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Capsule Review

Two Books on Democracy

In This Review

Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency
Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency
By Larry Diamond
Penguin Press, 2019, 368 pp. Purchase
If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved
If We Can Keep It: How the Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved
By Michael Tomasky
Liveright, 2019, 288 pp. Purchase

Diamond and Tomasky, both longtime students of democracy, have produced similarly impassioned works on the current democratic crisis. Diamond’s view is global, describing the worldwide slide toward authoritarianism over the past two decades. Tomasky focuses on what is happening in the United States, tracing the country’s current woes back almost to its founding. The global trends Diamond chronicles predate the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, but his analysis rests heavily on his “anguished knowledge” of what the Trump presidency means for governance around the world. By contrast, Tomasky writes that “most of this book could have appeared just as it now stands” no matter who won the 2016 election. Notwithstanding such differences, both authors identify the same ultimate saviors: not politicians or legal or constitutional changes but, in Diamond’s words, “the last line of defense: ‘We the People.’”

Diamond compellingly traces a “twelve-step program” that autocrats use to solidify their power. But he inflates the conventional military threats that the United States faces from China and Russia. As his own analysis shows, the more pressing threat from both countries comes from their efforts to exploit fractures in the U.S. political system and the polarization of American society. His solutions include ranked-choice voting to strengthen candidates who appeal to the political center and independent commissions to put a stop to extreme gerrymandering.

Tomasky notes that most adults living in the United States today were born between 1945 and 1980, a period he terms “the Age of Consensus”—a brief interregnum in 200 years of otherwise intense partisan division. As a result, they are taken aback by today’s polarization even though it represents a return to the historical norm. The difference, however, is that in earlier eras, the two main parties were “divided within themselves as much as with each other.” Those broad, unstable coalitions had to negotiate positions internally. Today, a “near-total absence of intraparty polarization” has allowed the country to devolve into political tribalism. Tomasky convincingly describes how this happened but not why; nor can he explain why members of Congress compete so fiercely to dedicate their lives to an institution that gets almost nothing done. Tomasky’s list of fixes is almost identical to Diamond’s, but he concedes that many of those measures will take a very long time, or will make relatively little difference, or are merely “pies in the sky.”

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