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The Doom Boom

Democracy Is in Peril, Just Not the Way We Thought

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explained “How Democracies Die.” Then they decided to look even deeper.

Eight years on from Donald Trump’s descent down the escalator, the democratic doom boom in American commentary shows little sign of dissipating. “Democratic backsliding,” a term originating in comparative political science, is in the popular lexicon. The existence of a democratic “crisis” in the United States is now presumed across a wide swath of political takes (mine included). The January 6 insurrection marked an explosive denouement to Trump’s shambolic tenure, while the partisan response to it only seemed to confirm that a system-threatening genie had been let out of the bottle. And in a break from the normal patterns of punditry, academic scholars of democracy speak in more alarmed and perfervid terms than popular commentators. “This is no ordinary moment,” but one of “great peril and risk,” says one recent academic petition; “the crisis of American democracy is upon us,” states another.

But because democracy as a concept contains multitudes, so its crises are manifold. The erosion of protections against individual liberties and minority rights is one kind of democratic breakdown; the fettering of majority rule is a different one; government paralysis, still another. The populism of charismatic strongmen and the unaccountable rule of plutocrats are both recognizable problems of our age—but are they the same problem? Which one is ours? Even as the chorus of alarm has grown louder over the years, the diagnoses of the problem at hand have multiplied, shifted, and often grown muddled together.

Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point
by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Crown, 384 pp., $28.99

Step back to take in the whole of democratic crisis talk in the Trump era—or at least the discourse from everyone outside of MAGA world—and one can sketch out a broad analytical shift. An initial focus on the shocking breakthrough of authoritarian populism in a system once considered immune to it has given way, over time, to a reengagement with the more grinding institutional realities that have undermined the functioning of actually existing democracy in the United States for centuries. Tired: “American democracy is on the brink.” Wired: “American democracy has barely ever been tried.” Two successive books co-written by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are particularly instructive in tracing out that arc of change in diagnosis.

In the first panicked wave of Trump-era releases, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, published in early 2018, stood out as the Cadillac of democratic doom lit: pedigreed, sober-minded, and crystalline in its synthesis of scholarship on democratic erosion. Both are scholars of comparative political science at Harvard—Levitsky a Latin Americanist, Ziblatt a Europeanist—and the authors’ approach embodied the core theme of the first wave: It could happen here. The United States had no special immunity to the dynamics that undermine democratic functioning and, with Trump, had joined the world in its shared democratic discontents. But the book also bore some of the imprint of the first wave’s Trump-centric immediacy, rooting the current crisis in relatively recent history and emphasizing above all else the importance of elite norms that policed boundaries and stabilized political competition. The prescriptive upshot of the book was thus both small-c conservative in its restorationism and more than a bit fuzzy—dependent on exhorting the GOP to get its house in order.

Six years, three election cycles, two impeachments, and one insurrection later, Levitsky and Ziblatt are back on the crisis beat with a new book—and they’ve (largely) pivoted crises. Tyranny of the Minority swaps out How Democracies Die’s focus on woolly norms and the dangers of personalist demagogues for a thoroughgoing and hard-edged critique of “the core institutions of our own democracy.” The Constitution, deemed in How Democracies Die an imperfect yet “brilliant document,” now takes center stage as a strangler of majority rule and handmaiden to reaction, amplifying the power of the country’s “authoritarian minority.” The Biden presidency, in this view, offers some reprieve but no restoration, because “the conditions that gave rise to the Trump presidency—a radicalized party empowered by a pre-democratic Constitution—remain in place.”

Levitsky and Ziblatt still make comparisons with other countries to marvelous effect, thickening their arguments in a gumbo of historical and contemporary examples from Brazil, Hungary, Argentina, Thailand, Italy, Chile, Germany, South Korea, and countless other states. But they also dig far deeper than before into America’s own violently authoritarian past, and the way that America’s uniquely veto-laden and counter-majoritarian rules of the game have buttressed that violence. It makes for an inversion. If How Democracies Die cried with alarm that the United States was not in fact exceptional and was just as vulnerable to lapsing into basket-casery as any other country, Tyranny of the Minority sounds a different warning: Our institutions really are exceptional in their aversion to majority rule, and they mark our pathway to doom.

