Ziblatt Explains ‘How Democracies Die’

Caroline Ahearn ’20

Chief News Editor

On Tuesday, March 26, Daniel Ziblatt, Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, visited Holy Cross to deliver his lecture, “How Democracies Die.” Ziblatt, a specialist in the study of European politics, state-building, democratization and historical political economy, is the author of three books. His most recent book, which shares its title with his lecture, was co-authored by his Harvard colleague Steven Levitsky, and published in January 2018, one year into the presidency of Donald Trump. In the New York Times bestselling book, Ziblatt and Levitsky draw on their respective research on democratic decline in Europe and Latin America to argue that democracy in the United States is in danger.

The lecture was sponsored by the Charles Carroll Program, which seeks to enrich the Political Science department’s curriculum through a focus on the American political tradition by bringing distinguished guest lecturers.  As he introduced Ziblatt before the lecture, Professor Greg Burnep called How Democracies Die “extraordinarily important” and praised him for making such an important book so readable and accessible for a wide audience.

Though Professor Ziblatt’s talk had to be rescheduled twice due to extenuating circumstances, the timing for his visit to Rehm Library came at a perfect political moment, just four days after the Department of Justice announced that special counsel Robert Mueller had completed his nearly 400-page report on the Trump-Russia investigation and submitted it to Attorney General William Barr, who in turn delivered a four-page letter to Congressional leaders outlining the conclusions of the investigation, saying that Mueller did not find anyone on the Trump campaign team colluded with Russia, though Mueller did not exonerate Trump from obstruction of justice.

Ziblatt began his talk by addressing the latest news regarding the Mueller investigation, saying that what motivated him to write “How Democracies Die” in the first place is only more pressing now, and that in news cycles like this one it is important not to lose sight of the broader context of the moment, that we must continue to ask the question: what is the state of American democracy? Is it in danger?

He then dove right into his presentation, expanding and elaborating on various points he makes throughout the book with Levitsky. He cited a statistic stating that “rich and old democracies” like the United States of America, according to past studies of political science, have a 0.0008 percent chance of breaking down. However, that was according to the political science of the past. Today, in the “age of disruption,” we are in uncharted territory. The way that democracies die has changed – it used to be at the hands of men with guns, but in today’s world the majority of democratic breakdowns happen at the hands of elected leaders who use the very institutions of democracy to break it down, such as with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Because this often happens behind a facade of democracy (elections occur, congress continues to operate), many citizens are not aware that their democracy is in danger until it is too late.

Photo by Davey Sullivan ’22.
Rehm was packed for Professor Daniel Ziblatt’s lecture, “How Democracies Die.”

When a country finds itself on the road towards a dying democracy, Ziblatt believes there are two potential off-ramps: 1. A country must prevent autocratic-minded leaders from getting into office in the first place, and 2. Political institutions must contain the damage inflicted by those leaders. According to Ziblatt, the United States missed off-ramp #1 in 2016 by electing Donald Trump, a man who is at best indifferent to the crucial democratic norms and values such as mutual toleration (accepting partisan opponents as legitimate with a right to govern and compete) and institutional forbearance (underutilization of exercising one’s legal rights such as court-packing and filibustering). The decline of these norms in America did not begin with Trump, and can be traced back to the 1990s and the rhetoric of then-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA). This decline progressed through the partisan impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the rhetoric of the “birther” movement against President Barack Obama, and the “lock her up” chants against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. The heated rhetoric of viewing those who disagree with you as “the enemy” are no longer “fringe politics,” Ziblatt explained, pointing out that over the past three decades, leading Republicans were now challenging the basic legitimacy of the Democrats as a party. In the absence of mutual toleration, when you start to view your opponent as an enemy, the temptation to abandon forbearance grows. That, Ziblatt shared, is what is happening now. The “soft guardrails” of democracy started to corrode, and the election of Donald Trump catalyzed that corrosion.

So why is this happening? The answer that Ziblatt posits is polarization. The United States has not seen this kind of deep partisan hatred since the late nineteenth century, and today’s differences run much deeper. Extreme polarization, when each side views a victory by the other side as intolerable, can kill a democracy, because it allows for the justification of extraordinary means such as election fraud and coups.

Ziblatt stressed that the election of Donald Trump did not start the United States down the path of a dying democracy, and his departure from the Oval Office in the next one to five years will not put an end to it. But, neither his Rehm lecture nor his book were meant to be a fire-and-brimstone-style condemnation of the United States. He concluded that amid all the bad news of polarization, there is some good news. America’s “democratic antibodies” remain quite strong: pushback to the Trump administration in the media, the courts, law enforcement, civil society, and the 2018 midterm elections proves that the U.S. is not like Russia, Hungary, or Turkey, and that the strong opposition can constrain authoritarian inklings.

Ziblatt brought his lecture to its end by posing the question, “So what can be done?” before shrugging, laughing, and answering honestly: “No idea.” However, he offered a few suggestions to Republicans and Democrats to keep America from becoming a dying democracy. Republicans, he suggested, need to diversify as a party, because as long as the GOP remains a predominantly white party, it will contribute to the rise of and association with white supremacy. If the Republican Party becomes more diverse, Ziblatt sees this as a win-win situation, because not only will the party win more elections from a more diverse voter base, they will help decrease the fear of a more diverse America within its now predominantly white base. Democrats, Ziblatt suggested, should focus on “anti-hardball” strategies over going tit-for-tat with Republicans’ foul play, such as pushing for independent redistricting committees to challenge gerrymandering, for automatic voter registration to combat racist voter identification laws, and for fixed Supreme Court terms to prevent court-packing.

Finally, Ziblatt presented the audience with a comparison, saying that people often conceptualize history as moving in one direction, like global warming. All of the negative things that happen push us further toward a point where we cannot go back to fix it, and eventually toward a fiery end. However, Ziblatt asks that we think of the crisis of democracy as more like an earthquake. Yes, an earthquake driven by fault lines can cause serious damage. Earthquakes come and go, though, so we must get through them with our institutions intact and fortify them so they survive the next quake. There is too much at stake not to.

“It is obvious that we are living through a period of intense partisan division, and it is important to step back and consider the implications for our democracy,” said Professor Burnep after the event. “People disagree about whom or what to blame for deep partisan polarization–we saw this during the Q&A after Professor Ziblatt’s talk – but I hope all attendees left the event thinking about the corrosive effects it has on our norms and institutions. As Professor Ziblatt noted at the beginning of his talk, old wealthy democracies like ours seldom perish. But drawing on their research in comparative politics, Professor Ziblatt and his co-author teach us that we shouldn’t be complacent.”

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