‘The Tyranny of the Minority’: How US democracy is under threat – review

With the possibility of Donald Trump returning to the White House and a proliferation of politically motivated acts of violence, the United States – the world’s oldest consecutive democracy – faces threats to its fundamental political norms, values, and institutions. 

In the book Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University and authors of the seminal global bestseller How Democracies Die, demonstrate that the US is especially susceptible to minority rule. 

Freedom House, which tracks the health of democracies around the world, recently ranked the US lower than every established democracy in Western Europe, as well as Argentina, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania. The Varieties of Democracy Institute deems the Republican Party’s commitment to democracy more like the Turkish AKP and Hungary’s Fidesz than similar Center-Right governing parties. Only 41% of Americans are satisfied with their democracy. Two-thirds of likely voters between the ages of 18 and 29 believe American democracy is “in trouble” or “has failed.”

Is US democracy in danger?

That said, their book, which draws on examples from pre-World War II France to 21st-century Thailand, is also urgently relevant to Liberal Democrats in countries across the globe.

A commitment to democracy, the authors indicate, requires respect for the outcome of free and fair elections; a clear and consistent rejection of violence or the threat of violence on behalf of political goals; and a refusal of mainstream parties to tolerate, condone, or enable authoritarian extremists – that includes expelling them from their own ranks and, if necessary, joining forces with political opponents to defeat them.

Former US President Donald Trump gestures in Nashua, New Hampshire, January 23, 2024 (credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)

Levitsky and Ziblatt make a compelling case that the greatest threat to democracy these days comes from fettered, not unfettered, majorities. Aspiring authoritarians, they indicate, secure their grip on power by playing a technically legal game of counter-majoritarian “constitutional hardball.” 

And Orban forced public television to air his propaganda and enlisted allies to purchase commercial media outlets, resulting in 80% of Hungarians exposed only to government-approved broadcasts. By 2022, the spine of Hungary’s democracy had “systematically broken, one vertebra after another,” and “under normal circumstances,” Orban cannot be defeated.

IN THE US, Republicans in the Senate violated the spirit – but not the letter – of the Constitution when they, in essence, stole a seat on the Supreme Court following the death of justice Antonin Scalia, by refusing to hold hearings on president Barack Obama’s nominee in an election year, and then confirming president Donald Trump’s election in 2017. In 2020, Senate Republicans ignored their own rule and confirmed an additional Trump nominee a couple of months before Joe Biden became president.

While they continue to celebrate checks and balances, the authors of Tyranny of the Minority maintain that Liberal Democrats must rid themselves of the notion that their Constitution is sacred, sacrosanct, and impossible to improve, rather than the result of “compromise, concessions, and second-choice solutions.” They must stop lumping together “rules that protect civil liberties and ensure a level playing field” with those that give an unfair advantage to “privileged and partisan minorities.” 

In the US, anti-majoritarian provisions include electing a president via the Electoral College instead of directly by popular vote; retaining a bicameral legislature with a severely malapportioned upper chamber; lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices; and a Constitution that is extraordinarily difficult to amend. Liberal Democrats must end “traditions” that are not mentioned in the Constitution at all, such as the filibuster in the Senate and the partisan gerrymandering of election districts.

Levitsky and Ziblatt point out, perhaps surprisingly, that the US, once a democratic pioneer, has become a laggard. 

During the 20th century, democracies throughout the world dismantled or weakened most or all of their counter-majoritarian institutions. Confounding conservatives’ predictions of instability, chaos, and tyranny, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the UK are “more stable and democratic” at the beginning of the 21st century than they were at the end of World War II.

By catching up with its democratic peers, the authors suggest, the US will be more likely to enact the policy preferences of large majorities on a federal minimum wage, abortion, and more restrictive gun laws.

Levitsky and Ziblatt know that, given the partisan rancor in contemporary American politics, obstacles to their reform proposals appear insurmountable. Nonetheless, they insist that even if significant changes are unlikely to be adopted anytime soon, it is essential that they become “part of a larger national debate.” And that an ambitious reform agenda be pushed by a large, inclusive, multi-racial movement committed to changing political discourse and behavior.

Pro-democracy forces prevailed in the United States in 2020 and 2022, the authors acknowledge. But just barely. And the factors responsible for the recent backsliding in America (and, by implication, of other countries), “a radicalized partisan minority and institutions that protect and empower it – endure.” 

“Our democracy remains unmoored,” they conclude. 

“History is calling again… future generations will hold us to account.” 

Glenn Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

  • TYRANNY OF THE MINORITY: WHY AMERICAN DEMOCRACY REACHED THE BREAKING POINT
  • By Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt 
  • Crown 
  • 368 pages; $28.99





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