Is Our Democracy Safe?
David Remnick: We're talking today about the state of our democracy, and specifically whether democracy is really any safer today than it was a month ago before the midterm elections. A few years back, I and a lot of other people read a book called How Democracies Die, a bestseller in 2018. It was written by two professors of government at Harvard University, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. They spent decades researching the breakdown of democracy in a variety of countries. Now, gentlemen, your book was published in the middle of the Trump administration, the darkest days of it. Now, Trump seems to be, let's not count him till he's out, but Trump seems to be on the fade.
Election deniers like Doug Mastriano and Kari Lake, they all lost, and Brazil, Bolsonaro was voted out of power, so what? Mission accomplished? Democracy is healthy, you're feeling great? Let's start with you, Steve.
Steven Levitsky: No, not at all. The underlying fundamentals that lead us to be concerned about American democracy have not changed. Levels of polarization have not changed. Not only does Trump continue to be a major figure in the Republican Party, but the Republican Party continues to be a very radicalized extremist force from the bottom up. We've yet to see evidence that has changed dramatically. The political party as a whole, that party is not reconsidered its ties to violent extremist groups. That party has not reconsidered its acceptance of all sorts of violent rhetoric and discourse prior to during and after the January 6th insurrection. As far as I'm concerned, we have not seen enough to conclude that American democracy is safe.
David: Right now we're seeing the standing of Donald Trump in the Republican Party. I want to put a pin in this and say six months from now, a year from now, we could see him still very much on the scene, if not even winning the nomination. Right now, you are seeing at least part of the establishment right-wing media distance itself from Donald Trump.
Speaker 1: We keep losing and losing and losing. The fact of the matter is, the reason we're losing is because Donald Trump has put himself before everybody else.
David: If Donald Trump is on the fade, what is left behind? In other words, is democracy still imperiled if Trumpism and a radicalized Republican Party is still very much in place, if the governor of Florida becomes the standard bear of the Republican Party instead of Trump? Daniel, could you answer that?
Daniel Ziblatt: Yes. I think one important point is to note why people are separating from Trump. It's because they think he's a loser. They don't think it's the route to power. The moment that he's perceived to be a possible route to power, people will latch back onto him. There's been no principal turn against Trumpism. I think that's significant because it suggests it's opportunistic. What opportunism means is that the moment it looks like there's a possibility that Trump might be the guy to write to power, this could happen again. That's one point. A second point is that even without Trump, the party itself has changed.
I mean, there's no question about it. You don't have people coming out and saying the 2020 election was a legitimate election, Joe Biden was legitimately elected. At best, you get people evading the question, dodging it, trying to change the topic. As long as you have that condition, it's hard to take the a turn back to democracy of the Republican Party seriously.
David: Tell me about the governor of Florida, Governor DeSantis. What does he represent to you in terms of the being similar to Trump or some difference? What does that represent as a potential future scenario?
Steven: He's a smart guy. I think he realized that if he's ever going to make it in national politics, if he's going to be the Republican presidential candidate, it's very clear to Ron DeSantis that there's no going back to the era of Mitt Romney. If he's going to be the Republican candidate in the future, whether it's 2024 or 2028, he has to do it with MAGA voters. He has to win Trump's voters. If he competes with Trump, he may have to compete to Trump's right. That says something about the future of the Republican Party. I'm paying close attention to what DeSantis does do, or at least sometimes pretends to do, with the machinery of government.
He's a guy who's made it clear to his base that he's willing to use the machinery of government to punish rivals, critics, and other folks that his constituents don't like. That's really the essence of authoritarianism, being willing to use the state as a weapon, the machinery of government, legal institutions, as a weapon against your rivals and your opponents is the essence of authoritarianism. Going after businesses who are critical of his policies, pushing legislation to criminalize protest, making a big fuss about arresting voters who may have unwittingly violated electoral laws.
A lot of this stuff has been more for show than for action but it shows a political figure willing to engage in what is really at root authoritarian behavior. I don't want to push this too far, but he's the closest thing I've seen in American politics yet to Viktor Orbán.
David: Right. The prime Minister of Hungary for many years.
Steven: Yes. Victor Orbán is less nakedly authoritarian than Donald Trump, but he's a very effective authoritarian.
David: Is DeSantis an authoritarian or a potential authoritarian in your view?
Steven: I worry that he is, yes, based on his behavior in Florida.
David: Be specific.
Steven: An attack on Disney for basically for its political views.
Ron Desantis: For Disney to come out and put a statement and say that the bill should have never passed and that they are going to actively work to repeal it, I think one was fundamentally dishonest. Two, I think that crossed the line.
Steven: Legislation, essentially criminalizing protests in some cases
Ron DeSantis: It is the strongest anti-rioting, pro-law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.
Steven: What is effectively a poll tax in the face of large-scale referendum victory in which felons were granted the franchise, making it extremely difficult, placing a financial burden on former felons to be able to go back and vote.
Speaker 2: Florida felons will need to pay all fines, restitution, and legal fees before they will be able to vote. A judge issued that order today, reversing a lower courts judge's decision that allowed felons to vote regardless of their financial obligations. That move could be critical for our state come election time.
