Oct 23, 2020, NYT, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Mr. Levitsky and Mr. Ziblatt are political scientists and the authors of “How Democracies Die.”
The Trump presidency has brought American democracy to the breaking point. The president has encouraged violent extremists; deployed law enforcement and other public institutions as weapons against rivals; and undermined the integrity of elections through false claims of fraud, attacks on mail-in voting and an apparent unwillingness to accept defeat.
In this, he has been aided and abetted by a Republican Party that has fallen into the grips of white nationalism. The Republican base and its white Christian core, facing a loss of its dominant status in society, has radicalized, encouraging party leaders to engage in voter suppression, steal a Supreme Court seat in 2016 and tolerate the president’s lawless behavior. As a result, Americans today confront the prospect of a crisis-ridden election, in which they are unsure whether they will be able to cast a ballot fairly, whether their ballots will be counted, whether the candidate favored by voters will emerge victorious and whether the vote will throw the country into violence.
Yet if American democracy is nearing a breaking point, the crisis generated by the Trump presidency could also be a prelude to a democratic breakthrough. Opposition to Trumpism has engendered a growing multiracial majority that could lay a foundation for a more democratic future. Public opinion has shifted in important ways, especially among white Americans.
According to the political scientist Michael Tesler, the percentage of Americans who agree that “there’s a lot of discrimination against African-Americans” increased from 19 percent in 2013 to 50 percent in 2020, driven in the main by changes in the attitudes of white voters. Likewise, a Pew Research Center survey found that the percentage of Americans who believe that the country needs to “continue making changes to give Blacks equal rights with whites” rose from 46 percent in 2014 to 61 percent in 2017.
Polls also show that Americans overwhelmingly reject President Trump’s positions on race and that they increasingly embrace diversity. Last year, about two-thirds of Americans agreed with the statement that immigrants “strengthen the country,” up from 31 percent in 1994. And according to Pew, the percentage of voters who believe that “newcomers strengthen American society” rose from 46 percent in 2016 to 60 percent in 2020.
America’s emerging multiracial democratic majority was visible this summer in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The killing set off what may be the biggest wave of protest in United States history. An estimated 15 million to 26 million Americans took to the streets, and protests extended into small-town and rural America. Three-quarters of Americans supported the protests in June, and large majorities — including 60 percent of whites — supported the Black Lives Matter movement. These numbers declined over the course of the summer. As of September, however, 55 percent of Americans (and 45 percent of white Americans) continued to support Black Lives Matter, levels that were considerably higher than ever before in the movement’s history. This is why Mr. Trump’s efforts to resurrect Nixon’s “silent majority” appeals appear to have failed. The majority — seeking not a heavy-handed return to America’s racially exclusionary past but steps toward its multiracial democratic future — continue to sympathize with the protesters.
Not only do most Americans disapprove of the way Mr. Trump is handling his job, but an unprecedented majority now embraces ethnic diversity and racial equality, two essential pillars of multiracial democracy.
Yet translating this new multiethnic majority into a governing majority has been difficult. Democracy is supposed to be a game of numbers: The party with the most votes wins. In our political system, however, the majority does not govern. Constitutional design and recent political geographic trends — where Democrats and Republicans live — have unintentionally conspired to produce what is effectively becoming minority rule.
Our Constitution was designed to favor small (or low-population) states. Small states were given representation equal to that of big states in the Senate and an advantage in the Electoral College. What began as a minor small-state advantage evolved, over time, into a vast overrepresentation of rural states. For most of our history, this rural bias did not tilt the partisan playing field much because both major parties maintained huge urban and rural wings.
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Today, however, American parties are starkly divided along urban-rural lines: Democrats are concentrated in big metropolitan centers, whereas Republicans are increasingly based in sparsely populated territories. This gives the Republicans an advantage in the Electoral College, the Senate and — because the president selects Supreme Court nominees and the Senate approves them — the Supreme Court.
Recent U.S. election results fly in the face of majority rule. Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once in the last 20 years and yet have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 20 years. Democrats easily won more overall votes for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018, and yet the Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats. The 45 Democratic and two independent senators who caucus with them represent more people than the 53 Republicans.
