Daniel Ziblatt on American Democracy, the Republican Party, and the Tyranny of the Minority

Photo of Daniel Ziblatt
Photo credit: Annette Hornischer

Daniel Ziblatt is the Eaton Professor of Government at Harvard University and director of the Transformations of Democracy group at Berlin’s Social Science Center. He is the coauthor with Steven Levitsky of How Democracies Die and a new book The Tyranny of the Minority and the author of Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy.

Listen on SpotifyListen on AppleListen on Google

Access Bonus Episodes on Patreon

Make a one-time Donation to Democracy Paradox.

I think one of the greatest barriers to reform is thinking that reform is impossible.

Daniel Ziblatt

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:38
  • American Democracy – 3:25
  • A Multi-Racial Democracy – 16:36
  • Conservatism and Democracy – 22:34
  • The Republican Party and Authoritarianism – 35:37

Podcast Transcript

In 2000 Republican George W. Bush won the presidency even though he lost the popular vote by 500,000 votes or about half a percent. It was a quirk in the method Americans use to elect the president that everyone expected was unlikely to happen again. But in 2016 Donald Trump won the presidency even though he lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes or a little more than 2 percent.

The counter majoritarian quirks in the American system have only gotten worse over the last two decades. It allows the Republicans to win political power without building political majorities. Worse yet it incentivizes them to resist reforms. Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky call this the Tyranny of the Minority.

Daniel Ziblatt is the Eaton Professor of Government at Harvard University and director of the Transformations of Democracy group at Berlin’s Social Science Center. He is the coauthor with Steven Levitsky of How Democracies Die and a new book The Tyranny of the Minority. But he is also the author of another book called Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy.

I wanted to speak to Daniel, because his work on conservative parties helps us understand why they embrace democracy and why they resist it. But our conversation also shows our natural tendency to think in terms of democratic breakdowns and democratic breakthroughs is misplaced. The reality is the line between the two is dangerously close. It’s a cause for both worry and hope.

If you like this podcast, please support in any way you can. The show is currently looking for sponsors and institutional partners. If you belong to an organization or company that wants to support a podcast about democracy, please send me an email to jkempf@democracyparadox.com. I’d love to talk more. You can also provide financial support for the show as a monthly donor on Patreon or with a one-time donation at democracyparadox.com. Any help is always appreciated. But for now… Here is my conversation with Daniel Ziblatt…


Daniel Ziblatt, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Daniel Ziblatt

Hey, great to be with you.


Well, Daniel, your books have really been just outliers for work on democracy and political science. I mean, you’re writing bestsellers about democracy. That almost never happens. How Democracies Die is just a landmark book and you’ve now got Tyranny of the Minority, both written with Steven Levitsky, who’s another person that I greatly admire. So, congratulations for accomplishing that feat.

Daniel Ziblatt

Thank you very much. It is this kind of thing where you spend most of your career toiling away on a topic that’s of interest to other scholars in your field and then to discover suddenly that your base of knowledge has relevance beyond that kind of ivory tower environment is, of course, gratifying and also unexpected.


Most people who read these two books, How Democracies Die and Tyranny of the Minority are going to think that they really complement each other, that they really belong side by side. But in a lot of ways I felt that they were talking about very, very, very different topics. In fact, How Democracies Die is just like the title says, it’s about how we lose a democracy. This new book is not about losing a democracy, but about pursuing further democratization. So, should we be thinking about America, the United States, the subject of these books, as a country that is still losing its democracy or one that is still undergoing further democratization?

Daniel Ziblatt

Well, you’re right that they are connected. Obviously, we both wrote them. The covers look very similar. But beyond that, there is a connection. We wrote How Democracies Die, which came out in 2018, because we saw a set of dangerous signs in American democracy, having studied other democracies around the world and at other times and we wanted to send a warning to readers to say this is something that could happen here. The US has many differences from other democracies that have gotten into trouble, but there were these warning signs. So, we wanted to alert readers to that. That was really the purpose of that book. But as we went around talking about that book and talking to broad audiences and public libraries, academic settings, all sorts of different settings, television, media, people would always say, ‘Well, what can we do?’

I mean, people are genuinely concerned and want to take action. So, in some ways, this book is an answer to that question. It’s both a deeper diagnosis of why we’ve ended up in the situation we’re in, drawing on our strengths of thinking about other countries and other places and also then proposing ways to get out. That’s really the connection between the two.


