Berkeley Talks transcript: American democracy and the crisis of majority rule

By Public Affairs

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #189: American democracy and the crisis of majority rule.

[Music: "Silver Lanyard" by Blue Dot Sessions]

Intro: This is Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can follow Berkeley Talks wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.

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Chris Tomlins: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to this Fall semester Jefferson Lecture. My name is Chris Tomlins, I'm a professor of law here at Berkeley. I'm the current chair of the Jefferson Memorial Lectures Committee. In just a couple of minutes it'll be my great pleasure to introduce our lecturer this afternoon. Before I begin that introduction, it is a requirement of the job, like all of the slight attendance on your next venture to make a public service announcement in fact, several.

First of all, we are recording the lecture and so we would greatly appreciate it if you could take a moment please to ensure your phone ringer is off. Second, just a brief sketch of the order of business, my formal introduction will resume in just a moment. After that, our lecturer will speak for about 40 minutes. We'll then have a Q&A period. Finally, you are all invited to join us at a reception immediately after the conclusion of the lecture, which will take place here in the hotel.

Now to business, I'm delighted to have this opportunity on behalf of the Jefferson Lectures Committee, on behalf of Berkeley's Graduate Council and Graduate Division, to welcome today's lecturer Daniel Ziblatt to Berkeley. In fact, I should say back to Berkeley, for Professor Ziblatt is not only a California native, but he is also a Berkeley alum, which means we are not just delighted he is here. We are also very proud to welcome him back to campus.

The Jefferson Memorial Lectures were established in 1944 through a bequest from Elizabeth Bonestell and her husband, Cutler Bonestell. The Bonestells were a prominent San Francisco couple who cared deeply for history, who hoped that the lectures would encourage students, faculty, scholars, members of the extended Berkeley community to study the legacy of Thomas Jefferson and in particular, to explore the values inherent in American democracy.

We might all agree, never has that objective been more pressing than in the times in which we live. As the lecture has matured, the range of lecture topics has matured with it. Our lecturers have spoken on the subject of Thomas Jefferson himself on early American history, but they've also ranged far and wide on American institutions and policy on politics, on economics, on education and on law. Our lecturers have come from all points of the political compass.

Many have come from the academy, but many more from beyond it. From the worlds of politics and law, from media and from active civic engagement, the role of past lecturers stretches back more than 60 years. It includes such names as Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Senator Alan Simpson, Representative Thomas Foley, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Richard Hofstadter, Carole Pateman, Walter LaFeber, Archibald Cox, Annette Gordon-Reed, Judith Heumann, and most recently, Ezra Klein.

Daniel Ziblatt, our lecturer this afternoon received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in political science in 2002. He's currently Eaton Professor of Government at Harvard University, and he is director of the Transformations of Democracy Group at Berlin's WZB Social Science Center. He's the author of four books, which have received prizes and glowing reviews, and he was recently elected a member of the American Academy for Arts and Sciences.

Professor Ziblatt's first book, which he published in 2006, focused on how states are created. It was titled Structuring the State: The Formation of Italy and Germany and the Puzzle of Federalism. Ten years later, he published Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy on account of the history of the spread of democracy in Europe.

Then, just a year later in 2018 came his book, How Democracies Die, co-authored with Steve Levitsky. In that book, you might say hit a nerve and not just in this country, but all over the world. How Democracies Die quickly became a New York Times bestseller. It's been translated into 30 languages. That speaks to a spreading anxiety about the stability of democratically organized states when confronted from within by authoritarian challenges.

If former Jefferson electors like Jeane Kirkpatrick many years ago cut their young teeth on the challenge of communism from the left. Now, what the liberal democratic world worries about is the authoritarianism of the right. Professor Ziblatt's most recent book published this year, and once again, co-authored with Steven Levitsky. It offers us some clues to his current thinking on the matters of challenges and responses. It's entitled Tyranny of the Minority

We look forward to hearing more this afternoon as he tells us about American democracy and the crisis of majority rule. Please join me in welcoming Daniel Ziblatt back to Berkeley.

Daniel Ziblatt: Thank you for the very kind introduction, Chris. Thank you for the committee for selecting me to give this lecture. My father a few years ago, or actually I guess I was in graduate school, gave me a copy of the book by Richard Hofstadter, The Idea of a Party System. And that book in the preface says it originated as a Jefferson lecture. This lecture series has always held a really esteemed status in my mind. Getting this invitation really is really an honor.

It is nice to be back among friends. I spent countless hours at the cafe next door. I was trying to think, "What did we spend all that time talking about?" I can't really remember, but it was very important, I'm sure. I'm a scholar of comparative politics. I study democracy around the world and the history of democracy. I want to use that comparative lens today to talk, to turn it around and look at our own country in the United States.

I thought I would actually begin with some numbers, some data. The international organization Freedom House every year produces a global freedom index. It assigns countries a score of democracy score ranging from zero to 100. A decade ago, the U.S. received a score of 94 out of 100, which put it on par with the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany. That's really where the U.S. has sat for decades.

Today, the U.S.' score, according to Freedom House, is 83, which is tied with Romania and Mongolia and two points below Argentina. This may shock you, but when you have government efforts to restrict voting, violent threats against election, workers in an attempt by an incumbent to overturn an election, you fall to the point where Freedom House scores you below Argentina.

This drop in score from 94 to 83 means that the American political system has experienced what political scientists call backsliding. Now to be clear, the U.S. hasn't experienced the kind of extreme backsliding that has struck places like Turkey, like Hungary, like India, but all major international indices register a pretty significant decline of the U.S. democracy score since 2016. Question is: How did we end up here?

That we even have to actually ask this question is actually very surprising from a perspective of social science. Social scientists disagree about most things, but there's two things that seem to be really rock-solid findings. First of all, rich democracies never die. No country with a GDP per capita above $17,000 per year has ever broken down. The U.S. has a score, of course, about four times higher than that.

