The death of American democracy (explained)

Two Harvard authors suggest a looming crisis and how to solve it before 2024

By: - July 12, 2021 7:05 am

How Democracies Die, a book by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (Penguin Publishers)

If you want to know at what point America’s democracy started to die, experts say 2016 seems like a logical point: With nearly a year to go until his term expired, President Barack Obama’s attempt at appointing a Supreme Court justice failed when the Republican-controlled Senate vowed to block any nominee.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, both professors at Harvard University, said that even after the tumultuous Donald Trump presidency, democracy is in a recession that started before and will last until after the forty-fifth president.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are the authors of the best-selling work, “How Democracies Die,” and they presented “How Democracy Could die in 2024 and How to Save It,” on Friday as part of discussion with the group, Protect Democracy.

Both painted an ominous picture of a fragile U.S. democracy and a global rise in authoritarianism that hasn’t been seen in at least a generation. They warned that voter suppression laws, an outsized role for a minority party and movement that prizes the letter of the law over the spirit of it could lead the United States more toward authoritarianism.

Levitsky said that thriving democracies are built upon the principles of political parties committing to surrender power when they lose it through elections, that they seek power through elections, they refuse to support or condone undemocratic processes and support the electoral process, all of which Republicans have abandoned.

“It’s the first time a party has refused to accept the results of an election or not hand over power,” he said.

That could happen again in 2024, and 2020 may be seen as a warm-up, prelude or practice run for what is to come.

“They refused to eschew violence or break with extremist groups,” Levitsky said. “That is authoritarian behavior.”

Both Levitsky and Ziblatt said one of the key characteristics of democracy is something that is in short supply, forbearance. Forbearance is the notion of accepting, tolerating or acceding to a loss of political power because of the democratic process, and a resolve to regain it through the same process.

Voter suppression

Both experts also expressed concern that Republican-led legislatures were attempting to so drastically change voting laws and procedures even though virtually no examples of ballot fraud has been proven. Levitsky said the strategy of the Republican Party is to tilt elections in key battleground states like Texas and Arizona, in order swing the elections.

“A lot of these measures are technically legal but they have the result of disenfranchisement,” Levitsky said. “They allow one party to throw out ballots.”

Many of the laws that have passed at the state level make it not just a civil violation, but a criminal one, not to comply with the letter of the laws, reinforcing Levitsky and Ziblatt’s concept of “constitutional hardball.”

“What 2020 did was expose the soft underbelly of our elections,” Levitsky said.

He said that while the current Republican party has lost in the courts and even lost the 2020 election, it has been a huge success at energizing the base of voters and has raised millions in campaign funds for 2024.

“This is just a dress rehearsal of what is to come,” Levitsky said.

Minority rule

One of the common themes that the two Harvard experts focused on was the outsized role the minority party plays in American democracy. They pointed out that only once since 1992 had a Republican presidential candidate won the popular vote in an election. Moreover, a minority of Senators could invoke the filibuster to stop governance of the majority. And, Republicans in the Senate – 50 of them – represent 40 million fewer people than the Democrats.

“The idea that the filibuster is essential to democracies is not truthful,” Levitsky said.

He studies Latin American democracies and noted that many world democracies do not have a filibuster equivalent and still have robust, free governments.

Both scholars point out that the filibuster was used on average once per year between 1917 and 1961. Since then, it’s spiked to more than a dozen.

“This is not your mother or your father’s filibuster. Now, it’s a tool of obstruction,” Levitsky said.

Letter vs. spirit of the law

Ziblatt said one of the most dramatic tactics being employed today is using the letter of the law to crush the spirit of the law, or what he termed as “constitutional hardball.” He pointed to several examples of the hardball, including refusing to let the Obama administration nominate a Supreme Court justice after Antonin Scalia died.

Ziblatt and Levitsky said that while the constitution didn’t require the Senate to take up the nomination, it had also been the practice to let the sitting U.S. President nominate a selection. Likewise, another example is voting rights. While the letter of the law may allow lawmakers to change voting locations, restrict ballots or even outlaw mail-in ballots, the spirit of the law would argue for wider participation of eligible voters.

“It’s profoundly anti-democratic to turn away legal votes,” Levitsky said, speaking of state legislatures throughout the United States which have enacted more restrictive voting laws, while producing virtually no proof of voter fraud.

More media, not less

One other key area which both Ziblatt and Levitsky touched upon was the role of information and misinformation. For example, Levitsky said that many democracies were struggling with misinformation. For example, a minority party in Peru claims a stolen election – not so unlike the Republicans in America. There are similar conversations in Great Britain and Germany about politics.

“It’s worse in the United States than in Germany or Great Britain,” said Ziblatt. “However, a two-party system makes it more dangerous than in a multi-party system.”

In a two-party system, he said there can be two different, divergent and diametrically opposed sides, leaving citizens to believe two very different realities.

Both said the corrective action is more media reporting facts and information so that disparate realities can’t function independently. Levitsky said that state-run media of authoritarian governments is different than state-supported media like that of the BBC or Channel One in Germany.

“Those are critical and should be expanded in the U.S.,” Ziblatt said. “The existential threat is where both sides in a two-party system believe the other side is an existential threat.”

Pathway forward

Ziblatt likened the current condition of America’s democracy to a heart attack – a two-pronged problem that needs attention. Like a heart attack, Ziblatt suggested the need for immediate action to thwart death. However, he said that the conditions leading up to 2020 must be examined as well.

“We have a lack of formal guardrails that protect democracy,” he said. “If the unwritten rules of self-restraint are abandoned, then American’s election process can be subverted.”

Ziblatt said that national elections caused near-emergencies in 1824, 1876 and even 2000 with the contested election of George W. Bush. However, unlike 2020, those moments resulted in self-restraint and compromise, not accusations by an entire political party of stolen elections.

“The ballot box is the corrective to radicalization,” Ziblatt said.

The experts also said 2020 and beyond will be a challenge to many different groups – and a large-scale fight that hasn’t been undertaken since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.

“Americans, broadly speaking – haven’t had to fight for it,” Levitsky said. “It’s going to take an organized movement in America that fights for democracy.”

However, that only works if the ballot box is open to every citizen.

“If you don’t have free and fair elections, then democracy – and popular rule – can’t kick in and correct,” Ziblatt said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.