But it really kind of brings up an idea here that we talk so much about losing democracy that it oftentimes assumes that we’ve completed the process. That we’re done. I mean, this book really kind of brings home the point that there’s a lot more work to be able to do. It has a Dahlian feel to that extent where Dahl wrote a book that I think is very similar to yours called How Democratic is the American Constitution? And in all of Dahl’s work, there’s this sense that there’s never really an, endpoint to democracy. That there’s always something that you can push to further democratize. And I think that this book really makes the case that in America, a lot of the problems that we have are that we’re just not democratic enough yet.

Daniel Ziblatt

Yeah, I mean, this is something that when I teach courses on democracy, I really make this point a lot as well – that democracy is a work in progress. The very idea itself is something that’s a relatively recent innovation in human history, in the modern form of democracy, representative government with all of the sets of institutions that are associated with it. This is something, really, that’s a late 19th, early 20th, even in some ways, post-1945 form. It’s something that’s never perfected. The world changes. Our values change. So, democracy itself is always a work in progress. That’s one important point. But you also highlighted another really interesting idea, which is that the US constitution was written in a pre-democratic era. So, it was not written to be a democratic constitution, in the modern sense of the term.

But over the past 250 years, Americans as citizens have done, and other countries have also done to their own constitutions, the work to make it more democratic. It’s not been a unilinear process. There’s been plenty of decades of setbacks, but it’s been a continuous process of constitutional amendments to make the constitution more democratic, to meet what kind of more modern conceptions of democracy are: an inclusive polity that includes all adult citizens; one in which there’s intense and robust competition; one in which you have a protection of civil liberties. These three pillars. I regard these as pillars of democracy, participation, competition, civil liberties, out of a Dahlian framework. These are things that have only come into existence really in the US after the 1960s. So, it’s an ongoing process.

What’s striking though about the US though, and this is really one of the motivations for this book, is that when we look at other democracies, other established democracies the US likes to compare itself to, Western Europe, wealthy countries of East Asia, whereas those countries have continued to make their constitutions more democratic over the past 50 years, the US has stopped doing that. In a lot of ways, the US has not become more democratic since 1970, let’s say as a kind of rough break point after the major reforms in the late sixties. I think that failure to continue to democratize in many ways leads us to the moment that we’re in today.


Why hasn’t the United States continued to democratize? I mean, it’s easy to say that it’s hard to pass constitutional amendments, but like you just mentioned, we had a constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 just in the early 1970s. So, why haven’t we made further efforts to democratize the country?

Daniel Ziblatt

Yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s sort of the point at which things ended. The failure to eliminate the electoral college… Certainly, the US, I think, let’s say in 2016 was more democratic than it was in 1970 – I want to be clear about this – I mean, in the sense that more people were voting, but we have not done the institutional reforms to bolster that. In some ways we’re living off the fumes of that earlier era, the 1960s, early 1970s. So why have we done this? This is really a great question. I think there’s lots of factors at work and we don’t definitively answer that in our book. But I think there are a couple of things at work that I would speculate about.

Number one, certainly higher levels of political polarization contribute to this and make it more difficult. Major moments of democratic reform in the United States, at least through the constitutional amendment process, have required bipartisanship just by definition to get the required super majorities. But there is another point and this is something that I really felt we came across when writing this book.

Part of the reason is that there’s been a kind of failure of political imagination. There’s a sense in which our system is stuck and it’s impossible to reform. It is as it is in a way and there’s like not much we can do about it. So, it’s just a failure of imagination and there’s an unwillingness to consider the idea. If one says there should be constitutional amendments to make our system more democratic, you’re kind of a crackpot, because it seems so unrealistic, which in some sense is right. But I think one of the greatest barriers to reform is thinking that reform is impossible.


So, some of the reforms that you talk about in the book are very bread and butter things like abolishing the electoral college, make it so that we just directly elect the president, put a right to vote into the constitution, make some reforms in terms of our legislative bodies so that it’s much closer to one person, one vote. We could go on and on. I think there’s something like more than 15 different reforms that you have listed, but behind all those reforms is a bigger picture idea, which is the creation of a multiracial democracy – Something that is very difficult to achieve and arguably could be said that no country has ever achieved before. Why is a multiracial democracy considered to be that much more democratic – like a step down the road towards further democratization?

Daniel Ziblatt

Yeah. I appreciate you noting that because it’s possible to come up with a checklist of reforms. But our reform proposals, some of which are frankly, unrealistic, but for purposes of consistency, we have an underlying theory that points us to those reforms. I think you’re pointing to exactly one of the key elements in that. So, in general, we think that what ails the American political system is that too often, it’s possible for a political minority that is the fewer number to govern over the political majority. Now, democracy is certainly more than majority rule, but without sufficient majority rule, you can’t have a democracy. In some systems, let’s say Israel today or Hungary, there may be too much majority rule. The effort to weaken the court in Israel represents that, but in the US we’re at the other end of the spectrum.

