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Ein Unterstützer von Donald Trump an einer Wahlkampfveranstaltung in Maryland, USA, im Februar 2024. Bild: Keystone/DPA/Annabelle Gordon.

«In the USA, the majority has insufficient power»

American democracy is in danger of becoming a tyranny of the minority, warns Daniel Ziblatt. He calls for a reform of the electoral system and says what Trump would do differently in a second term in the White House.

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Whenever I read a book of yours, I get the impression that American democracy is on the verge of collapse. In 2018, you and Steven Levitsky warned about the «death of democracy» in the US, which didn’t happen so far. In your new book, you talk about the threat of the «tyranny of the minority» Why should we be worried this time?

Well, I didn’t expect American democracy to die. The goal of our book «How Democracies Die» was to identify a set of warning signs, looking at other places where democracy has gotten into trouble, and to point out that some of these warning signs are visible in the US. Social scientists agree on two things: First, old democracies don’t die; second, rich democracies don’t die. The US is both an old democracy and a rich democracy, so all of the predictive models would say that American democracy should be safe. But since 2016, the US, according to all international indices of democracy, has experienced democratic backsliding. There are sources of resilience and strength, so I don’t think it’s inevitable that American democracy is dying, but it has experienced serious challenges.


What’s your biggest worry looking at 2024?

Certainly, if Donald Trump wins the election, that will be bad news.



In his first time in office, he didn’t have much experience; he had laid out an agenda he wasn’t really able to implement. This time, though, it’s pretty clear what he’s going to do. He has said in speeches that he plans to go after his political opponents, which is a classic strategy of non-democrats. He’s also shown his unwillingness to accept an election defeat. So even if he loses, the election could potentially be destabilizing.


Why do you think that this time, Trump will do the things he promised in 2016 and didn’t do?

He’s proven himself not to be a particularly effective leader the first time around, but that was partly due to the fact that he had very little experience when he came into office. So he relied on establishment Republicans in key positions. But as a result of his participation in the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, many of these establishment Republicans have separated themselves from him. He’s also less interested in relying on them, and instead is much more interested in relying on people who have proven their personal loyalty to him. And that’s not a great basis upon which to run a rule of law system.


What I would criticize about this is the underlying narrative that we also see time and again in some media: Whatever Trump does is bad. Whenever he appointed someone, for instance Rex Tillerson or John Bolton, they were portrayed as very problematic figures, but when the same people were fired, they were celebrated as the last rational people in the cabinet. Don’t you see a danger that when this narrative gets repeated again and again, people stop believing it?

I see your point that people are sometimes treated as heroes when they leave and criticize Trump. But I think there really is a difference between hiring people on the basis of expertise and hiring them on the basis of personal loyalty. It’s actually not unusual for outsiders to the political system who come into political office, like Donald Trump, to rely on insiders in their initial years, because they don’t know the terrain, and then over time develop their own personal networks, and those are the people they rely upon. The question is: Are those the people that are good for the United States in the world or not? I would say: probably not.


In your new book, you criticize the «tyranny of the minority», by which you mean the Republicans. But isn’t the protection of minorities an important aspect of democracy?

Yes, checks and balances is an ingenious system. It’s really important that we have a Bill of Rights to protect rights and civil liberties, that we have an independent judiciary, that democracy consists not only of majority rights, but also minority rights. If you look at a place like Hungary or Venezuela, there’s too much majority rule, and that’s a dangerous thing. But in the United States, we’re at the other extreme. We have a system in which it’s possible to lose the popular vote and still become president. And I don’t think it’s a particularly partisan thing to say this. The problem is not just about Republicans.


Still, you criticize those institutions of minority protection, like the Electoral College or the overrepresentation of small states, that favor one particular party, and that’s the Republicans.

That’s right. Throughout American history, these institutions have sometimes benefited Democrats and sometimes Republicans. What’s unique about the current moment is that they are tilting in the favor of one party. But that’s not our point – our point is that the system is unfair.


You also criticize that the Republicans, at least most of them, didn’t accept the election results of 2020. However, you don’t mention that Democrats also had trouble accepting the result of 2016 and claimed that there had been collusion between the Republicans and Russia.

To be clear: Candidate Clinton conceded the defeat in the night of the election.


Yes, but she said later that the election «was not on the level». She also said in 2020 that Joe Biden should not concede the election «under any circumstances».

Well, that’s obviously the wrong thing to say. To be a party or a politician committed to democracy, you have to accept election results, whether you win or lose. This applies to Democrats as well as Republicans, and if both sides don’t always accept election losses, that’s a problem. But it’s pretty clear that in recent years Republicans have failed this test more often than Democrats.


You urge «loyal democrats» not to cooperate with «anti-democratic extremists». Doesn’t this strategy risk strengthening extremists instead of containing them? In Germany, there is a consensus among established parties not to cooperate with the AfD. This strategy doesn’t seem to work, because the AfD is stronger than ever.

