Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy

Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy

Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman

Is the United States in danger that democracy will suffer serious deterioration or “backsliding”? We might assume that it is secure, given the nation’s enduring Constitution – the oldest functioning in the world – and the nation’s progress in becoming more inclusive over time. Yet history reveals that American democracy has been far more fragile than we might think: it has undergone repeated crises, from the earliest days of the republic to the present.

Four Threats examines five tumultuous periods in the past when democracy was under siege. Over and over again, people braced themselves for secession, civil war, the loss of rights, or the rise of an autocratic president. In each episode, each of the four pillars of democracy was put at risk: free and fair elections, the rule of law, the legitimacy of the opposition, and the integrity of rights. On several occasions, antidemocratic forces prevailed and caused real harm, some of it with long-enduring consequences.

Four threats have endangered democracy: political polarization, raging conflict over who belongs in the political community and the status of its members, rising economic inequality, and excessive executive power. On two occasions, three threats emerged together, first leading to secession and a bloody civil war, and next to the disenfranchisement of millions of African American men for a half century to come. Today, for the first time ever, we face the convergence of all four threats at once. This formidable confluence makes the contemporary era an especially grave moment for democracy in the United States, and a crucial moment for Americans to choose whether the future of the nation will be democratic,  or not.


“In an analysis deeply rooted in American history and animated by an unshakable commitment to democratic values, Mettler and Lieberman issue a cry of political alarm that privileges illumination over hysteria and reminds us that this is not the first time our nation has struggled with demons. Their eloquent call for political and social renewal allies realism with hope, and it could not be more timely.” — E. J. Dionne, Jr., author of Code Red and co-author of One Nation After Trump

“A rich and textured account of American history through which to understand where we are today. When you finish this book, you’ll be neither complacent nor despairing. But you’ll be more ready to act intelligently to deal with the challenges we face.” — William Kristol, director, Defending Democracy Together

“This is a masterful account of the long arc of American democracy. Long simmering historical threats have today converged leaving our current predicament deeply perilous. We recommend this book to all citizens concerned about the fate of American democracy.” — Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, bestselling authors of How Democracies Die


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