We have a system, unique in the world, with an electoral college. The only democracy in the world with an electoral college in which a president can be elected without winning the most votes and in actually losing an election can become president. So, that’s one point. Second point, it makes us a global outlier that we have the most malapportioned Senate in the world, according to the calculations that other political scientists have done, except for Argentina and Brazil. So, essentially that overrepresentation of small population states is extremely exaggerated.

Then we’re the only court system in the world where you have Supreme Court judges in the national courts who don’t have term limits or retirement ages. That’s a problem for two reasons. One, it means, of course, we want judges to be independent. That’s the point of judicial review and an independent judiciary. We don’t want judges to be beholden to politicians, but the other hand, we also don’t want judges to be so out of touch with voters that they’re making decisions that undercut their own legitimacy. That’s the risk that we face in the US with the absence of term limits and retirement ages. It means that judges who are appointed a generation ago are the ones making decisions and this only exacerbates this problem.

In any case, to get directly to your question, we’re a global outlier. So, we have a set of reforms that we think would allow majorities to more fully govern, recognizing, of course, that majority rule is not always the answer. There need to be carve outs for civil liberties, but we need to rebalance it. You know, recalibrate our system a bit. Now, when you mentioned a multiracial democracy, one of the ways of thinking about this is what is a multiracial democracy? Well, a multiracial democracy is a culturally, ethnically, racially diverse democracy in which individuals of all backgrounds have political equality. The greater the level of political equality whether in interactions with the state via police and rule of law institutions, voting, et cetera, the greater the level of equality, the more democratic the system is.

Democracy has moved through stages and in a diverse democracy what we’re really calling for is a democracy in which political equality is not constrained by ethnicity. So, in some sense, a very minimalist sense, all we’re saying is that all citizens have to be equal, but alert to the fact that race and ethnicity is often a way in which political equality is restricted. So, what’s striking about the US is that it’s pretty rare in history. It’s really hard to find cases where you’ve had a previously dominant ethnic majority lose its majority status in an existing democracy.

In some ways, you could say in South Africa. The democratic transition was an example of this as well. But part of the transition to democracy was the establishment of political equality across all ethnic groups. In our case, we’re a democracy in which a majority is losing its dominant status. This poses all sorts of barriers with groups feeling like they’re being displaced and so on. But that’s really in some sense where we think the US could potentially be a model someday.


So, what you’re saying is that if we were to accomplish this, what’s at stake here is that we could transform the United States from being a laggard in terms of democratic reform into being the model that others are trying to replicate and achieve.

Daniel Ziblatt

Yes. I spent a lot of time in Europe and spent a lot of time in Germany. When talking about these issues with Germans and Europeans, they also recognize that they face this issue. That as their own societies become more diverse, whatever the pathway to how one ends up in the situation, they face this challenge of how do you make sure that your democracy works for all citizens? This is not a discussion of group rights, which is a kind of tricky set of issues.

We’re just saying that all individuals should have the right to vote, all backgrounds so long as you’re a citizen of the country. You should be treated by the rule of law and the state equally, so in your interactions with the police. You should have as close to an equal chance of affecting politics as possible. Your civil liberties need to be protected as well. So, the US is in a situation where we are closer to this tipping point of ethnic diversity transforming society in deep and fundamental ways. We’re a more diverse society and, to put it in short, we face this challenge in some sense sooner than other democracies. I do think other democracies, if the US can do this, and I am actually in the long run, fairly optimistic, then it is a model for other countries to look at.


I think it’s important to recognize that most countries in the world are far more diverse than we realize in the United States. I mean, Europe is becoming much more diverse as you have more immigration come in. A much larger portion of the country is coming from places like the Middle East and North Africa and even Sub-Saharan Africa. Other countries that are developing countries are much more diverse than we recognize. Countries like India, Ethiopia, throughout Africa, have multiple ethnicities, a lot more diversity than we recognize. So, this isn’t just a problem for the United States. This is something that we see throughout the world.

But when we think about this idea of a multiracial democracy, I mean, this is deeper than just institutional reforms. We’re talking about political changes within the country such that both political parties are able to compete with cross racial support. That we don’t see ethnic minorities like African Americans supporting the Democratic Party disproportionately. That both parties would be competing within those races fairly evenly, or if one party was winning, it was because they were winning on issues, not because of identity. Is the problem that we’re not talking about, the elephant in the room, is it really the fact that the Republican Party has failed to be able to reform itself to be able to effectively compete in other demographics beyond just white Christian Americans?

