norms is the effort to acknowledge one’s own biases and limits in understanding the entirety of an issue. We think as much (or little) as we experience. No matter how much I’ve studied an issue and whatever academic credential I have, I’m just one of the blind men touching an elephant and unable to imagine other parts. I can begin to fathom an issue only when I become curious about what I haven’t seen. What erodes democracy is the arrogant assumption that I know it all and best.
The same principle applies to people. Each individual has multiple identities and cannot be reduced to one. Someone on the other side of the aisle could still be a friend, just like me and one of my tennis partners, who is a Republican. On the way to a court and back home, we have talked about various political issues and had our differences, but our conversations never spiraled into fiery arguments. I would have ignored him if he was just a Republican, but he’s not; he’s also a kind friend, a serious learner, a mischievous brother, and a competitive but cheering tennis player. I’m willing to listen to him and even found some of his thoughts illuminating.
One more thing about the book. Notwithstanding its appearance, How Democracies Die doesn’t read like a political science book. It is extremely accessible and replete with world-wide, historical and contemporary examples. Some authors are gifted that way and I’m very jealous of them.
Some other quotes from the book: