Review: ‘The Tyranny of the Minority’ – An Examination of the Current Threat to US Democracy



The United States is facing threats to its political norms, values, and institutions due to a possible return of Donald Trump to the presidency and politically motivated violence, according to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book, “Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point”. The authors suggest that the US is particularly vulnerable to minority rule, with entities such as the Varieties of Democracy Institute comparing the Republican Party’s commitment to democracy more to authoritarian regimes than similar center-right governing parties. They argue that, to safeguard democracy, stakeholders must respect election outcomes, reject violence or threats of violence for political goals, and reject authoritarian extremists, even if it means aligning with political opponents.

Amid speculation on Donald Trump’s return and increased politically inclined violence, the United States faces threats to its democracy. The US, the world’s oldest consecutive democracy, is particularly vulnerable to minority rule, according to renowned authors and Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

According to Freedom House, the US trails every established democracy in Western Europe, Argentina, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania in terms of democratic health. Sixty-six percent of prospective voters aged 18-29 believe American democracy is in crisis.

Is US democracy in danger?

Levitsky and Ziblatt’s work, with examples ranging from pre-WWII France to 21st-century Thailand, is significant for Liberal Democrats worldwide. They assert that upholding democracy requires respect for free and fair election results, rejection of politically motivated violence, and refusal to tolerate authoritarian extremism.

Former US President Donald Trump in Nashua, New Hampshire, January 23, 2024 (credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)

The authors argue that the main threat to democracy stems from restrained majorities. They explain how aspiring authoritarians legally manipulate counter-majoritarian systems to seize power, citing Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban as an example.

They also touch on the US Senate Republicans’ manipulation of the Constitution to secure a Supreme Court seat following Antonin Scalia’s death. Liberal Democrats, they argue, need to distinguish between rules securing civil liberties and those unfairly favoring partisan minorities.

While they acknowledge the challenges their reform proposals might face, Levitsky and Ziblatt insist on their inclusion in a national debate. The authors urge a broad, multi-racial movement committed to altering political discourse.

They admit that pro-democracy forces narrowly prevailed in the US in 2020 and 2022, warning that persisting issues — a radicalized partisan minority and protective institutions — persist.

Glenn Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

  • By Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
  • Crown
  • 368 pages; $28.99

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