Daniel Ziblatt

Yes. So, this process, in some ways, I’ve been describing an overly neutral and passive terms, can be a very unsettling process where your society is transforming. In the US we’ve had this challenge in that it’s generated a backlash, an authoritarian reaction, beginning in the 1960s. This has been primarily now located in the Republican party. It didn’t have to be that way. I mean, the Democratic Party, of course, was the party of Jim Crow from the 1890s into the 20th century. But since the 1960s essentially what’s happened is the Republican Party has become the party of racial conservatives through the 1980s and into the 1990s, whereas the Democratic Party is incredibly diverse, ethnically, racially, and become a very diverse rainbow coalition party.

The Republican Party, as American society has changed, has not. It has remained predominantly through the 1990s into the 2000s overwhelmingly white. Now, this kind of racial polarization is dangerous because if the Republican party can’t transform itself, it increasingly can’t win majorities and, in a democracy, in order to gain power, one ought to be able to win majorities. So that’s one consequence of this. The second consequence of this is that it has triggered existential fear among some Republican voters that the society they grew up in is being taken away from them. So, there are these surveys that I’m sure you’ve seen where some huge percentage of Republicans say force may be necessary to be used in order to preserve the American way of life. A high percentage of Republicans support that statement and survey.

So, this racial polarization is extremely dangerous and I think it in part is what’s fueling the radicalization of the Republican party. How this connects them to the institutional reform part of the story is that if you have a political system that over represents the political minority, that’s a problem. That’s always been a problem for purposes of fairness in American history. But when you combine that with the fact that there’s an authoritarian minority party that uses those institutions to leverage itself into power then that’s this kind of deadly, potentially lethal combination.

So, Steve Levitsky and my concern is that in a way our institutions, rather than facilitating this transition to a multiracial democracy is making it more difficult because it’s preventing the Republican party from adapting to these transformations in American society. Because if a party can win power without winning a majority of the vote, then the incentives to reach out to a broader segment of the electorate are reduced. If we consider the fact that the Republican party has only won the popular vote for the presidency one time since 1988. You know, I used to say to my students since you were born. But now, this is long since they were born. I mean, since 2004, and I mean the Bush election 2004 is the only time the Republicans gained the presidency while winning the popular vote.

So, in 2000, they didn’t. They won the presidency without winning the popular vote and then 2016. So, what this indicates is that the Republican party has difficulty building national majorities. Both for the office of the presidency, as well as the Senate, when Republicans win the majority of the seats in the Senate, it’s not because they’ve built a majority coalition in the population. It’s because of their over representation in small population states. So, Republicans can’t win these majorities. But usually when parties lose, they do what the Democratic Party did after the 1980s, when they were out of power. Bill Clinton revamped the Democratic Party or think of Tony Blair after the Labour Party’s decades in the wilderness after Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

When parties lose, they do like what firms are supposed to do as well when you lose. You seek out new strategies. You seek out new managers. You come up with a new marketing strategy, et cetera. That’s what political parties are supposed to do. But given our institutions that allow a party to gain power without winning a majority, the pressures to do that are lower. So, there’s a doubling down on essentially what has been to date a kind of white nationalist strategy.

You know, after the 2020 election, we recount the story in our book there was this gathering of the GOP national leadership. Donald Trump had now lost the popular vote for the presidency twice. At this meeting they met and rather than having a moment of rethink, they said we almost won. Let’s do it again. That’s where they made the key decision to keep in effect with Trump, I would argue. Could you really imagine that they would be pursuing this strategy in the absence of the electoral college? If they needed to win popular majorities, they would have to reach out to broader segments of the electorate and this would lead to a depolarization of our parties along racial lines.


So, I think this is where it’s really important to decide whether we’re thinking about the moment that we live in as a moment of potential democratic breakdown or a moment of potential democratization. Because I think how you read your book really changes how you think about the moment a lot. So, when I first read Tyranny of the Minority and I was thinking of it in the same light as How Democracies Die, I’m thinking about these reforms as a way to stabilize democracy that we have in the United States. But as I started to reflect on your earlier book that you wrote on your own, Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, I started to see more connections between the two.

Initially, I didn’t think there were connections, because your book on conservative parties is about the process of democratization and early decisions to get to democracy. I thought that because we’re in a different point in the timeline, that it wasn’t really relevant. But as I went back over your book and as I went through Tyranny of the Minority, I mean, I think I see more connections to this being a moment of hope for further democratization than one of potential breakdown. And that raises a lot of interesting questions, by the way, Daniel. I mean, it makes us think about the Republican Party very differently because the conservative parties in your book, both in the United Kingdom and in Germany, had a difficult decision before them which was if they pursue further democratization, would it harm their electoral chances?