This is minority rule. An electoral majority may not be enough for the Democrats to win the presidency this year either. According to the FiveThirtyEight presidential model, if Joe Biden wins the popular vote by one to two points, there is an 80 percent chance that Mr. Trump wins the presidency again. If Mr. Biden wins by two to three points, Mr. Trump is still likely to win. Mr. Biden must win by six points or more to have a near lock on the presidency. Senate elections are similarly skewed. For Democrats today, then, winning a majority of the vote is not enough. They must win by big margins.Michelle Alexander on the power of this summer’s protestsOpinion | Michelle AlexanderAmerica, This Is Your ChanceWe must get it right this time or risk losing our democracy forever.June 8, 2020
The problem is exacerbated by Republican efforts to dampen turnout among younger, lower-income and minority voters. Republican state governments have purged voter rolls and closed polling places on college campuses and in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, and since 2010, a dozen Republican-led states have passed laws making it more difficult to register or vote.
Minority rule has, in turn, skewed the composition of the Supreme Court. Under Mr. Trump, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh became the first two Supreme Court justices in history to be appointed by a president who lost the popular vote and then be confirmed by senators who represented less than half the electorate. Amy Coney Barrett is likely to become the third.
In America today, then, the majority does not govern. This disjuncture cries out for reform. We must double down on democracy.
This means above all defending and expanding the right to vote. HR-1 and HR-4, a package of reforms approved by the House of Representatives in 2019 but blocked by the Senate, is a good start. HR-1 would establish nationwide automatic and same-day registration, expand early and absentee voting, prohibit flawed purges that remove eligible voters from the rolls, require independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional maps, and restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time. HR-4 would fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County vs. Holder ruling in 2013.
Doubling down on democracy also means reforms that empower majorities, such as eliminating the Senate filibuster. The filibuster, which was rarely used during much of the 20th century, has turned into a routine instrument of legislative obstruction. There were more Senate filibusters over the last two decades than in the previous eight. All meaningful legislation now effectively requires 60 votes, which amounts to a permanent minority veto.
A democratic reform agenda should also include an offer of statehood to the District of Columbia and to Puerto Rico, which would provide full and equal representation to nearly four million Americans who are currently disenfranchised. And it should include elimination of the Electoral College. The House last voted in favor of a constitutional amendment in 1969, but the proposal died in the Senate, at the hands of old segregationist interests. (As Senator James Allen of Alabama put it: “The Electoral College is one of the South’s few remaining political safeguards. Let’s keep it.”)
Not only would ending minority rule be inherently democratic, but, importantly, it would also encourage the Republican Party to abandon its destructive course of radicalization. Normally, political parties change course when they lose elections. But in America today there is a hitch: Republicans can win and exercise power without building national electoral majorities. Excessively counter-majoritarian institutions blunt Republicans’ incentive to adapt to a changing American electorate. As long as the Republicans can hold onto power without broadening beyond their shrinking base, they will remain prone to the kind of extremism and demagogy that currently threatens our democracy.
There is ample precedent for democratic reform in America. A century ago, like today, the United States experienced disruptive economic change, an unprecedented influx of migrants and the growth of behemoth corporations. Citizens believed that their political system had become corrupt and dysfunctional. Progressive reform advocates like Herbert Croly argued that Americans were living in a democracy with antiquated institutions designed for an agrarian society, which left our political system ill-equipped to cope with the problems of an industrial age and vulnerable to corporate capture.
The response was a sweeping reform movement that remade our democracy. Key reforms — then regarded as radical but now taken for granted — included the introduction of party primaries; the expansion of the citizen referendum; and constitutional amendments allowing a national income tax, establishing the direct election of U.S. senators and extending suffrage to women. American democracy thrived in the 20th century in part because it was able to reform itself.
Critics of reform assert that counter-majoritarian institutions are essential toliberal democracy. We agree. That’s what the Bill of Rights and judicial review are for: to help ensure that individual liberties and minority rights are protected under majority rule. But disenfranchisement is not a feature of modern liberal democracy. No other established democracy has an Electoral College or makes regular use of the filibuster. And a political system that repeatedly allows a minority party to control the most powerful offices in the country cannot remain legitimate for long.
Democracy requires more than majority rule. But without majority rule, there is no democracy. Either we become a truly multiracial democracy or we cease to be a democracy at all.More from Levitsky and Ziblatt on democracy’s woesOpinion | Steven Levitsky and Daniel ZiblattWhy Republicans Play DirtySept. 20, 2019Opinion | Steven Levitsky and Daniel ZiblattWhy Autocrats Love EmergenciesJan. 12, 2019Opinion | Steven Levitsky and Daniel ZiblattIs Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?Dec. 16, 2016
Location: 80, If you asked “the people” today anywhere, but especially in America, whether the people rule, most would find the idea somewhat quaint. Everywhere there is the view that society is divided between an elite and “the people.” Everywhere there is the view that democracy represents the elite. In the summer 2016, the University of Maryland conducted a massive study of voter “anger” with their government.7 The study found the highest level of dissatisfaction in the history of polling.
