Last Friday, Reed students, professors, and visitors packed into Vollum lecture hall to listen to Harvard University Professor Daniel Ziblatt speak on the current threats to American democracy and their potential solutions. Ziblatt, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government, is best known for his book How Democracies Die — a 2018 bestseller that he co-authored with his colleague Steven Levitsky. In his talk, he offered a glimpse into the ideas he explores in his book, including the history of democratic breakdowns, President Donald Trump’s demagogic behaviors, and how the United States can prevent its system of government from further decay.
After an introduction by Reed’s Associate Professor of Political Science Mariela Szwarcberg Daby, Ziblatt began his talk by describing a change in the way democracies die. During the era of the Cold War, three quarters of democracies were toppled swiftly by coups. Since then, the use of military force has been replaced by an “electoral road to autocracy,” in which political leaders exploit and corrupt democratic institutions once in office. This process, Ziblatt said, often happens steadily over time and without much notice from the general population — that is, until it is too late.
Ziblatt then drew a parallel between these countries and the United States; their constitutions are almost identical. Although many Americans credit the strength of their democracy to the Constitution, Ziblatt believes otherwise. “Constitutions are not self-enacting,” he said. Instead, they require something more: what Ziblatt calls “democratic norms.”
The two democratic norms, or unwritten rules, that Ziblatt identified as most vital in preserving American democracy are mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. He expanded on the latter for the rest of the lecture.
When political parties begin to view each other as an existential threat, they abandon the means of cooperation, and politics becomes warfare, argued Ziblatt. Parties will then adopt the strategy of “constitutional hardball,” or violating norms and pushing the bounds of legality by exploiting laws and institutional procedures to undermine their opponents. Historical examples of this in U.S. politics have included court-packing, gerrymandering, filibusters, issuing government shutdowns, and bypassing Congress by declaring national emergencies. In the Trump era, it sounds all too familiar.
However, ending political gridlocks at the turn of the century came at the cost of disenfranchising African-Americans during the Reconstruction Era, noted Ziblatt. The initial post-Civil War racial mobility threatened the Democrats’ control of the South, increasing the already-intense political polarization. Southern Democrats introduced voter literacy tests that would dramatically decrease African-American voter turnout. When Republicans finally gave up on the fight for racial equality, the two parties managed to achieve a level of mutual toleration, which persisted for nearly a century.
In face of the racial and cultural division between the Democratic and Republican Party today, Ziblatt suggested the solution of diversifying the Republican Party. As it stands today, the party is mostly composed of white Christians, a group that often feels threatened by the increasing diversity of the U.S. today. This fear has led to the recent far-right turn of the Republican Party. If the party were to attempt to appeal to more diverse voters, though, this fear for the future might not permeate the party as much, allowing more moderate policies to be favored. Democrats should also refrain from adopting a tit-for-tat approach, which could potentially normalize constitutional hardball. Instead, they should adopt “anti-hardball” strategies, such as responding to Republican gerrymandering by pushing for independent commissions to draw district boundaries. These compromises on both sides would make it less likely for support of either parties to be an inflexible component of one’s identity, and thus make compromise more feasible.
The lecture concluded on a positive note. Ziblatt denied the perception of democratic crises as an inexorable backslide toward disaster, and instead compared the dangers facing American democracy today to an earthquake. “They have deep fault lines. They can inflict major damage. But they do come and go, and they’ve happened in the past,” he said. “The biggest challenge is to get through our current political earthquake with our institutions intact.”
Following the forty-minute lecture, Ziblatt answered questions from an eager audience.
When questioned about whether democratic norms can survive political agendas that do pose an existential threat, such as a refusal to combat global warming, Ziblatt emphasized the importance of winning elections while tolerating some level of intolerance, or “publicly accepting what you privately despise.”
When questioned about how realistic it is for the Republican Party to change, he answered that the future is definitely uncertain. However, while the tragedy of American politics is that it never effectively combined mutual toleration and fully inclusive democracy, Ziblatt believes the two are not incompatible. “Maybe polarization and continued radicalization will lead to calamitous war. Maybe crisis is the way out. But I don’t think that’s the right way to go. My point in writing this book is to draw upon these lessons from the past so that we can make the necessary changes to save democracy — all without falling down a cliff.”