That’s the same thing that the Republican Party is going to have to face. If they pursue further democratization, is that going to hurt them or is that going to help them? So, why is it that the Republican Party wouldn’t choose the route of Germany to break down democracy even further, because they look at the possibilities and they say if we democratize further this isn’t going to help us at all. This is going to hurt us because we can’t achieve majorities right now. Why would we think that we could do it if we democratize further?

Daniel Ziblatt

Yeah, I really appreciate the point. There is a connection. The comparison is interesting because they’re both aristocratic parties, but the British Tories really, at the end of the day, embrace democratic reforms. Reluctantly, I would say, but because they thought they could win elections and this in effect institutionalized democratic politics, because all democratic competition is not just about the people you like winning. It’s about parties competing for office. So, the German conservatives, by contrast, also an aristocratic party, equally antithetical and opposed to democracy in principle, resisted efforts to reform.

Part of the reason I argue that they resisted efforts to reform is that the imperial German constitution – which, you know, who would have thought that this would be relevant for understanding the American setting today, but the similarity, the connection is that there was a set of kind of footholds in that system that allowed them to hold on to power, even if they lost elections. So, before 1914, the Social Democrats were this prodemocratic mass working class party that swept elections. It was the biggest party in the national parliament and yet they had no influence on politics because the institutional structure was set up in such a way to guarantee the old aristocrats’ power through an upper chamber through state politics, the state of Prussia, and electoral systems at the state level in this federal system.

They created these carve outs for themselves, which allowed them to win power without winning elections. There was this incredible line that I always think echoes through today, which is a conservative at one point said, ‘We don’t want to be a big party. We just want to be a powerful party.’ The idea in a democracy, of course, is in order to be a powerful party, you have to be a big party. But in the case of Imperial Germany, they didn’t need to do this. So, they resisted efforts to democratize. The parallels I see with the American Republican today – certainly we have a much more democratic constitution. You wouldn’t want to push the analogy too far, but there is a similarity in that a party that can’t win national majorities can figure out how to nonetheless maintain power.

If they can rely on those crutches, in our book we call this constitutional protectionism, this limits their willingness and interest and capacity to compete in a free democratic competition. They will hold onto those footholds in the constitutional system. So, your question though is if that’s the case, why would the Republican party ever give those up? That’s really the $20,000 question or $10 million question, because in order for our democracy to survive at the end of the day, we need two parties that are competing for majorities. It’s true that we could get through the next election with the Democratic Party winning, if Joe Biden wins 2024, that’s true. That’ll get us through the moment of crisis. So, people should turn out and vote and this all makes a huge difference.

But if we think in the longer term, in order to avoid the kind of long simmering democratic crisis that we’ve been in now for six years, we need to have two political parties that can compete for office. So, the challenge is how to get the Republican party to at least act as a democratic political party. You know, what’s in people’s hearts? I don’t particularly care. I think what really matters is can they compete? So, some might say, well, it is unrealistic. Do you think you can change the rules? Why will they ever agree to rule changes? But my view is that unless we change the rules, there’s few incentives to do this. Democratic majorities need to be in power to pass institutional forms.

I think there is a path forward and that the first step on that path, for instance, has what might seem to be a relatively obscure institutional rule, which is the filibuster in the US Senate. This is something that if Democrats had a majority in the Senate, they could eliminate this or at least weaken it to allow for other legislation like voting rights legislation to pass. This is a kind of wedge into the really unreformable political system that could then eventually compel changes in the behavior of the Republican party.


Here’s where I’m struggling with the analogy. The Conservative Party was also struggling before the United Kingdom pursued a path of further democratization. The Liberals were doing exceptionally well, but the Conservative Party building efforts that allowed them to be able to build a cross class organization. They were able to compete both in the countryside and the city. They were able to compete with both the working poor and with the affluent and they were able to compete with all these different groups that made the prospects of democratization less worrisome. In Germany, you’re describing a situation that sounds very reminiscent of the United States in that they were disproportionately rural.

After World War I, when they did democratize and bring about Weimar Germany, which was far more democratic than the system beforehand, the conservative party kind of crumbled and allowed extremists, the Nazi party, to be able to dominate the right. It feels very similar in many ways to what happened in the United States in 2016, not Nazis, but Trumpists were able to take over and dominate the Republican Party and didn’t pursue a path of competing for further democratization. They went the opposite way. So, is it possible that pursuing this path of further democratization may actually just scare conservatives even further towards becoming even more reactionary?