Location: 85, Ninety-two percent thought government benefited “big interests” rather than “all people”; 85 percent thought Congress “does not serve the common good”; 89 percent thought “corporations and their lobbyists have too much influence”; and 89 percent believed “elected officials think more about the interests of their campaign donors than the common good of the people.” Democracy, we believe, does not work for the demos.
Location: 91, For a democracy to favor the elite over the people is to add insult to suffering. It is to betray the very promise at the core of the institution. It is to reveal, in a word, that the institution has been corrupted. That corruption feeds the populism that now rages everywhere. We are angry.
Location: 103, The pace is quicker. The consequences of miscalculation will be greater. The cost of our incapacity to govern is much greater. But the dynamic of this populist moment is the dynamic of populism throughout the ages: When hope fades, anger flourishes. And the puzzle of our history is not why the anger grows, but why those who could address it do nothing.
Location: 105, …feel the emotion of this moment as fully as any. But the fearful urgency of now calms me. We don’t have the time that fury demands. We don’t have the luxury of tantrums. We must find our bearings and march. Whether we believe we can get there or not, we must take up the fight, now, and move.
Location: 108, clear and simple view of the core flaw within our current democracy. That flaw is unrepresentativeness—both of “them,” the government, and of “us,” the people.
Page: 2, a different flaw that I’ve also said cuts through everything: the corruption of money in politics. Even worse, evoking the words of Henry David Thoreau (“for every thousand hacking at the branches of evil there is one striking at the root”), I’ve called money the root to the problems of this Republic. That was a mistake.
While “campaign finance” is a problem, it is just one example of a more fundamental problem: unrepresentativeness. In this part, I map the dimensions of this more fundamental problem, including, but not limited to, the problem of money in politics.
Page: 4, Indeed, in the Constitution of 1787, many believed they had perfected the mix. In it, each thing represented—the people and the states—would be represented equally. The House would be “dependent on the People alone,” as Madison described it, where by “the People” he meant “not the rich more than the poor,”3 and with each representative representing the same number of people. The Senate would be “dependent on the States,”4 at least for its appointment,
Page: 139, THERE IS A SINGLE PRINCIPLE THAT STANDS BEHIND EVERY REFORM that our democracy needs. That principle is representativeness. The law must structure—and the Constitution must require the law to structure—the institutions of our democracy to ensure as much equality in representation as possible. The Constitution does this explicitly with respect to the states.
Article V requires that the “Equal Suffrage” of the states not be changed, at least without the state’s consent. So too must we assure the “equal suffrage” of citizens, against all the structures or devices or tricks or institutions that might deny that equality.
Page: 235, Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John R. Hibbing’s fantastic book, Stealth Democracy, makes a powerful and empirical case that, in fact, the only thing people really care about is process.6 What people judge, Theiss-Morse and Hibbing insist, is the fairness of what happened, not so much what happened. And their frustration with politics owes not to them losing, but to them believing that the system is just rigged.
Michigan – Fix gerry-mandering citizens’ effort
Page: 235, from the beginning, the movement was inclusive. “We really did try,” as she explained to me, “to accept anybody where they were at, and with the skills that they had.” They “crowd sourced skills.” Obviously, I didn’t know how to write constitutional language, didn’t know how to do bookkeeping, whatever. But we found people who had those skills—people who were willing to donate their time in that way,
Page: 236, If we would have done it differently, not as many people would have been engaged. Because they do feel like outsiders in that way, and it’s uncomfortable to be forced into such a brand-new experience. By using that [process], not only could we have people feel comfortable, but we also got a lot of creativity, and innovation, and people sticking with it for two years, because . . . they could feel like they were really valued. . . . That was really critical.
Page: 236, the issue was energized by the opposition. When the politicians and insiders stepped up to stop the movement, that just fed the force and purpose of the thousands who had joined.
Page: 236, finally, there is the hope. It might sound like common sense, but nobody is happy with the state of politics. I can’t say that enough. . . . [W]e don’t give other people enough credit, and so we just assume, “Oh, we’re the only ones who care.” I felt that way. I’m so guilty of feeling that way. But nobody is happy with the state of politics.