Steven: This is pretty authoritarian behavior.
David: When you look at the range of leaders of the Republican Party, how do you distinguish between right-wing conservatism and authoritarianism?
Daniel: I think there's two really minimal criteria that one needs to recognize. One is accepting election results. Do you accept legitimate election results or not? When I say accepting legitimate election results, this doesn't mean remaining silent when asked, "Did somebody win?" You, again, avoid the question. You have to unambiguously say, "The election was free and fair. My rival beat me." Number two, the degree to which you're willing to condone or condemn violence, especially in the use of violence to gain or hold onto political office. If you have people who essentially are willing to, again, evade the question, avoid the question, then they're essentially allowing this behavior to happen. Both violence and election denial are at the heart of what authoritarianism is.
You can have Republicans who are very conservative on all dimensions, but who accept those two basic premises of a political order. Those two benchmarks are very easy to identify and apply to Donald Trump. What's striking about, I think, Ron DeSantis is, as far as I know, he hasn't really unambiguously said that Joe Biden won the election. To me, that's a red flag.
David: How do you see in this picture the role of Tucker Carlson? There are people that I talk with who believe that at some point he is going to cross over into electoral politics. What role does he play now and could he play?
Steven: I mean, that's obviously speculation, but here is a guy who has really perfected the Trumpist discourse and done so in a much more thoughtful and articulated and often compelling way than Trump himself. He's a guy who has openly embraced what I find to be a terrifying theory of this so-called great replacement theory.
Tucker Carlson: I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term replacement, if you suggest the Democratic party is trying to replace the current electorate with new people, more obedient voters from the third world, but they become hysterical because that's what's happening, actually. Let's just say it, that's true.
Steven: Which I think in some sense is at the core of the fear that drives rank-and-file Republicanism today. Rank-and-file Republicans more than anything else, not all of them, many of them, feel like the country they grew up in is being taken away from them. They feel like they're not just at risk of losing elections, they feel like they're losing their country. Tucker Carlson, perhaps more than anybody else in this country, has articulated that fear over and over and over again to followers. He's obviously a very, very successful media entrepreneur. There are many, many media entrepreneurs going back to Father Coughlin who have built up a massive base and have been rumored or there's been triggering speculation about their entry into politics. Fewer of them have actually entered into politics, but I think it's certainly possible.
David: Earlier in this program, we talked about the Supreme Court case Moor v. Harper, which has to do with state legislatures and their control of the electoral process. How worried are you guys about the decision that could come out of that case?
Steven: It's pretty worrisome. Daniel and I, in How Democracies Die, spend a lot of time talking about this phenomenon of constitutional hardball, which is finding, exploiting gaps in the Constitution or in the letter of the law to subvert the sphere of the law. At the core is this idea, this historically fringe idea, that the Constitution empowers legislatures to essentially overrule state constitutions, state [unintelligible 00:11:09] courts and governors in determining the electoral rules of the game in that state. It's possible there's a world in which a Supreme Court ruling could legitimate or legalize a coordinated effort by, in many cases, gerrymandered state legislatures to overrule the popular vote in particular states.
David: Steven, you said that polarization is one of the pillars of our current situation, but we've seen times before when the country is highly polarized, elections extremely close. Why is polarization as such an anti-democratic element in our national scene?
Steven: Polarization as such is not necessarily threatening to democracy. In fact, it's important for democracy. Voters need choices. Modern democracy is based on electorates being able to choose options of government. A certain amount of polarization is really healthy and important for democracy. Voters need to know that they have choices, otherwise they lose interest in and faith in democracy. I don't have a problem with a moderate amount of polarization. What we know from history, and including US history, is that extreme polarization, when we begin to view our rivals as an existential threat, when their worldview or their political program is so foreign or so threatening that we view a victory by the other side as an existential threat, that creates incentives to begin to play dirty, to use all the tools on the table to defeat your rivals.
That, very quickly, throws a country into crisis.
David: Daniel, let's talk about the nature of American polarization and the political parties that we do have. Over and over again, one here's the analysis now that what characterizes the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, what distinguishes them so much is the Democratic Party, and I don't mean this as a compliment to one and as a rip on the other, simply as a description, but the Democratic Party, with great exceptions and so on, is the party of people who are educated as opposed to people in the Republican Party who are not, not because it's their fault. Do you think that's fair? You read this in David Brooks and a lot of other commentators.
Daniel: I don't think that's the central and most relevant divide. Certainly here's an element of it, that you have lots of well-educated people in the Republican Party. The Republican Party, for a long time, was the party of the wealthy, and the Democratic Party was the party of the non-wealthy. These divisions cut across parties. I think the most important division has to do with race, ethnicity, religion, and way of life. A lot of this is overladen with geography. To put it very simply, the Democratic Party is a party of educated, you're right, urban city-dwellers, and a range of non-white segments of the electorate, predominantly, are in the Democratic Party.