Daniel Ziblatt

In the short run, that’s possible, but I sort of feel as if there’s no other way forward. I know the historical analogy is imperfect. The political system today in the United States is much more democratic than the imperial system was. So, in some ways the German conservatives are worse off even than the contemporary Republican Party. And I think there’s people in the Republican Party today who would like to compete as a relatively normal political party. But at this point are incapable of doing that. So, you’re right that there is this kind of dilemma where more democratic competition is exactly the thing that some Republicans fear. If that is pushed, then how will they react? So, that’s why in the short run, it is a very worrisome situation, but if we can get to the other side of that…

And this is where political creativity of our leaders and the ability to build coalitions and to figure out the sequencing of reforms is absolutely critical, because if we can get through to the other side, you know, then I think this provides a set of institutions that provide incentives for adaptation. I think that’s the challenge that we face at the current moment. Some people will say the Republican Party is already becoming more diverse. I mean, there’s talk of this happening. That there’s a decline of African Americans from 2016 to 2020 from 90% to 87%. I tend to think that we exaggerate the trends on this front, but at some level my sign of success is, as odd as this may sound, a Republican party that is actually diverse and competes.

So, how do we propel that process along? I think most kind of the never Trump Republicans will say what needs to happen is Republicans need to be beat so badly that they realize the only way to adapt is to reform themselves. Essentially the party almost needs to die in a sense to be reborn. This is the logic of one of the main lessons of political science and Downs’ theory of democracy is that parties compete. When they lose, they have to adapt. If they don’t, they go extinct. So, it’s possible the Republican party goes extinct. But I think the point here is that this self-correcting logic of the democratic marketplace isn’t working, because we have this constitutional protectionism in place.

So, we have to inch forward and if it starts with kind of lower hanging fruit, things like reforming the filibuster to begin to alter the dynamic within the Republican Party, so that they can feel the pressure of the electoral marketplace. In a sense, what we have right now is a party that even though its losing popular majorities doesn’t care because it doesn’t matter. In order to propel that process along, we need incremental reforms fully recognizing that this is dangerous in some sense.

But the premise of our theory in a sense is that most American voters embrace democracy, embrace liberal values. I mean, there are strong, powerful minority segments of the population that don’t embrace liberal inclusive values. But Donald Trump never won a majority. So, we need a political system that opens us up to those voters. I think parties will be punished by misbehavior, but we need a system that allows that to happen.


I guess the thought in the back of my head is that it might be necessary for the Republican Party to undergo those changes so that it’s at the forefront of making the reforms that you’re talking about, because we’ve seen that happen time and time again. You’ve written a lot about strong democratization, along with Dan Slater and others who’ve been on the podcast. It makes me wonder if the Republican Party, as it continues to evolve, as different groups find that they’re willing to vote for the Republican Party so that it becomes more cross racial, maybe that’s the step that needs to happen before the reforms, rather than the reforms encouraging the Republican Party to become cross racial. Maybe you’ve got it backwards.

Daniel Ziblatt

Yeah, I think there’s a movement on both fronts that needs to happen because if a party can win the presidency without winning a popular majority, then it won’t. In some of our interviews or research for our book, we talked to lots of political operatives and at some point we talked to one political operative who was very involved in the Mitt Romney campaign and we asked him during the presidential election, did you ever hear anybody once talk about winning the popular vote or were you just focused on stitching together an electoral college map? Unsurprisingly he said, of course not. Nobody cares about the popular majority. That’s irrelevant. That’s like in a football game, instead of trying to get the most points, trying to have the fewest number of penalties. That’s fine, but that’s not really the point of the game.

I think until we change the incentive structures, we’re going to be vulnerable to resistance to democracies. You’re right that in order for a party to embrace some of these reforms and sometimes a lot of constitutional reforms in the United States have come at the hands of one party. The 14th amendment, the 15th amendment were supported by not a single Democratic member of the Senate or the house, I think. So, it was an entirely partisan affair imposed upon the Democratic Party by the Republican Party after the civil war. Now one might say, well, that wasn’t a great model, because look at all the trouble that came afterwards. That’s true, but I’d rather live in a system with the 14th amendment than without. So, sometimes reforms come from one party imposing it upon another. Reforms like the filibuster are possible or voting rights protections legislation.

So, it’s a kind of an inch-by-inch process where there has to be reform within the Republican Party and there also has to be institutional reforms. But the point is to try to think about the linkage between the two and to just sort of sit and wait for the Republican party to adapt without doing a thing I think is too risky. The danger is our democracy may face existential crises in the meantime. So, our purpose with this book is really to alert readers and citizens, fellow citizens, of the importance of how institutional reforms can induce changes of behavior. That’s what we’re aiming to highlight.