The path back out of that doom, however, is strewn with land mines. An institutional critique demands institutional reform, and Levitsky and Ziblatt cap off their excellent book with a worthy wish list. Yet they still worry about the kind of partisan norm-breaking that had taken center stage in How Democracies Die. That presents a dilemma: Because one party benefits systematically from the system’s democratic deficits, democratizing reform unavoidably entails its own kind of partisan hardball. And since there’s no taking the politics out of political reform, there’s no real prospect for changing the system without intensifying the very polarized party conflict that’s currently destabilizing that system. Democracy is fragile, yes. But at the same time, to paraphrase an old muckraker’s adage: Democracy ain’t beanbag.

The shock of the new, rather than the burdens of the old, preoccupied analysts in the immediate wake of Trump’s election. A populist authoritarian had captured one of America’s two major parties and won the presidency. To some, it reflected a growing disaffection with democracy in the mass electorate, a phenomenon captured in the title of Yascha Mounk’s 2018 book, The People vs. Democracy. But Levitsky and Ziblatt saw in the populist threat less a story of popular dysfunction than one of elite malpractice and irresponsibility. Trump’s ascendance, they argued in How Democracies Die, was the symptom of a disease affecting the whole Republican Party. Certain institutional changes, like the rise of direct primaries to determine party nominations, came in for some scrutiny, but the authors’ central argument focused on the importance of informal tenets that guide political behavior. Over many years, they argued, an increasingly demographically homogeneous party, pushed toward the extremes by well-heeled donors and activists, had come gradually to abandon a set of norms essential to keeping political conflict within accepted bounds and stabilizing democratic self-rule.

Two norms in particular were pivotal. Mutual toleration entailed “recognizing that our political rivals are decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens” and thus accepting their legitimacy as power-seeking actors in the system. And forbearance required deliberately restraining oneself from maximizing the exercise of institutional power so as not to destabilize the system as a whole. The modern GOP, increasingly prone to demonizing its opponents and ever more ruthless in the deployment of escalatory hardball for power, had discarded both of those codes of conduct, eroded its own capacity to police internal boundaries against extremism, and so forged a path to power for the man on the escalator.

The range of comparative cases the writers brought to bear on this story of norms and their unmaking sets How Democracies Die apart. It conveyed, with a scholarly depth rarely seen in tomes popular enough for airport bookstores, the insight that democratic self-rule has no equilibrium, no end point of consolidation. Rather, as a game requiring all players to serve simultaneously as competitors, referees, and rulemakers, it is shot through with potential negative feedback loops and escalatory logic that threaten its own unraveling. The task of keeping democracy alive is thus an active and endless one—a continuous commitment, as political scientist David Bateman has put it, to “an ongoing, indeed Sisyphean, recalibration.”

How Democracies Die’s preoccupation with norms and their vulnerability to erosion had its downsides, however. Informal tenets of behavior have blurry lines, and it was not always clear where the distinction between healthy, zealous political disagreement and destabilizing conflict should be drawn. Still less clear was what to do, as a matter of prescription, when one side of the conflict had jettisoned their fealty to democratic norms, given that those norms’ very value depended on a shared commitment to upholding them. Finally, the focus on stability collapsed distinctions among different political norms, lending How Democracies Die a sometimes gauzy depiction of U.S. political history and practice.