The Republican Party is overwhelmingly, despite recent trends with Latino voters in Florida at the edges and some parts of Texas and so on, the Republican Party is overwhelmingly a white party and much more religious. The reason this is so polarizing is that whites, for most of American history, have sat atop all of our country's social hierarchies. In many ways, segments of the Republican electorate resent, not all Republicans, but many Republican voters resent or are fearful of the changes taking place. As long as this kind of cultural divide divides the parties, it's extremely dangerous because these cultural divisions are sources of identity, and identity are often hard to negotiate. This leads to extreme conflict.
David: Daniel, I think it's almost axiomatic that, when we look back at the presidency of Joe Biden, it's going to be how effectively or not did he combat the effects of the Trump era.
Joe Biden: From the very beginning, nothing has been guaranteed about democracy in America. Every generation has had to defend it, protect it, preserve it, choose it, but that's what democracy is. It's a choice, a decision of the people, by the people, and for the people. The issue couldn't be clearer in my view. We, the people, must decide whether we all have fair and free elections.
David: What kind of marks do you give Biden on the very broad and essential issue of democracy and its restoration?
Daniel: I take him at his word that this was a high priority. I think there was two theories going in as to how to deal with it. One was to immediately address the voting rights issues and to try to really push a series of institutional reforms through, including trying to reenact elements of the Voting Rights Act that have been dismantled over the years and try to change the rules of the game to democratize our democracy. The second approach was to focus on improving the economy, protecting the economy. We have to remember, in 2021, as we were coming out COVID, the sense that there was an economic crisis on our hands was very real, so the idea of focusing on infrastructure and building up the economy. I think they followed that second path. That's pretty clear.
They really chose to prioritize the economy over institutional reform. In retrospect, that probably was the right way to go, but I do think that it's absolutely critical to lend his legitimacy and his popularity as far as it exists to try to make reforms, including reforms, things that he doesn't have any control over, like the Senate filibuster, putting pressure on Democrats to reinstate elements of the Voting Rights Act, to change the Electoral Count Act. I think, until those kinds of reforms are undertaken, we're going to continue to be very vulnerable to the kinds of problems we've been facing all along.
David: Do you think that we're going to teeter on this brink of democracy, no democracy or authoritarian tendencies versus their opposite for a very long time to come?
Daniel: I think one way of thinking about it is that we have a fever, our country has a fever, and it flares up at moments, and at moments it seems to be under control, but there's a set of underlying illnesses, a set of underlying fundamentals. We get through these moments where it seems like, "Aha, the crisis has been avoided," but the underlying ailments are still here. As a result of that, we run the risk of, every several years, feeling like our democracy is in crisis, that our future hinges on the outcome of a single election. You can't really live in a functioning democracy if you feel like each election is a national emergency.
What it means is that we're not confronting the major problems confronting our society, climate change, inequality, et cetera, because we're so focused on trying to deal with the momentary crisis. I think, as long as this underlying fever is there, as long as these underlying fundamentals are there, we risk, every few years, confronting this same challenge.
Steven: I think as long as the Republican Party continues to be an extremist force, and as long as our political institutions overrepresent and amplify that party, protect what is in effect an authoritarian force, we're going to be vulnerable. I think the opposition, the Democratic opposition, the Democratic Party is far too strong for us to slide into outright autocracy like Russia or even Hungary. It's much more likely that we will slide in and out of crisis and slide from dysfunctional, weak democracy into, in the worst case, possibly a stolen election or very soft, unstable authoritarianism, but the main characteristic, as long as these underlying fundamentals of an extremist party and institutions that protect and amplify that party, the dominant characteristic of our politics is going to be sliding in and out of crisis.
David: Isn't one of the essential aspects of this whole problem, as you look at the Republican Party, the problem of extraordinary hypocrisy? In other words, Chris Christie, who was a great Trump enabler, who desperately wanted to be his attorney general or chief of staff, who helped his campaign, who spoke up for Trump over and over and over again, now puts himself forward as a potential presidential candidate as an anti-Trumpist, as a spokesman for democracy. One could easily say the same of DeSantis and others who were underwritten by Trump, were great supporters of Trump and now see political advantage in doing the opposite. How does the Republican Party cleanse itself of this if that indeed is something that they want to do?
Daniel: I think if there's genuine breaks from Trump for those who've previously were aligned with them, that's to be welcomed and encouraged. I'm all for that kind of hypocrisy, that's a healthy in a sense democratic politics is about seeking out opportunities and if people perceive in their interests to break from Trump and then also have a genuine transformation along the way. The reason the genuine transformation is important is because it's just about opportunism then the moment the opportunity comes back to go the other direction you then clip your direction and go the other way. I think this kind of hypocrisy is not the worst thing in the world and that's actually what's necessary.
There needs to be a willingness to admit that there were mistakes made. The problem is very hard to do that just psychologically, I think it's hard for people, who in public took these very public stances to now go back on that. I think the health of our democracy really hinges on that.
David: That Steven Levitsky along with Daniel Ziblatt, and they're the co-authors of How Democracies Die and they're working on a follow-up book called Tyranny of the Minority, which is expected to come out next year.
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