The second seemingly rock-solid finding is that old democracies never die. No democracy in the 20th century over the age of 50 has ever broken down. Now, even if we date the birth of American democracy in the mid-1960s, which I think is appropriate given the passage of the voting rights and the civil rights acts, American democracy is over 50. Given all of that, the crisis that people feel about American democracy raises an important and a genuine puzzle.

That puzzle really is this, that the U.S. departs company from its peer nations, the rich old democracies of Western Europe, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Asia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand. Unique among this cluster of countries only the U.S. experienced democratic backsliding over the last recent years. Now, it's striking that even the democracies of Southern Europe, Greece, Spain, and Portugal, which are relatively new democracies withstood the financial crisis of 2008, 2009, these democracies persisted with their democracies intact.

Why is the U.S. alone among rich democracies in this position? I'm going to offer an answer this afternoon and I'm going to develop some of the themes in the book that I recently wrote, Tyranny of the Minority, with my co-author Steve Levitsky. I'm going to contend that a main culprit is a particular feature of our political institutions, which is making us vulnerable to a democratic crisis.

Now, I certainly agree with as many others have argued, that the rise of an ethnonationalist radical movement within the American Republican Party is part of the problem. The rise of such an ethnonationalist movement is only half the story. First of all, it's really important to recognize that the rise of radical forces within the Republican Party represent only a minority of American voters. In principle, this shouldn't be a problem for democracy.

Even more to the point, the rise of that 30% faction is actually very similar to what's happening in democracies all around the world. As a scholar of comparative politics, I can tell you that this 30% figure, 30% of the electorate is actually a near constant among rich democracies, roughly 20 to 30%, 35% of voters and most established democracies are supportive of radical right or populist parties.

The number sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less, but it's a near constant across established democracies. That's the same number that support the alternative for Germany. Geert Wilders' party in Netherlands, Maloney's party in Italy, the Swedish Democrats in Sweden. The problem isn't our voters, it's something else. Again, my contention is that it's our political institutions.

In particular, a growing misalignment of our institutions that protect political majorities and minorities that make our democracy more vulnerable than other old rich democracies to anti-democratic forces. Indeed, I would argue that our political institutions amplify these forces. I'm going to talk about now why. I think I can begin with just a little bit of a democratic theory. In a modern democracy consists is more than majority rule. It combines majority rule and minority rights.

Early defenders of limited government feared excessive concentrations of power in the hands of kings and in the hands of popular majorities. The form of democracy that emerged in the West between the late 18th century and the 20th centuries, what we today call liberal democracy, is based on two core pillars. 

First, collective self-rule or majority rule. Second, civil liberties or minority rights. Although liberal democracy can't exist without free and fair elections, it's undeniable that everything should be up for grabs in elections.

The words of former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, in a famous decision written in the 1940s, "Some domains of political life should be placed beyond the reach of majorities. This is the role of what we call counter-majoritarian institutions. The idea that certain facets of political life are beyond the reach of majorities. This is essential for democracy," and this is a big but, "but I believe this is a point that's not sufficiently appreciated. Not all counter-majoritarian institutions strengthen democracy."

We must distinguish between those, what I'll call good counter-majoritarian institutions that protect minorities and preserve democracy and those that privilege minorities by granting them an unfair advantage, thereby subverting democracy. 

Let me use an analogy that I hope is helpful. In a professional soccer match, rules that ensure fair competition and protect players by banning dangerous and unfair play are essential. These are what I would again call good counter-majoritarian institutions, just for shorthand purposes. In that same soccer match, rules that allow one team to begin with a goal advantage or that even allow one team to win when it scores fewer points would be considered unfair. I would consider these bad or unfair counter-majoritarian or unjustifiable counter-majoritarian institutions.

Now, how do we distinguish and practice between these good and bad counter-majoritarian institutions? Now, that is a tall task, but I think, actually, we can do it. So let me try. 

First, I'll talk about where counter-majoritarian institutions should operate. Two domains in particular must be protected from majorities. The first is individual liberties.

This includes the core civil liberties that are necessary for any democracy, such as freedom of speech, press, association, and assembly, but also includes a whole range of other domains, which our individual life choices should be free from the interference of a kind of temporary majority. Elected governments shouldn't have the power to regulate our religious practices. They shouldn't decide what books we can read, what movies we can watch, or what can be taught in universities.

Although the scope of rights to be protected will always be a matter of dispute, and always in the process of evolution, there exists a clearly broad range of individual liberties than the words again of Justice Jackson quote, "Maybe not submitted to vote, they depend on the outcome of no election." The U.S. Bill of Rights in principle enshrines those individual liberties in effect roping them off from the whims of temporary majorities. That is one important domain where majorities should not always govern. 

There's also, though, a second domain where the power of majority should be limited, and those have to do with the rules of democracy itself. Elected governments must not be able to use their temporary majorities or parliamentary majorities to entrench themselves in power by changing the rules of the game in ways that weaken their opponents or undermine fair competition.

It's exactly this specter of this that is what's sometimes called majority tyranny. The possibility that a government will use its popular majority to vote the opposition and democracy itself out of existence. This is the danger that Justice Jackson in the same decision called the problem of the village tyrant. This is what we saw in Chavez's Venezuela, Orbán's Hungary, and what Netanyahu's government was trying to do with its judicial reform before Oct. 7.

Since the opposition's right to compete on a level playing field is essential, it's an essential minority, we need mechanisms in place to prevent present-day incumbents from recasting the rules of the game to their benefit. These mechanisms include, as I mentioned before, a bill of rights, also independent judiciaries with constitutional review, power federalism, staggered elections in which different offices are up for election in different years and a constitution that is fairly hard to change.

Individual liberties and an opposition's right to fair competition must be replaced beyond the reach of majorities. All democracies as a result need to be tempered by some forms of counter-majoritarianism. Here's the hitch: As I said, not all counter-majoritarian institutions are essential for democracy. Just as some domains must be placed beyond the reach of majorities, other domains must remain within the reach of majorities, which I'll just mention two. 