Why do you think Trumpism developed in the Republican party? Do you think that was a natural evolution of the party itself or do you think that’s a completely new direction?

Daniel Ziblatt

I’m very much informed by my own work on 19th century conservative parties and how the German conservative party went off the rails and the British Conservative Party through the late 19th, early 20th centuries, despite all sorts of anti-democratic impulses in the party, basically went along with the democratic process to a much greater degree than let’s say the German conservatives did. I mean, I was writing this book during the rise of Trump and I just kept seeing these uncanny parallels.

So again, I don’t want to push the analogies too far, but what the historical lessons suggest is that conservative parties always contain within them multiple factions. Factions that are more willing to play the democratic game and factions that are more reactionary. Reactionary, meaning populist, willing to deal with issues of anti-Semitism. We’re going to play up an anti-Semitic plank in the party platform. I think in the present day, this is anti-immigration and these issues that provoke mass excitement. So, conservative parties historically were parties, coalitions of elites and the populist base and the elites needed the populist base in order to access voters because the elites couldn’t access voters on their own.

I think we see a similarity in the Republican Party. The post-World War II Republican Party was a party mostly of the well to do. I mean, it was a broad coalition, very diverse in different parts of the country. But after the 1960s, the party, in order to excite the base and try to rally a white base to itself in order to compete with the transforming Democratic Party, felt it needed to reach out to these kinds of constituencies. So, tapping into the resentment over integration of the South, tapping into resentment over immigration, the elites of the party thought that they could deploy these issues. It’s relatively costless. They could talk about these things on the campaign trail and then come in when they’re back in office to ignore it. Talk about abortion on the campaign trail, but then basically never really deal with abortion.

So, promises were made and never delivered upon and in some ways, what Trump represented was a revenge of that base that the elite had helped create. This is where we really see a parallel, I think, to the 19th century German party, which was this party of aristocrats that played with these anti-Semitic issues that mobilized the base. At some point that base took over the party. So, that’s really what I regard as Trumpism. You know, it reminds me of the famous line from Churchill, where he said that his definition of an appeaser was someone who keeps feeding a crocodile thinking he’ll be the last one. That’s sort of what the Republican Party did with activating the space that resulted in Trumpism.


So, when I think about the Republican party’s traditions, more recent traditions, I think about people like Ronald Reagan. I think about even people like George W. Bush that made democracy and freedom front and center in both their ideas and also just their rhetoric. I mean, they were always very focused on that and we can criticize them on ways that they didn’t live up to that. But Reagan in particular seemed to really make that a key part of the way that he talked about things and the way that he tried to get his supporters to think about things. Trump is in many ways the opposite. I mean, he’s pushing a very authoritarian rhetoric, trying to get his followers to think in that kind of way as well.

Has that authoritarian way of thinking, those authoritarian tendencies, have those always existed within the Republican party or at least for more recent generations or is this something new that has more recently appeared?

Daniel Ziblatt

I think it’s been there. I’m not somebody who thinks that there was this kind of glory days where the Republican Party was this pure democratic party and then there was an outside attack from Trumpism. I mean, Trump certainly was an outsider. You know, Reagan himself was a figure who was trying to reconcile the various strands of the Republican party, the Goldwater strands, the kind of John Birch society strands, as well as the more liberal strands. I mean, similarly, Nixon was a compromised candidate who in some sense tried to reconcile these different strands. So, I think in every political system, the US is not unique in this respect, every political party contains within it multiple strands, multiple traditions.

There’s a very strong reactionary and in fact, authoritarian strand in the Republican party. It’s been there since at least the fifties going back even to the New Deal, I would argue. But the key point is that it was mostly sidelined. In some sense you could say Reagan represented some part of that, but the worst elements of it were sidelined. That’s why in some sense what Trump did was to push it to the next level. I think there’s certainly also democratic elements within the Republican Party going back to the tradition of Lincoln. I think Reagan was aware of that in some sense, and embraced that at least rhetorically as well. So, figures like Reagan or Nixon tried to combine these different elements, but the kind of contradictions of that.

The kind of hypocrisy of that was revealed by Trump who came along and was willing to call out figures like McCain and criticize them and criticize party leaders as not having had a successful strategy. So, in a way the Republican Party leadership created its own grave diggers and Trump was the guy who was throwing dirt on the grave.


Are you heartened at all by the fact that the Republican Party candidates for all their faults seem to be more diverse than in the past? I mean, the Republican Party has oftentimes had African Americans that run for president, but I don’t think that there’s ever been one that feels as qualified for the presidency as Tim Scott. I mean, he is one of the most presidential people that I could imagine out of the Senate being able to run for president. I think that he would be a very strong candidate.

