Minority report

  • Themes: Politics

American political institutions, from the Senate to the Electoral College, have an inbuilt bias against majoritarianism that exacerbates polarisation and hinders effective governance.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a Make America Great Again campaign event at Des Moines International Airport on October 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Credit: Alex Edelman/The Photo Access

Tyranny of the Minority: How to Reverse an Authoritarian Turn, and Forge a Democracy for All, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Viking, £20

In Federalist 22, Alexander Hamilton argued that the idea of ‘equal suffrage among the States’ contradicted the ‘fundamental maxim of republican government, which requires that the sense of the majority would prevail’. In the Constitutional Convention, he wrote: ‘But as states are a collection of individual men, which ought we to respect most, the rights of the people composing them, or of the artificial beings resulting from the composition. Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter.’

In their new book, the political scientists Steven Letivsky and Daniel Ziblatt echo Hamilton to claim that the crisis of American democracy today derives largely from the ‘counter-majoritarianism’ of its political institutions. More specifically, they contend that the growing dysfunction and extremism of American politics emerge from two interrelated factors: an anti-democratic Republican Party and a set of institutions that permits the minority to thwart the majority, if not actively impose minority rule.

Traditionally, in a more proportionally representative system, losing parties have to adjust to build broader coalitions, which often requires moving towards the centre of gravity of public opinion. The Democratic party, for example, moved towards the centre under Bill Clinton in the 1990s after a quarter-century of Republican domination.

But what happens when a party can secure and hold power because of institutions that systematically favour its demographics, such as the rural, white, and small-state constituencies of the GOP?

Levitsky and Ziblatt survey a number of institutions that have such effects. The US Senate gives the same representation to California (almost as populous as Canada) as Wyoming (comparable to Suriname). Within the Senate, rules such as the filibuster enable even small minorities to block the majority. The electoral college also has a small-state bias, with a disproportionate allocation of delegates among the states, which has helped the loser of the popular vote win the presidency twice in the 21st century. The Supreme Court compounds these imbalances because presidents can appoint justices with lifetime appointments, and the already minoritarian Senate approves them. Hardball political tactics compound this problem, from gerrymandering to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s norm-shattering decision to not consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in 2016.

The result, the authors argue, is that the normal corrective incentives of democracy, in which losing induces adaptation and moderation, are not functioning. Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that the GOP can flout democratic norms, associate with extremists, adopt policy positions well outside of public consensus, continue to back a leader under indictment for attempts to overturn a previous election, and yet still remain politically competitive. By contrast, Democrats have to garner considerable popular-vote majorities to win the presidency or the Senate, and, even then, minoritarian rules inhibit both legislation and basic governance, as exemplified by Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville’s blocking of military promotions over the Pentagon’s policy on abortions.

Similar rural and minoritarian biases exist at the state level, replicating many of the same problems. For example, large majorities in Ohio support gun-control measures, such as bans on semi-automatic weapons and mandatory waiting periods. The GOP-dominated legislature, however, recently passed legislation allowing for the concealed carrying of handguns without a permit and arming teachers, both unpopular opinions.

Levitsky and Ziblatt acknowledge that majority rule can quickly become the tyranny of the majority. Constitutional restrictions and robust protections for minority rights are crucial. The Bill of Rights, they note, is an ‘essential counter-majoritarian institution’. For major changes, such as constitutional amendments, a higher bar is warranted. There is a difference, however, between institutions that protect minorities and those that ‘privilege minorities by granting them unfair advantage’, thereby undermining democracy. The aptly-named ‘tyranny of minority’ has many negative impacts on American democracy besides the radicalisation of the GOP: feeding cynicism about politics, preventing important steps on problems such as climate change, and discouraging political engagement. Moreover, the authors show that throughout US history, minoritarian institutions have more often than not empowered backwards forces in American society, particularly those of white supremacy.

This is an important and well-argued book that offers a model for how to communicate complex democratic theory, history, and social science to a wide audience. Part of what makes it so special is its comparative international lens. The authors draw on European, Asian, African, and Latin American illustrations, including from countries such as Argentina and Zambia. They show that in the 20th century, similar developed democracies, such as Norway and Germany, have removed or reformed minority-rule institutions and still flourished as democracies.

