Steven Levitsky, political scientist: ‘The axis is no longer left-right, but cosmopolitan-ethnonationalist’

The American researcher, known for the celebrated ‘How Democracies Die,’ believes that a certain ‘anti-government mood’ is spreading around the world

Steven Levitsky
Steven Levitsky at his home in Brookline (Massachusetts) on May 23.Adam Glanzman
Miguel Jiménez

When political scientist Steven Levitsky began to analyze how democracies were destroyed, he never thought that the object of his study would end up being the United States. He specialized in competitive authoritarian regimes, especially in Latin America. Countries where there are elections but not a true democracy, like the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez or the Peru of Alberto Fujimori, where democracy did not die by a coup d’état, with tanks in the streets, but was destroyed from within, by politicians who had won the elections. Suddenly, with Donald Trump and large sectors of the Republican Party, he found in his very own country the patterns of authoritarian populism that he had studied so closely.

His influential 2016 book How Democracies Die, written with Daniel Ziblatt, who like him is a professor of Political Science at Harvard University, warned of the risk to democracy posed by Trump’s presidency. His thesis was confirmed with the assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the starting point of his new book, Tyranny of the Minority. In their new work, more focused on the United States, Levitsky and Ziblatt describe the ills afflicting the system, warn that the Republican Party has abandoned democracy, and propose reforms to improve the democratic system.

Levitsky grants the interview in his office at Harvard University’s Center for Latin American Studies at the height of graduation season. The campus has returned to normal, albeit with reinforced security, after the anti-Israel protests. Levitsky, who is Jewish, defends the right of students to mobilize and censures police repression. In the interview, he points out that the U.S. is a sick democracy, whose future is at stake in the November presidential elections. Trump, he warns, has a more authoritarian discourse than Chávez, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

Question. Is U.S. democracy at stake in the November elections?

Answer. No doubt about it. I don’t think the country is headed to Russian-style authoritarianism. The opposition forces, the democratic antibodies in the U.S. are too strong, at least in the medium term. It would rather be a period of crisis towards a hybrid regime, a competitive authoritarianism, in which there are abuses of power, there may be some level of repression or attacks against the media and against opponents and some violence. Trump has made it clear that he is willing to violate the basic rules of democracy and the Republican Party has shown that it is fully willing to support him in his authoritarianism.

Q. On the campaign trail, Trump has said that he is going to be a dictator for a day, he has spoken of political revenge and called migrants vermin that are “poisoning the blood” of Americans.

A. He has always shown authoritarian tendencies. I compare his vision of the state with that of some dictators from Central America and the Caribbean in the mid-20th century such as [Nicaragua’s Anastasio] Somoza or [The Dominican Republic’s Rafael] Trujillo. He believes that each institution is there for his personal purposes, that the state is him. You should never elect someone with a discourse like that. What worries me most is what he could do with immigrants. He has talked about using the army and creating concentration camps.

Q. You argue that not even some dictators would dare say some of the things Trump has said.

A. I’m trying to find a post-war candidate with messages as overtly authoritarian as his. He says that he is going to use the state to persecute his rivals, something that Chávez, Erdogan or Orbán did not say. That he is going to try to shut down opposition media, that he is going to use the army to repress demonstrations... In the last 50 years, it is very rare for a candidate to be so openly authoritarian. But we are not taking it very seriously.

Q. Why not?

A. When he was elected, some of us said he was a danger, but Trump had not yet done anything and it was understandable that he was not taken very seriously. But since 2020 it is impossible to ignore his authoritarianism. Many conclude that the system worked and Trump got out of power, they think he can’t really kill democracy. On the other hand, I think the democratic commitment of Americans is not as deep as we think. The proof is businesspeople. On January 7, 2021 they were saying they would never fund or support someone like Trump, but today they are giving him money, just in case he wins.

Q. In the 1960s, there was more political violence, but democracy was not in danger.

A. It was different. We went through a time of more violence, of more political terrorism than now, but the violence and extremist forces were outside the party system. The two parties were more or less in the political center. Today, violence, instead of being outside the party system, is within it. And the two parties are very polarized, which is more dangerous. I don’t want to exaggerate, but it is similar to the violence that existed in Spain in the 1930s. It often had partisan, political and ideological purposes, and the extremists had allies within the system, in the government and the parties.