Nikki Haley is running a very strong candidacy and she is Indian American. Even Vivek Ramaswamy, for all his faults, is, again, Indian American and he’s running a very strong campaign within the Republican Party. Are those signs or those signals that the Republican party could be inching its way towards a more multiracial coalition in the future?

Daniel Ziblatt

Yeah, they’re pretty weak signals though. You can’t deny that who these people are and that they’re on the stage. But, Tim Scott, what is his share of the Republican primary vote at this point? Like 4 percent or something. Nikki Haley and Vivek are both maybe doing a little better. So, I guess I’ll concede that they’re a sign of something, but they’re a pretty weak sign. I think the dominant strand of the party remains it’s white nationalist core. I mean, these are the people who are determining the trajectory of the party and people like Vivek are popular insofar as they adopt some of the same stances as those.

So, it’s clear who has the upper hand in the party. If the Republican Party were really successful at reaching out to majorities of Americans, which by definition have to include nonwhites, then they wouldn’t have had to attack the Congress on January 6th, because they would have won majority. I mean, the reason you attack a Congress and the reason you deny election losses is because you can’t win. So, if their ability to reach out to minorities, that is nonwhite minorities, was as successful as some people think it was, then we wouldn’t be in this situation. Maybe things are changing. Maybe things are moving inch by inch. There may be something to this, but at least at the current moment, it’s pretty clear who has the upper hand, unfortunately, in the party.


So, as we look to kind of wrap up, I’d like to take a second to kind of think about the past era when the United States really went through a period of democratization, which I would think of as the 1960s with the Civil Rights Acts, Voting Rights Acts. Today, when we think about it and we think about the Democratic Party leading the charge on those reforms, it feels natural because we think of the Democratic Party as being multiracial, extremely diverse. But I think in the 1960s, that would have been a shock. I think in the 1950s that would have been an even larger shock because the Democratic Party was the party of the South and that was an enormous part of its base.

How do you think about that moment of democratization? I mean, do you think of that as similar to the conservative party pushing through democratization reforms in a way that was unexpected? Does that kind of shape the way that you think about the potential for political reform within the United States?

Daniel Ziblatt

Yeah, I think there is a lesson in that, which is that politics is very unpredictable. I mean, these reforms were carried out in the sixties at the hands of a coalition of Democrats and Republicans. Republicans led the charge in the Senate, for instance. Lyndon Johnson was a leader who one might not have expected would have been leading the charge. I mean, a Southern Democrat, essentially a Texas Democrat pushing these reforms. But I think what’s striking, actually, is if you look back at each of the eras of American reform, it’s often the most unlikely reformers who carry out the reform. Think back to that kind of Progressive Era. Woodrow Wilson became a champion of progressive reforms, which had been the agenda of Northeastern progressives.

Franklin Roosevelt is an American aristocrat and yet he became the defender of the working class in America pushing through the creation of an American welfare state. So, I think sometimes political creativity, which I do have appreciation for, and political leadership, part of it is being able to act against type and act in unexpected ways. So, that’s what I’m always on the lookout for: the political leaders who break the mold and are able to cobble together a coalition of support that is different from existing ones to carry out democratic reforms. There can be malignant political creatives who put together malignant authoritarian coalitions. But there’s also the possibility of the “small d” democratic coalitions being created by political leaders who are able to put together groups and alliances that one normally would have thought wouldn’t have gone together.

I think that’s really at the end of the day what’s necessary to preserve American democracy and strengthen American democracy. It’s broad coalitions that are committed to democratic rules of the game carrying out reforms in creative ways.


Well, Daniel, thank you so much for joining me today. It was a real honor to be able to speak with you. Again to plug the book one more time, it’s written with Steven Levitsky, Tyranny of the Minority. Thank you so much for talking to me. Thank you so much for writing the book.

Daniel Ziblatt

Thank you. Appreciate it.

Key Links

Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy by Daniel Ziblatt

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Stephan Haggard and Robert Kaufman on Democratic Backsliding

Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way on the Durable Authoritarianism of Revolutionary Regimes

More Episodes from the Podcast

More Information

Democracy Group

Apes of the State created all Music

Email the show at jkempf@democracyparadox.com

Follow on Twitter @DemParadox, Facebook, Instagram @democracyparadoxpodcast

100 Books on Democracy

Democracy Paradox is part of the Amazon Affiliates Program and earns commissions on items purchased from links to the Amazon website. All links are to recommended books discussed in the podcast or referenced in the blog.

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: