Q&A: A Coauthor of 'How Democracies Die' Explains Why the U.S. Was Uniquely Vulnerable to an Authoritarian Minority
An interview with Daniel Ziblatt, coauthor of the new book, "Tyranny of the Minority"
Daniel Ziblatt is Eaton Professor of Government at Harvard University and director of the Transformations of Democracy group at Berlin's Social Science Center. He and his Harvard colleague Steven Levitsky, also a professor of government, are authors of a new book: Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point. In the book, the political scientists argue that the United States' undemocratic institutions, like the Electoral College, Senate, and Supreme Court, have enabled minority rule, in which a right-wing partisan minority can thwart a popular majority. The authors draw on their expertise in Europe and Latin America to show how countries as disparate as Brazil and Norway have made their institutions more democratic. They offer 15 suggestions to how to make U.S. democracy more democratic.
Ziblatt and Levitsky wrote the 2018 book, "How Democracies Die," which was a New York Times bestseller and translated into 25 languages. I spoke with Ziblatt recently over Zoom; our conversation follows, condensed and edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: In the new book, You and Steve Levitsky ask:
Societal diversity, cultural backlash and extreme right parties are ubiquitous across established Western democracies. But only in America did such extremists actually win control of the national government and assault democratic institutions. Why did America alone among rich established democracies come to the brink?
Daniel Ziblatt: This is a regularity across democracies: there are around 20 or 30 percent of voters for radical-right parties. The problem was not [American] voters. Voters are very similar.
What makes America distinctive is its constitutional structure is particularly vulnerable to the outsized influence of political minorities, that is, and when a political or party minority is authoritarian, then they can leverage those institutions to project themselves into power in a way that's much more threatening than in other democracies.
LJ: You draw a distinction between loyal democrats and semi-loyal democrats. At first, semi-loyal doesn't sound so bad. But why does the latter's behavior erode democracy?
DZ: When we look at the collapse of democracies, we're often attracted to focus on overt anti-democrats: people who wear military uniforms, assault parliament buildings, or engage in violence. These are problems.
But one of the things we discovered looking throughout history is that it's often mainstream politicians wearing suits in the halls of power who are critical for leading to the collapse of democracy. These are political leaders who enabled authoritarianism in the 1930s. In Europe, as well as today in the United States, there are mainstream politicians who provide lip service to democracy, but who are unwilling to condemn overt acts of violence and election denialism. These kinds of mainstream actors legitimize this kind of rhetoric and action: they protect anti-democratic actors from being held to account.
LJ: Are there some current examples that you think are particularly pernicious?
DZ: Certainly in the United States, the failure by many Republican elites to to immediately accept the results of the election after November 2020. There was this line going around at the time: "We just need to let President Trump let off steam and eventually he will accept the outcome." That kind of acquiescence to election denialism convinced more voters that it was correct; the willingness to participate -- even from the sidelines -- on January 6, and the unwillingness to hold President Trump to account for the impeachment process, which would have removed him from power and prevented him from ever being able to run for office again.
I think an ominous current case is the role of the [center-right] German CDU (Christian Democratic Union), in its treatment of the [far-right] AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). Officially, the [CDU] has been critical of it. But there is a willingness to let the AfD set the agenda in German politics today, which I think is backfiring for the CDU. This is part of the reason why you're seeing the AfD thriving. It's certainly not on the scale of what's happened in the United States, but I think the United States' experience with Donald Trump should be a warning for Germans as well.
LJ: By allowing the [AfD] to win small political victories, it's not causing them to fall in popularity [because the CDU co-opts their voters], it's actually causing much the opposite?
DZ: I think it's also a matter of what politicians talk to voters about. The AfD, very much like Donald Trump, is often setting the agenda. Then, German mainstream politicians chase after the themes of the AfD. In the process, what they're doing is not sucking away voters to themselves, but actually legitimating the issues that the AfD is talking about. And then, voters [ask]: "Why vote for this pale imitation of the AfD when you can vote for the real thing?"