Levitsky and Ziblatt described counter-majoritarian practices in the U.S. Senate, such as individual holds and legislative filibusters, as “essential checks and balances, serving as both a source of protection for minority parties and a constraint on potentially overreaching presidents,” even as they went on to note their vulnerability to abuse. They deemed “dangerous” Franklin Roosevelt’s proposal to expand the Supreme Court to break its anti–New Deal majority and tut-tutted his third and fourth terms in office as a violation of the norm of forbearance. In turn, they categorized Congress’s rejection of the court plan and the later passage of the Twenty-second Amendment formalizing the two-term limit on presidents—a fetter on popular democracy enacted in a postwar moment of conservative dominance—as admirable examples of democratic guardrails being reinforced. And, looking ahead into the coming Trump era, they worried about “a dangerous spiral” that Democrats might perpetuate by losing sight of the better, norm-loving angels of their nature and playing hardball in the opposition.

But stability and democracy are not synonyms. As Levitsky and Ziblatt themselves took pains to acknowledge, the historical peak of the American system’s stability—the exceptionally depolarized mid-twentieth century—emerged as the by-product of political arrangements that entrenched racial apartheid in the South and excluded civil rights from national political contestation. But they never quite wrestled with the implication of that paradox, namely that the task of securing and expanding democracy might require its own kind of norm erosion.

Where are we six years later? Levitsky and Ziblatt open their new book, Tyranny of the Minority, declaring that Trump’s “assault on American democracy was worse than anything we anticipated in 2017” and taking little comfort in his reelection defeat as a signal of the system’s hardiness. The book’s first half extends the basic theme of How Democracies Die, detailing the GOP’s degeneration into a political apparatus permeated by extremists and gripped by apocalypticism over their opponents’ taking power. “Once parties learn to lose,” they write, “then democracy can take root.” In unlearning that norm of mutual toleration, Republicans have upended the political system. Their increasing pursuit of electoral manipulation (through efforts like gerrymandering), suppression (through onerous voting laws), and subversion (through harassing or co-opting the vote-counters of the system) amounts to democratic backsliding via “lawfare,” or the exercise of authoritarian power politics via legal and legislative hardball rather than overt violence.

When such efforts tipped over into open insurrection on January 6, 2021, moreover, the perpetrators and their avowed advocates could count on a much wider swath of party actors committed to deflection, evasion, and the kind of “anti-anti” arguments that avoided criticizing their own side without openly supporting unlawful or authoritarian actions. The late political scientist Juan Linz had called such careerist enablers of democratic backsliding “semi-loyal” democrats, and Levitsky and Ziblatt see those actors—who “do not oppose democracy out of deep-seated principle but are merely indifferent to it”—pervading modern, mainstream Republicanism.

In their behavior during and after January 6, Republicans invited disturbing comparisons to the French conservatives who tolerated, and eventually came to justify, a fascist-tinged riot in front of Parliament on February 6, 1934. And they stood in damning contrast to the Spanish conservatives who closed ranks with other mainstream political forces to condemn an attempted coup in 1981; to the opposition Peronists in Argentina who forcefully decried a regional power seizure by ideologically sympathetic military officers in 1987; and even to the political allies of Brazil’s heinous former president, Jair Bolsonaro, who earlier this year swiftly disavowed demonstrators’ storming of the national capital to protest alleged electoral fraud against their candidate, and then acquiesced to Bolsonaro’s effective political marginalization going forward. When a modern American party acts in ways that eerily echo the interwar European right while making Bolsonaristas seem like responsible democrats in comparison, there’s reason to panic.

Beyond panicking, though, what can be done? Levitsky and Ziblatt’s wide-ranging global tour of democratic breakdowns and buttresses, of semi-loyal snakes and heroic regime protectors, documents the who’s and how’s of democratic resilience in action more than it explains how countries can inculcate democratic norms and the temperance of hardball when such tenets begin to lose their hold. “A political science fixated on norms,” Jedediah Purdy wrote skeptically back in 2018, “fits easily with a political ethics based on virtue”—and therein lies the problem. We’ve seen what finger-wagging and calls for political courage have garnered in the contemporary GOP: a trickle of martyrs in the Liz Cheney mold, and, all around them, the sound of semi-loyal silence.

Just when it seems that Levitsky and Ziblatt’s argument might hit a cul-de-sac, however, they pivot. The second half of the book shifts focus sharply from actors to rules—from anti-democratic political behavior among movements, parties, and office seekers to the array of counter-majoritarian features baked into the American constitutional order.

