Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller professor of Latin American Studies and Professor of Government at Harvard University, and Daniel Ziblatt is the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University. They are the authors, jointly, of How Democracies Die. Their latest book is Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss the extent to which American institutions distort our politics by excessively thwarting majority governance; whether or not the American electorate is polarizing, or depolarizing, by race; and whether American democracy is better served by pursuing institutional reform or by tailoring Democratic Party strategy to the system as it exists.
The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: Your new book is called Tyranny of the Minority. The founders worried about the tyranny of the majority; many of our institutions are meant to protect us against that. Why do you think today we should be worried about the tyranny of the minority?
Steven Levitsky: We have a Constitution which allows political minorities to govern majorities. That is a product in part of a pre-democratic Constitution; it’s a brilliant document that was revolutionary at its time, and was incredibly successful over a couple of centuries at generating wealth, prosperity, and stability in the United States. But it's a pre-democratic document that enables political minorities to systematically thwart and occasionally govern majorities. Democrats across the world, including in the United States, have throughout history worked to make their democracies more democratic. We think that in the United States we've kind of stopped doing that work over the last half century or so. And we need to get back to that. We need to get back to empowering electoral majorities—obviously, at the same time as we protect basic civil liberties.
Daniel Ziblatt: I think we all agree we're living through a real political crisis. We've had a contested election in 2020, the four years before that were fraught; people are very fearful looking forward to 2024.
We can't understand this crisis we're in without understanding that this constitutional structure, combined with contemporary politics, has left us in a very precarious position. And there's lots of things driving the radicalization of the Republican Party. But we think one major factor is that our Constitution has always favored rural areas, which represent a minority of the population. For most of our history, that really wasn't a big problem, because both parties had urban and rural wings; but now, demographic changes have really led us to a position in the 21st century where the Republican Party is primarily the party for rural areas, while Democrats are primarily the party of urban areas. And so this means that our constitutional structure over-represents rural areas, and so it's no longer necessary at the national level for the Republican Party to win majorities in order to gain power. That has unleashed a set of distorting impacts on our politics that are very dangerous.
Mounk: How does race play into this argument that there's a kind of tyranny of the minority?
Levitsky: There are many reasons why the Republican Party radicalized over the last couple of decades and there are diverging views about it. But our central argument regarding why the Republican Party has sort of gone off the rails in the last 15 years or so is that, in the latter third of the 20th century, the United States changed dramatically and the Republican Party did not. It became an overwhelmingly white Christian party in a much more diverse country at around roughly the turn of the 21st century and that brought two problems. One is that it had a hard time competing for a national majority (and lost the national popular vote in seven of the last eight elections) because it was relying so heavily on white and particularly white Christian votes. And, secondly, a segment of its base grew increasingly threatened; the Republican Party actually did an excellent job of appealing to racially conservative whites over the course of the last third of the 20th century, those who were unhappy with government efforts to enforce civil rights in the last part of the 20th century; and recruited these folks into its party, becoming a more racially conservative party. A primary-winning plurality of the Republican base grew pretty resentful over the visible rise of multiracial democracy in the 21st century. And so the party radicalized.
Mounk: In the spirit of good academic debate, an important question to ask is whether the existence of multiple veto points and veto powers is precisely one of the things that is going to constrain political power. It may even explain why somebody like Donald Trump had not been able to consolidate power while he was in office.
Ziblatt: Our system of checks and balances did constrain Donald Trump; in particular, I think people didn't fully appreciate the role of federalism. Really, though, democracy consists of two main pillars: the ability of a collectivity to determine its own fate; and the protection of individual rights. Democracy is more than majority rule. But without majority rule, there is no democracy. The question of how to balance these two is, of course, the heart of the battle. Whereas it's certainly necessary to protect individual liberties and individual and minority rights—that's why we have the Bill of Rights and an independent judiciary—democracy also requires that the majority, in particular, has the ability in two domains to govern. The person who wins the most votes should be able to govern. That's a basic democratic principle. And when a party has a majority in the legislature, the party with that majority should be able to legislate and pass laws, provided it's not violating civil liberties and entrenching itself in power and violating basic democratic principles.
Certain things should be beyond the reach of majorities: basic civil liberties like freedom of press, freedom of association, freedom of religion, free democratic competition, the ability of an opposition to organize—these things should be beyond the reach of majorities. On the other hand, we sometimes forget in the American setting that certain things should be within the reach of majorities, and in particular, the right to form governments and the right to govern with those majorities.
