Is More Democracy Always Better?

REVIEW: 'Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point'

Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt (, Constitution (Comstock, Grabien)
December 3, 2023

Tyranny of the Minority is a sequel to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's popular How Democracies Die. In both books the authors address authoritarian threats to democracy. They direct our attention to perils from within—the erosion of democratic norms and institutions by extremist parties that may ascend to power not through military force but through electoral appeals based on grievances, declining social status, and fear and hate of scapegoated groups like immigrants.

These common themes notwithstanding, the books differ in important ways. How Democracies Die focuses on political parties and partisan elites. If centrist political parties support a democratic political process and are willing to put aside policy differences to defend democracy against illiberal extremists of the right or the left, democracy can prevail. Democratic peril arises when formerly mainstream establishment political leaders despair of returning to power through the democratic process and, putting ambition above their commitment to democracy, make alliances with political extremists. Under this scenario, demagogues of the left or the right gain enough legitimacy to win control of the government through elections, and then proceed to use their power to dismantle democratic guardrails like a free press or an independent judiciary. Hungary and Venezuela are case studies, but according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, the democratic demagogue par excellence is Donald Trump, aided and abetted by Republican Party elites. How Democracies Die argues the GOP is no longer a legitimate opposition party, and it poses an existential threat to democracy.

Tyranny of the Minority is more radical. Appeals to establishment partisan elites to remain faithful to democratic principles and put aside policy differences to defeat authoritarian challenges, referred to as a "containment strategy," is now seen as only a stopgap measure. "Containment is only a short-term strategy, however. Democracy at its heart is about competition, so short-circuiting it for too long can be self-defeating." Rather than rely on the virtue of political elites, Levitsky and Ziblatt call for systemic political changes, including radical changes to our Constitution. The title of their book is revealing. In the Federalist Papers, Madison argues in Federalist 10 that factions (groups "averse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community") can be either majorities or minorities. While Madison concedes that minority factions "may clog the administration" and "convulse the society," he concludes that the republican principle "enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote."

For Madison the foremost danger to republican government is majority faction; whereas for Levitsky and Ziblatt the foremost danger is minority faction, by which they mean the Republican Party. They emphasize that the Republican Party has not won the popular vote in the 21st century, with the exception of 2004. The Republican Party has become a permanent minority that can nevertheless prevail in elections for control of the House, the Senate, and even the presidency because the American political system is replete with counter-majoritarian electoral and institutional characteristics. The authors argue that further democratization of our political system will prevent a minority party like the current Republican Party, which they describe as a party of white voters fearing a decline in status and power and evangelicals who reject the separation of church and state, from gaining political power. A democratized political system through electoral competition will force the Republican Party to expand its electoral base by eschewing extremism and appealing to more minority voters.

Levitsky and Ziblatt's argument is reminiscent of arguments made years ago by Robert Dahl, although Dahl uses democratic theory to attack the post-New Deal regulatory and welfare state and its associated bureaucratic hierarchies, whereas Levitsky and Ziblatt are more narrowly focused on electoral reform. Despite this difference, Levitsky and Ziblatt, like Dahl, are democratic theorists using that theory to criticize our constitutional system. They cite with favor a quote by Jane Austen: "'The cure for the ills of Democracy is more Democracy.' We agree." Ironically, How Democracies Die provides the evidence needed to reject their own maxim. The 1970 McGovern-Fraser reforms of the Democratic Party demoted party elites by expanding the use of primaries, a democratizing reform that weakened parties as institutions and allowed extremist candidates like Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders to execute, or try to execute, hostile takeovers of our two major parties.

The radicalism of these democratic theorists is superficially concealed by their selective quotations from Madison, Hamilton, and other Founders rejecting the rule of minorities. In particular, Hamilton criticized the Articles of Confederation for equal representation of states, contradicting "that fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority should prevail"; and Madison criticized the Connecticut Compromise, with its provision for equal representation of the states in the U.S. Senate, because "it would allow small states to 'extort measures [from the House] repugnant to the wishes and interests of the majority.'"