LJ: You and Steve Levitsky write, "Paradoxically, the roots of the GOP's transformation lie in its reaction to the very multiracial democracy it helped construct." What is the "conservative dilemma" that it faces?
DZ: In an earlier book, I came up with this phrase, the "conservative dilemma" to describe the problem. Parties on the right are often of higher income earners. Coming out of the 1960s, the Republican Party was a party that had embraced Civil Rights and voting rights. In order to win elections, this party also had to find a bigger popular base. It faced a dominant Democratic Party, especially in the House of Representatives, but also in presidential politics for large parts of the 20th century.
[Republicans] saw an opportunity in the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In the South, you had a lot of disaffected white voters who were not happy about social and political changes. It reached out and attached this racially conservative white base to the Republican Party. This was a fine electoral strategy, even through the 1990s. But by the 2000s, the Republican party still was attached to this base, which was no longer a winning strategy to win majorities as America had become more diverse. This racially conservative base -- as measured by surveys and attitudes towards affirmative action -- began to threaten to take over the party.
The "conservative dilemma" is when you reach out to a base, and then lose control of that base. This has happened throughout history with conservative parties, and it's now happened to the Republican Party. It radicalizes the party.
LJ: Last month, Aaron Blake of the Washington Post wrote an article called, "Trump hits new poll highs with Black, Hispanic voters. What to make of it?" He reported:
Across five high-quality polls that have broken out non-White voters in the past month, Trump is averaging 20 percent of Black voters and 42 percent of Hispanic voters. Both numbers — and especially that for Black voters — could set modern-day records for a Republican in a presidential election.
Why is Trump doing so well in these 2024 polls among Blacks and Hispanics if he is a reaction to multiracial democracy?
DZ: Two points. One, the argument about the reaction of multiracial democracy is really a description of the history of how the Republican Party got to where it was in 2016, which was still an overwhelmingly white party. It was a reaction in part to the Obama presidency. If you look at the voter base of the Republican Party in 2016, a lot of the vote was driven by racial animus and there's lots of research showing this.
Moving forward, it's important to see this [diversification] as a development that may happen. From our perspective, we would make the case that, in order for democracy to thrive, we do need two political parties that can win majorities. And in order to win majorities, this means, especially for the Republican Party, being able to reach out and make appeals to a more diverse set of voters. At some level, I hope this happens. I think it would ultimately be good for small-d democracy, not necessarily for the Democratic Party.
I'm not convinced that polls taken now are necessarily predictive of what will happen in 2024. But if the Republican Party becomes more ethnically diverse in large enough numbers, you may have a very conservative Republican Party, but one that is not so fearful of democracy and more willing to accept election outcomes.
Clearly, in 2020, the Republican Party was not able to do this. Even with Donald Trump as the candidate, if it were really able to reach out to broader segments of the electorate, it would have won the election and wouldn't have had to oversee the assault on the Congress in January 2021.
The institutional reforms that we propose in the book would accelerate the process of transformation in the Republican Party. The problem today is because the party doesn't have to win majorities to win power, that the incentives and the pressures to reach out to a broader segment of the electorate are much less than they otherwise would be.
DZ: We have a term for this in the book that we didn't invent: constitutional hardball. Political leaders look for loopholes. A classic example is in the 19th century, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution prevented the restriction of the right to vote on the basis of race. Southern Democratic party leaders realized they could restrict access to the law on any other criteria, because these were not specified in the Constitution. Southern Democrats found a loophole and introduced things like the grandfather clause, which in effect, restricted the right to vote to African-Americans but was regarded by the Supreme Court as a constitutional way.
LJ: Is that like a literacy test?
DZ: A grandfather clause says that you only have the right to vote if your grandfather had the right to vote. Since slaves' grandfathers didn't have the right to vote, this was a way of restricting the vote to only whites. Literacy tests are another mechanism where [former] slaves were more likely to be illiterate.
This is a strategy that autocratic-minded politicians use today where they will find some loophole. In Hungary, you can't restrict the freedom of the press directly, but you can organize a kind of corruption investigation or force the sale of newspapers to your allies. In our book, we lay out a variety of different strategies of constitutional hardball.
