Is American democracy at a breaking point? How the Constitution enables minority rule, why distrust in institutions is rising, and what’s at stake for the future of democracy.
On this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Harvard professor Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of the new book Tyranny of the Minority, takes a hard look at the institutional inertia and political extremism that is threatening the future of American democracy.
Ziblatt argues that the nation’s precarious condition is defined by two contrasting views of what George Washington called “the last great experiment for promoting human happiness”: one that aspires toward a multiracial, multicultural democracy focused on equity and inclusion, and another that leans toward authoritarianism — a dichotomy Ziblatt says is epitomized by the events of January 5 and 6.
This conversation with Ziblatt goes beyond the usual suspects of failing institutions and flawed politicians to examine the role of the American populace in this democratic crisis. Ziblatt argues that the US Constitution, while revered, has become an enabler of countermajoritarian rule, allowing partisan minorities, particularly within the GOP, to wield disproportionate power.
This is exacerbated by a long-standing culture of distrust in American institutions, which has been intensified by a series of historical and contemporary events, from the assassinations of the ’60s to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ziblatt touches on the emotional and cultural issues that increasingly overshadow policy matters in American politics, further polarizing an already divided electorate.
Ziblatt asks whether the US — a nation struggling with technological revolutions, demographic changes, and a widening class divide — can find enough common ground to meet the challenge of preserving its democracy.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. Today, America finds itself at a crossroads, caught between two conflicting currents. On one side, there’s an aspirational vision of a multicultural, multiracial democracy centered on equity and inclusion. On the other side, a reactionary force aims to preserve a misguided notion of the past driving us towards authoritarianism. According to my guest, Harvard Professor of Government Daniel Ziblatt, the events of January 5th and 6th serve as a stark illustration of these opposing dynamics.
We’re in the midst of seismic shifts, technological revolutions, demographic changes, and a widening class divide. But the problem isn’t confined to institutions or parties or politicians. It also lies with the people. Our nation has been conditioned for more than a century to distrust institutions, a sentiment that has only intensified over the years — from the turn of the last century’s era of industrialization and racial conflict through the Cold War, the Kennedy assassination, and more recently to the COVID pandemic. While Donald Trump may have been the catalyst, the real fuel comes from the voters willing to discard democratic norms to protect their vision of a “real America.”
Certainly, we’ve faced challenges before and risen to meet them, but the pressing question now is: Can we rise to meet this one? In his new book, Tyranny of the Minority, Ziblatt argues that our Constitution inadvertently encourages counter-majoritarian rule. We’ve fallen behind the rest of the world by failing to modernize our political operating system, thereby allowing partisan minorities to wield disproportionate power.
For the GOP, electoral losses have become a signal to double down and consolidate power within a minority base. All of this is about the bedrock of American democracy. Tyranny of the Minority — Professor Ziblatt’s latest work, coauthored with his colleague, Steven Levitsky — serves as a clarion call, urging us to confront the institutional inertia and democratic backsliding that are plaguing the nation. It is my pleasure to welcome Daniel Ziblatt here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Daniel, thanks so much for joining us.
Daniel Ziblatt: Yes. Great to be with you.
Jeff: Well, it is great to have you here, even on a subject that is a little bit depressing in and of itself. One of the things that has been written about and that you and your co-author talk about is this idea that multiracial, multi-ethnic democracies don’t have a very good track record. And it seems that when you add in technology, the speed at which events are moving today, the distrust that’s inherent in our process, plus the state of our Constitution, it’s not a very promising picture. Talk about that first.
Daniel: Yes. Well, first, I should say that these developments that you talk about in many ways are very welcome developments. I think America is a much stronger, much more vibrant society because of its diversity and this is a dynamic that’s been part of America from its early days as a country of immigration. So the question is, how do we cope with the challenges that accompany this?
And one of the things that we make the case for in our book is that there’s a reaction to this, one with historical precedent. Our first attempt at creating a multiracial democracy, after the end of the Civil War, in the US South, where voting rights were extended to African American men, though not to women. This was a valiant effort, but it faced a backlash and a reaction of those who were being displaced or felt they were being displaced. The White property holders of the US South pushed back against this and dismantled the emerging democracy.
