How Do Democracies Fall Apart (And Could It Happen Here?)

The Yale Program on Democracy
Bright Line Watch
October 6, 2017

American democracy seems more endangered than at any time in living memory. Partisan polarization, both in Congress and the electorate, is at a historical high. During the 2016 presidential campaign, implicit rules of political discourse and conduct were violated, one after another. Ethnic, national, and religious groups were attacked as criminal enemies and calls were made to remove the citizenship of some native-born groups. Opposing candidates were threatened with criminal prosecution. Campaigns conjured imaginary threats to the electoral process while real threats were ignored or minimized. 

After the election, the sense of danger to our institutions and norms has only increased. The Yale Program on Democracy and Bright Line Watch have convened a conference that draws on the knowledge and perspectives of world-renowned scholars and journalists, with the goal of answering two basic questions: 

-What are the critical factors that have led to the degradation or destruction of democracy in other times and places? 

-Could these factors conspire to have the same effect in the United States today?

Conference participants can access papers here

Welcome:  Assessing the Erosion of Democracy in the United States  


John Carey, Dartmouth College

Joe Goldman, President, Democracy Fund

Gretchen Helmke, University of Rochester               

Brendan Nyhan, Dartmouth College            

Susan Stokes, Yale University


Session One:  How Democracies Die


Moderator: Arturo Valenzuela, Georgetown University, Former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs

Timur Kuran, Duke University 

Margaret Levi, Stanford University

Beatriz Magaloni, Stanford University

Adam Przeworski, New York University


Session Two:  Signs and Instances of Democratic Erosion


Moderator: Susan Stokes, Yale University

Nancy Bermeo, Nuffield College, Oxford

Anna Grzymala-Busse, Stanford University

Susan Hyde, University of California, Berkeley  

Timothy Snyder, Yale University   

Daniel Ziblatt, Harvard University


Session Three:  Can it happen here?  And what can we do about it?


Moderator: Ian Shapiro, Director, MCMC, Yale University 

Julia Azari, Marquette University

Emily Bazelon, New York Times, Yale University

David Frum, The Atlantic

Tom Ginsburg, University of Chicago Law School

Aziz Huq, University of Chicago Law School

Frances Lee, University of Maryland

Yascha Mounk, Harvard University


Reception 4:30-6:00

Invited Participants  

Hannah Baron, Brown University

Robert Blair, Brown University

Javier Corrales,  Amherst College

Sara Doskow, Cambridge University Press

Ross Douthat, The New York Times

Max Fisher, New York Times

Elaine Kamarck, Brookings Institute

Özge Kemahlioğlu, Sabanci University

Rachel Kleinfeld, Carnegie Endowment

Noam Lupu, Vanderbilt University

Adriana Mendoza, Scholars Strategy Network

Suzanne Mettler, Cornell University

Michael Miller, George Washington University

Aníbal Pérez-Liñán, University of Pittsburgh

Steve Pincus, Yale University

Mitch Sanders, Meliora Research

Daniel Stid, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Milan Svolik, Yale University

Amanda Taub, New York Times

Steven Wilkinson, Yale University

Liz Zechmeister, Vanderbilt University