One is elections. If you're going to have a first-past-the-post electoral system as we have in the United States, or one side wins and another side loses, then those with the most votes should prevail over those with fewer votes in determining who holds political office. No theory of liberal democracy can justify any other outcome. Put differently, office holding should reflect how voters vote.

A second domain where majorities should govern is inside legislatures. Those parties who win elections should actually be able to govern. Partisan minorities shouldn't be able to permanently veto regular legislation backed by parliamentary majorities, provided that the legislation doesn't violate basic minority rights. Institutions that prevent electoral majorities from winning or parliamentary majorities from governing are not essential to democracy. In fact, they're probably antithetical to democracy.

Again, two types of counter-majoritarian institutions, those that protect civil liberties and fair democratic competition and those that don't. 

Now, the U.S., in comparative perspective, has an unusual number of these latter types of counter-majoritarian institutions — domains where majorities ought to govern, but don't. The Electoral College, which allows losers of the popular vote to win the presidency.

A severely malapportioned senate, which provides equal representation of states regardless of population. The Senate filibuster, which allows a partisan minority to permanently block legislation backed by the majority at first pass the post-electoral system instead of proportional representation that often or actually even manufactures majorities for a party that has fewer votes.

A powerful supreme court with extensive review powers and lifetime tenure for justices, which allows justices appointed in one generation to thwart majorities for generations to come. You might be asking yourself now: If these are also antithetical to democracy, why would a political system ever have these in their constitution or in their political structures?

Why would a constitution or what political system have so many of these bad counter-majoritarian institutions, where these two sacrosanct domains of majorities are violated? 

Now, we might be tempted to think that this reflects the kind of far-sighted vision of political founders with a grand vision or blueprint for how to balance majority rule and minority rights.

The history, the answer to that question, "Why would systems ever have this?" is actually much more mundane. The emergence of such institutions is often rooted in the strategic calculations of those setting up a state. What I mean by that is the creators of any new constitutional order often face a serious challenge, they must secure cooperation of diverse groups which are powerful enough to so to speak, knock over the playing board and abruptly end the game if their demands aren't met.

When small but influential groups can credibly threaten to derail a difficult transition, leaders often conclude they have no choice but to grant concessions and outsize privileges. Consider the country of Poland its 1989 transition from communism. Here the anti-communist opposition agreed to a pact guaranteeing the outgoing communist party 65% of the seats in the first elected parliament.

Consider Chile in the late 1980s, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet agreed to leave power after being assured that he could remain in charge of the military, the armed forces would retain considerable power and that nine of the country's 47 senators would be appointed by the outgoing authoritarian government. Consider South Africa in the early 1990s, the National Party agreed to the dismantling of apartheid once they had secured a range of protections for the white minority, including cabinet representation in a vice presidency in the first elected government.

In each of these cases, counter-majoritarian institutions are not the product of a high-minded effort to balance majority rights and minority rights, but rather a series of concessions aimed at placating a powerful minority that threatened to sabotage a transition. Now, we don't normally think of the U.S. founding in these terms. We don't think of America's counter-majoritarian institutions in this way.

Again, we think of them as being part of a farsighted design by the founders to create a blueprint for a republic, but that's largely a myth. 

The framers weren't trying to design the perfect republic, they were trying to hold the union together and prevent civil war for an invasion. To do that, they had to do two things that founders often have to do: They had to improvise and they had to compromise. If the convention failed and the union broke apart, America risk dissent into instability and violence.

Not only would the emerging economy be destroyed, but the founders, a lot of them were former military people, they were very afraid of the geopolitical ambitions of Great Britain of France and of Spain. Under intense pressure to reach an agreement, the convention's 55 delegates did what leaders overseeing transitions often do: They improvised.

There were two explosive issues in particular that were poised to wreck the framers plans in that summer of 1787. The role of smaller states in the union and the role of slavery. Representatives of smaller states like Delaware worried that the interests of the small states would be swamped by big states of Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Likewise, the demands of the five southern slave states centered on protecting slavery as an institution. To get to an agreement without shattering the entire convention, the representatives of small states and southern slave states would have to be mollified, so they were granted a range of concessions. I think it's important here to emphasize that Madison and Hamilton, the architects of our famous system of checks and balances opposed equal state representation in the Senate.

When small states threatened to bolt the union, they had to compromise. According to Hamilton, I will read you a quote, "'People not territories deserve representation." As Hamilton wrote, "As states are a collection of individual men which ought we respect the most, the rights of the people composing them or the artificial beings resulting from that composition? Nothing could be more preposterous or absurd than to sacrifice the former to the latter."

Hamilton further argued the equal representation of states violates, quote, "that fundamental maxim of Republican government, which requires the sense that the majority should prevail." This are Hamilton. James Wilson of Pennsylvania also rejected equal representation. Like this quote in particular, "Can we forget for whom we are forming a government? Is it for men or for the imaginary beings called states?"

Equal representation of the states obviously won out. Similarly, when it came to the electing a president, James Madison wanted Congress to select the president itself and like a contemporary parliamentary system. This is part of his Virginia plan. This was the first proposal on the table. He also preferred direct presidential election over the electoral college, but the southern slave states rejected direct elections, as did some of the small states.

The electoral college ended up being the third best solution after all the others were voted down. Then finally the filibuster, just to mention another institution, was certainly not part of the framers vision of checks and balances. Indeed, Hamilton and Madison both opposed super majority rules for legislatures. They were spooked by the 18th century experience of Poland, and this was very live in their minds in the 18th century.

The institution of the liberal veto, which in the Polish parliament up until the 18th century required parliamentary super majority rule of unanimity to come to any decision, which ultimately in Poland had led to the dismemberment of Poland by Poland's neighbors, bad neighborhood, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Super majority rules were not included in the Constitution or the original senate for normal legislation, and the filibuster only emerged later.

