By Jan Servaes
MIAMI | 23 January 2024 (IDN) — It increasingly looks like Donald Trump will win while American democracy is faltering. This is what Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt contend in their new book “Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point”.
In “Tyranny of the Minority,” the authors primarily examine the United States, but their provocative arguments have broader implications. Comparisons with other countries—Argentina, France, Hungary, Russia, Spain, Thailand—are also used to put American exceptionalism into perspective.
This is a follow-up to their excellent bestseller, “How Democracies Die” from 2018, which I have already reviewed here. In “How Democracies Die,” they studied how democracy was being undermined elsewhere and defined the threat of Trumpism as an attack on the Constitution, the rule of law and institutions. Two so-called ‘norms’—tolerance towards opponents and tolerance in the exercise of power—that are fundamental to constitutional democracy, are eroding, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt. “How Democracies Die” was therefore a loud call to defend liberal democracy against the risks arising from the global wave of populism and authoritarianism.
The current political climate, particularly in the United States but also in other Western democracies, is characterized by increasing ideological polarization. What causes or initiates this erosion of democratic institutions? The four main indicators, or “norms” of authoritarian behaviour, that Levitsky and Ziblatt outline in “How democracies die” are (1) the rejection, in word or deed, of the democratic rules of the game, (2) the denial of legitimacy of political opponents, (3) the tolerance or encouragement of violence, and (4) the willingness to restrict the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
There is little discussion of these standards in the new book. The main threat to the system is no longer demagogues or autocrats but basic institutions such as the Constitution. If the United States wants to remain a democracy, or truly become one, Americans must stop treating the Constitution “as if it were a sacred document.”
The 2018 book raised a troubling question: If populist administrators have dismantled democracy in several other countries, could Trump succeed in undermining it in the United States as well? By systematically examining these important questions and developing many penetrating insights, Levitsky and Ziblatt provided the most prominent and best warning about the most important threat to political freedom in the third millennium.
They make two main arguments and support them with plenty of insightful reasoning and relevant evidence:
First, the Republican Party (GOP) has become a haven for (non-urban) whites who fear loss of status as a result of America’s move toward multiracial diversity. But because this social transformation has strong demographic roots and will therefore certainly continue, the Republican Party has shrunk into an electoral minority. In response, large parts of the party have become undemocratic and are trying to thwart the emerging multiracial majority through illiberal means, the authors argue.
Second, the American institutional framework has an exceptional set of counter-majoritarian features, which were intended to prevent the unfettered domination of the current majority and provide political minorities with institutional mechanisms to defend their fundamental interests and rights. The Electoral College in presidential elections, the Senate with its disproportionate representation of small states and its filibuster, and the Supreme Court with its judicial review and lifetime appointees all served this function.
But, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the attempt to prevent a “tyranny of the majority” by perpetuating this globally unique institutional arrangement has gone too far: it has enabled the nationally increasingly uncompetitive Republican Party to establish a “tyranny of the minority.”
The Constitution’s most influential authors were terrified of democratic majorities, notes Corey Robin in The New Yorker. So, a government was devised with a series of filters to keep the majorities on side.
Congress has two of the filters. A bicameral legislature is one; the Senate is the other. Many countries have learned that in a true democracy, upper chambers do not exist or have very limited powers. The US Senate has not just power equal to (and in some cases greater than) the House of Representatives; it also represents states rather than individuals. Wyoming, with a population of about 580,000 inhabitants, has the same number of votes as California, which has nearly forty million residents. There’s a reason most democracies don’t work this way: it’s undemocratic. This has been known for centuries.
If the House and Senate agree on a bill, they still need the approval of the president, who is chosen not by the voters, but by the Electoral College. That’s the third filter. With a preference for smaller states and a winner-take-all structure, the Electoral College could send the loser of the popular vote to the White House. This has happened twice in this century alone.
American democracy has long been studied and used as a model for others. The founding documents are cited and praised for striking a balance between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, and between state and federal power; to protect individual freedoms and prevent electoral majorities from trampling on electoral minorities; and for prescribing the peaceful, orderly transfer of political power.
Because they were created in a pre-democratic era of monarchies, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have taken on an almost mythical resonance. Uncle Sam firmly believes that he/she lives in the best of worlds, and still wants to spread that belief worldwide.