With their new focus on institutions, Levitsky and Ziblatt tap into a tradition of critical constitutionalism that reaches back to the Progressive era. (“The Constitution was not meant to hold the government back to the time of horses and wagons,” declared a university president named Woodrow Wilson in 1908.) That approach has seen a twenty-first-century revival in works like Robert Dahl’s How Democratic Is the American Constitution?, Sanford Levinson’s Our Undemocratic Constitution, and 2014’s magisterial A Different Democracy, by a team of comparativist political scientists. But if they’re hardly venturing into uncharted territory, Levitsky and ­Ziblatt distinguish themselves by the clarity and scope of their account. For a one-stop-shop foray into the problem of America’s outlier status among democratic systems and the challenges of reform, Tyranny of the Minority cannot be beat.

So what’s so wrong with U.S. constitutional democracy? One might say that it was cursed by success. The Constitution has survived centuries of epochal change and existential conflict, lending the country bragging rights for operating under the world’s oldest continuing formal government charter. The downside of that endurance is that the American political process remains at once stamped by the preoccupations of eighteenth-century political thought—most notably, fears of popular democracy, of the potential tyranny of majorities, and of the prospect of regular and entrenched political conflict—and distinctly untouched by institutional innovations and normative developments that came later.

Famously, the U.S. political system fragments power. Federalism retains some sovereign and many shared powers for subnational governments at the state level. National power is separated among three coequal branches. The legislative branch itself is divided into two coequal chambers, with the upper house imposing supermajority requirements for most lawmaking. (The Senate filibuster, to be clear, stems not from the Constitution but from the chamber’s own internal rules.) The power of veto—of single-handedly blocking any law from passage—is enjoyed not only by each legislative chamber and the president but also by a Supreme Court wielding a maximalist version of absolute and unappealable judicial review. The policymaking process in the United States is a fiendish obstacle course laced with booby traps—and, as a result, the U.S. government is characterized by a uniquely strong status quo bias and, during periods of polarized conflict, severe gridlock and brittleness.

Perhaps less famously, the oldest democracy in the world also distorts and dilutes the electoral voice of popular majorities. The same legislative chamber fettered by a steep supermajority requirement for lawmaking is also one of the most egregiously malapportioned legislative bodies on Earth, by dint of a principle of equal representation of states that severely overrepresents the (disproportionately white and rural) residents of smaller states. The Constitution’s system for presidential selection, meanwhile, entails indirect election through an Electoral College that can—and how!—elevate popular-vote losers to the White House. Finally, those same federal judges enjoying the supreme authority to strike down any laws they see fit garner their lifetime tenures in office through no electoral process whatsoever.

Going back yet one more step in the democratic process reveals that even the exercise of the franchise itself is vulnerable under a Constitution that includes no explicit affirmation of individual citizens’ right to vote (only specific prohibitions on the denial of suffrage based on particular criteria). In the absence of such a positive right, the Constitution’s delegation to state governments of the actual administration of elections—including voting laws, election certification, and legislative district line-drawing—amounts to a kind of permission slip for state-level efforts at electoral repression and subversion.

Throw all of this together and you have something special. The encrusted, interlocking institutions of the American constitutional order leave voting rights vulnerable, misrepresent voters in the electoral system, and hinder majoritarian governance. Other longstanding democracies include some or other of the key features that contribute to these democratic shortfalls. Literally no other country besides the United States boasts them all. American exceptionalism is real.

Part of the reason this exceptionalism is so entrenched is that the same counter-majoritarian features of the Constitution also characterize its own prescribed process for changing them. Requiring the vote of two-thirds of both houses of Congress followed by three-fourths of all state legislatures for any change to be enacted, the U.S. Constitution imposes the most challenging amendment process of any such charter in the world. There are other reasons, rooted in matters of historical timing, social structure, and political economy, that help to explain why all the other countries now making up the club of “longstanding democracies” evolved their way into more fully democratic systems than did the United States. But the sheer difficulty of the formal amendment process is key.

