Books for Our Times: “Tyranny of the Minority: How American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point”
Fifth in an ongoing series, Books for Our Times
Following up on their bestselling book How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt now zero in on how specifically a democracy can die, this time specifically American democracy: It can happen when a political minority abuses democratic mechanisms to hold on to power. Thus the title of their instructive new book: Tyranny of the Minority: How American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point.
Mincing no words, the authors cite for political malpractice today’s Republican party, which they outright call “overtly antidemocratic” and “extremist.” The “attempted coup” of January 6, 2021 — “A violent insurrection, incited by the president of the United States,” Donald J. Trump — drives this book: January 6 was “an authoritarian backlash so fierce that it shook the foundations of the republic” (and clearly shook the authors). Given that America’s task is to fulfill its ideal of a multiracial democracy — America only became fully democratic, they claim, with passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act guaranteeing suffrage for all adults — they note:
“Meaningful steps toward democratic inclusion often trigger intense — even authoritarian — reactions. But [this] assault on American democracy was worse than anything we anticipated in 2017, when we were writing our first book, How Democracies Die. We have studied violent insurrections and efforts to overturn elections all over the world…. But we never imagined we’d see them here. Nor did we ever imagine that one of America’s two major parties would turn away from democracy in the twenty-first century.”
(I write as House Republicans, mired in three weeks of infighting to nominate a Speaker, have finally elected someone, Congressman Mike Johnson, who, a Trumpist, denies the validity of the 2020 presidential election — unsettling for the person second in line to the presidency.)
While the authors are academics — both are government professors at Harvard — they write plainly (they stow their sources in 80 pages of end-notes). Alarmed without being alarmist, these self-identified “political realists” pile fact on fact, drawing conclusions and offering tools along the way. They start with the question that the concerned reader will ask: How did we get here? Specifically: “What are the forces that drive a mainstream political party to turn away from democracy?” Their book (and this review) is organized to respond to that question.
Chapter 1, “Fear of Losing”: Never underestimate the obsession with winning or, conversely, the phobia against losing. Fear of losing is heightened during periods of major social change, when social status — “where one stands in relation to others” — is up for grabs: “When defeat feels like an existential threat to politicians or their constituents, they grow desperate to avoid it.” Our Founders were not immune: In history’s first transfer of power from one political party to another, in 1801, incumbent John Adams recoiled at ceding power to Thomas Jefferson. Adams and the Federalists had come to view partisan opposition as treason, even passing the Alien and Sedition Acts, used to jail the opposing Democratic-Republicans for criticizing the government. Ultimately Adams came to regard Jefferson as a “pragmatist,” not a “usurper,” but it was a learned reaction. “Once parties learn to lose,” the authors write, “democracy can take root.” Concluding, they write, recurring to loss of status: “Fear is often what drives the turn to authoritarianism.”
Chapter 2, “The Banality of Authoritarianism”: To show how easily democracy can slip away, the authors detail a signal day in French history — February 6, 1934 — when a mob of war veterans and militiamen stormed the Parliament, chanting “Hang the deputies!” In response, the center-left prime minister resigned, replaced by a right-winger acceptable to the mob. Yet, “fueled by their hatred of the left,” France’s conservatives “took a remarkably tolerant stance” toward the insurrectionists, claiming they were “heroic patriots who tried to save the republic from corruption, communism, and political dysfunction.” The “brains” behind February 6 even stated, “There are moments when insurrection is the most sacred of duties.” An investigation took place, but the report was “virtually toothless. In the absence of accountability…., French democracy was badly weakened. Within six years, it would be dead.” Enter: Vichy.
If this sounds eerily like January 6, that is the authors’ aim. Going forward, they cite three basic things that loyal small-d democrats must do: Respect the outcome of elections; unambiguously reject violence; and always break with antidemocratic forces. Ambiguity on any of these points is dangerous. “[W]hen mainstream politicians take the more expedient path of semi-loyalty, tolerating or condoning antidemocratic extremists, the extremists are often strengthened, and a seemingly solid democracy can collapse upon itself.” Thus “the banality of authoritarianism.” Discussed also is the oxymoron “authoritarian constitutional reform”: exploiting gaps (delaying a president’s Supreme Court nomination); excessive use of the law (pardons and impeachments); selective enforcement (“weaponizing” the law); and “lawfare” (laws targeting opponents). “Most twenty-first century autocracies,” conclude the authors, “are built via constitutional hardball.”