Levitsky: We are not advocating for a radical overhaul of the Constitution. We completely agree with you that America's core democratic institutions are very robust and very important. We are not advocating to eliminate bicameralism, federalism, the Bill of Rights, nor an independent Supreme Court with judicial review power. All of those important counter-majoritarian institutions should remain in place. The set of reforms that we proposed in the final chapter of our book would basically put us more in line with European democracies. And there is quite a bit of evidence that a slightly more majoritarian democratic system along the lines of Denmark, New Zealand and Finland is not necessarily a threat to democracy.
As a final point, I wouldn't overstate the degree to which our Constitutional framers designed our institutions with the intent of preventing tyranny of the majority. Both Hamilton and Madison strongly opposed the current structure of the Senate in which each state gets equal representation. That was designed because small states insisted on it and threatened even to break up the union if they didn't get it. That was not part of some sort of far-sighted design of our founders. Madison opposed the Electoral College; it was the second-best solution after other alternatives had been voted down in the convention. And both Hamilton and Madison opposed supermajority rules for regular legislation. The excessively majoritarian institutions that we’re calling for the reform of were not part of some constitutional design for combating tyranny of majority and don't exist in most other established democracies.
Mounk: There’s a narrative of this moment which says that Republicans represent a declining part of the American electorate which is mostly based around white voters and, because of these institutions, as well as because of practices like voter suppression, they are able to perpetuate their political power. That is really the fundamental problem.
I think there is an element of truth to that. But I worry about the ways in which that narrative makes it harder for us to understand what's happening, in particular on the demographic level: the American electorate has significantly racially depolarized since 2016. In 2016, knowing whether the voter was white or non-white gave you much more information about who you were likely to vote for than it did in 2020 and more information in 2020 than it does in recent polls. We see that in places like Florida, which we might have expected to become strongly Democratic-leaning as they diversified (that was certainly the assumption of Democratic strategists for much of the early 2010s), and which has instead become quite solidly Republican even as they've diversified, not because of voter suppression, but, in the main, because of the ability of Republicans to appeal to them.
How does the narrative of a tyranny of the minority square with what seems to be the shockingly effective ability by a Trumpified Republican Party to appeal to a growing share of non-white voters?
Ziblatt: I really, in some sense, agree with what you're saying. My vision, and I think Steve's vision as well, of a successful coping with this problem would in fact be when the Republican Party could win the presidency with the popular vote. It would be a great day for America if the Republican Party could win power with majorities fair and square, because this would mean the party is able to reach out to broad, diverse segments of the American electorate. And if it were able to do that, then we'd have two parties that are committed to the democratic rules of the game. If we can move in that direction, I think that that would be a great sign of success.
The account that we provide of how we ended up in this moment is, again, exactly as you described. We had highly racially-polarized political parties up until 2016. And I think, in many ways, the radicalization of the Republican Party has been driven by that racial division: the American Republican Party is predominantly a party of overwhelmingly white Christians, up until very recently. The question is, how does the Republican Party get to that place where it can be a multi-ethnic party? The African-American vote is still overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, Latinos as well. It's important not to overstate the amount of change that has happened.
Levitsky: The problem with our institutions is not so much that a white-dominated Republican Party is imposing itself on the majority—although that is happening in the Senate and occasionally happens in the Electoral College. Our greatest concern is that the rural bias of our institutions weakens the incentive of the Republican Party to broaden its appeal. And what you say about Florida is absolutely right. That's not representative of the country because Florida is a very strange brew of Cuban-Americans and other exiles from leftist dictatorships in Latin America. You don't see that as pronounced elsewhere. But I think we can agree that no matter the Latino vote for the Republican Party right now, this is not a party that is hell-bent on broadening its appeal. As Daniel pointed out, the success or reconsolidation of American democracy will occur when both parties are multiracial and equally capable of winning comfortable majorities in this country. And to get there, the Republican Party needs to become much more diverse and needs to make a broader appeal, notwithstanding Florida.
Mounk: I do think it goes well beyond Florida. We saw, for example, an important election, to the House of Representatives of a district in the south of Texas, which is overwhelmingly Latino, vote Republican for the first time.
Levitsky: Let's not be too simplistic. Who are voters in South Texas? They are rural, they are non-college educated, they’re churchgoing, and they're probably gun-owning. So we shouldn't be shocked should they vote Republican. Nationally, the vote is still close to two-to-one Latinos voting Democrat.
Mounk: But the trends are rapidly going the other direction. In one recent poll, Biden beats Trump among non-white, non-college voters 49 to 33, which is a significant margin, but it's much, much narrower than anybody would have predicted five or six years ago.