With these two explosive issues of state size and slavery, the delegates gets concluded. If they wanted to keep the union together, they had to make concessions to the small states, so a compromise was struck. At the end of the day, then these institutions were not the product entirely of far-stated design. They were a product of a pact of what scholars of comparative politics call a transition game.

Unlike the pacts that I described earlier, Poland, South Africa, Chile, where many of which were temporary, many of America's counter-majoritarian institutions have become permanent. Those permanent concessions meant that small states were overrepresented and sparsely populated territories became overrepresented. The Electoral College overrepresents and favors sparsely populated states.

The U.S. Senate favors even moreso sparsely populated states and because the Senate approves the presidential nominees for the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court is also biased towards sparsely populated states. Our institutions allow those who win. 

We're in a situation where we've seen this quite often in recent years, those with fewer votes to govern those with more votes. Now, the question then is: Why is this a problem now? This has been the case for a long time. Why is this a problem now?

Why are we talking about this now? The U.S. system has always contained these institutions that empower minorities over majorities. The answer is that it's only in the 21st century that counter-majoritarianism has taken on a partisan cast that is regularly benefiting one political party over another political party. The framers certainly did not intend to create a system that benefited one party over another.

They really didn't even create a system with parties in mind, the word political party's not in the U.S. Constitution. The original beneficiaries of the U.S. system of counter-majoritarianism were small population states. A couple of things changed over time, though. First, as the country expanded and America's population grew, the asymmetry between low and high population states grew.

In 1790, a voter in Delaware had about 13 times more influence than the U.S. Senate than a voter and the more populous state of Virginia. In 2000, a voter in Wyoming had nearly 70 times more influence in the U.S. Senate than a voter in California, so that was one change. A second change was that America urbanized at the time of the founding, of course, that America was predominantly a rural country.

By 1920, the U.S. Census Bureau announced a great fanfare that for the first time in U.S. history, more people lived in cities than in the countryside. By the 20th century, the small state bias became a rural bias, yet even this rural bias existed through most of the 20th century did not have a clear-cut partisan bias. This is because for most of the 20th century, both parties had urban and rural bases.

Since both parties had urban and rural voters and bases and wings, rural overrepresentation did not consistently favor one party over another. It's really only in the 21st century that U.S. parties have split along urban and rural lines. In a very important book, Jonathan Rodden who teaches at Stanford and his book, Why Cities Fail, we see that this partisan urban-rural divide, this divide between parties between the countryside and the city has emerged across the world. All major democracies between left-leaning cities and the conservative countryside.

It's like in other parts of the world, then Democrats are overwhelmingly the party of metropolitan areas and Republicans, the party of sparsely populated territories. It's only in the U.S. or especially the case in the U.S., given our constitution that this overrepresentation of the countryside systematically advantages one party, in this case through the Electoral College, the Senate, and the Supreme Court, which all lead to the decisive consequence that it's now possible to win and to hold onto power without necessarily winning national majorities.

Republicans have been able to win the popular vote just once since 1988, and yet they controlled the presidency for most of the 21st century. A majority vote wasn't enough for Biden to win the presidency. In 2020, he had to win by at least four points, or else Trump would've been re-elected. The Senate is even more skewed. In recent years, the Democrats have needed to win the popular vote by five points to retain control of the Senate.

Senators, as you all likely know are elected to staggered six-year terms with a third of the chamber being elected every two years. This means it takes three elections over a six-year cycle to fully renovate the Senate. The Democrats have won the overall popular vote in every six-year cycle since 2000 and Republicans have controlled the Senate for nearly half that period. The composition of the Supreme Court is also skewed.

Four of the nine Supreme Court justices were confirmed by senators representing less than half the population. Three of them were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and were confirmed by senators representing less than half the population. 

It's really hard to justify these outcomes with any theory of liberal democracy. This bias, though, in addition to that, has three specific consequences. Pernicious consequences, I should say. 

First, it gives rise to the misperception of partisan parity. Our politics often looks like a dead heat, where both parties look like they're stuck in a stalemate alternating empowered. But this isn't quite right. Much of this stalemate is institutionally engineered and it's democratically unfair. 

The second consequence is that it's beginning to many Americans to feel like minority rule. Policy preferences, if we look at opinion, polls seem to be more and more out of sync with public policy. Overwhelming majorities of American want robust gun control, want more robust efforts to address poverty and income inequality, support abortion rights of the sort promised, been guaranteed, by Roe versus Wade. Now, it's true that this disjuncture between what voters want and public policy has many different causes, but our political institutions certainly contribute to this by not allowing majorities to govern.

Then finally, the third consequence of this particular arrangement in the United States. I think in some sense perhaps the most important consequence for American democracy is that these counter-majoritarian institutions have a feedback effect that are unintentionally reinforcing Republican extremism by shielding the Republican Party at the national level for competitive pressures. This is hard to compete with [inaudible].

This is important. Let me explain exactly this last point here, that these institutions are reinforcing Republican extremism. Democratic competition is supposed to work like marketplace. Firms when they can't sell products, they lose money and when firms lose money, they come under pressure to fire managers and develop better products. Likewise, in a democracy, political parties are supposed to win elections.

When they can't win elections, when they repeatedly lose, they're supposed to get rid of the people running for office and they're supposed to broaden their appeals. When the Democrats lost three consecutive presidential elections in the 1980s, they moved to the center of pick Bill Clinton as their democratic candidate for president 1992. A similar story applied to the British Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s. The Labour Party reformed itself came back as new labor under Tony Blair.

This process of adaptation isn't really happening within the Republican party today. Republicans have repeatedly underperformed in presidential year races and midterm races. So far, there has not been any serious effort to moderate or to rethink strategy. This is in part I would contend because our institutions give the Republican party an electoral crutch. In our book, we call this constitutional protectionism.

Republicans don't actually have to win national majorities, they can win power with 47 or 48% of the vote. Extremism doesn't cost them as it would in a truly national competitive environment. If the Republican party had to actually win national majorities, national popular majorities to wield power, they'd face much greater pressure to rein in their extremism. I believe ultimately this is contributing to our democratic crisis.