So similarly, today, we have an increasingly diverse society, and after 1965 really a fully democratic society, in which Americans of all races, all citizens, have the right to vote. And, as throughout history — and we really studied, both my co-author and I spent a lot of time studying democracies in other parts of the world — moments of inclusion, though it’s not an automatic reaction, often tend to be followed by moments of exclusion, pushback efforts to restrict the vote and political rights. And so that’s essentially what we’re living through today.
Jeff: And as we see that pushback, I guess the broader question is — and it goes to the constitutional arguments and some of the things that you talk about in the book — this notion that we don’t have the operating system to accommodate this change. It’s difficult to deal with the pushback because of the system that we have.
Daniel: Yes. So the first point that we just talked about is something that I think a lot of people have pointed out. I think where we have a distinctive angle on this is really pointing out that our political institutions and our Constitution, which in many ways are admirable and have served us very well at different points in our history, do have a problem in that we have not updated our institutions. The thing to remember about our Constitution is that it’s a pre-democratic document. It’s the oldest written constitution in the world, which at some level, your listeners may say, well, that must mean it’s worked pretty well. And I think that’s right.
It’s a remarkable document. It’s worked very well throughout our history in producing stability. Yes we did have a civil war, but compared to other countries around the world, it’s been a remarkably successful document. It’s given us our prosperity, I think, in many ways. But one of the reasons why the Constitution has worked so well is that from the very beginning, we have amended it, we’ve changed it, we’ve updated it. Think of the Bill of Rights immediately after the convention. Think after the Civil War, the expansion of voting rights to African American men, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal rights for all citizens.
The beginning of the 20th century, women were given the right to vote; and, also the beginning of the 20th century, we began to elect our senators rather than appointing them. These all required changes to our Constitution. This continued all the way up. People did the hard work of improving our democracy up through the 1960s. And what we note is that really beginning around 1970, we stopped doing that work.
And unlike other democracies, which have continued to— which often began in much less democratic situations than we did/ I mean, our Constitution was, for all of its flaws, more republican and democratic, small-d democratic, than any other constitution at the time; but, whereas other countries have continued to improve their constitutions and make them more democratic, partly because of the difficulty of changing our Constitution, we’ve stopped doing that work. And I think you can’t understand the crisis that we’re in today without understanding the failure to continue to democratize our Constitution.
Jeff: Which raises the question of why we have entered this stasis period with respect to the change in the Constitution?
Daniel: Yes. It’s a really good question and we contend with that a bit in the book. And there are a couple of different things I would point to. One thing is that the US Constitution is actually the hardest constitution of the world to change, which is not a small detail. Again, if you want to understand why we are where we are, there’s two paths in the Constitution for amending the Constitution. One is the constitutional convention, which I don’t think is— we don’t make the case for that. I think that would be quite a dangerous path to go.
But there’s a more common route, which is to amend the Constitution through a procedure where two-thirds of the House of Representatives approves of something, two-thirds of the Senate, and three-quarters of the states. Now, that’s really a cumbersome process and the founders were right to make this difficult because we don’t want any political leader to come into office and be able to change the Constitution. And most countries do make it difficult to change their constitutions. But other countries do things such as — it’s quite common in Scandinavia, for instance — to make it that you have to have two-thirds of two successive parliaments do it.
So, you know, essentially, it has to be done twice and with the supermajority requirement, but that makes it easier. So to take a country that we dig into a bit in the book: Norway. We’re really interested in Norway — it’s fascinating because it has the world’s second oldest written constitution after the US and yet it’s been amended hundreds of times. And today, Norway by all accounts, in these international indices that measure how vibrant a democracy is, Norway is among the most vibrant and enduring democracies in the world today. And that’s because it’s been easier to change the constitution.
So the first part of the answer to your question why we stopped doing this is that it’s always been difficult. But what’s different about now? And I think there’s two points I would make here.
