Vol. 31 No. 3 (March 2021) pp. 65-68

HOW TO SAVE A CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY, by Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. 295 pp. Paper $35.00. ISBN-13: 978-0-226-56438-8

Reviewed by Giovanni LoPiccolo, Department of Political Science, Rockefeller College of Public Affairs at the University at Albany. Email:

“Democracy is like a streetcar: You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off” said Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in 1996 (p. 68). Democratic nations are a spectacle of human social innovation. They generate new cultures, norms, institutions, and practices wherever they arise. But for every inch of change, there are forces at work that seek to undo it all. The concept of democracy is broad; it can be defined as just involving voting, while others say it involves specific institutions. At the pinnacle of the various forms of democracy is the liberal constitutional democracy (LCD), a specific terminology outlined by authors Ginsburg and Huq in their aptly titled book, HOW TO SAVE A CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY. The premise of this book is that we are witnessing a trail of anti-democratic initiatives all over the world, fulfilling the interests of self-serving individuals and groups, and that these initiatives are seeping into the United States of America.

It would be naive and even inappropriate to claim that the United States of America is the greatest liberal constitutional democracy in the history of the world, and this book helps readers realize that. This isn’t, however, a book attacking the United States’ political structures, institutions, and methods. Ginsburg and Huq show readers, and all citizens alike, that we need to give attention and care to democratic values — not only here in the United States, but for people living in other LCDs.

From the anti-black voting laws enshrined in the American South after the Civil War to the consolidation of Nazi power in Germany in the 1930s to the self-initiated coup in Venezuela more than a half century later, Ginsburg and Huq make it clear that forces at play are always seeking to undermine democratic values and institutions. The authors’ particular contribution is to show the sheer speed with which a democracy may collapse. For instance, in the years leading up to World War II, the federal German legislature was burned down by an arsonist. The Nazi Party took advantage of this moment, declaring that it was time for change in not only the legislature, but Germany as a whole. New laws were enacted that made bypassing the legislature far easier and more streamlined in terms of issuing proposals and changes. Even the act of extending the German Chancellor’s term was done in the name of government efficiency (p. 36). As the authors illustrate, passing laws critically changing the makeup of legislating and law enforcement bolsters anti-democratic forces. The authors take up similar cases, including Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Venezuela, and China. These examples further emphasize the dangers of loosely describing what democracy is and how anti-democratic forces can take a firm grasp over a nation.

By looking at over half a dozen countries from a time period extending as far back as the United States’ founding and as recently as the 2010s, Ginsburg and Huq [*66] offer a qualitative outlook on how LCDs are in decline, and essentially, are always at war with anti-democratic actors. The authors selected these seven countries based on their relevance to American political problems, even if they aren’t fully considered LCDs. The authors show that the former Soviet countries of Eastern Europe each dealt with varying degrees of leadership-seeking in times of crises. This isn’t something with which the United States is unfamiliar, having endured the Great Depression, the Civil Rights era, and the War on Terror. Moreover, places like Hungary, Poland, and even Venezuela entered phases of economic and societal despair, with its people looking for any solution to the crises. One attractive solution to crises for voters has been the election of radicalized, populist leaders. The China example brings in a more grounded point of comparison when deliberating the presence versus quality of democracy, paving the way for further illuminating the concept of liberal constitutional democracies.

The authors’ choice to investigate these questions through qualitative analysis was wise. The detailed case studies help to illustrate how democratic decline occurs. The authors’ research considers the significance of both pro and anti-democratic actors, their support among citizens, and how fast they get to power. Anti-democratic forces operate all over the world, but Ginsburg and Huq successfully operationalized the concept of anti-democracy to refine it to a manageable scope. Such operationalization involved the examination of national elections and party leaders’ methods of public outreach. A great example of this is in Hungary in the 1990s. Viktor Orban was a populist, democratic speaker who fought to remove the old establishment politics in Hungary and to usher in reform. He had a famous motto, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty-five.” The power vacuum left by the Soviet Union’s demise opened a window of opportunity, not only for Viktor Orban in Hungary, but for other pro-democratic forces in Eastern Europe. Ginsburg and Huq’s examination of how key political figures behaved and garnered support among their constituents gives us readers a more in-depth look at this battle between anti and pro democracy.