The genius of democracy is supposed to be that self-correcting. America's institutions are thwarting that process of self-correction. My last point today I want to make is this: That minority rule that I'm describing is a distinctly American problem. It's not unique to the us, but it has taken on a particularly distinctive form in the United States. No other established democracy can partisan minorities thwart electoral majorities as consistently and as consequentially.

Now, why is this the case? Well, excessive counter-majoritarianism used to be widespread across the world, it's not just the U.S. Consider for a moment the world's second oldest written constitution. Just written a few decades after America's constitution, Norwegian constitution, written in 1814, second oldest written constitution in the world. It's the Norway's constitutional framers were inspired by the American founding experience, their initial creation was also not entirely revolutionary.

Norway after 1814 retained a hereditary monarch. Kings retained the power to appoint cabinets at the veto legislation. Members of parliament were indirectly elected with electoral regional electoral colleges, and voting was limited to men who met certain property requirements. 

Now, Norway was not unusual. In the 19th century in Europe, states had all sorts of undemocratic institutions: monarchical vetoes, indirect elections, aristocratic upper chambers, unelected or badly malapportioned legislative chambers, filibuster-like mechanisms that blocked majorities in parliaments.

Over time, other established democracies gradually dropped these pre-democratic institutions. Consider again Norway. In the 19th century, Norway underwent a series of far-reaching democratic reforms, all under the auspices of its still existing Constitution. Parliamentary sovereignty was established. In 1905, a constitutional reform eliminated these regional electoral colleges and established direct elections for parliament, property restrictions were limited, eliminated, and universal male and female suffrage is established in 1930.

Now, this kind of reform actually wasn't so unusual. Consider Britain: It also began the 20th century by weakening the house of Lords of its veto power. Like Norway, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and Portugal ultimately got rid of their upper chambers altogether. Germany, Austria and Belgium, as federal countries, democratized their upper chambers by making them more proportional to population.

Britain, Canada, Australia, France and other democracies established cloture rules, which allowed simple legislative majorities to end debates within Parliaments. Germany, Switzerland and France imposed term limits on their national courts, their Supreme Court justices. The United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden established retirement ages for justices, and every other presidential democracy on Earth.

Every other presidential democracy on Earth got rid of its Electoral College. Argentina was the last other democracy that had an electoral college for presidential elections, it eliminated in 1994. Other democracies have become more democratic over the last century, eliminating 18th and 19th century institutions that allowed minorities to systematically thwart majorities.

The U.S. simply hasn't done this today then, the U.S. is the world's only presidential democracy with an electoral college for selecting our president. We have the most malapportioned senate in the world except for Argentina and Brazil. No other democracy allows a congressional minority to routinely veto regular legislation that's backed by a majority. The U.S. is the only established democracy with truly lifetime appointments for Supreme Court justices.

Every other democracy has either term limits or a mandatory retirement age. Each of these institutions would make the U.S. an outlier, but you add them up and the U.S. is really a distinctive outlier, it's uniquely counter-majoritarian. I think this in part explains why American democracy seems to be uniquely a threatened among Western democracies. Now, I can't talk about American democracy without giving some reflections on what to do about this.

All this is what people want to know the answer to. I'm really a big believer in the line from Jane Addams, the early 20th century reformer who said, "The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy." Americans need to do the work of democratizing their democracy through its reforms that ensure that electoral majorities can actually govern. In our book, we propose 15 different reforms.

I'm not going to go through all of them now, but the highlights include entrenching voting rights and ensuring equal access to the ballot. Introducing different forms of proportional representation. Replacing the electoral college with direct presidential elections. Democratizing the Senate by eliminating or at least weakening the filibuster, establishing term limits for Supreme Court justices.

Now, this is a long list that may seem very ambitious to some, but Americans have a long history of working to make our political system more democratic. It goes back to the founders. I would be remiss in a lecture series named after Thomas Jefferson to not quote Thomas Jefferson, so I'm going to quote Thomas Jefferson. He was one of the founders who was especially critical of those who look at the constitution with sanctimonious reverence and deem the Constitution like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched.

In Jefferson's view, constitutions need to change. Jefferson wrote laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. We might as well require a man to wear still the suit which fitted him when a boy if civilized people is to remain under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. Now, Jefferson's view of the constitution may have been on the radical edge of the founders, and he thought that there should be constantly renewed constitutions, but he wasn't alone.

George Washington wrote a letter to his nephew in 1787 in which he described the Constitution as a, quote, "imperfect document" and that it would be, quote, "up to future generations to prove upon it." Generations of Americans actually have done this. The Bill of Rights, the expansion of suffrage, the Reconstruction Amendments, the Progressive Era reforms at the beginning of the 20th century, Americans have worked to make our democracy more democratic.

What's striking, the exception is really over the last half century, we've stopped doing that work. Since around 1970, we stopped trying to make our political system more democratic. One of the broader points I would want to end with is to say we have to restore this country's reformist tradition and put political reform back on the public agenda. If we don't, I think our democracy continue to be vulnerable to the kind of crises that we've been living through over the last several years.

A final word, looking forward to the 2024 election and the next year, because this agenda that I've just laid out is in some sense a long-run agenda. The kind of implications of my analysis, I think, include both some good news and some bad news. In America, as in all of Western Europe, electorates are divided between what I would call a broad cosmopolitan coalition, ranging from the left to the center right, mostly centered in cities.

On the one hand, vis-a-vis, and then on the other hand, a kind of ethnonationalist coalition that's much smaller. There's some good news in this, because in all western democracies, the cosmopolitan coalition is really the consistent majority. Our electorates are overwhelmingly committed to liberal values for the most part and democratic values, so that's the good news. The bad news is there are two ways in which this majority cosmopolitan coalition can get into trouble and can be thwarted.