However, we forget that the American Constitution is a product of compromise, concessions and political opportunism. In terms of democracy, it is imperfect because it contains counter-majoritarian elements and is extremely difficult to change, writes Mary Jo Murphy in The Washington Post.
In the 21st century, these structural deficiencies have become more striking and fundamental. The framework that once seemed capable of providing reasonable political stability now facilitates a host of undemocratic and anti-majoritarian practices that undermine the will of the majority on issues such as reproductive rights, health care, gun control, taxes, elections, immigration and labor rights. and environmental protection.
According to them, the main culprit is the American Constitution, “a brilliant work of political craftsmanship” that has nevertheless made the country susceptible to abuse by a few. After all, American citizens are averse to amendments and that is a huge problem. Americans, the authors write, like to think of the Constitution as a “carefully crafted blueprint for a functioning republic,” one that prioritizes self-government and civil liberties. But, “institutions that function well in one context can become ineffective and even dangerously dysfunctional in another context,” Levitsky and Ziblatt notice.
The authors therefore state without hesitation: “The United States, once a democratic pioneer and model for other countries, has now become a democratic laggard.” — “Flaws in our Constitution now imperil our democracy” (p. 10).
The Grand Old Party (GOP)
Today’s Republicans—many of them white and living in rural areas – cling to the Constitution to protect against Democratic majorities. Those majorities increasingly live in big cities, where the job opportunities are, and many of those cities are in densely populated, democratic states. The Republican Party has turned gerrymandering into a dark art, distorting congressional districts so that incumbents and candidates choose their voters rather than the other way around. Someone elected in a manufactured district becomes largely untouchable and unapproachable, and in the absence of competitive pressure to broaden his appeal or moderate his rhetoric, he pays no political penalty for excess, radicalism, or negligence. The way eight extreme members of the GOP forced the impeachment of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is a prime example of this dynamic.
Like many analysts, Levitsky and Ziblatt believe that today’s right is driven by a primitive fear. Conservative voters fear the simple fact of demographic change. As immigrants, people of color, women and sexual and gender minorities gain greater visibility, dominant groups—straight, white, native men—fear a loss of status. The fear of erasure is fueling the Republican Party’s “turn toward authoritarianism.”
Holding on to government power is an ‘existential’ necessity for the party, the government and the groups it represents.
The combination of these factors makes blue voters (the Democrats) vulnerable to apportionment in the states, where they unnecessarily stack their votes in cities, and in the Senate and Electoral College. “A minority of voters can now inflict a legislative blow of racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, transphobia and economic misery on the rest of us – and never have to pay for it at the election.”
This argument, now ubiquitous on the left, appears to be a natural law of the political universe, describing our most basic drives of identity and fear. It makes sense for conservatives to believe this, as they have been addressing this since the French Revolution. But it poses a problem for the left, and for Levitsky and Ziblatt in particular.
If dominant groups can get members of subordinate groups to identify with them, they may not need minority tyranny to stay in power.
That scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Small shifts of nonwhite voters away from Democrats and the rise in Republican candidates of color suggest that this phenomenon remains salient, even in the age of Trump. In today’s environment, where elections are won by the margins, the consequences can be deadly. This is the “tyranny of the minority” that Levitsky and Ziblatt rightly fear. Not a lawless strongman or populist autocrat, “it is a product of the constitution we have learned to admire.”
If the laws of identity and fear are as primal and powerful as many progressives believe, opposing those laws could risk turning the left’s project into a purely moral crusade. Although Levitsky and Ziblatt call themselves political realists, they often resort to moralism to explain the world.
The assassination of democracy
The ‘silent assassination’ of democracy is organized both hard and direct, but also soft and indirect. Even well-drafted constitutions “inevitably contain ambiguities and potential loopholes, are open to multiple interpretations, and can be enforced in a variety of ways,” the authors argue. The law is often used as a political weapon in four ways: (1) the use of ‘gaps’ in the law, (2) the excessive or unjustified use of the law, (3) selective enforcement of the law, and (4) ) ‘lawfare‘ (pp. 50-64).
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for example, is playing what the authors call “constitutional hardball.” Orban took advantage of Hungary’s “first past the post” electoral system, which allows a party’s representation in parliament to be disproportionate to its population, to make his party’s supermajority permanent. He then rewrote the constitution, purged and occupied the courts, and took control of the public and private media—all largely as a result of Hungary’s legitimately instituted electoral system.
