We Live Under Minority Rule: Daniel Ziblatt on American Democracy

We Live Under Minority Rule: Daniel Ziblatt on American Democracy

Daniel Ziblatt is sitting in his study in Newton, not far from the Harvard campus where he normally teaches as the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government...

We Live Under Minority Rule: Daniel Ziblatt on American Democracy

*Daniel Ziblatt is sitting in his study in Newton, not far from the Harvard campus where he normally teaches as the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government. Now everything is done via Zoom. Ziblatt is well-known for the book “How Democracies Die” which he published together with Steven Levitsky in 2018, written out of shock, as a reaction to the election of Donald Trump. Ziblatt is Director of the Transformations of Democracy Unit at WZB Berlin, Social Science Center and starting in 2021 a fellow at THE NEW INSTITUTE in Hamburg, working on the program “The Future of Democracy”.

Daniel Ziblatt, how's your mood so short before the U.S. election?

I feel a little schizophrenic. The street that I live on is very quiet. But you watch the news and it seems like we're on the verge of civil war. It's hard to make sense of the macro situation and my own micro experience on a daily basis.

The macro is your metier. In “How Democracies Die” you explain the mechanics of democratic decay, with specific emphasis on what some would today call “American fascism under Trump”. I am curious: Is there anything about the last four years that is constructive, positive, something to build on for change?

When the book came out, some people said that we were overly alarmist. I think in retrospect, we weren't alarmist enough. But you asked about hopeful signs.

If that is possible.

The most visible positive development in the last years is the Black Lives Matter movement and the response to the murder of George Floyd earlier this year – a mass mobilization of citizens. Overall, Americans have become much more liberal and inclusive and egalitarian on racial questions. Donald Trump thought he could mobilize white Americans in his divisive way. But the U.S. has changed, surveys have shown this: A majority of white Americans now think that African-Americans are mistreated, that racism is a real problem, that more needs to be done to address this.

There are other movements that play a role in American politics, like the Sunrise Movement addressing climate change. How are these movements changing the political dynamic or the fabric of democracy?

I think there's a generational change. It is very clear that younger Americans are very skeptical of the kind of politics and policies that Donald Trump represents. There is the potential for a transformation in our politics. I am not naive enough to think that we enter the promised land and everything will now happen smoothly if Joe Biden wins the election. But I think there are the elements there, at least for strong opposition to the kind of politics we're seeing. This is very much in contrast to other places where democracy has been threatened like Hungary or Turkey, places where the opposition has been very weak.

In the book, you point to the importance of norms for democracy, the fragile construction of citizens having to agree actually on what is abstract in a concrete way. If we talk about the younger generation which emphasizes matters of climate change and sustainability: Is there potential for a new system of norms?

Here I am less hopeful. In every political system and every social interaction there are unwritten rules, guiding behavior - what we describe as norms. The first norm is the notion of mutual toleration – to accept your opponents as rivals, not as enemies. The second is the use of forebearance or self-restraint and the intentional under-use of power that you might have in a particular office, because often political offices are very powerful. There you actually have to use self-restraint, because if everybody plays to the max, then you get chaos.

Trump thrives on chaos.

In order for these two norms to endure, polarization has to be low, because if polarization is very high and you're fearful of the other side: Why would you show self-restraint or why would you regard the others just as rivals, not enemies? In the United States, there is a long process of decline of this mutual toleration that, I tend to think, started on the Republican side. Historians can debate this, but I think that the evidence is pretty clear.

What can be done about this?

We can think of these norms as the soft guardrails - when the soft guardrails break, it's time to build hard guardrails and pass laws, maybe make constitutional changes, to reconfigure the whole process.

American norms, you wrote, were born in the context of exclusion. Danielle Allen, the Harvard political philosopher, describes the future challenge as building a multi-ethnic democracy where no particular ethnic group is in the majority. What do you think about that?

This challenge is not only confronting the U.S., but Germany and European societies as well. The demographic shifts that take place in advanced societies cause political turmoil. In the U.S., this problem is more acute because the legacy of slavery is very much present. Secondly, and this is a real difference between the U.S. and European societies: This real-authoritarian, hierarchical legacy is built into our political institutions.

How so?

There is a wonderful book by David Waldstreicher called “The Slave Constitution”. He identifies clauses in the Constitution that in some way or another are protecting the interests of slave owners. And those clauses are still in the Constitution. We're very much living with a document that was created in part by slave holders to protect slavery's interests.