In the book, and you sort of referred to it implicitly in this conversation, you have nostalgia for this moment when Reince Priebus argued that Republicans need to become more politically moderate, to embrace immigration reform, in order to gain votes among non-white voters and become competitive with them. Now, I wish the Republican Party had gone that way. But it went in the opposite direction. And yet I think it has actually very effectively diversified; if you look at the 2020 RNC convention, it had a huge variety of voices in class and ethnic terms. When you look at the people who are on the debate stage, there's a lot of non-white candidates there. And we are seeing that rise in support. I'm wondering whether we, with our preferences that we share, have trouble seeing how elements of that working class, populist, angry-at-the-institutions-and-the-establishment (and perhaps even parts of anti-immigrant) rhetoric can appeal to a lot of non-white and Latino voters who have been in this country for a long time. Here's where I wonder whether the goal of getting a Republican Party that is more institutionally moderate, and the hope for a Republican Party that is more diverse, don't go hand in hand.
Ziblatt: The problem is this is not Reince Priebus’s dream; it’s his nightmare. The Republican Party hasn't won the popular vote for the presidency since he came up with that strategy. You're right that there's some movement, but let's keep this in the broad sweep of history here: 87% of African Americans vote for the Democratic Party; 60% of Latinos vote for the Democratic Party.
We decide if a party is successful or not based on whether it wins elections and whether it's able to win majorities, and the Republican Party is not able to win majorities. Our question, again, is: why is our democracy in trouble, and our democracy is in trouble because the Republican Party can't win majorities.
Levitsky: Let's be clear. There's a world in which the Republicans can win majorities that include a larger number of non-white voters and still be authoritarian. We're asking the question of why, after 150 years, the mainstream center-right party has gone off the rails, not accepted the results of an election, not been willing to impeach and convict a president who incited an insurrection, not been willing to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for an insurrection aimed at overturning an election? Why has the Republican Party turned authoritarian? You need a theory for that. Our theory focuses on the perception of existential threat faced by some members of a once-dominant ethnic majority that is losing its dominant status. But secondly and more pertinent here is the electoral institutions that dull the incentive of the party to adapt.
If you're right, and the rest of the country becomes Florida (and as a small-d democrat, I hope this happens), the Republicans build a multiracial base and are able to win popular majorities comfortably again, as they were in the 1980s, our theory is that the party would moderate politically (I'm not talking about immigration, I'm talking about towards democratic institutions). The party would again play by democratic rules because it doesn't face the same electoral or existential threat that it faces now. That is our theory of the party's authoritarianism.
Ziblatt: There are all sorts of things that might drive parties to radicalize. The perception of demographic threat is certainly one as well, that's what we are emphasizing. But our punchline is that our institutions are making this transition more difficult in the United States. And that's why our book is titled “Tyranny of the Minority.” Our institutions have distorted this transition process. And we need to get back to the work of democratizing our democracy. That's where we've fallen down on the job. There's a great American tradition of reforming our Constitution—doing the work to make our democracy more democratic after the Civil War, the Progressive Era. And right now we are engaged in a radical experiment of not improving our democracy. Over the last 50 years, we have essentially given this up. Our idea is that we need to get back to this great American tradition. We're operating outside of the American tradition, we're operating outside of the tradition of other stable democracies. Let's not compare the United States to Turkey, Poland, and India, but to Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Germany. And when we do that, where we are a real outlier is in our unwillingness or inability to make our system more democratic.
Mounk: What should we do if it were not so difficult to change? What kind of changes should we in fact make to set out our institutions in a more more lasting way to evade the problem you described?
Ziblatt: Our goals are not partisan. It's not partisan to think that the party who wins the most votes for the presidency should govern. The Electoral College, for example, throughout history, has sometimes benefited Democrats and sometimes benefited Republicans. The broader point is that it's unfair. Our proposals are ways of making our democratic system more fair. Other countries around the world have eliminated upper chambers, or they've made upper chambers, as with Germany, more proportional to population. They've introduced electoral reforms. We're the only presidential democracy in the world with an electoral college. These other countries got rid of it and democracy hasn't collapsed. We're the only democracy in the world without term limits, or retirement ages, for Supreme Court justices.
Levitsky: Here are some really straightforward—not easy, but straightforward—reforms. As we discussed earlier, we advocate for replacing the Electoral College with direct presidential elections. We advocate for a constitutional right to vote that exists in most democracies in the world. Americans are sometimes surprised to hear that they don't have a universal constitutional right to vote. I think that would help us fend off these politicized discussions over laws that are arguably aimed at voter suppression in certain states. And there are other non-Constitutional measures to make it easier to encourage voting: automatic registration, making Election Day a national holiday or moving it to a Sunday as in most democracies—just a series of steps in which the government not only doesn't put up obstacles but encourages and facilitates voting so that rather than 57-60% (on a good day) of Americans voting, we get up in the range of 75-80% of Americans voting in elections.