As in the U.S., our institutions can sometimes give the ethnonationalist minority an artificial boost, give them outsized influence. Not only in the U.S., but think in Hungary, Viktor Orban's majorities turned into supermajorities with his electoral institutions. Think of the first-past-the-post system in Britain, which allows the Tory Party sometimes even with around 30% of the vote with keys to the government. That's one problem the institutions can thwart the majority.

A second vulnerability, though second-way democracies can get into trouble, is if this cosmopolitan coalition allows itself to be fractured, even when facing serious democratic threats. Debates over immigration can do this. Debates over race can do this. And as we've seen in the last month, debates over foreign policy can do this as well. I think in the U.S. today, there's a risk that this Biden coalition could fracture over the Israel-Hamas war, so I feel some sense of foreboding about this.

Now, there's a risk that his base won't, not that people will vote for Trump, but that people won't vote, people will vote for third parties and so on. The point here is that pro-democratic coalitions have to be big. As a result of that, they're often very diverse and there's always the risk of fracturing. That fracturing is in part what allowed Orban to get back into power in Hungary. It's also how I fear Donald Trump could come back into power.

Facing these democratic threats across the West, I think it's key that democratic forces, pro-democratic forces, remember the stakes of the contest, and are reminded here of the civil rights era song that inspired that coalition to stay together, to democratize America, "Keep Your Eye on the Prize." Keep your eye on the prize. Democracy itself is at stake. Thank you. I guess, they take questions now, right?

Audience 3: Notwithstanding your notion of fracturing majorities from even prior to the American Revolution, the concept of state's rights and the notion of dual sovereignty I think has been also one of the greatest impediments to the transformation of American democracy.

Daniel Ziblatt: That wasn't a question, but that's a good comment, I agree with you. I guess one response would be that certainly in a federal system, states continue to have importance, but so I think there are tensions between federalism and democracy. There's ways of making federalism and democracy more compatible. I think the German Bundesrat, which is the chamber that represents the states.

Right after 1945, the founders, the writers of the German constitution discussed the option of having a Senate where each state would have two representatives. This is actually something that Americans were talking about as well at the time. Germans opted for a more representative system where certainly the small state of Mecklenburg-Vorpomernn or Saarland are overrepresented, but big states have more representation even in this chamber.

I think certainly at the founding, states mattered a lot, but it's been a long time. I subscribe here to Hamilton's principle that it's humans not states that have rights.

Audience 4: Should ranked, choiced, instant runoff voting be more widely adopted into legislatures and things like that as opposed to just local elections?

Daniel Ziblatt: Well, I encourage all sorts of experimentation with these kinds of institutional reforms. The way the American political system historically has changed is from the bottom up. I brought my students a couple of weeks ago to a town hall meeting in Lexington, Massachusetts where they were deciding on whether or not to introduce ranked order to voting and they passed, they were asking for the state of Massachusetts for permission to allow themselves to introduce this.

I think these things should be encouraged. A lot of political scientists have studied these kinds of reforms. There's a sense that they may increase moderation. People have contended at least that they increase turnout, they make it less likely that incumbents will win, there'll be more challenges. The evidence is quite mixed on this I have to say. Actually, it turns out that it's certainly not a panacea, but I think reforms, this are things that people ought to be looking at and really considering.

Audience 5: Thank you. That's an excellent presentation. One of the other factors in my view that threatens democracy in the United States and perhaps in other countries is money in politics. A similar or a contributing factor to that threat has been recent rulings that give corporations status with individuals.

In reading about this, I came to understand that this has been a longstanding debate among legal scholars in the United States and among the Congress of the United States. I'm curious as to your view on the role of corporations or the status of corporations vis-a-vis individuals under the Constitution.

Daniel Ziblatt: I guess, there are probably other legal scholars in the audience who could comment on the interpretation of the First Amendment and corporations rights as the freedom of speech. I mean, what I can say a little bit about what the impact, thinking about how this connects to democracy. It's certainly the case that whenever some people have more voice than others, and this is inherently undemocratic, I mean the principle of democracy is political.

Underlying principle is political equality and if some have more voice because they have access to money than others, then that's a problem. There is research showing that this does make a difference in how led members of Congress and so on vote. One thing though that I'm struck by is the degree to which money is on both sides of the political Democrats and Republicans, which is not to say it's not a problem because for the reason I just said, but I also think there's a role for the private sector, I would hope, in helping preserve democracy.

There's lots of people who are giving lots of money to try to defeat anti-democratic candidates for office. If I had my vision of the world, there would be huge restrictions on this and you'd have publicly financed campaigns. Given the way that the court is set up and the kind of opinion of the court, that's something that's not really going to be happening my sense is anytime soon.

In principle, I think our democracy would work better if we had publicly financed campaigns. Given where we are, we sort of hope that the private sector plays a responsible role, given that it's going to have a big impact.

Audience 6: Thank you for a great talk. I also like you can make a very strong argument for the tyranny of the minority. I was wondering also if you have thoughts about the tyranny of the majority and what I'm thinking very much about is this first post, which actually creates two big blocks. I come from Denmark myself, we have a proportional system.

I think that's really one, also maybe one of the reasons why you have so much trouble reforming your system that you simply have these blocks and that prevent, you have a strong force that prevents negotiation across the aisle. Therefore, also sit down and make gradual reforms of your system. I don't know if you have any views on that.

Daniel Ziblatt: Thank you for that question. It's very important. I think if the U.S. had a proportional system and you had multiple parties, I think we'd be much better off for the reasons you say. In addition to that, I think it turns out it's actually the better route to majority rule through proportional representation. With proportional representation, then when parties form coalitions in the parliament to pass legislation, they actually, you have to have at least 50% of the vote to pass legislation.

John Stuart Mill was actually the first to make this observation that proportional representation is a more successful route to majority rule. Ironically, these so-called majoritarian systems are more likely to lead to minority rule. Even in Europe and in Denmark actually is a case where this happens a lot, where you have minority governments. Governments that don't have a majority, if a coalition can't be formed in the Parliament across a couple of different parties and a minority party is in power.