Q. U.S. President Joe Biden has made the defense of democracy one of the axes of his campaign.

A. If our leaders do not tell citizens that democracy is in danger, no one will believe that it is. But partisan identities are so strong that independent and swing voters are few and far between, and we don’t know what kind of message works best. There is an anti-government mood, a discontent in the electorate, especially the part less willing to participate in politics. There seems to be nothing that can be done to change that. It is not just happening in the United States. The last 20 democratic presidential elections in Latin America have been won by the opposition. That is going to change in Mexico, but there is a very high level of discontent, also in Europe and Canada. Governments that have been in power for more than three years in Germany, France, the United Kingdom... are unpopular. Something is happening. I don’t know if it’s the pandemic, the economic uncertainty, social media... Maybe a combination of the three, but people have an anti-government mood that is going to help Trump and I don’t know what can be done to avoid it.

Q. What would a second Trump victory mean for democracy in the world?

A. The United States is ceasing to be a democratic model. A Trump victory will only accelerate that process. Also under Trump we would stop promoting democracy. The U.S. no longer promotes it as much as before, but with Biden it does, for example, in Brazil when [former Brazilian president Jair] Bolsonaro tried to organize a coup. I don’t want to exaggerate its effect, but it is important that the United States defends democracy. We already saw with Trump, in cases like Honduras or El Salvador, that he doesn’t care about anything, he is willing to tolerate and support authoritarian governments. For people like Orbán, Daniel Ortega [in Nicaragua], [Nayib] Bukele [in El Salvador], the cost of stealing an election, of carrying out a coup or of staying in power in an authoritarian way is going to be less. That is very negative for world democracy.

Q. In your new book, you explain that the much-admired U.S. Constitution is actually now also part of the problem.

A. We have a very old Constitution, which has been very successful, with two centuries of stability and economic growth. But it is from the 18th century, from a pre-democratic era, when no one, no elite, in any country, believed in democracy. In 1787, the North American Constitution was very progressive, advanced and democratic compared to Europe. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, other countries reformed their political systems and democratized them. In the United States, it is very difficult to reform the Constitution for several reasons: we are practically married to it, we have an attachment that’s turned it into something nearly biblical. It can’t be touched because it was written by the founding fathers of the country. And given the difficulty of reforming it, we are increasingly behind compared to other countries. We still have countermajoritarian institutions that allow political minorities to veto policies supported by majorities or to rule over majorities. We were the most democratic democracy and today we have one of the most countermajoritarian democracies on the planet.

Q. It is what you call the tyranny of the minority. Why is it happening?

A. It is a set of factors. In the U.S., it is difficult to vote. In almost all democracies, the state wants people to vote. In many, it is mandatory. In others, voting is done on a Sunday or a holiday and the government takes measures to make it easy to do so. In many democracies you reach the age of 18 and are automatically registered to vote. In the United States, it is difficult to register, it is difficult to obtain information about how to vote, you vote on a weekday... The right to vote is not in the Constitution and throughout history we have had episodes of governments that make voting difficult.

But there are also institutions like the Electoral College or the Senate that allow a partisan minority to win elections and govern, which is undemocratic. Our system favors rural areas, with little population. The most obvious case is the Senate, where each state has two senators, regardless of its population. This was always unfair to urban areas, but it had no partisan effects because both parties had urban and rural wings. In the 21st century that changed: the Republican Party is the party of the rural sectors and the Democratic Party the urban one. So, the electoral system systematically favors the Republican Party, not because of them, but it favors them and allows a party to control the Senate with 46%-47% of the vote and to win the presidency, losing the popular vote — it has happened twice in the 21st century. That, by itself, is undemocratic, but we have the problem that the minority party is also an authoritarian party. The far-right vote in the U.S. is not greater than in other countries, it’s between 20% and 30%, but that 30% can govern if they manage to control the Republican Party, and thanks to the Senate and the Electoral College, govern the country.