One by one, over the course of more than a century, democratic states around the world passed constitutional reforms that equalized representation across urban and rural areas; disempowered or abolished outright their malapportioned upper houses; shed their filibusterlike counter-majoritarian legislative rules and Electoral College–esque institutions of indirect election; expanded suffrage rights down the class ladder and across gender lines (while forestalling the imposition of myriad de facto barriers to voting); and either adopted from the outset or switched over to electoral systems featuring multimember districts and proportional representation, rather than the older first-past-the-post model retained in Great Britain and many of her progeny. (Among the many other virtues of proportional representation systems, which produce stable multiparty competition: They are generally immune to the political gerrymandering we know so well, which depends on the manipulation of majorities in districts with single representatives.) The one area that has trended in a counter-majoritarian direction in the rest of the world over time has been the proliferation of systems of judicial review since 1945, though term limits and mandatory retirement provisions for judges have generally accompanied the spread.

And then there’s the United States. Following its precocious adoption of universal suffrage for all white men regardless of property in the antebellum period, the United States extended the suffrage via constitutional reform only fitfully, in the Reconstruction-era Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and in the adoption of female suffrage a half-century later. A few major reforms like the direct election of senators and the federal income tax managed to sneak in as well. But the basic apparatus of government has remained intact, and—aside from an amendment on congressional pay first proposed in 1789 but only ratified in 1992—the country has seen no formal constitutional change for five decades and counting. When the last new constitutional amendment passed Congress in 1971, giving 18-year-olds the vote, Ed Sullivan was still on the air and Sean Connery was still James Bond.

During the last reformist moment of the 1960s and early 1970s, whose ferment rocked all major U.S. institutions public and private, activists came tantalizingly close to breaching the constitutional wall—only to be thwarted yet again by all-American counter-majoritarianism. In 1969, a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College garnered widespread popular support and the endorsement of both parties’ leaders (including President Nixon). It managed to pass the House by a vote of 338 to 70. It then succumbed to a Senate filibuster, organized by Alabama Senator James Allen.

Both the lopsided numbers in favor of the reform and the fact that the now extinct species of conservative Southern Democrats helped to kill it hint at why the prospects of constitutional reform have collapsed since then. The great sorting-out of the parties by ideology, geography, and educational attainment has not only made such lopsided bipartisan votes inherently hard to come by as a general matter. It has also made one party—the whiter and more rural GOP—the sole beneficiary of each of the Constitution’s key anti-democratic features. (As Levitsky and Ziblatt explain, “the Constitution’s small-state bias, which became a rural bias in the twentieth century, has become a partisan bias in the twenty-first century.”) The evolution of the party system has ensured that Republicans stand to lose from democratizing constitutional reforms while Democrats stand to gain—and, unsurprisingly, opinion on reform has polarized in turn.

So far, so bad. But what does any of this have to do with Donald Trump, gonzo extremism, and insurrection? In Levitsky and Ziblatt’s formulation, the old, quotidian crisis of institutionalized minority rule bolsters and intensifies the new, headline-grabbing crisis of populist authoritarianism. The GOP’s radicalization has drivers both external to the party and internal: The shifting coalitional dynamics of race and the political economy of the Second Gilded Age have boosted extreme tendencies at the same time that the party has lost its capacity to structure and contain the right’s political activity. But in the standard democratic model, electoral incentives push against such extremism. The threat of vote loss should incline office-seeking parties to moderate their positions. As the GOP’s coalition has evolved demographically to become the exclusive beneficiary of the Constitution’s key undemocratic electoral features, however, that electoral incentive has correspondingly attenuated.