In order to pass legislation, they have to cobble together majorities on a daily basis on particular bits of legislation. By definition, you have majority rule, so I really agree with that.

Audience 7: Thank you professor for this very profound lecture, I really learned a lot. I wanted to ask you, so first of all, just some of my comments. When I look around, I feel like a pervading problem in the U.S. politics is that we have more and more extremism in our two-party system with Democrats moving further and further to the left and Republicans moving further and further to the right.

I mean, when I look around, when I turn on the TV or when I just read a magazine, when I pay attention to stuff in our sociopolitical world, I'm finding that I'm liking these independent and moderate movements a lot more and No Labels being one of them. I was just curious, it looks like these movements aren't really gaining traction.

I was just curious, do you think the two-party system in general and some of the key architects behind it are suppressing the more moderate and common-sense ideas?

Daniel Ziblatt: Thank you. Well, your question actually really connects to the last question. I mean, I think in principle, we would be in a better situation if we had more than two parties. Given the election rules that we have in place today, voting for a third party when facing off against a threatening candidate for office, I think is a mistake.

In other words, in principle, it would be great to have more than two parties, but you first have to change the rules before you can, I think, vote responsibly for a third-party candidate because the stakes are simply too high. Given the nature of our electoral system, what the first-past-the-post system votes for third-party candidates are wasted votes.

That leaves me skeptical of the No Labels movement. I mean, the agenda there may be a good goal associated with it, but I think really given that we have a system in which really whoever wins the most votes in a state is going to win the electors for that state, by voting for a third-party candidate. In a presidential election, for instance, you're fracturing the vote away from the candidate you really want to win.

I think the responsible thing to do in a two-party system, from my own view, and of course everybody has the right to vote how they want, is to vote for one of the two major candidates and to make a judgment on that basis.

Audience 8: Great. Thanks, Daniel, Professor Ziblatt for the lecture. I really enjoyed it. I just wanted to ask you about two other forces that seem to be prevalent — populism and social media, especially the ability of politicians to lie directly to their supporters...

Daniel Ziblatt: To lie directly to the supporters?

Audience 8: Yeah, like a direct form of propaganda that's partisan in nature. I wanted to ask specifically about how you think that affects the 30% that you referenced that exists in a lot of countries around the world, and also how you think it might influence the Cosmopolitan Coalition that you referenced at the end. Thank you.

Daniel Ziblatt: I think all of this matters a lot. I've in a sense, sort of bracketed this 30% movement and where it comes from and why it's sometimes more and why it's sometimes less. If the AFD in Germany gets 20% of the vote, that's one thing. If it gets 30% of the vote, that 10% difference makes a huge difference in the German political system.

Just to give you one example why: The way that judges are picked in the national political system, you have to have two thirds of the vote. If a party wins 40% of the vote, let's say, even that can be incredibly dangerous because this radical right party could help pick Supreme Court justices. Coming to grips with why this number is sometimes higher, sometimes lower is really important.

I think all of the factors, I mean, there's lots of research on these things, but certainly media plays a big role. How voters interpret the state of the economy seems to be increasingly play a big role. That I think is shaped by media structures. The decline of local communities seems to be correlated. I mean, all of the research on this, there's lots of factors.

What's again striking is the degree to which it's similar across democracies, whether when studying the radical right in Germany and Sweden or the core Trump MAGA voters in the United States, the places where people are that vote for these kinds of parties are very similar. The demographic profile of these voters is also very similar.

I think because of all of that, it's a concern everywhere, but the biggest concern is how these parties get into national power without being in coalitions, for instance. That's why I focus more on institutions, although these other factors are certainly very important.

Audience 9: Thanks, Daniel. Two closely related things, I agree with your diagnosis, but I want to push you more on the solution, your remedy. There is a way to change things as you mentioned. There is a way to change the Constitution. Why isn't the remedy to create a coalition to create the conditions necessary to change the Constitution?

It's not like it's out there and can't be this structural, permanent thing. It's like there is a way to do it. Why isn't that being pushed as something?

Then, relatedly, ou imply that the problem is small red states, at least today is smaller red Wyoming, Idaho, etc. Why not turn some of those states purple or blue, as we've seen have, for example, in Virginia in our lifetimes, Virginia is now at a minimum purple, if not mostly blue.

Why not advocate a movement to give something to red state voters from the other side that would then question their apparent loyalty to the Republican party so that they actually support the Democrats. Then, the Democrats might actually benefit in the future from this, what you call the malapportionment in the U.S. Senate. It can go both ways. I just would like you to say a couple of words about that. Thank you.

Daniel Ziblatt: Thank you. I want to be clear, I mean, my diagnosis here is not ... maybe it sounds partisan or has partisan implications, but the point is, I'm making a point from democratic theory. How can one justify that the loser of a vote becomes president? That's not a point about partisanship, that's a point about democratic fairness. When I go out to dinner with my wife and kids, we have a vote, are we going to go have Chinese food or sushi?

We have a vote. Everyone knows whoever gets the most votes wins. This is a principle of democratic theory that is universal. It's clear that the partisan consequences of this is the thing that have alerted people to this. I think that it's the reason it's concerning at a partisan level is that it allows one party to entrench itself into power. Now, sure, Democrats should win in red states. This is what the work of democratic operatives is to figure out how to do this.

If I were advising Joe Biden, I would figure out, tell him how to figure out how to do that. It's still worth pointing out that Democrats have to win more votes in order to win. Given from a perspective of democratic fairness, that's really the critique that's the problem. I think you're right that as a strategic matter, if you're the Democratic party, this makes sense to try to do this.

I think still the same principle applies that the system is in some way distorting of the competitive nature of democratic politics. On your first point, I agree that it's important. Again, I think we do need to think about how movements for change come along. We do this a little bit in the book. We look at the Progressive Era, and there are broad social movements that push for reform. I think actually the direct election of U.S. senators is very interesting.