One is we live in a highly polarized time. Which is part of the source of the problem but also a barrier to solving the problem, so it’s hard to get representatives of both parties to agree on these things. But I think an even more critical point, in a way that’s somehow underappreciated, is we’ve lost our constitutional imagination. I think most Americans respond to the idea that we could make our system more democratic with a sense of “Well, that’s never going to happen.”
And we’ve forgotten that this is part of the American tradition — and it’s what we’re doing today that’s actually radical. Our proposals are not radical. What we’re doing today is radical: engaging in this experiment of non-reform. And so part of the purpose of the book is to tell the stories of how the Constitution has been changed in the past in the US, as well as in other countries, to remind Americans that this is our democracy and we can change it.
A poll that just came up, which I just saw this morning before I came on the air, is a survey done by Pew that finds that overwhelming majorities of Americans want to get rid of the Electoral College. We’re the only democracy in the world with an electoral college for selecting a president. So, between the fact that we’re a total global outlier and that most Americans want to change this, this is something that we should begin to think about.
Jeff: How much difference does it make in a country like Norway, that the population is so much more homogeneous than it is with what we’re trying to do here in America?
Daniel: Well, very interesting you raised that point. Twenty percent of Norwegian people living in Norway today are foreign-born, which is a number very similar to our own numbers. So it’s true that the US is a country that has been a pioneer in a sense, in diversity, and a country of immigration historically and since the 1960s as well.
But what’s so fascinating is that a lot of Europe’s countries facing different history — not Norway, but other countries with history of colonialism, let’s say France — are the counterpoints to our history of slavery. And also then have become, in the last 30 years, much more diverse political societies.
So, in a way, I think we have more substantial challenges on this front, given our direct history of slavery. But all societies are becoming more diverse, and everywhere this is prompting a backlash. And there’s authoritarian backlash in Sweden; there’s a right-wing party that’s in power, in a coalition government. There’s Le Pen in France, almost won the presidency. In Germany, there’s far-right movements, and so there’s a real backlash everywhere.
And what’s so fascinating is that these patterns of backlash look very similar from country to country. It’s usually around 30 percent of the electorate, which is a similar number according to most estimates of the MAGA core of the Trump base.
The difference between the United States and a lot of these other countries is that our Constitution allows that 30 percent into power in a way that other countries don’t. So even in a place like Sweden or in Italy, where you have far-right parties in power, they’re always in coalition; they have to form coalitions. And so this contains the damaging effects, I think, of these movements. In the United States, our system empowers this minority, and that’s why we call this the tyranny of the minority.
Jeff: How much does distrust of government and distrust of institutions play a role in this? That seems to be amped up here more than it is, for example, in some of the European countries we’re talking about.
Daniel: I think you are right. And you mentioned this in your opener that this is part of the problem, but I think this is a barrier to reform. It’s also a source of alienation that provides fertile terrain for extremist forces who appeal to voters by saying, “The system is rigged. Come support us.”
But I think one way of thinking about how we get out of this situation— certainly there’s lots of avenues of trying to address this, but I think one of the sources of alienation and disaffection and distrust is the fact that very popular things are often getting thwarted.
Take gun control. Overwhelming majorities of Americans think that there needs to be some kind of— maybe disagreements on amount, how much gun control, but there need to be some limits put on the use of guns and the sale of guns and distribution of guns and access to guns. But these very popular bills are often held up in the Senate by the filibuster.
Or take action on climate change, abortion rights, efforts to raise the minimum wage.
There’s all sorts of very popular policy ideas — they’re supported by majorities of Americans — which are often thwarted by our institutions. And so my sense is that if we had a system in which majorities could actually speak — and this is why, again, we make the case for reform such as eliminating or weakening the filibuster — that this would generate a sense of enthusiasm and possibility that we can control our own democracy.
And I think so many Americans feel that they can’t change their democracy, and so they become disengaged, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy where you think, “Well, my vote doesn’t make a difference, so I won’t vote.” And that comes true because, in fact, not voting is going to lead to outcomes that you don’t like.
Jeff: One of the things that plays into this, and that we see inherent in our politics today, is this division between policy issues on the one hand and culture-war/emotional issues on the other hand. Talk a little bit about that and the way that is really feeding into this danger.