The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in every presidential election since 1992, with the single exception of 2004—yet has actually occupied the White House for 12 of those 31 years. If as few as 45,000 votes in three states had shifted from Joe Biden to Trump in 2020, then Trump would have won reelection despite losing the popular vote by seven million people. The GOP’s small-state-heavy coalition in the Senate represents a distinct minority of American voters. Even in the more representative U.S. House, the GOP has managed to gain a majority of seats in years when they lost the popular vote: In 2012, for example, Democrats got over a million more votes in the congressional elections but won only 201 House seats compared to the Republicans’ 234.

With this “electoral crutch” buoying the party’s prospects, internal voices making strategic arguments about moderation can be more easily ignored or shouted down. And so, as the authors put it, “Republicans became the beneficiaries of a certain kind of ‘constitutional protectionism’—institutions that dull the incentive to compete.” Indeed, while the authors warn that “American democracy can only survive with a Republican Party that is capable of winning national majorities,” by the 2020 election it was remarkably clear that no one, Republicans included, seemed seriously even to consider the prospect of Trump winning the popular vote. (Arguably the last conscious and self-confident vision for building a Republican electoral majority came during the era of George W. Bush and Karl Rove—and then went down in a hubristic blaze of policy failure at home and abroad.)

As the party as a whole has grown pessimistic about forging a majoritarian electoral project, and in turn ever more committed to pressing its minoritarian constitutional advantages, an all-purpose dismissal of democracy talk has come to the fore—captured well in the conservative quip, as annoying as it is ubiquitous, that “we’re a republic, not a democracy.” The creeping dismissiveness of democracy as an ethos is of a piece with the “postliberal” turn among elite conservative intellectuals, some of whom flirt openly with anti-democratic positions. And it can serve as something of a permission slip for GOP elites to tolerate, and rationalize through anti-anti argumentation, the more violent and disruptive efforts of authoritarian actors at the base. Thus does the ademocratic outlook of a party cushioned electorally by old political institutions serve to aid and abet the anti-democratic politics of the MAGA hard core.

The connection between minoritarian constitutions and reactionary-populist power is not an American quirk. “Counter-majoritarian institutions that thwart electoral and legislative majorities are often associated with authoritarianism, not liberal democracy,” Levitsky and Ziblatt insist, pointing to cases like the Chilean constitution under Pinochet and the system of civilian rule imposed by the Thai military after its 2014 coup. The rule of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party in Hungary offers a more pointed parallel. Though Fidesz in 2010, unlike Trump’s GOP in 2016, did manage to win a clear electoral majority, the distortions of the country’s plurality electoral system translated the party’s 53 percent popular vote margin into a two-thirds parliamentary majority that year. And in turn, that majority enabled Orbán to gerrymander parliamentary districts further in favor of his party’s disproportionately rural supporters, ensuring that, in 2014, Fidesz would retain two-thirds of parliamentary seats while only garnering 45 percent of the popular vote.

With Levitsky and Ziblatt’s institutional turn comes a better differentiated and thus more persuasive argument about norms. The twin pillars of liberal democracy are collective self-rule and civil liberties; the first is a majoritarian principle, while the second entails a counter-majoritarian commitment to protecting individual and minority rights. (Majorities must also be constrained when it comes to setting and enforcing the rules of democratic decision-making themselves.) But the first pillar means that “not all counter-majoritarian institutions strengthen democracy,” and that two domains in particular “must always remain within the reach of majorities: elections and legislative decision making.” Guided by these standards, the authors jettison even their partial earlier defenses of institutions like the filibuster, while casting a colder eye than before on the courts. (FDR’s court-packing plan, denounced as dangerous in their last book, is described more gently in this one as a democratic response to the court’s inherently problematic wielding of a counter-majoritarian power that binds future generations.) Because stability is not the end goal, the norms that shore up the political system are hardly all that matter to keep democracy alive. “Democracy is more than majority rule,” they insist, “but without majority rule there is no democracy.”