Chapter 3, “It Has Happened Here”: The allusion is to Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 dystopian novel “It Can’t Happen Here,” about how fascism descended on a disbelieving America. But, the authors claim, authoritarianism has happened here: in Wilmington, North Carolina (also Tulsa, Oklahoma), where Black success ignited white supremacist wrath. Wilmington, a majority Black city, was a “booming” port in the 1890s. Black prosperity enabled a vibrant civic life, complete with a Black-owned newspaper. Political participation soared, with Blacks elected to every level. “For a moment, one could see in Wilmington the stirrings of a multiracial democracy.” But: “The rise of multiracial politics triggered fierce reaction.” Fears of “Negro domination” sparked formation of 800 White Government Union clubs across the state. To restore white control, voter intimidation was not enough; it took a violent coup, in which 500 white supremacists gunned down any Black in the street: “The mob entered Wilmington’s city hall and forced all members of the biracial city government….to resign.” Thousands fled the city. Black turnout at polls in the state fell from 87 percent in 1896 to near zero in 1904.
But Wilmington only represents what happened, writ larger, to Blacks throughout the South after the Civil War. While Reconstruction held out promise — 1,300 Black Americans held public office during the Reconstruction era (1865–77) — it was not for long: “White reactionaries responded to the emergence of multiracial democracy by waging a terrorist campaign unparalleled in American history.” The Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror allowed white supremacists “to unconstitutionally seize power across the South — a process they euphemistically called ‘Redemption.’” State legislatures enacted “ingenious contrivances” — poll taxes, literacy tests. As a counter, the federal government and Supreme Court were largely feckless (justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, hero to many, renounced any federal role). So, yes, “it” has happened here — in the South, which “succumbed to nearly a century of authoritarianism.” “In the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Democracy died save in the hearts of black folk.’”
Chapter 4, “Why the Republican Party Abandoned Democracy”: Here the authors blame, not any one GOP politician, but the grassroots. Put another way: “It’s the base, stupid.” While, unbelievably now, more Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for the ’64 Civil Rights Act and ’65 Voting Rights Act, there were many right-wing Republicans who saw a future in becoming the White Man’s Party, such that “sixty years later that Republican party has become unrecognizable.” What began as a “Long Southern Strategy” — a decades-long GOP effort to attract white southerners who felt resentful of the policies that sought to level the playing field for minority groups — has now, write the authors, “created a monster. By the turn of [this] century, surveys showed a majority of white Republicans scored high on….‘racial resentment.’” Moreover, base voters feared losing their country: “Indeed, many white Americans began to feel like victims,” “angry about everything.” Thus: Donald Trump did not plant that resentment, he just harvested it. However, Trump did “accelerate the GOP’s radicalization”: Nearly two-thirds of Republicans now agree violence is justified to save America. And when Trump lost reelection, “it wasn’t just Trump who refused to accept defeat; it was the bulk of the Republican Party,” leaders and the base both. Credit the authors for bravely fingering the GOP base.
Chapter 5, “Fettered Majorities”: Majorities, by Constitutional design, are fettered so they don’t abuse their power and institute a tyranny of the majority. “Majorities can be….dangerous,” the authors note, with elected “village tyrants” assaulting individual rights in the majority’s name. (These civil liberties — freedom of speech, press, assembly — are pillars of a liberal democracy.) But if majorities are too fettered, the popular will that’s bound up in the majority is thwarted. “Modern democracy….combines majority rule and minority rights”:
“All democracies must….be tempered by a degree of counter-majoritarianism. But democracies must also empower majorities. Indeed, a political system that does not grant majorities considerable say cannot be called a democracy. This is the danger of counter-majoritarianism: rules designed to fetter majorities may allow partisan minorities to consistently thwart and even rule over majorities” [the authors’ emphases].
