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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The straitjacket of minority rule


A mob made up of supporters of then-President Donald Trump storm the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Jan. 6, 2021.

By Michelle Goldberg


One of the most influential books of the Trump years was “How Democracies Die” by Harvard University government professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Published in 2018, it served as a guide to our unfolding ordeal. “Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States — but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places,” they wrote.


Because that volume was prescient about how Donald Trump would try to rule, I was surprised to learn, in Levitsky and Ziblatt’s new book, “Tyranny of the Minority,” that they were shocked by Jan. 6. Though they’ve studied violent insurrections all over the world, they write in this new book, “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 21st century.”


What astonished them the most, Levitsky told me in an interview last week, “was the speed and the degree to which the Republican Party Trumpized.” In “How Democracies Die,” he and Ziblatt had reproved Republicans for failing to stop Trump’s rise to power. But at the time, he said, “we didn’t consider or call the Republican Party an authoritarian party. We did not expect it to transform so quickly and so thoroughly.”


“Tyranny of the Minority” is their attempt to make sense of how American democracy eroded so fast. “Societal diversity, cultural backlash and extreme-right parties are ubiquitous across established Western democracies,” they write. But in recent years, only in America has a defeated leader attempted a coup. And only in America is the coup leader likely to once again be the nominee of a major party. “Why did America, alone among rich established democracies, come to the brink?” they ask.


A disturbing part of the answer, Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude, lies in our Constitution, the very document Americans rely on to defend us from autocracy. “Designed in a predemocratic era, the U.S. Constitution allows partisan minorities to routinely thwart majorities, and sometimes even govern them,” they write. The Constitution’s countermajoritarian provisions, combined with profound geographic polarization, have locked us into a crisis of minority rule.


Liberals — myself very much included — have been preoccupied by minority rule for years now, and you’re probably aware of the ways it manifests. Republicans have won the popular vote in only one out of the last eight presidential elections, and yet have had three Electoral College victories. The Senate gives far more power to small, rural states than large, urbanized ones, and it’s made even less democratic by the filibuster. An unaccountable Supreme Court, given its right-wing majority by the two-time popular-vote loser Trump, has gutted the Voting Rights Act. One reason Republicans keep radicalizing is that, unlike Democrats, they don’t need to win over the majority of voters.


All liberal democracies have some countermajoritarian institutions to stop popular passions from running roughshod over minority rights. But as “Tyranny of the Minority” shows, our system is unique in the way it empowers a minority ideological faction at the expense of everyone else. And while conservatives like to pretend that their structural advantages arise from the judicious wisdom of the founders, Levitsky and Ziblatt demonstrate how many of the least democratic aspects of American governance are the result of accident, contingency and, not least, capitulation to the slaveholding South.


It’s worth remembering that in 2000, when many thought George W. Bush might win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College, Republicans did not intend to quietly accept the results. “I think there would be outrage,” Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Bush camp planned to stoke a “popular uprising,” in the words of The Daily News, quoting a Bush aide: “The one thing we don’t do is roll over. We fight.”


Most Democrats, however, feel little choice but to acquiesce to a system tilted against them. Depending on the Constitution for protection from the worst abuses of the right, they’re reluctant to delegitimize it. Besides, America’s Constitution is among the hardest in the world to change, another of its countermajoritarian qualities.


Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t have any shortcuts for emerging from the straitjacket of minority rule. Rather, they call on readers to engage in the glacial slog of constitutional reform. Some people, Ziblatt told me, might think that working toward institutional reforms is naive. “But the thing that I think is really naive is to think that we can just sort of keep going down this path and that things will just work out,” he said.


Personally, I don’t know anyone who is confident that things will just work out. It’s possible that, as The New York Times reports, Trump’s Electoral College edge is fading because of his relative weakness in battleground states, but he could still, running on a nakedly authoritarian platform, be reelected with a minority of the vote. I asked Levitsky and Ziblatt how, given their work on democracy, they imagine a second Trump term unfolding.


“I think the United States faces a high risk of serious and repeated constitutional crisis, what I would call regime instability, quite possibly accompanied by some violence,” Levitsky said. “I’m not as worried about the consolidation of autocracy, Hungary or Russia-style. I think that the opposition forces, civil society forces, are probably too strong for that.” Let’s hope that this time he’s not being too optimistic.

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