The Problems Run Deeper Than Trump

On Levitsky and Ziblatt's "The Tyranny of the Minority."

The Problems Run Deeper Than Trump

Authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote How Democracies Die in 2018 to great fanfare and applause. One of a slew of accessible books warning democracy in the 21st century lay in peril. One of the book’s central claims is that the death of democracies are rarely signaled with a fascist coup or the end of elections but rather the slow process of winding down free and fair elections. At the time the book was written, they believed that the American system of democracy was stronger than similar institutions in Hungary, Poland, and Russia, but the ‘guardrails’ for democracy in America were struggling to stop demagogic actors from subverting democracy.

How Democracies Die argued for proceduralism as the appropriate method for neutering the danger that increased polarisation posed then and still poses today. Rather than throwing everything at dethroning Trump from the Presidency, the Democrats would have been better to operate on a broad-based opposition coalition against the President. Summoning up popular support against a President elected on a narrow and ever-narrowing electoral pathway would not only deny Trump a second term but it could have turned down the heat of the political temperature of the nation.

Despite this advice it is hard to say if anyone took it. It is safe to say the American Republic is in even more dire straits than it was when Levitsky and Ziblatt’s book was first published. Today, the former demagogue in chief has not only captured the Republican Party lock, stock, and barrel, but his renewed rise brings increased concerns to those sitting outside the Republican tent.

The background conditions of American politics and wider political movements contesting majoritarian rule make Levitsky and Ziblatt’s new book Tyranny of the Minority especially relevant. This new book builds on the work from How Democracies Die and some of the new work repeats many themes and ideas already explored previously. Thus, if you have read  How Democracies Die you may find some of the new book lacking much ingenuity or invention. But the Tyranny of the Minority is not merely a repetition of what has gone before. Instead, it tells a story of how a fight between institutions and anti-democratic politics has constrained popular will. Citing a range of cases between America and Hungary, the authors assign a deeper problem than merely Trump—the wider political environment which has allowed him to flourish.

The theoretical case is an interesting one. Citing the ever-higher stakes of elections, the fear that if parties lose they will not just lose but be shut out of democratic relations means parties and candidates will do anything to win and even contest the legitimacy of a defeat. In this environment, democracy appears to be a rigged process and a winner takes all game. The loser in this context fears they won’t have another shot to avenge their defeat. In this environment angry minorities may resort to anti-democratic tactics to stay in the game.

Building on this claim the book offers ways in which parties can be seen to be stopping the will of the people from emerging. Citing institutional authoritarianism such as using law as a weapon the authors cite Hungary, Russia, and the American South in the 19th–20th century. In these examples, it is argued the legal system has been used and abused to restrict democratic outcomes such as determining who can and cannot vote and drawing boundaries for seats helping to determine a preferable outcome. Despite common arguments conflating the rule of law with democracy, the book highlights specifically how law can be used as a weapon to not only deny democracy but erode and eventually eliminate it.

But it is not only the law that is examined but also political actors. In democracies there are those who may not directly seek to undermine the process of democracy but are willing to go along with those who do. These ‘semi-loyal’ actors appear as benign to many but they can be central to the workings of authoritarianism. This is hardly a new claim, it is an argument not dissimilar made all the way back to Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. For bad systems to remain in place it requires the work of administrators who may not appear particularly evil but enable evil to happen. This is hardly a unique argument and the use of pre-Second World War France or modern-day Hungary is not new either. Instead of providing a new analysis of what makes authoritarianism appear slowly, this is a slightly reheated version of past arguments surrounding the aesthetics of authoritarianism.

These are all interesting claims and some are grounded in truth. Yet, these claims hide bigger problems in the core of the books argument. Fundamentally, the different types of phenomena they describe are not always tyrannies of the minority. There are tyrannies of the majorities using the law to enforce the will of a majority to repress minority voices, and there are minoritarian-led regimes who use coercion and law to suppress the will of the majority. These are not only functionally different but pose contrasting moral and political questions which need to be answered.

One particular example of this conceptual conflation is between modern-day Hungary and 19th- and 20th-century America. The danger with using both modern-day examples of lawfare such as Hungary with older examples such as in the American South is the potential for conflation of different types of authoritarianism. The American South brought significant acts of violence as part of a governing strategy to undermine any democratic system of government. This can be seen not only from the sharp declining rates of voting from African Americans in the post-Civil War South but the rise of organisations such as the KKK and massacres such as in Tulsa.

But the same cannot be said of the case of Hungary. In Hungary, the rise of the Fidesz party and Viktor Orbán has not been accompanied by the rise of such violence. Neither has the Hungarian example been accompanied by decades of slavery and exclusion in the same manner. Thus by using the two examples alongside each other risks conflating two very different kinds of lawfare. One type of lawfare backed by violence and denying democratic will with a lawfare that is not inherently violent and may well represent an illiberal democratic decision.

Indeed, there is good reason to suppose, even if we don’t like it, that Fidesz has long represented the will of the voting majority of Hungarians. Using the law to roll back legal protections for minorities and constitutional systems of rule stopping authoritarian regimes overtly politicising the law we can say represents a problem in maintaining a genuine representative capacity of the state. Yet, this is distinct from an overtly racist system of government dismantling voting and civil rights for a group of citizens who would otherwise constitute a majority.

Attempting to tie these two distinct systems together becomes less than convincing. Yet, this is not the only problem for the book. A second serious issue is how the authors construct institutional baggage. The book argues institutions need to protect civil liberties and the very rules of democracy itself. There is a desire to create constitutional limits on democratic majorities roadblocking majoritarian efforts to overturn democratic and civil protections. Simultaneously, they want to limit the reach of law so minorities cannot disregard majorities. The reach of law cannot be used to disqualify candidates and those who win should be able to govern.

This creates a substantial problem in the theory of the book. Constitutions after all are only pieces of paper. Even with significant safeguards, such as in America, we can understand the limits of constitutional backstops in regards to authoritarian politics. A fact routinely displayed in the book itself. What the authors call an ‘ironclad minority veto’ with the electoral college, senate composition, and filibuster could also be seen as rigorous constitutional roadblocks to stop a majoritarianism which could upend not just the political system but rights that go along with it. Having one without the other appears to be trying to have your cake and eating it too.

The appeal to unicameralism is one such example in the book where the case against the tyranny of the minority appears relatively weak. Relying upon proportional representation as a roadblock against minority led government requires a belief that electoral majorities will become governing majorities. This still assumes that the governing majority wants to still play by the rules. It is easy to envisage a scenario where a wide range of political actors, rejecting liberal democratic norms, come to power via a minority coalition government which can then dismantle the rules of the game.

Despite these challenges, Tyranny of the Minority remains a useful and thoughtful book. It traverses through history and numerous contexts avoiding a common issue of relying too much on a singular event to make a wider argument. The book evaluates well the structural challenges liberal democracies face with the rise of populist movements and the lack of democracy which appears in plain sight. A fact which is true but rarely mentioned. The case made is interesting and relies upon some political scientific conclusions. It certainly is deeper than many of the books which are part of a recent churn in ‘anti-democracy’ studies. Therefore, even if you don’t buy the arguments in Tyranny of the Minority you should at the very least buy the book.

Featured image is Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump meet at the 2017 G-20 Hamburg Summit, from