Daniel: We talked about race already, but there are a whole range of other hot-button cultural issues. And these are issues upon which it’s easy to mobilize voters. And so if you have policy positions, which are not particularly popular and can’t garner majority support, it’s very common for politicians to try to change the topic of conversation to issues that can generate enthusiasm. And so we have this outrage industry both in the media as well as among politicians.
If you’re pushing for complex policy proposals that aren’t very popular, and that are not going to mobilize voters, you’re not going to win elections. And so it’s much easier to talk about really hot-button, simplified issues. I was actually just recently looking at the 1912 Progressive Party platform — which was Theodore Roosevelt, after being president, ran for president a second time, and he lost the Republican nomination and ran as a Progressive Party candidate.
And this long document with detailed policy proposals, including things such as giving women the right to vote, an income tax, these complex policy proposals. What’s so striking today is the Republican Party in the 2020 election didn’t even have a party platform. Didn’t even have a platform because the party wasn’t really running on ideas.
And so I think what very often happens if a party doesn’t have ideas, what you do instead run on is resentments. The thing about running on resentments is it’s like a short-term fix for a party because you can maybe win an election in the short run, but over the long run you’re inflaming your population and it’s a very reckless form of politics.
Jeff: Since the constitutional solutions don’t seem to be effective, as we’ve been talking about, are there extra-constitutional answers to maybe begin to turn this ship around? Even things as controversial as they are, like third and fourth parties that may come along, that change the dynamic, change the landscape in a way that shakes it up enough that something positive could happen.
Daniel: In our book, in our last chapter, we have 15 proposals for reform. And so I encourage your listeners to go look at that. Some of these are really stretches and others are more realistic. And it’s not a random list. There was a real logic to the list. The list is of reforms that other democracies have introduced, number one, so things that have been proven to work well. And in some of them in fact there’s a path to reform.
Some of these things that I think that don’t require constitutional change and are within reach include some institutional reforms, such as getting rid of or weakening the filibuster. The filibuster has been changed often throughout its history; as late as the 1970s, the threshold for getting a bill through was lowered. It could be lowered again. And all this requires is a vote in the Senate.
There’s carve-outs for the filibuster. You could add a carve-out for, let’s say, the protecting of voting rights. So this is one that only needs the Senate to approve, does not require a president to sign. It does not require the House of Representatives to support it, let alone other states. So that’s one thing — the filibuster reform. Something else on our list is to have states pass laws that have automatic voter registration. Pennsylvania just recently did this. A lot of states are doing this to make it easier to vote.
And in most democracies around the world, governments make it easier for voters to vote. Not more difficult. And this is something that can be done at the state level, does not require constitutional change. If you have automatic voter registration, it makes it easier to vote and you will allow majorities to speak more clearly.
And I think this ultimately would have a positive effect. Similarly, voting rights protections at the national level. There was a bill that almost passed two years ago that got held up by the filibuster. So if we eliminated the filibuster, or weakened the filibuster, you could then pass voting rights reform at the national level.
Now, to come to your particular suggestion of multiple parties, I agree entirely with you. I think our democracy would be enriched with multiple parties. Most democracies do in fact have multiple parties. But here’s the catch. In our current system, the rules are set up. We have an electoral system where each congressional district sends one member of Congress. That is a system that really political scientists have demonstrated, lends itself to a two-party system. It’s very hard for a third party to win.
And so, given the rules of the game that we have, I think it’s a mistake to try to support third-party candidates because they will in fact not make it into office. And you may think, well, you’re sending a message to politicians, and I can understand that, but often it backfires because, in fact, you split the vote in a way that’s counterproductive and the guy that you don’t like might end up in office. If you want a multi-party system, one of the proposals we make in our last chapter is to introduce a form of proportional representation, which requires changing the voting rules.
So you have to get the sequence right. If you change the voting rules, and this is something that’s left up to the states, a key term here for people to look up is ranked order voting. It’s up to the states to determine their own voting rules. If you introduce ranked order voting, various forms of proportional representation, then it would be easier for more parties to emerge, and I think ultimately would all work to the benefit of our democracy.
