When Democracy Breaks: Studies in Democratic Erosion and Collapse, From Ancient Athens to the Present Day

Edited by Archon Fung, David Moss, and Odd Arne Westad

All chapters are now available for download. Hardcover, paperback, and e-book versions are available from Oxford University Press.


Democracy is often described in two opposite ways, as either wonderfully resilient or dangerously fragile. Curiously, both characterizations can be correct, depending on the context. When Democracy Breaks aims to deepen our understanding of what separates democratic resilience from democratic fragility by focusing on the latter. The volume’s collaborators—experts in the history and politics of the societies covered in their chapters—explore eleven episodes of democratic breakdown, ranging from ancient Athens to Weimar Germany to present-day Turkey, Russia, and Venezuela. Strikingly, in every case, various forms of democratic erosion long preceded the final democratic breakdown.  Although no single causal factor emerges as decisive, linking together all of the episodes, some important commonalities (including extreme political polarization, explicitly anti-democratic political actors, and significant political violence) stand out across the cases. Moreover, the notion of democratic culture, while admittedly difficult to define and even more difficult to measure, may play a role in all of them.

Throughout the volume, we see again and again that the written rules of democracy are insufficient to protect against tyranny. They are mere “parchment barriers,” as James Madison once put it, unless embedded within a strong culture of democracy, which itself embraces and gives life not only to the written rules themselves but to the essential democratic values that underlie them.



1 Introduction

David Moss, Paul Whiton Cherington Professor at Harvard Business School

Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Democracy at the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government

Odd Arne Westad, Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University

Democratic collapse and recovery in ancient Athens (413-403 BCE)

Federica Carugati, Lecturer in History and Political Economy at King's College London

Josiah Ober, Markos & Eleni Kounalakis Chair in Honor of Constantine Mitsotakis and Professor of Political Science and Classics at Stanford University

The U.S. Secession Crisis as a Breakdown of Democracy

Dean Grodzins, Independent Scholar and former Senior Researcher at the Harvard Business School

David Moss, Paul Whiton Cherington Professor at Harvard Business School

The Breakdown of Democracy in 1930s Japan

Louise Young, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

Weimar Germany and the Fragility of Democracy 

Eric D. Weitz, Professor of History at the City University of New York

The failures of Czech Democracy: 1918-1948 

John Connelly, Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professorship of European History at the University of California, Berkeley

September 11, 1973: Breakdown of Democracy in Chile 

Marian Schlotterbeck, Associate Professor of Hisotry at the University of California, Davis 

The Indian Emergency (1975-1977) in Historical Perspective 

Sugata Bose, Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University

Ayesha Jalal, Mary Richardson Professor of History, Arts and Sciences at Tufts University

Democratic Breakdown in Argentina, 1976 

Scott Mainwaring, Eugene and Helen Conley Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame

10 Why Russia's Democracy Broke

Chris Miller, Associate Professor of International History at Tufts University

11 A Different "Turkish Model": Exemplifying De-democratization in the AKP Era

Lisel Hintz, Assistant Professor of European and Eurasian Studies at Johns Hopkins University

12 Venezuela's Autocratization, 1999-2021: Variations in Temporalities, Party Systems, and Institutional Controls

Javier Corrales, Dwight W. Morrow 1895 professor of Political Science at Amherst College