We also call for term limits on Supreme Court justices, either 12 or 18-year terms, in addition to combating what we call “intergenerational counter-majoritarianism,” that would help to depoliticize and lower the temperature in the judicial appointment process. We've gotten to the point where just about every Supreme Court vacancy creates a political and, potentially, even Constitutional crisis. A regular rotation in which every president knows that she or he is going to have two, maybe three appointments during the term will dramatically lower the temperature in the appointment process. That seems like a pretty straightforward reform.
Mounk: Many of the reforms you've listed in one form or another I would be on board with. I do have a question about your proposal to change the composition of the Senate. The case for how it's counter-majoritarian and how, from one democratic perspective, that is a concern, is relatively obvious. The difference between the number of voters in North Dakota who get two senators from the number of voters in California, Texas or New York, who also get two senators is very, very large. And, of course, we want each citizen to have roughly the same weight of our legislation. On the other hand, there are counter-majoritarian elements in virtually every federal system; in the European Union, where Luxembourg has one vote on many issues alongside Germany or France. In some contexts, it even has to be unanimous.
I wonder whether there is a normative case on the other side which you give slightly short shrift: that we see in other federal politics around the world that these counter-majoritarian concessions to the smaller units are just part and parcel of what happens. It incentivizes both parties to be able to play in a broad expanse of a country. And perhaps the remedy here is for them to go and play by these rules, rather than to complain about the rules. What do you think about that challenge?
Ziblatt: I agree with you that there is a function to be played by these upper chambers, especially in federal systems. But if one looks around the world, most unitary systems, that is non-federal systems, have eliminated these bodies altogether. They were kind of upper chambers representing aristocratic elites and they've been eliminated. Places where they continue to be robust are, you're right, federal systems. Let's take the German Bundesrat, which is the second chamber representing states. The difference between the German system and the American system is instructive. The Germans actually, after 1945, considered adopting a Senate model, with American troops on the ground with watchful eyes overlooking them. They considered it and didn't adopt it. Instead, they adopted a more proportional system: larger states get more votes than smaller states. It's not perfectly proportional. The small states are, in some sense, still over-represented: all of the small, tiny states in Germany get over-represented, but the over-representation is not as extreme as it is in the United States. Political scientists have measured how disproportional systems are based on the amount of representatives each state gets, and the US is the most malapportioned Senate in the world with the exception of Argentina and Brazil. It's just one more example of where we are way on the outer edge of where other countries are in the world.
We're not calling for the elimination of the Senate, we're not calling for a perfectly proportional Senate. Let's just make it a little more proportionate. That would ascribe a little bit more to basic democratic principles. And it's really hard to imagine an argument against that. But this is not at the top of the agenda of things that are going to happen. We're not only advocating for constitutional institutional changes, we're also advocating for thinking anew about our Constitution and realizing that this is a document that can’t be changed. By design, the founders encouraged us to do this. This is not the Ark of the Covenant—Jefferson warned us about treating it that way. Getting these ideas onto the public agenda and into public discourse is really the most important thing. And if that begins to happen, I think that would be a healthy development for democracy.
Mounk: Perhaps we can close the conversation with a little bit of an optimistic vision. If we are able to get out of this crisis and institutional reform is a big part of that, what does that story look like?
Ziblatt: What we really want is a day to come when the Republican Party can win power by winning a majority of the vote for the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. And even if you're a big-D Democrat, one should encourage that and hope for that day to come. Because if that day were to come, we'd have two parties fighting over votes, trying to win fair and square, and parties would not be trying to suppress the vote and not trying to overturn elections but fighting over things like climate change, gun control, and immigration. These are all legitimate issues of public disagreement. A democracy requires public disagreement and competition, but we can't have any of that as long as we're in the situation that we're in.
Levitsky: Some, if not most of the constitutional changes that we are calling for, are difficult in the US context. The US Constitution is the hardest in the world to amend. So we can't count on institutional reform. I think our view is that the institutional reforms that we're calling for are inherently good for democracy over the long run, no matter what. Getting to a world in which electoral majorities have a greater capacity to win and govern is better than what we've got. I think institutional reform will facilitate the transition to a more consolidated multiracial democracy. But institutional reform or not, I'm actually relatively optimistic in the medium term that we'll get there. I think we're in the middle of a really difficult moment. That moment is probably going to persist, it’s very difficult to foretell how long. But it's going to be with us for a while. We're headed for some rocky, rocky years. But looking in particular at generational change, and at the attitudes of younger generations, my expectation is that the institutions are strong enough (design aside) that we'll probably ride out this crisis and come out on the other side as one of the world's most interesting multiracial democracies.
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