Jeff: Some of these problems that we’re seeing on the national level are filtering down to states and state legislatures, and we see excessive gerrymandering and voting rights issues and things that are determined by the states that are reflecting many of the national problems that we’re talking about.
Daniel: That’s really where the battle is taking place right now. Sometimes people ask us, is the future in the United States going to look like Hungary or Russia? And I think that’s really exaggerated at the national level because you really have two parties, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, battling it out. And I think the Democratic Party is quite robust in its opposition to Trumpism and so on. But where you see many Hungarys occurring is at the state level. There’s really a lot of states in the US where voting rights are under assault, where efforts are being made to make it more difficult to vote, number one.
Number two, gerrymandering, where the state legislatures, once a party’s in power, redraw the boundaries to make it so it’s harder to vote them out of office. To give you an example of this, the state of Wisconsin is a state where there’s more Democrats than Republicans. So, for statewide offices, where everybody votes and every vote is counted for the governorship, there’s a Democratic governor in Wisconsin. But because of gerrymandering, those same voters produce overwhelming lopsided victories in the state legislature, because the way that the territory is carved up into districts, for Republicans.
Then, once Republicans are in office and control the state legislature, they are responsible for drawing boundaries, and they continue to draw boundaries in a way that makes it harder for them to be voted out of office. And then the final step of this process is to try to shape the court system. And so what’s happened in Wisconsin is really just a remarkable process where there was an election where you had a state Supreme Court justice selected— and they have elections for justices in the state of Wisconsin that the Republican state legislature is in the effort to try to overturn—
So that recently elected justice, [Janet Protasciewicz], when running for her judgeship, said that she wanted to take on gerrymandering. Once she’s come into office, the state legislature is pursuing impeachment against her, before she’s even ruled on a case, because they say she’s biased against them. And so there’s an effort to remove her from office. And all of this is hardball politics to try to entrench a party in power.
And so there’s a lot of states across the US where this is happening, and this is very worrying because, if you look back at American history into the 19th century — the Reconstruction period, which we described in pretty good detail in our book — this is where democracy dies is at the state level.
Jeff: And this is where the issue of there being so many moving parts in the process that it’s hard to imagine any grand bargain or grand solution. It raises the point that Donald Rumsfeld used to make, that if you have an intractable problem maybe the only solution is a bigger problem. Which really raises the question do things have to get worse before they get better? Do we have to bottom out in some way?
Daniel: Yes, I’m not a big believer in that theory of history. I think usually when we bottom out things just get worse. One might say that if we really bottom out, then we can learn. And that is true — I do think at some point democracies after going through a catastrophe learn and realize that there’s a lot at stake. And I think that this helps explain, for instance, the relative robustness of German democracies today. Having gone through the horrors of Nazism, the first couple generations after World War II really realized that democracy is something that needed to be defended.
So one might say, “Maybe we need to go through a process of really where we lose our democracy to appreciate it.” I’m a believer in a very clever line from Otto von Bismarck, the German statesman from the 19th century, who said that only a fool learns from his own mistakes; the wise man learns from the mistakes of others.
One of the reasons we wrote this book, really, is to try to draw lessons from history from other countries to warn Americans and let Americans know that there’s incredible opportunities, and to learn about them from other countries, and there’s also incredible dangers, and to try to avoid that fate ourselves. So I really hope that people look at it and realize that there is a lot at stake and we need to avoid bottoming out if at all possible before trying to reconstruct our democracy.
Jeff: We know how powerful personality and leadership is on the authoritarian side. We’ve seen it over and over again. What about leadership on the other side and how important is that?
Daniel: Yes, really very, very critical. I’m glad you raised that question. There’s two ways in which I think leadership really matters and can make a difference. Number one when faced with authoritarian threats it’s absolutely for—
In our book we lay a basic test of what holds the line against authoritarianism. Number one, if somebody or a party has to accept elections, win or lose. Number two, they have to not use violence to try to gain power. And number three, and this gets to the point of leadership, if you’re a mainstream party or politician or political leader, and your allies engage in any of those first two behaviors, you have to vehemently, vocally condemn, distance yourself from, and hold accountable anybody who engages in that kind of behavior.