Q. You propose reforms to improve the quality of democracy.

A. We propose 15 reforms, some are possible in the short term, and others are impossible. The least possible is the democratization of the Senate. We propose that the number of senators be proportional to the population in each state, but that requires consensus among the 50 states, which is impossible. Others, such as measures to make it easier to register and vote, are very feasible, since they do not require constitutional reform. The filibuster — the rule of a reinforced majority to pass laws in the Senate — could also change. Another reform that is feasible is ending the life terms of Supreme Court justices. I believe that reforms that clearly benefit a party will not be possible, but those that do not and are democratizing will.

Q. As an expert on Latin America, which of its democracies are of concern to you?

A. My concern in Latin America is the very high level of discontent. There is discontent in all the democracies of the world, but there it is through the roof for understandable reasons: the level of violence, the poor performance of the economy, social inequality and corruption. This always opens up the possibility of an outsider arriving. Bukele is the latest example, but there are many: Chávez, Fujimori, Correa, someone who promises to overthrow the hated political class and who does so. For a while, people applaud. That can happen in several countries, but I am optimistic about the largest ones in the region. Brazil, Mexico and Argentina have a lot of problems, but they have solid democratic institutions and pluralistic and diverse societies, with the capacity to resist authoritarianism.

Q. You are Jewish, but you have defended the right of students to protest against Israel. How do you view the situation?

A. It has been very difficult. Jews are very diverse and have all kinds of positions on Israel, war and campus protests. There are Jews protesting and Jews asking the police to repress the encampments. I think the level of antisemitism on campus, at Harvard, and in the U.S. in general has been greatly exaggerated. There is evidence that antisemitism has increased somewhat in the last 10 years, but especially among young right-wing people. Antisemitism should always worry us, but it is not that high.

What there is is growing opposition to Israel and its policies, especially among young people. It is a change that started before, but is accelerating with the war in Gaza. Many young people, including young Jews, believe that what is happening in Gaza is a genocide, that the government is not doing anything, and they feel angry. I do not believe that what is happening in Gaza is a genocide, but it is terrible. We should not be surprised that there are university protests.

The problem is that there is a very strong pro-Israel lobby, with a lot of influence in the media, with a lot of money, which includes donors to Harvard and other universities, which is afraid of protests. It sees growing opposition to Israel and has reacted poorly, calling everything antisemitism, which is false. And it has called those protesters pro-terrorism, violent, antisemitic and thus justified police repression. I am concerned to see a wave of police repression of peaceful protests. I was a university activist in the 1980s against apartheid in South Africa. We made identical encampments. The protests are fundamentally pacifist. That has motivated me to participate a little in defending not necessarily the protesters or their cause, but their right to protest. It seems to me that there is what we call here a Palestinian exception, in which pro-Palestinian movements have less space and rights than others. In a democratic society that is not acceptable.

Q. Many of these young people are very critical of Biden’s support for Israel. The paradox is that if young voters don’t support Biden, it will lead to a win for Trump, who supports Netanyahu much more strongly.

A. This already happened in 1968 with the election of Nixon. In Western democracies, the main axis is no longer really left-right, but what I would call ethnonationalist on the one hand, and cosmopolitan on the other. In Canada, France, Germany, the U.S., the United Kingdom, the cosmopolitan coalition is the majority. Urban, secular people, who travel more, who are more tolerant of diversity... That group is the majority, but very heterogeneous and easy to fragment. When it unites, it wins, as with Biden in 2020. When there is a fracture, it loses, because the nationalist coalition is more homogeneous and disciplined: everyone votes. The cosmopolitan coalition includes unions and entrepreneurs; in the U.S., it includes Jews and Arabs. On October 7 of last year [the date of the Hamas attack on Israel] my co-author, Daniel Ziblatt, told me: “This is going to endanger the coalition.” And he was right. Any issue that fragments the cosmopolitan coalition raises the possibility of an ethnonationalist triumph that could be a threat to democracy. So, Netanyahu is no longer just destroying Israel, he is destroying the United States and perhaps the world.

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