Page: 237, everybody wants to change the world. People want purpose. So if you can combine the frustration of, “I don’t like the status quo,” and “I know that this impacts me,” and “I want to do something about it,” there is so much potential that comes together to empower people to actually do it.
Page: 238, They began collecting at the end of October 2014 and set election day in November as their primary day for getting signatures. The team put out a call to all their volunteers. The volunteers met the team organizers on the turnpike. Most of the petitions got distributed up and down the state the weekend before the election. It wasn’t easy.
Page: 238, Maine, it was the winter, and they were suffering their first major snowstorm. But on election day they collected 30,000 signatures—40 percent of the total needed. Cara herself collected 900. As she recounts the day, “And I knew. I had 900 separate conversations, and I absolutely knew that it was going to work on that day. Because every single person whom I spoke to signed my petition. Every single person.” That unanimity was not hard to understand.
Page: 239, it was, in a similar way, crowdsourced. The team was filled with volunteers. The campaign “got everybody in the same room together, all working to solve a problem of democracy.” That multiplied the energy. And it helped everyone see how the solution they were fighting for was a solution that would help everyone.
Page: 241, the fourth lesson is the power of a different kind of politics. The campaign never attacked anyone. “You’re trying to promote something that will bring out the best in people,” Cara told me, “so you can’t attack people when you’re doing it.” They needed to practice the politics they wanted the politicians to live—because they knew that if they, too, seemed like politicians, that would be kryptonite for their movement.
Page: 242, The Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Devoted to “bridging the gap between mathematics and the law to achieve fair representation through redistricting reform,” the team (four full-time employees and a number of volunteers) provides scientific analysis of proposed electoral reforms and resources to citizens eager to engage.10 One of the most important groups nationally that has been engaged in this fight has been the League of Women Voters.
Page: 242, In New Jersey, the League had launched the “Fair Districts New Jersey” campaign in early 2018, with the aim to reform the state’s redistricting process. The campaign’s lead organizer was Helen Kioukis. The Fair Districts project had been monitoring the New Jersey legislature. They had been holding public meetings across the state to inform voters about the campaign and recruit supporters.
Page: 246, THERE IS ORDINARY POLITICS and there is constitutional, or as I will call it, platform politics. Ordinary politics is the fight between Republicans and Democrats. It is the stuff of professionals. It is the battle among those who make their career serving us as us. It is the world of Washington, D.C. Platform politics is different. It speaks differently. It aspires differently. The aim of platform politics is to craft the system within which ordinary politics happens. It sets the rules that the politicians must follow. It is the adult on the playground, the referee holding the whistle.
Page: 249, You’re More Powerful Than You Think, applied to the platform of democracy.11 We can win at constitutional politics when we can convince other citizens that the reforms move us, not left or right, but in the words of the Constitution, toward “a more perfect union.” America desperately needs platform reform. It desperately needs a democracy that all of us can trust. That is the single organizing idea throughout this book.
Page: 249, we need fundamental change within our political system. And if we got that change, we need desperately to complement it with critical changes in our constitution, too. As difficult as it is to imagine, the reality today is that we are only ever going to get that reform if we can inspire tens of thousands of Americans to, in essence, become Katie or Cara or Helen.
Page: 249, only ever going to trigger the energy that this kind of change needs if we can nurture the sense in ordinary Americans that this job is their job. Not as politician wannabes. Not on the way to the United States Senate. But as an act of service, like volunteering to go to war to defend the nation, or like agreeing to sit on a jury to judge a fellow citizen. The only way to change the rules today is to convince everyone that the change is for everyone. The only way to change politics is to convince everyone that the change itself is principle, not politics, that the change is instead simple democracy—expressed
Page: 250, HR 1 had practically every statutory reform that I’ve argued for in this book, from a version of public funding for congressional elections, to the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, to automatic voter registration, to gerrymandering reform. It was the most important civil rights legislation in more than two generations. Pelosi wanted to feature that bill because she wanted America to understand what America would get if America elected Democrats to Congress.
Page: 252, We need to fight these battles in a manner that strikes both sides as above the interests of either— as battles committed only to the interests of a republic. A republic. A representative democracy. A democracy in which we all are represented equally. That republic we do not have. That republic we have never had—if you count as citizens the people who obviously are.
Page: 252, By rallying the best in all of us. As citizens first, to a democracy, that could represent us, all equally.