This still shapes politics today.

The fact that we have a Senate with two representatives from each state, the way that the Electoral College is set up, and the way our presidents is elected, are all in some ways an outgrowth of that legacy. So it's harder to run away from that past. One thing that's promising is that there seems to be a growing majority of Americans who recognize this past and who are a kind of multiracial democratic majority. They way to move forward is really to allow the majority to rule the United States and the majority to govern.

Which is not the case?

One of the real vulnerabilities of our system is - because of this old constitution and an accident of history – that the Constitution overrepresents rural areas. In addition to that, Republicans are overrepresented in those rural areas. Therefore, we now have a system in which Republicans are able to win the presidency, win the Senate and the Supreme Court without winning a majority of the vote. And so we have, in effect, what you can think of as minority rule.

More concretely?

Only one Republican president in the last twenty years has won a majority of the votes. It was George Bush in 2004. Yet Republicans have controlled the presidency over twelve of the last twenty years. Republicans have a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate, although they don't have a majority of the votes for the U.S. Senate. 90 percent of the Republican Party’s voting base is white. So you have the potential where a white minority controls the political system without winning a majority. The Democratic Party is a multi-ethnic party. If we can allow the majority to to win elections and then govern, this will allow formal multi-ethnic society to thrive - a multi-ethnic democracy.

Which would mean changing essential parts of the voting system.

I am a big advocate of potentially adding states to the U.S. Senate. Or abolishing the Electoral College to undo this weird overrepresentation of minority areas. And then finally expanding the right to vote and protecting the right to vote. The more people vote, the more the majority speaks, the more inclusive our democracy is. I think there is the potential - if these kinds of reforms were introduced - that the United States could be a model for how to govern a multi-ethnic democracy.

The U.S. as the petri dish of democracy. Actually, it seems democracy was historically built out of fear of the majority. Alexander Hamilton, who helped draft the Constitution, expressed this very clearly. And the political scientist David Runciman constructs a historical argument, going back to Athens and antiquity: Democracy, he claims, was built on fear of the young, the poor, the uneducated. This fear of the majority is somehow implemented in a narration of democracy and that's very powerful.

The answer to this challenge has historically been the party – gatekeepers in the selection of the candidates who run for office. I think it's important for political parties to continue to play that role as a kind of filtration system. Then again: If we end up with Joe Biden and Donald Trump, choosing 78 year-old-men running against each other, you wonder: Is this really the best system for selecting our candidates? Although I think Joe Biden is a pretty good candidate - and a very talented politician.

Has your view on the question of majorities changed?

I'm less fearful of majorities than I may have been in the past. You might say: If you have too much mobilization, isn't this dangerous? I increasingly think that that's an overstated threat, that essentially there's wisdom in the majorities. I do think, on the other hand, that there are roles for gatekeepers, in media, science and social science.

All of these have come under pressure.

The decline of the traditional media outlets is a kind of democratization process, one might say, because now anybody can express anything they want and everybody can see it. But this does seem to open the way for demagogues, misinformation, conspiracy theories. I don't know what the answers to those questions are. Because in principle, more voices is good.

These are the questions we will face in the future.

Yes, that's the kind of cutting edge issue that we should be thinking about. Clearly some kinds of new regulations are necessary. Right now it is Facebook and Twitter themselves deciding. But if we're just relying on these big companies to regulate it, then we're letting them be the gatekeepers. There's less democratic accountability in that system than in one in which regulations are designed by democratically elected politicians.

When we talk about the future of democracy, I see three big challenges: digitization, unhinged capitalism, and the climate crisis. How do you view these challenges?

I think that unhinged capitalism and social media are not new phenomena. Media has always been disruptive - it's clearly more disruptive now, it's accelerating, it´s feeling particularly pressing. The same is true for the balancing of economic inequality produced by capitalism and political equality promised by democracy. But I would separate those two issues from climate change.


From my perspective the climate crisis is an unprecedented crisis – and what makes it so difficult to deal with is the timeframe of democracy, a slow moving process, incremental improvement. And that´s the virtue of democracy in fact. On the other hand the climate crisis is a fast moving problem and an emergency. So the question is: Can a democracy cope with this? I continue to think it is possible. But, that's a risky bet because if wrong, we're in trouble.

One last question: Who will take the oath as American president on January 20, 2021?

I'm hoping the same person who won the election.


(The interview was edited for length and clarity. You can watch the recording of the whole conversation here.)

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