The book conveys a sense of historical irony. In part, the Republican party was founded in response to the ‘Slave Power‘ of southern, slave-holding states which also used their advantages in American institutions to protect and extend slavery, dominate the federal government, and undermine democratic norms. As the historian Eric Foner writes: ‘The Slave Power threatened a principle which Republicans viewed as the essence of democracy-rule by majorities.’ Minoritarianism has been a central facet to the American political system through its history and, as Jamelle Bouie argues, often evokes the reprehensible idea that ‘some people deserve more power than others’.

From the historical and international lessons, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that Americans need a more critical attitude toward the Constitution, which can start by understanding that an institution like the electoral college was ‘not a product of constitutional theory or far-sighted design; rather, it was adopted by default, after all other alternatives were rejected’ in the founding debates of the Republic. The Republican party will not surrender its institutional advantages willingly, the authors conclude, so there is no other option but sustained organising, arguing, and pressure for these reforms from the state to the federal level.

In their  2018 book, Levitsky and Ziblatt focused on institutional norms and guardrails that keep democratic competition within bounds. Democratic leaders must always reject violence, distance themselves from extremists, and accept electoral defeats. They were clearly pessimistic about the GOP then, but they still held some hope that the Republicans might ‘rebuild their own establishment,’ including better ‘messaging’ and ‘candidate selection’.

In Tyranny of the Minority, they abandon the idea of the GOP reforming on its own. Since 2020, the last remaining Trump critics have left or been purged from the party, and his supplicants have been elevated. Trump not only tried to overturn an election, but 139 of 221 House Republicans and eight of 51 Senate Republicans voted to decertify the election. With some exceptions, the GOP then voted against impeaching Trump and forming the January 6th Committee, the latter of which received the backing of just two House Republicans – both now out of Congress.

Minoritarian institutions, the authors conclude, are facilitating this descent, and they must be changed in order to resolve the crisis of democracy. They call for the end of the filibuster, the replacement of the Electoral College with a popular vote, reforms to make the Senate more representative, efforts to facilitate voting rather than constructing roadblocks, retirement ages or term limits for Supreme Court Justices, and an end to gerrymandering. These changes would hopefully ensure that ‘those who win electoral majorities actually govern’.

One area where the authors might consider rethinking recent history is on the issue of Republican adaptation. It is true that the Republican party has doubled down on its existing demographic rather than follow the call of the 2013 ‘Autopsy’ to reach out to minorities and the young. Nonetheless, its positions have changed more than Ziblatt and Levitsky acknowledge. Trump scrapped the free-market, immigrant-friendly, internationalist neoconservatism of much of the post-Reagan GOP in favour of protectionism, nativism, and a sceptical posture toward America’s global role. This adaptation reflected changes in the Republican base away from these positions and enabled Trump to crush establishment candidates, such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Minority parties, therefore, don’t necessarily double down on the same positions even if they can continue to exert disproportionate influence in the system as a whole. Winning power within a party, as Trump did decisively, requires adaptation. Ziblatt and Levitsky’s point still holds, however, that minoritarian institutions feed radicalism while disincentivising the minority party from broadening its base. The authors might consider more thoroughly why the MAGA-GOP still garners significant support, including 46.8 per cent of the popular vote in the 2020 presidential election and 51 per cent of the national House popular vote in 2022.

This is not an apology for Trumpism but a call for scholars, journalists, and policymakers to consider why the GOP retains significant support. They might also spend more time weighing why the Democratic party has still not rallied an overwhelming coalition against Trump. Minoritarian institutions are a huge part of this, but Democrats must also interrogate factors such as aging candidates, radical flirtations, and a highly educated leadership that often struggles to communicate to other segments of the citizenry.

Aligning American institutions more closely with the principle of majority rule and minority rights would help US politics in myriad ways, but would not guarantee a healthy multiracial democracy. Ideas, messaging, and day-to-day political competition still matter. A democracy can still have robust constitutional restrictions and protections for minorities without succumbing to the tyranny of the minority. The authors make a good case that reforming these structures is an indispensable step toward a stronger and more inclusive democracy.


Joseph Stieb