A Different Democracy, Indeed
A trip through comparative democratic reform.
Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of How Democracies Die, have a new book coming out, Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point which is excerpted in The Atlantic (thanks to Kingdaddy for the heads up). I very much suggest everyone read the piece: How American Democracy Fell So Far Behind.
The piece is long, but well-written and an easy read. It highlights a key problem that I often discuss here at OTB (and reinforces a lot of points made in A Different Democracy), which is the degree to which our constitutional order is far too skewed to empower a political minority over the will of the majority.
Indeed, I could have easily written the following paragraph:
[T]he problem lies in something many of us venerate: the U.S. Constitution. America’s founding document, designed in a pre-democratic era in part to protect against “tyranny of the majority,” has generated the opposite problem: Electoral majorities often cannot win power, and when they win, they often cannot govern. Unlike any other presidential democracy, U.S. leaders can become president despite losing the popular vote. The U.S. Senate, which dramatically overrepresents low-population states by giving each state equal representation regardless of population, is also frequently controlled by a party that has lost the national popular vote. And due to the Senate’s filibuster rules, majorities are routinely blocked from passing normal legislation. Finally, because the Supreme Court’s composition is determined by the president and Senate, which have often not represented electoral majorities in the 21st century, the Court has grown more and more divorced from majority public opinion. Not only does the Constitution deliver outsize advantages to partisan minorities; it has also begun to endanger American democracy. With the Republican Party’s transformation into an extremist and antidemocratic force under Donald Trump, the Constitution now protects and empowers an authoritarian minority.
America was once the standard-bearer for democratic constitutions. Today, however, it is more vulnerable to minority rule than any other established democracy. Far from being a pioneer, America has become a democratic laggard.
The bulk of the Levitsky and Ziblatt piece is a comparative journey through the evolution of various democracies to being more inclusive of majority rule instead of promoting minority rule, which I commend in full.
In broad brushstrokes:
Over the course of the 20th century, however, most of the countries that are now considered established democracies dismantled their most egregiously counter-majoritarian institutions and took steps to empower majorities. They did away with suffrage restrictions.
Indirect elections also disappeared.
Most European democracies also reformed their electoral systems—the rules that govern how votes are translated into representation. Countries across continental Europe and Scandinavia abandoned first-past-the-post election systems when they democratized at the turn of the 20th century. […] By World War II, nearly all continental European democracies used some variant of proportional representation, and today 80 percent of democracies with populations above 1 million do so.
Undemocratic upper chambers were tamed or eliminated…
Most 20th-century democracies also took steps to limit minority obstruction within legislatures, establishing a procedure—known as “cloture”—to allow simple majorities to end parliamentary debate.
Every democracy that has introduced judicial review since 1945 has also introduced either a retirement age or term limits for high-court judges, thereby limiting the problem of long-tenured judges binding future generations.
In sum, the 20th century ushered in the modern democratic era—an age in which many of the institutional fetters on popular majorities that were designed by pre-democratic monarchies and aristocracies were dismantled. Democracies all over the world abolished or weakened their most egregiously counter-majoritarian institutions. Conservative defenders of these institutions anxiously warned of impending instability, chaos, or tyranny. But that has rarely ensued since World War II. Indeed, countries such as Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K. were both more stable and more democratic at the close of the 20th century than they were at the beginning. Eliminating counter-majoritarianism helped give rise to modern democracy.
Let me pause and note two things. First, majority rule does not mean that a system does not protect minority rights. Such protections are endemic to democratic government. We are talking here about whether majorities or minorities get to make binding decisions for a society. Second, by definition allowing numeric minorities to make binding government decisions (or to block majorities from making decisions) is inherently anti-democratic, and therefore authoritarian.
The piece does go on to detail some movement made by the US in these areas (such as the popular election of Senators, and various extensions of the franchise).
In terms of assessment of where the US is at the moment, the following paragraph is an accurate summary.
In 2016, the Democrats won the national popular vote for the presidency and the Senate, but the Republicans nonetheless won control of both institutions. A president who lost the popular vote and senators who represented a minority of Americans then proceeded to fill three Supreme Court seats, giving the Court a manufactured 6–3 conservative majority. This is minority rule.
What makes the situation so dangerous is that this privileged partisan minority has abandoned its commitment to democratic rules of the game. In other words, the Constitution is protecting and empowering an authoritarian partisan minority.
But that Constitution appears nearly impossible to reform.
The history of an attempted Electoral College reform in the late 1960s detailed in the piece underscores how the deck is stacked against majority sentiment, specifically how minorities empowered by the Constitution can easily thwart numerically massive majorities.
I would add that a huge problem for us all here is that a major reason why the Republican Party is cleaving to authoritarian politics is that it understands that it is currently in the minority and that our constitutional structures give it control (partial or complete, depending on the given electoral outcome) while a reformed system that actually allows for majority rule would not be to its advantage.
This is all simply raw power politics and incentivizes Republican elites to promote the parts of the system that empower their positions. A reformed system would require them to compete in fairer contests, and the risk of losing is simply greater in that context. So, they would prefer to appeal to myths about the Framers, or lean on “we’re a republic, not a democracy” tropes without acknowledging all that means is that they prefer the minority-empowering elements of the US Constitution as long it is their minority that benefits.
This isn’t hard to understand. As I have repeatedly noted, the Republicans have only won the popular vote one time from 1992 to 2020. That was in 2004, to re-elect a president who won the first time with a close EC win and close popular vote loss. In fact, the last time the Republican Party won the popular vote without being the incumbent party was 1980. The incentive, therefore, is to double down on support for the Electoral College, which allows the minority to govern the majority, and to also then cloak that support in mythologizing the Framers (which is a potent appeal for an ostensibly conservative, but in reality reactionary, movement).
The US has clearly fallen behind the rest of the democracies world. We are stuck in pathways created over two hundred years ago, for a far different country (in a far different world).
At any rate, I highly recommend the Atlantic piece and I have already pre-ordered the book.