The authors did conduct some quantitative research, using quantitative metrics to identify democratic nations to analyze in the first place. They consulted the Polity IV index, a data series that codes the level of democracy in countries around the world. Nonetheless, this book’s primary agenda is to dive into the histories of the selected countries, looking at moments of political turmoil where change is about to occur - or where masses of people are mobilized - to offer greater insights about the dynamics of democratic risk and failure.

The authors leverage their comparative work to illustrate both what democracy looks like on the ground and to unsettle unspoken assumptions about the security and stability of American democracy. They compare, for instance, elections in China and the state of Wisconsin in the United States. China has elections for representatives in local and provincial races for public offices, and so does the United States. If democracies are defined by the presence of having elections, that makes China equal to the United States. But for many races in China, candidates are either secretly installed by government agents to push out another candidate or secure a single agenda for the state, or intimidated and threatened not to run entirely (p. 6). Being forced to make a specific choice isn’t much of a choice at the end of the day. So, that dampens the quality of democratic values in China. But, what of the United States and in Wisconsin? Is everything picture-perfect? [*67] Ginsburg and Huq raise the alarm. As they note, for the last twelve years both Wisconsin’s state legislature and delegation of members to Congress have been majority Republicans. That means for the last twelve years, Republicans were able to draw district lines for their representatives, ensuring that they include mostly Republican voters to guarantee a Republican is elected to office.

This isn’t initially a problem, because if a candidate earns more votes, they deserve to win. Ginsburg and Huq remind readers, however, that Wisconsin districts have been intentionally gerrymandered to bolster Republican strength and dilute Democratic votes. This becomes a problem when districts are drawn in shapes that warp geographically around certain communities. This form of gerrymandering, is used to bring together neighborhoods and communities that will certainly vote for one party. Democracy is present, but the quality is debatable.

Ginsburg and Huq expertly show how definitions of concepts matter. The specification of what democracy means is needed and appreciated, due to differing interpretations. The construction of the “liberal constitutional democracy” concept is an example of specifying what they intend to research and analyze. The logic of their argument can be imagined as a circle, with one point starting at the examination of democracy in the United States. As one progresses through the book, and the line grows, the authors give readers insight in other countries, like China and Venezuela. The authors then come full circle by returning to the situation we’re facing in the United States, asking us the same question that is the book’s title - how do we save it, and what do we do? This structure of writing is perhaps the easiest to follow when examining research on domestic and foreign politics. It can be difficult to grasp the severity of issues that occur overseas because Americans are insulated within our own borders and by our own smaller problems. By returning to the United States, and even going as far as discussing implications of the former US President signifying, he would not accept the 2020 election results if he lost, Ginsburg and Huq help American readers refocus on the significant problems in American democracy as it exists today and how it affects American citizens directly.

What I enjoy most about this book is what the authors describe as possible solutions to confronting and challenging anti-democratic actors, movements, and feelings. The solutions include constitutional amendments and governmental restructuring such as switching between a parliamentary system to presidential, or vice versa. But this discussion reveals some weaknesses towards the end of the book.

Constitutional reforms may be a solution to prevent the decaying of LCDs, acting as “system updates.” Much of the book has a worldview mindset in order to bring in the best examples to guide us down a path to fight anti-democratic agendas. Anti-democratic crises that have failed or succeeded in other countries have comparable causes and factors that have led to their conclusions. As the authors begin to wrap up the point of the book with “American styles'' or the “American way” of handling this issue, they include a mix of other scenarios from other countries, again, circling back to the main point. However, it involves a bit of back and forth between the US and other countries, even though the chapter titles are aimed at suggesting solutions for the US only. [*68]

The authors’ care and passion are apparent in HOW TO SAVE A CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY, specifically aimed at the United States. It can be difficult to talk about our flaws and to address what is wrong but it is often the first step in finding a solution. Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq show that the solutions are out there and I highly recommend this book for anybody interested in these questions. Themes of recognizing our institutional flaws, admitting we can seek help by looking to other nations, and examining history strengthen the thesis of this book. HOW TO SAVE A CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY is not only a handbook on how to do that, it’s the realization of a problem that has plagued our society for a very long time—and serves as a gateway to making change.


© Copyright 2021 by author, Giovanni LoPiccolo.