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

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Release Date: 
October 3, 2023
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“Without major changes to institutions such as the Electoral College and Supreme Court, the real majority rule will be out of reach.”

Tyranny of the Minority is essential reading for politicians and citizens trying to understand how the United States became what The Economist calls a seriously “flawed” democracy and what kinds of reforms could reverse the system’s downward spiral. Coauthors Levitsky and Ziblatt are professors of government at Harvard. This book amplifies some of the arguments in their’ well received How Democracies Die (Crown, 2019). In the intervening years, they say, United States democracy has become even more imperiled.

The authors put America’s problems into their historical and global context (including lessons from Hungary, Spain, and Argentina). No democracies that are long established and have middle class incomes have perished. So why has the United States reached a breaking point? Some vulnerabilities were baked into the system, but our present crises are triggered by a party that deliberately sabotages majority rule and approves violence to get its way—what can be seen as a war on America.

History shows that many of the country’s founding fathers did not want a democracy, which they saw as a form of mob rule like that overtaking France. To get smaller states like Delaware and the South’s slave-holding states to join the federation, the founders gave all states equal representation in the Senate and protected the institution of slavery—even allowing slaves to be included as three-fifths of a human being in the numbers by which seats were allotted in the House of Representatives, These compromises were seen as necessary to get the system up and running, but their pernicious consequences have endured for more than two centuries.

Today’s Republican war on democracy took off with the “southern strategy” of presidential candidate Richard Nixon, embroidered and enhanced by Ronald Reagan, the two George Bushes, and brought to a crescendo by Donald Trump with his vassals and imitators. The all-pervasive goal of their effort has been to preserve the hegemony of an elite dominated by white males professing to be faithful Christians.

This system has been reinforced by a Supreme Court that gutted the equal rights voting act and a Senate led by Mitch McConnell that refused to allow debate on how to save the voting act. Underlying all this has been the takeover of many state governments by GOP extremists who remap voting districts and seek to control what electors go to Washington to select the president. At all levels the GOP labors to keep blacks from voting and keep out immigrants likely to support Democrats. All these tactics are reinforced by cable news and social media that fill voters’ minds and emotions with half-truths and outright lies,

Why are so many Americans susceptible to brain washing? Whites no longer make up a majority in California, and, in a few decades, will become a minority across the country. The two consecutive elections of a Black president catalyzed a major backlash. Many whites fear they are losing their privileged status. Many oppose inroads by cultures and practices quite different from Evangelical and traditional Catholic values, Uncertainties are amplified by climate catastrophes, epidemics, hard-to-beat inflation, and the many challenges, known and unknown, inherent in new technologies.

Still, the authors argue, surveys show that a majority of Americans embrace the principles of liberal and multiracial democracy. So it is not unfettered majorities that threaten America, as many observers have feared, but fettered majorities. Republicans are strong in sparsely populated regions. The constitution’s small-state bias became a rural tilt in the 20th century and a partisan bias today. As in much of Europe, conservative values are supported by small town and rural voters. The biases of the U.S. system have permitted Republicans to win the White House and other high posts without a majority of the popular vote. The conditions that gave rise to the Trump presidency—a radicalized party empowered by a pre-democratic constitution—remain in place.

What can be done to bolster U.S, democracy? The authors point to the “containment” and “militant” strategies that brought positive results to parts of Europe after 1945. Without major changes to institutions such as the Electoral College and Supreme Court, the real majority rule will be out of reach. The authors remind us that Americans managed to ameliorate several democratic deficits in the past. Charismatic leaders such as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson made a difference. But no such leader is visible just now and the foes of majority rule are deeply entrenched. This book shows the depths of our problems and points to the kinds of reforms that could address them.