LJ: Americans tend to view the Constitution as a sacred document; we love the Constitution. Why do you think that thinking is flawed?
DZ: I think the Constitution is a great document. For the time that it was written, as well as the purpose of the purposes it served, it's the oldest written constitution in the world. So there's something going for it. But it's a mistake to treat it as if it's a document given by God -- this is a manmade document.
The founders themselves did not have a visionary blueprint of how things should work perfectly: [the Constitution] also included compromises and improvisations. At the time of writing, in trying to figure out how to elect the president, nobody's ever done it before: one option was having Congress select the president and another option was having directly elected presidents. When neither of these succeeded, then they settled on the idea of an electoral college.
If we realize the Constitution is not perfect, then I think it allows us to understand that while certain principles are fundamental, that doesn't mean the details of the Constitution can't be amended from time to time. I should add that this is not a radical notion. This is a notion that the founders themselves held. Right after the [Constitutional] convention [in 1787], George Washington wrote a letter to his nephew, in which he said that the Constitution is an imperfect document.
There's a great American tradition of improving our Constitution. Historically, it hasn't always been foreign to Americans to think that the Constitution should be amended and improved upon. What's distinctive is that since around 1970, we've stopped doing the work of trying to make our Constitution more democratic. Our book is a call to embrace that older tradition.
LJ: You have a list of suggestions at the end to democratize our democracy, what are a few of the most important?
DZ: We propose 15 sets of reforms. Some of the biggest ones include abolishing the Electoral College. Every other democracy in the world has eliminated their electoral college. That would require a constitutional amendment. Another big proposal that would likely require a constitutional amendment is term limits for Supreme Court justices. Every other democracy in the world has either term limits or a retirement age for its [highest] justices. Many U.S. states have term limits or retirement ages. It's a problem because we want our judges to be independent and not beholden to public whims. On the other hand, we don't want someone to be so out of touch that someone appointed in an earlier generation is regularly thwarting the will of contemporary majorities.
Some of the other reforms are not constitutional, but they are also very important. They include weakening the filibuster in the upper [legislative] chamber: the U.S. is the only system that has such a strong filibuster that includes a supermajority requirement for every piece of legislation. We make the case for either weakening it or eliminating it altogether. Another reform is protecting voting rights. This is happening at the state level: many states have automatic voter registration. But [the U.S. could] pass a national voter registration act, reestablishing the Voting Rights Act, parts of which were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Coming up with a national voting standard, which is something that Americans have been trying to do since the 19th century, and [is something] we should do once again.
LJ: What do you say to people when they say abolishing the Electoral College or having term limits for Supreme Court justices is incredibly difficult or unrealistic.
DZ: It is incredibly difficult; I agree with that assessment. That's why we haven't done it. But two points.
First: There have been many attempts throughout American history [to abolish the Electoral College]. The U.S. came quite close to 1970. Overwhelming majorities of Americans supported abolishing the Electoral College: it passed the House with the supermajority requirement, and then it came in front of the Senate. The AFL-CIO, the Chamber of Commerce, the American Bar Association, and President Richard Nixon were in favor of abolishing it. It had a majority in the Senate, but died because it did not meet the supermajority [two-thirds] requirement.
I think it's possible if the political dynamics were to change in the United States. For example, if Texas were to go Democratic, then suddenly you'd have all these disenfranchised Republicans voters in Texas. You might have some of the Republican Party in favor of [abolishing the Electoral College] to allow Republican voters to influence the presidential race.
Throughout history, these reforms have also been difficult, including the direct election of U.S. senators and female enfranchisement. But in every instance, it has required social mobilization by citizens demanding this. Then, political leaders begin to think it's in their interest to embrace these kinds of reforms. On the idea that reform is impossible: That's a classic instance of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's only by thinking that reform is possible that people can begin to make some of these reforms.
LJ: The House of Representatives has had no speaker since Kevin McCarthy was ousted on October 3. As a comparative political scientist, where do you see the roots of that dysfunction?
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