When Harvard professors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky wrote “How Democracies Die” in 2018, some critics accused them of being alarmist, insisting that the authors were overstating the threats to American democracy.
“In all seriousness, I don’t think we were alarmist enough,” Ziblatt told the Clark audience at the Oct. 26 Presidential Lecture in Tilton Hall. “American democracy is in trouble.”
Ziblatt made the case that “old, rich democracies” are particularly resilient and less vulnerable to toppling, like those in Hungary or Turkey. But U.S. democracy does look to be “on the precipice,” he said, pointing to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol as the most public manifestation of the steady erosion of democratic principles.
Ziblatt stressed that a strong constitution works best when it’s reinforced by robust democratic norms. “Mutual toleration” — acknowledging the legitimacy of your partisan opponents — and “institutional forbearance” — a shared commitment between parties to exercise self-restraint — are critical components of a healthy democracy, he said. Ziblatt cited a number of ways that these “soft guardrails” are damaged by “constitutional hardball,” such as the opportunistic use of presidential pardons and the Senate’s blocking of presidential court nominees and cabinet appointments. As an example, he noted that Argentina’s constitution was modeled almost verbatim on that of the United States, yet that country’s lack of guardrails allowed the late president Juan Perón to impeach judges and replace them with partisans who approved a law that made it illegal to show disrespect to the president.
“Words on a page are not enough,” Ziblatt said.
While the 2016 election of Donald Trump proved to be an inflection point in the weakening of political norms, challenges to U.S. democracy have been an undercurrent of national politics for generations. Ziblatt pointed to the “tragic truce” in the late 19th century that maintained the peace between the Republican and Democratic parties by allowing the disenfranchisement of citizens of color in the South. He recounted that the deterioration of democratic norms was accelerated in the 1990s when Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich fomented the use of hardball tactics against political opponents, a shift in culture that continued through the Obama presidency, culminating in the Senate’s refusal to hold a hearing on the president’s nomination of Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice.
Ziblatt said that to truly commit to democracy, participants must do three things: accept election results; reject the use of violence to gain power; and unambiguously break with violent and extremist groups on their own side. Those norms were breached when 147 Republican House members refused to certify the presidential election, with many declining to denounce the Jan. 6 riot, he said.
He also recommended four democratizing reforms that he believes will help preserve democracy’s guardrails: eliminate the filibuster, impose term limits and/or retirement requirements on Supreme Court justices, eliminate the Electoral College, and institute election reform.
“I’m actually quite optimistic,” Ziblatt said of the future of U.S. democracy. “It’s pretty clear the majority of Americans embrace core democratic values. The issue is that we don’t have the institutions we deserve. That requires lots of work, pressure on politicians, and mobilization. It’s in our hands.”