Whatever else one might say about Levitsky and Ziblatt’s prescriptions in Tyranny of the Minority, they are hardly vague and fuzzy. Notably, they have largely backed off from How Democracies Die’s advocacy of a pan-ideological grand coalition in defense of democracy, which they now deem in tension with democracy’s very raison d’être of generating choice and competition for electorates. (They also see it as likely to be self-defeating, since it would reinforce narratives of elite collusion.) The only thing that will break the grip of the GOP alliance between anti-democratic and semi-loyal forces is a major change in political incentives wrought by sweeping, formal constitutional change—and so the authors go there.

In the name of jettisoning the system’s counter-majoritarian vestiges, they advocate such modest reforms as the end of equal representation of states in the Senate; abolition of the Electoral College; cloture reform to eliminate the Senate filibuster; sweeping new voting rights legislation under the aegis of a new constitutional amendment affirming a positive right to vote; and term limits and regularized appointment schedules for Supreme Court justices. Having documented in gory detail the nightmarish difficulty of enacting constitutional change under the U.S. amendment process (the reform of which is also on their prescriptive wish list), Levitsky and Ziblatt acknowledge the steep odds that such an undertaking faces. But they insist on the importance of putting constitutional change back into mainstream discussion, to prevent “non-reform” from becoming “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” and they call for a sustained social movement to bolster the work of “advocates, organizers, public thinkers, and opinion makers” on behalf of a democratizing agenda.

One actor they conspicuously do not include among their prescribed agents powering a reform movement for small-d democracy is the big-D Democratic Party. Indeed, for all the ambition of their reform agenda and the newfound edge in their analysis, Levitsky and Ziblatt remain world-weary comparativists as well as writers inclined to frame their arguments for pro-democracy readers of varying political stripes. And so they still cast a cold eye on partisan hardball as a force in democratic politics.

But hardball is in the eye of the beholder. Back in 2018, another political scientist, David Faris, wrote a short tome calling for many of the same democratizing institutional reforms that Levitsky and Ziblatt now advocate. (The one major difference was that Faris also supported court-packing.) But Faris conceived of his audience as progressives smarting from 2016 and in need of an invigorating shake of the lapels to rediscover their nerve and beat Republicans at their own game. He gave his scrappy book the unsubtle title It’s Time to Fight Dirty—and for his troubles got singled out by Levitsky and Ziblatt in How Democracies Die as an example of the kind of escalatory tit-for-tat they thought Democrats needed to avoid. And even as the authors have now come around on the institutional prescriptions, they insist on describing them in systemic rather than partisan terms—as democratizing reforms rather than procedural means to power. But of course they are both. And of course Republicans know that, too—and can be expected to respond in kind.

Hardball politics can be ennobled politics. The epochal feat of democratization that was institutionalized in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and in a wave of legislation passed by congressional Republicans in the early years after the Civil War amounted to its own kind of partisan hardball, carried out at the point of a gun. Republicans motivated variously by stirring moral conviction and raw partisan fear (as they anticipated the defeated Confederate states gaining readmission to the Union with bolstered numbers in Congress, thanks to the end of the 3/5 compromise) pursued a crash course in interracial political mobilization and party-building, bending the constitutional system to their will in the process. In a space of a few years, they impeached and nearly removed a president, shrank and then re-enlarged the size of the Supreme Court to control the political makeup of its majority, gained effective control of the military to put the defeated Confederacy under continued occupation, and amended the Constitution to advance a revolutionary experiment in interracial democracy. At the apex of their ambitions (soon to be attenuated in the face of violent Democratic resistance), Republicans of the Civil War era embodied the emancipatory possibilities of parties as agents of change, and of political self-interest as a motor for democratic breakthrough.

None of that leaves us with any easy prescriptive lessons—only, perhaps, the reminder that political parties, as the one and only institution capable of mediating between social forces and state power through popular mobilization and ordered conflict, remain the pivotal actors in any solution to the current crises we might arrive at. At their best, parties simultaneously lend vitality and force to popular self-government while also inculcating the very norms that make self-rule sustainable. The fact that, falling short of those dual functions, they have so often proved accessories to democracies’ demise only underscores the point: Everywhere, and always, parties are how democracies live.

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