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America’s Democratic Unraveling

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America’s Democratic Unraveling

Countries Fail the Same Way Businesses Do, Gradually and Then Suddenly

Foreign Affairs,

5 min read
2 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

When checks and balances begin to fail, the collapse of democratic institutions can swiftly follow.

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  • Concrete Examples
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As history shows, democracy can easily wither and die. America has experienced numerous challenges to its democratic bulwark over the years, but, thus far, its institutions have avoided collapse. In this article for Foreign Affairs, economist Daron Acemoglu likens the slow but abrupt fall of democracies into authoritarianism to the way companies often go bankrupt: “gradually and then suddenly.” His thought-provoking essay offers the hopeful idea that, despite the polarization of its citizenry, the United States can, once again, restore trust in its democratic institutions.


History is rich in examples of how democratic norms can succumb to totalitarianism.

Democracy rests on a handful of core tenets – the balance of power, collaboration and honesty – buttressed by the confidence of its citizens and a robust media presence. Yet the erosion of democratic foundations can happen much like a business failure: slowly at the start, then abruptly and completely. As those in power begin attacking a democracy’s institutions, those bastions begin to lose their capacity to check dictatorial transgressions. Gradually, bad behavior becomes...

About the Author

Daron Acemoglu is a professor of economics at MIT.

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