Professor: U.S. Democracy In Jeopardy

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/13/2018 12:23:36 AM
Modified: 7/13/2018 5:48:14 PM

Hanover — The election of President Donald Trump has put America’s democracy in jeopardy as polarization and incivility increase in American politics, Harvard University professor Steven Levitsky told a packed crowd on Thursday inside Dartmouth College’s Spaulding Auditorium.

Like numerous liberal democracies that have succumbed to authoritarian regimes, the American electoral system is more fragile than many would believe, he said during a speech, which was the first of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s summer series.

In fact, citizens should be more careful to safeguard important institutions and norms, or risk losing them, said Levitsky, author of How Democracies Die.

“Contemporary democracies die constitutionally. They die through elections, through referendum, through laws and supreme court rulings,” he said. “Democratic breakdown today begins at the ballot box, not at the barracks.”

The 2016 election prompted Levitsky and his co-author, fellow Harvard professor Daniel Ziblatt, to ask a question he’d never before pondered: is American democracy in danger?

“Like the vast majority of Americans, we’d always taken the stability of our democracy for granted,” Levitsky said.

No democracy as rich or as old as the United States has ever broken down, he said, and yet the election seemingly set the country into uncharted waters.

“(Trump) suggested that he might not accept the results of the election, he threatened legal action against critics in the media, he threatened to lock up his opponent, and he condoned and even encouraged violence,” Levitsky said. “No major party presidential candidate in modern American history had ever behaved that way.”

But Levitsky and Ziblatt had seen similar actions elsewhere in the world: during the collapse of democracies in 20th-century Latin America and in inter-war Europe.

“Watching the 2016 campaign unfold gave both of us the feeling that we’d seen this movie before,” Levitsky said. “It’s a movie that doesn’t end well.”

Through his studies, Levitsky noted that many democracies no longer take a turn into authoritarian regimes through military coups. Instead, he said, freedoms are eroded with popular support.

A key to protecting democracy is to prevent those who would harm it from getting elected in the first place, according to Levitsky, who said checks against such a possibility have eroded in the past decades.

The loss of power for party elites and bosses, who used to effectively pick presidential nominees through backroom deals, is part of the problem, Levitsky told the crowd.

Although the process was inherently undemocratic, Levitsky said, it also was a check against demagoguery.

Party organizers knew who was electable and could best represent American interests, which lead to a long period of stable presidential contenders, he said.

But with the primary system, it’s been harder to screen against populist candidates, Levitsky said.

“Under the old system, it was essentially impossible for a demagogue like (industrialist) Henry Ford to be nominated for the presidency, so most of them didn’t even try,” he said.

Levitsky also blamed America’s potential slide to authoritarianism on a combination of politicization and decay of political norms. It’s not our Constitution that will preserve our democracy, he said, but the way our politicians behave.

Although it is constitutional for presidents to issue executive orders, the Senate to filibuster bills and appointments, and for Congress to shut down the government, those actions are inherently bad for our democracy, Levitsky argued.

“Politicians can exploit the letter of the Constitution or the gaps in the Constitution in ways that clearly eviscerate its spirit,” he said, adding many chose not to until the 1990s.

Levitsky said that rhetoric and treatment of political rivals also reduced people’s faith that those they disagree with can be patriotic Americans.

And while the combined problems don’t mean American democracy is doomed, it is weakened, he argued.

What keeps Levitsky up at night is the potential for a national security crisis in the form of another war or terrorist attack. Such an event likely would increase Trump’s approval ratings, giving him greater leeway to consolidate power, he said.

“George W. Bush, as you remember, saw his approval ratings jump up to 90 or 91 percent following the 9/11 attacks,” Levitsky said. “For a couple of months after 9/11, George Bush could have done almost anything he wanted. Checks and balances almost melted away.”

But to his credit, Bush exercised restraint and didn’t use presidential power against opponents, Levitsky said.

“Donald Trump, by contrast, is not a man of forbearance,” he added. “What he would do in a major security crisis is anybody’s guess.”

To help ease concerns and improve the chances of American democracy surviving into the future, Levitsky suggested several initiatives.

More people could vote, which would act as a moderating force in politics, he said.

Politicians also could better address income inequality, which might reduce the anger being felt across the country.

But some of the attendees at Thursday’s event pushed back, and asked Levitsky if electoral changes would better address people’s concerns about the country’s political system.

Would it be better to abolish the Electoral College? they asked.

America has “18th-century institutions,” Levitsky replied, and people hold those institutions dear and are reluctant to change.

But it is possible that, if the Electoral College continues to differ from the popular vote, young people will lose faith in the system.

Others asked if ending political gerrymandering could moderate politics.

Gerrymandering electoral districts to one’s advantage is a terrible thing, but it’s not a new problem, Levitsky said. It’s been done by both parties for a few hundred years, he said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at


In a speech at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Dartmouth, Harvard professor Steven Levitsky said American democracy is in jeopardy but that a statistical analysis by a colleague suggested the likelihood of an actual democratic breakdown was very low. An earlier headline to this story incorrectly summarized Levitsky's argument.

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