The authors also discuss the Founders’ compromises, notably those bearing on slavery to secure the Southern states’ ratification. A stunning datum: The infamous three-fifths clause, that held a slave was three-fifths of a human being, increased the South’s representation in the U.S. House by 25 percent(!). They also note the Founders did not aspire to build a democracy, but a republic: “Many….openly rejected democracy. The Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry….called it ‘the worst….of all political evils.’” Nor did they trust popular election of the president, but resorted to an Electoral College (which may actually be the worst evil).
Chapter 6, “Minority Rule”: “To consistently defeat or impose policies on larger majorities and, worse still, use the system to entrench its advantages”: This is minority rule, not democracy, and this is what we have in today’s America. In this chapter, the book’s heart, the authors detail how Republicans, winning fewer votes, control key levers of power. Take the Electoral College: In this century alone, the “winner” twice lost the popular vote but, winning the electors, won the White House; both “winners” were Republicans. And the Supreme Court: “Given the nature of the Electoral College and the Senate [every state, no matter its population size, has two senators], Supreme Court justices may be nominated by presidents who lost the popular vote and confirmed by Senate majorities that represent only a minority of Americans.” Two issues in which minority rule is far askance of majority will: abortion and gun control. The problem compounds even more, with GOP abuse of the gerrymander, the filibuster, the franchise (changing voter eligibility laws). It is here the term “authoritarianism” ominously enters the discussion, when, time after time but especially since the January 6 insurrection, Republicans fail the three-part test to protect democracy: respect the outcome of elections, unambiguously reject violence, always break with antidemocratic forces.
Chapter 7, “America the Outlier”: This chapter, short and distressing, charts America’s slippage among the world’s democracies. We are the only one still with an Electoral College. Our “heavily malapportioned” Senate remains intact, skewing toward a rural bias when the country is heavily urbanized. And the Senate filibuster: “In no other democracy do legislative minorities routinely and permanently thwart legislative majorities.” We are the only democracy in the world with lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices, which lifetime tenure has enormous impact on judicial review, wherein out-of-touch justices rule on enacted legislation (see again: abortion and gun control). Finally, “among democracies, the U.S. Constitution is the hardest to change, for it requires supermajorities in two legislative chambers plus the approval of three-quarters of the states.” The authors conclude: Our “excessively counter-majoritarian” Constitution empowers “an authoritarian partisan minority.” They go on: “But that Constitution is nearly impossible to reform. We are trapped, it seems, by our institutions. Is there no exit?”
Chapter 8, “Democratizing Our Democracy”: In their closing chapter, the authors restate America’s great experiment: “the construction of a vast multiracial democracy,” something still never been done, which the whole world watches. “We stand at a crossroads,” they assert, even going on to say (correctly I believe): “[E]ither America will be a multiracial democracy or it will not be a democracy at all.” What are the odds of our succeeding? The authors take heart in the “strikingly multiracial” protests after the George Floyd police killing in 2020.
Democratic reform is needed, though: Replace the Electoral College with a national popular vote. Make Senate representation proportional. Replace gerrymandering with independent redistricting commissions. Abolish the Senate filibuster. Establish term limits for Supreme Court justices, so presidents appoint the same number per term. Make it easier to amend the Constitution by eliminating state ratification. Tall orders, all, the authors concede, but vital. The authors also double-down on voting: “Extremist minorities are best overcome through electoral competition.” Reform is needed here, too: Correct the Constitution’s oversight and amend it to guarantee the right to vote. Establish automatic registration; ensure early voting and mail-in voting; and make Election Day a national holiday, to enable workers to vote.
In sum, this book meets concerned readers where they are at this juncture: hair on fire and heartbroken at the inroads that authoritarianism has already made in our beloved American democracy, thanks (or not) to a benighted political party, the Republicans. While the authors are silent on how to deal with the GOP’s far-gone delusional zeal, it is tonic to read a reality-based book that calls out that party’s antidemocratic and authoritarian project. And with proto-autocrat Donald Trump the likely Republican presidential nominee in 2024, this useful guide comes to us in good time. Bon chance, all loyal democrats.
For “PBS NewsHour” interview with the authors, see here. For my review of the authors’ previous book, “How Democracies Die,” see here. For my review of the Sinclair Lewis novel, “It Can’t Happen Here,” see here.