I don’t know if this is really what explains the AfD’s success. The issues that they like to talk about are central on the political agenda, like climate politics and immigration. They’ve been very effective in shaping the political agenda. The mainstream parties haven’t been as effective at putting the issues they want to talk about upfront. If the goal is to keep the AfD out of power, their strategy has been very effective, but I think it’s not a viable long-term strategy. And I would agree that over the long run, democracy requires competition, you can’t simply exclude parties forever. So the mainstream parties have to figure out how to win over the voters.

«Over the long run, democracy requires competition, you can’t simply

exclude parties forever.»


A recurring topic in your book is how to guarantee a peaceful transfer of power. You write that «if the stakes are too high, and losing parties fear they will lose everything, they will be reluctant to lose power.» What role does polarization play in this? Isn’t it the core problem when parties fear losing power?

In the US, the sense of both parties is that if the other party comes to power, it’s going to destroy the system. When both sides fear each other, the stakes become much higher, and parties will go to greater and greater lengths to keep the other side out. That’s certainly dangerous. There needs to be some way out of this, because polarization has become a great vulnerability.


But then wouldn’t the protection of minorities be a way to assure to the losing that it will not lose everything?

Yeah, that’s true. The paradox is that some of these counter-majoritarian institutions are actually reinforcing the radicalization of the Republican party, because it is the base that is pushing them to radicalize. Normally, in order to win over majorities, you would have to move back to the center. But institutions like the Electoral College have the opposite effect: They allow parties to win power without winning majorities. The Electoral College is really not contributing to moderation.


One instrument that you don’t mention in your book is direct democracy. In Switzerland, there are so many votes and elections that every party loses from time to time, so one loss is not that dramatic. Could direct democracy be an instrument for reform?

In our book, we propose 15 different reforms. Direct democracy is not one of them. It’s true that it does fall in line with our idea of introducing more majoritarian elements into our democracy, and many states in the US do have referenda. But national referenda are maybe not a great idea.


Why not?

Well, there’s not a tradition of it. And the US is a huge polity, it’s hard to imagine a single vote on a single issue for 300 million people. In principle, direct democracy is something that I would entertain as an issue. But there are a lot of other reforms that I would pursue first before that.


One reform that you propose is the introduction of proportional representation. Now, this would change the American political system very profoundly.

Yes. And there are already efforts underway. This is a reform that would be introduced first at the state level. Maine and Alaska have already introduced ranked order voting, and other states are moving in that direction. Proportional representation would, in the end, lead to more political parties, which, given the size and diversity of America, would be a perfectly good thing.


One thing your book made me think about is the relationship between political institutions and political culture. do you think one can change norms through institutions? Or do you need democratic norms first which then take the forms of institutions?

That’s a very complicated question. I don’t think changing rules changes everything, because people can always find avenues to circumvent the rules. But changing rules changes the incentives of politicians. If the goal is that each election doesn’t feel like a national emergency, we need change the incentives.


You’re an expert on conservative parties. Why are you fascinated by them although you are yourself not a conservative?

In my research on the history of conservative parties in Germany and Britain, I realized that the people who studied democratization in Europe tended to focus on the political actors that they were most sympathetic to. And since many academics are left-leaning, they focused on social-democratic and liberal parties. But it’s pretty clear that democracy requires more than one or two parties to be viable. That’s why I began to focus on conservative parties. Conservative parties can be a source of strength for democracies if they are committed to a democratic order, but they can also be a source of weakness if they abandon democracy. So they’re an essential player in the democratic game.


You write in your book that the building and maintenance of multiracial democracy is the central challenge of America today. What do you mean by that?

The US has always been a very diverse society. But in the last 20 years, a demographic shift has been taking place, with the result that no traditional ethnic group is a majority. That there is no dominant white majority is a new development in American history. This represents an opportunity, but it’s also a challenge, because if people perceive that their way of life has been losing a majority and losing a dominant social status, this can be deeply threatening.

«That there is no dominant white majority is a new development

in American history.»


Do you see identity politics as a danger for democracy?

If political parties are campaigning and running on racial and ethnic lines, that’s clearly dangerous. Ideally, parties on both sides of the political spectrum are multi-ethnic parties, and majorities should not be based on identity, but rather on policy issues. This would make American democracy much more stable. One of the vulnerabilities of our democracy today is that only one party is really diverse. If the Republicans continue to be a predominantly white party in an incredibly diverse society, then it’s going to be really tempting to play identity politics.


Do you think there’s something that the US can learn from Switzerland, maybe also in terms of multicultural democracy?

«Proporzdemokratie» is an appealing idea. The «Zauberformel» requires a norm of cooperation; it’s an odd set of unwritten rules. These kinds of unwritten rules have also underpinned American democracy. At the end of the day, what we’re arguing for is an effort to make politics not be so zero-sum. The idea of «Proporz» is a way of achieving this. The American constitutional system was not set up to be a «Proporzdemokratie», but our institutions were redeployed to deal with the same kinds of challenges that Switzerland faces. The Electoral College was originally designed to preserve the influence of the elites on the selection of presidents.

Daniel Ziblatt, zvg.

That’s no longer its purpose. Now, it’s become a sort of a «Quasi-Proporz» democratic institution, but it’s not a very effective one. In this respect, there’s a lot we can learn from the institutional developments in Switzerland.

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