Tyranny of the Minority: How American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt


Review by Brian Tanguay

The latest collaboration between Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt is equal parts civics tutorial, history lesson, comparative analysis, warning and remedy. A work of remarkable clarity, Tyranny of the Minority is required reading for those concerned about the state of American democracy or anyone who wonders why and how our politics became so dysfunctional and partisan. 

America’s democracy has long been studied and emulated, its founding documents quoted and praised for striking a balance between the executive, legislative and judicial branches, and between state and federal power; for protecting individual liberties and preventing electoral majorities from running roughshod over electoral minorities; and for prescribing a peaceful, orderly transfer of political power. Because they were created in a pre-democratic epoch of monarchies, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have almost mythic resonance, conceived, as American children are taught, by enlightened men who yearned to be free and proposed the audacious notion of self-government to achieve that end.   

We forget that the Constitution is a product of compromise, concession, and political expediency. In terms of democracy it is imperfect because it contains counter-majoritarian elements and is extraordinarily difficult to amend. In the twenty-first century these structural flaws have become more glaring and corrosive. The framework that once seemed capable of providing reasonable political stability now facilitates a host of undemocratic and anti-majoritarian practices that stifle the will of the majority on issues such as reproductive rights, health care, gun control, taxation, elections, immigration, labor rights, and environmental protections. 

The authors state the case without equivocation: “The United States, once a democratic pioneer and model for other nations, has now become a democratic laggard.”

Take voting for example, the most basic of democratic activities. In no other democracy is the act of casting a ballot as fraught, complicated or tedious as it is in many parts of the United States. But voting is merely the tip of an anti-majoritarian iceberg. Partisan gerrymandering is practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike, but in the twenty-first century the GOP has made gerrymandering a dark art, distorting congressional districts to such an extent that incumbents and candidates choose their voters rather than the other way around. Someone elected in a manufactured district becomes largely untouchable and unaccountable, and absent competitive pressure to broaden their appeal or moderate their rhetoric, they pay no political penalty for outrageousness or radicalism or negligence. The manner by which eight extreme members of his own party forced the ouster of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is an excellent example of this dynamic.  

The U.S. Senate also distorts our democracy because it is flagrantly malapportioned, with all states given the same representation regardless of population. In addition, the filibuster, a supermajority rule, makes it possible for a partisan Senate minority to permanently block legislation proposed by the majority. At no time in this century have Senate Republicans represented a majority of the population. While it isn’t entirely unhealthy for political minorities to occasionally or temporarily frustrate or block a majority, it is, as Levitsky and Ziblatt write, “Another thing for a partisan minority to consistently defeat or impose policies on larger majorities and, worse still, use the system to entrench its advantages. When this happens, you have minority rule, not democracy.”

And, of course, there’s the Electoral College which allows losers of the popular vote to claim the presidency. Nothing in democratic theory permits losers to win elections. 

That the authors must remind us of the most basic principles of democratic behavior is a measure of how adrift we are. Levitsky and Ziblatt repeatedly emphasize three basic principles to which committed democrats abide, regardless of party affiliation: First, they respect the outcome of free and fair elections, win or lose. Second, democrats unambiguously reject violence (or the threat of violence) as a means of achieving political goals. Third, they don’t aid or excuse antidemocratic forces.

Any American who hasn’t spent the past half dozen years off the grid or living in a cave on a remote mountain has some inkling that one of our two major parties has openly rejected — and continues to reject — all three basic principles. The January 6 assault on the legislative branch was both a rejection of the outcome of the 2020 election, which was demonstrably free and fair, as well as an attempt to achieve a political objective by violent means. And as for those antidemocratic forces, we mustn’t forget that later that same day more than 140 Republican representatives refused to certify Joe Biden’s victory. 

While Tyranny of the Minority is a warning about the perilous political moment we are living in, the book also calls us to reimagine our democracy and offers a number of reforms. If we are to realize any of these it will come through more democracy, not less, through inclusion rather than exclusion, tolerance instead of intolerance. Make no mistake, the remedies offered represent difficult propositions that can only be achieved by a large and broad social movement prepared to struggle for as long as it takes. While even modest reforms seem unattainable in this polarized moment, we have only to recall the long campaign waged by women to gain the vote, or the collective grit, courage and resilience Black people marshaled to achieve equal civil and voting rights. Those accomplishments seemed impossible. 

Social movements make change possible by transforming ideas into tangible public policy and law. Such a movement hasn’t coalesced, yet, which is one reason this book is so important and vital. Ideas and ideals and aspirations fuel and sustain social movements. Not only is building this movement the way to restore health and balance to our democracy, it might also be our best hope of solving the complex environmental, political, and economic challenges we face today.