Even the European Parliament has now apparently woken up to question Hungary’s democratic values.
Readers must reach the final chapter to find any hope for American democracy. The chapter is to some extent prescriptive, listing fifteen reforms that would go far toward “democratizing our democracy.”
The reforms, which are mostly well-known and seem to emphasize circular reasoning, include passing a constitutional amendment establishing voting rights for all citizens; making Election Day a Sunday or a national holiday; making the Senate “more proportionate to the population of each state”; abolishing the filibuster; setting term limits; and making it easier to amend the Constitution by eliminating the states’ ratification process.
Take for example the right to vote, the most fundamental democratic activity. In no other democracy is casting a vote as fraught, complicated or tedious as it is in many parts of the United States.
In an interview with Harvard Magazine, Ziblatt and Levitsky continue to insist on the importance of voting: “In the short term, voting is crucial. And specifically, don’t vote for people who violate democratic norms. In the long term, we need to change the structure of our politics. We propose a series of institutional changes in the book, but institutional reforms do not happen overnight. It requires mass mobilization—generations of people pushing for institutional change. One of the most inspiring examples for us was following the rise of the women’s suffrage movement in the 19th century. It took generations of women to change voting rules to change in the United States .
Don’t get tired. Don’t lose your patience. Reconsolidating our democracy will take years and perhaps decades. There will be victories. There will be losses. The women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement show how difficult, long and slow this process can be.”
And voting is just the tip of an anti-majoritarian iceberg. Partisan gerrymandering is practiced by both Democrats and Republicans. There is also the Electoral College, which allows losers of the popular vote to claim the presidency. The US Senate also distorts democracy because it is blatantly maldivided, with all states receiving equal representation regardless of population. Furthermore, the filibuster, a supermajority rule, allows a partisan minority in the Senate to permanently block legislation proposed by the majority.
At no point in this century have Republicans in the Senate represented a majority of the population. While it is not entirely unhealthy for political minorities to occasionally or temporarily frustrate or block a majority, it is, as Levitsky and Ziblatt write, “another thing for a partisan minority to consistently defeat larger majorities or impose policies and, worse yet, using the system to anchor its benefits. When this happens, you have a minority government, not a democracy.”
Levitsky and Ziblatt repeatedly emphasize three basic principles that staunch democrats must adhere to, regardless of party affiliation: First, they respect the outcome of free and fair elections, win or lose. Second, democrats unequivocally reject violence (or the threat of violence) as a means to achieve political goals. Third, they do not support or defend antidemocratic forces.
The January 6 attack on the legislature was both a rejection of the outcome of the 2020 election, which was demonstrably free and fair, and an attempt to achieve a political goal through violent means. We should also not forget that later that same day, more than 140 Republican representatives refused to certify Joe Biden’s victory.
While Tyranny of the Minority is a warning of the political moment we live in, the book also calls on us to reimagine our democracy through “more democracy, not less; through inclusion rather than exclusion; tolerance instead of intolerance”.
The solutions offered can only be achieved by a large and broad social movement that is prepared to fight for as long as necessary.
“Social movements enable change by transforming ideas into tangible public policy and law. Such a movement has not yet emerged, and that is one of the reasons why this book is so important and essential. Ideas, ideals and ambitions fuel and support social movements. Not only is building this movement the way we hope to restore health and balance to our democracy, but it may also be our best hope for addressing the complex environmental, political, and economic challenges we face today to solve,” concluded Brian Tanguay in The California Review of Books.
But given the current polarizing situation, there is still a long and difficult road ahead of us.
Reference: Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, Tyranny of the Minority. How to reverse an authoritarian turn and forge a democracy for all, Viking-Penguin Books 2023, 368 pp. ISBN: 978-0-241-58621-1
*Jan Servaes was UNESCO-Chair in Communication for Sustainable Social Change at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He taught ‘international communication’ in Australia, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, the US, Netherlands and Thailand, in addition to short-term projects at about 120 universities in 55 countries. He is co-editor of the 2023 SDG18 Communication for All, Volume 1 The Missing Link between SDGs and Global Agendas <https://link.springer.com/book/9783031191411> and SDG18 Communication for All, Volume 2 Regional Perspectives and Special Cases <https://link.springer.com/book/9783031194580> [IDN-InDepthNews]
Image source: Cropped cover of the book “Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point”. Credit: Amazon
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