Now it’s very tempting if you’re a political leader to look to the next election and think, “I would rather remain silent or justify or excuse bad behavior from my allies.” But looking at the history of democracy— and again, we recount this in the book, this is how democracies get into trouble: it’s when mainstream politicians who appear like democratic small-d, appear committed to democracy, ultimately choose their own career prospects over a commitment to democracy.
And I think that’s the situation we face today. This recent report came out of Mitt Romney describing many members of the Senate, many of his colleagues and party friends who said, “Of course, I know that Trump lost the election, but I’m afraid to go cross him.”
And what political leadership is, is the courage to recognize that some things matter more than party. This is a cliche, but it’s absolutely critical for democracies to survive.
It’s when political leaders don’t do that that democracy has gotten in trouble. So that’s one thing. And then a second point I would make about leadership is that leadership is about being creative and finding coalitions.
When the deck seems to be stacked against you in terms of trying to find a coalition to find partners to push through reforms, leadership is about political creativity and finding new alliances, finding new friends, finding new people you may disagree with about a lot of things, but you can cooperate with to form the coalitions to get reform through. I mean, this is how Franklin Roosevelt got the New Deal through. This is how any constitutional reform comes about. So political leadership is about political creativity and that’s something we should reward as well.
Jeff: I guess the other part of it is charismatic leadership because authoritarian leaders tend to be charismatic inherently — not always, but most of the time. We don’t necessarily see a countervailing amount of charismatic leadership coming from a democratic side, at least not enough.
Daniel: Not at the moment. No, that’s true. I think that people often talk about the power of the bully pulpit of the president who can get up and speak and convince people. Some political scientists have studied this a lot. And I think the bully pulpit matters, but maybe it doesn’t matter as much as we think. Often charisma happens behind closed doors. I think both things are necessary.
Clearly, you need to inspire people, motivate people, articulate a vision of a society that you want to live in. Without that, it’s hard to be a political leader. But on the other hand, it’s also critical to be able to do the hard work behind closed doors, forging coalitions, finding partners; and that stuff is less glamorous, but it’s just as important for democratic politics.
Jeff: And what does history tell us about generational change and the impact of that in this difficult situation for democracy?
Daniel: This is one area where I’m actually relatively hopeful in the United States. There’s two key pillars for multicultural, multi-ethnic, or multi-racial democracy. One is that embrace of diversity, a diverse society. And two is the idea of a political equality for people of all backgrounds. And if you look at public opinion surveys, it’s very clear that younger Americans are much more open to the notion of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy, and it’s really older generations that have the problem.
And so with demographic change, I think ultimately this is a slow-moving process. I think there’s room for hope. But the problem is that unless we change our institutions to allow those majorities to speak, we’re going to continue to be stymied, frustrated, disaffected.
Look at the groups of students and young people who are pushing for gun control; they speak for majorities. But at this point, they are not able to achieve the legislation that would prevent kids from getting shot in schools. And so generational and demographic change is certainly necessary, but my concern is that it’s not sufficient. We also have to do the work of changing our institutions to empower younger people.
Jeff: The other danger with generational change is that after a while they become frustrated and cynical about what they see.
Daniel: Yes, absolutely. So in our book, we ask the reader to imagine a young woman born in, let’s say, 1990. This person will have lived through the presidential elections between 1990 and 2020, in which the loser of the popular vote has twice won the presidency. In 2000 and in 2016. And if this was your only life experience, don’t you begin to think, “Well, is this political system really worth defending? Is this political system really worth trying to improve upon?”
And there’s great room for disaffection. So, I was born in the 1970s; if your listeners are born even before that, you have an image in your mind of how our political system operates. But again, think of young people growing up today and having witnessed the political system they’ve witnessed, and we have to make sure that we don’t get the disaffection that would understandably emerge out of that life experience.
Jeff: Daniel Ziblatt, the book is Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point. Daniel, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Daniel: Thanks so much. Enjoyed it.
Jeff: And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.