While Hamilton and Madison rejected equal representation of states, neither were democratic theorists systematically rejecting counter-majoritarian procedures. As Levitsky and Ziblatt are forced to concede (but dismissively pass over), Hamilton and Madison endorsed supermajority requirement for treaty ratification and impeachment, for the ratification of the Constitution, and for the amending process—and, for that matter, endorsed the Constitution despite equal representation of states in the Senate. The Federalist Papers were written by statesmen-thinkers guided by prudence rather than abstract equalitarian theory. In Federalist 10 Madison rejects pure democracy because "it can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction," and he goes on to criticize "[t]heoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government." Madison anticipated and rejected the simplistic reductionism of democratic theory championed by public intellectuals long before its formalization in modern political science.

While Levitsky and Ziblatt's focus in American politics is on tyranny of the minority, they are not dismissive of the problem of majority tyranny. They acknowledge that "governing majorities undermined democracy in twenty-first century Venezuela and Hungary and are threatening to do so in Israel." America, they assert, is different. "But the American political system has always reliably checked the power of majorities." This is a surprising and unconvincing judgment coming from authors who admit "[m]ultiracial democracy is hard to achieve." Surely majority faction has been a significant impediment to the achievement of racial justice in this nation's history.

Levitsky and Ziblatt draw upon Kevin Phillips's reference to an emerging Republican majority in describing the Southern strategy of appealing to white racial resentment in the latter part of the 20th century. Our authors ignore this history because their analysis is rooted in contemporary politics. They believe in an emerging Democratic majority that reflects demographic changes—a majority of minorities and young people who are "less conservative on issues of race and immigration (as well as gender and sexual orientation)." Levitsky and Ziblatt argue this emerging Democratic majority is intrinsically nonfactious (the recent explosion of anti-Semitism among minority and younger voters suggests otherwise), whereas the Republican Party as presently constituted is a permanent demographic minority (what if Trump wins a majority in 2024?) and the preeminent faction of our time.

According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, further democratization is needed to save democracy. In contrast, Madison acknowledged in Federalist 51 that "[a] dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government"; but, he goes on to argue, "experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions." Our constitutional institutions—separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism, a system with multiple counter-majoritarian provisions—are indispensable to preserving republican government.

The specific democratic reforms endorsed by our authors are too numerous to examine in detail, but they include doing away with the Electoral College, replacing two senators per state with Senate representation based on population (why not do away with the Senate in favor of a unicameral legislature?), repealing voter ID laws, universal registration of voters and other reforms to increase voter participation, and eliminating the filibuster. The first thing to note about these and other reforms that are called for is the narrow framing of the issues involved. If the reform allows majorities to prevail, it is affirmed. The Electoral College has been defended as an institution that fortifies federalism and supports our two-party system. Such considerations are irrelevant. The Electoral College does not guarantee the winner of the popular vote will prevail. Nothing more need be said. The filibuster arguably encourages bipartisanship. No matter; it is counter-majoritarian. While some of the reforms they propose deserve a hearing (term limits for Supreme Court justices), the criteria for evaluation should be broader than those provided by democratic theory.

Considering the reforms proposed and the pejorative references to the "dead hand of the past" impeding needed reforms, summoning a new constitutional convention is the logical culmination of their argument. Levitsky and Ziblatt do not explicitly endorse this unrealistic conclusion, instead calling for an easier amendment procedure (two-thirds of each legislative chamber would suffice for an amendment without further ratification by three-fourths of the states), but this will not suffice if they want to replace the two-senators-per-state provision, which cannot be amended. While they note that frequent constitutional change has destabilized Bolivia and Ecuador, they ignore the danger of sweeping constitutional change in this country. Levitsky and Ziblatt are enlightenment rationalists who have not taken seriously enough Federalist 49 and Madison's rejection of Jeffersonian rationalism for the sake of constitutional reverence and stability.

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

Donald Brand is a professor of political science at College of the Holy Cross and co-director of the Charles Carroll program.