Actually, the movement for prohibition, although that was not a particularly great constitutional amendment, is also instructive. I mean, these are broad social movements that cut across many states that the reform efforts require decades often of mobilization. In order to have a constitutional amendment, you need two-thirds of the house and the Senate, so by definition it has to be bipartisan.

The question of how to get there, of course is hard, but I think politicians and political leaders change their behavior when they feel their voters want them to change their behavior. The only way that happens is through an engagement with this. Voters being concerned about this and putting pressures on political leaders. That's the way constitutional change has happened in the past. I think that's the only way it can happen now.

Audience 10: Thank you. One thing that stuck out to me was you talked about how there's this 20 to 30% constant for these kind of more authoritarian movements and this more cosmopolitan liberal democracy supporting majority or something like that. I'm wondering if you think that's some sort of constant amongst wealthy democracies? If what would happen, say if that was flipped, those numbers were flipped and that kind of thing, I guess is my question.

Daniel Ziblatt: I don't think, it's not a permanent kind of reality, but it just really seems to be the case. I think often we forget, as well, that the Nazi party in Germany didn't win popular majorities. It's actually pretty rare for societies to have overwhelming majorities voting for anti-democratic forces. It may say something about the resilience of our societies that this is the case.

Actually, when people ask me, "What do you feel optimistic about?" This is something I feel optimistic about, this relies on investments in education and people's high quality of living and their own resources to thrive in a complex economy. I think we need to invest in all of this stuff to expand that majority. In some ways it's the fruits of decades of economic development and so on.

In some sense, I guess I feel pretty optimistic about that, but once you get into 20, 30, 35% of the electorate voting against democracy, then I think you get into trouble.

Audience 11: Thanks, this is really a fabulous, fabulous talk. I just wanted to ask you, Daniel, elaborate on one aspect of the feedback loops that you were talking about. One important consequence of these counter-majority institutions is that the Republican party might think we don't actually have to get a majority, and so we can keep doing what we're doing and we'll still have a lot of power.

The other, you mentioned, I think another feedback loop potentially when we were speaking at lunch, which is that things that people might want the government to do, they can't do. Even so Democrats have a majority. They get a majority, but there are all these counter-majority institutions, the filibuster, so popular things they might want to do, they can't do, or the Supreme Court strikes down things prevents them from doing things.

Is there a feedback loop also that involves increasing kind of disgust or disappointment with alienation from government that can potentially also be really corrosive and it could actually lead to a situation where Donald Trump can win the majority of the vote in a presidential election?

Daniel Ziblatt: No, I do think it's a concern, and I think there's growing frustration with the Biden administration partly because of that. I think one area where you could imagine this really becoming dangerous is let's say Donald Trump wins the presidency without winning the popular vote. Once again, there's going to be increased sense, I think on the left that this system is just not legitimate.

I think democratic legitimacy, broadly speaking, if institutions don't reflect majorities over time can be corrosive. There's a world in which I can imagine the left wing of the Democratic party saying, "Why you even play this game?" I mean, that's a little different than the point you're making, I guess, which is there's just sort of frustration with the political system.

Actually, one of the great insights of Juan Linz, a Spanish political scientist who I often like to quote is that the thing that precedes democratic breakdowns, he says, is the perception of unsolvable problems. When the political system is perceived as simply not being effective, he states, it's as if it's a law-like reality. When that happens, and that continues over decades, then you have people turning away from democracy.

He made this point looking at interwar democracies, looking at Latin America in the 1960s and '70s. I think that is a real concern.

Audience 12: My question is about federalism and local rule, do you think there should be more or less of that and does it contradict with, well, it seems to me in politics there's a sense that if you don't get things at one level, you move up to the next level. Before you know, these local issues become national issues and because they're national issues, no one can agree.

Daniel Ziblatt: I think a large political system like large territorial political system like the United States, federalism is probably a necessary set of structures. Not unlike the European Union where the fact that we have a two-party system in the United States today in this massive country that's incredibly diverse is unfathomable if you stop and really think about it for a moment.

Federalism at least provides some kind of decentralization and the political system to be responsive to local conditions. I certainly wouldn't want to be misunderstood as saying that we need a unitary majoritarian system. I think a federal system is really important to have, but there's ways of making federalism more or less compatible with democracy.

I think for instance, again there's no time, are we going to get more representatives for bigger states in the US Senate? That's essentially an unchangeable feature of the US Constitution, but we should recognize that that's pretty unique in the world, how disproportionate, how overrepresented small states are. I think we need a federal system and this is the avenue through which political change often comes is from these local experiments that I mentioned, the town hall meeting in Lexington.

It's like those kinds of things, efforts to introduce voting reforms at the state level. That's the way in which a proportional system, for instance, would be introduced in the United States is through the state level.

Audience 13: Hi, I have a question. You mentioned, which I agree with that across the world, typically there's about 30% of the population that tends to be on the right. Would you agree with that in general?

Daniel Ziblatt: Yeah, I wouldn't say the right, but that finds the appeals of, I would say, ethnonationalist forces. I mean to the extreme right, let's say.

Audience 13: That's the premise. There's one country that I'm aware of, Switzerland, which seems to have weathered all of this up and down, back and forth in the world better than most other countries. What I've heard is they have an 85% approval rating of their government. They trust the government, all directions. Do you think it's time to maybe look, there are small country to look at other options and maybe really consider major changes to a lot of things to how we do in this country?

Daniel Ziblatt: I was in Switzerland two weeks ago, in fact, and there's a far-right party that's in government in Switzerland, but it's in coalition. It's constrained by, I forget what the vote share is, like 25% or something, but it's constrained by other parties. The proportional representation system allows both to constrain these forces and the damage they can do.

Also, one of the key features of that political system also, I mean there's two things that are distinctive about Switzerland. I don't want to go too far down the rabbit hole to Switzerland, but one is that there's a lot of informal cooperation among the parties, and this comes from the proportional system. There's also referenda, which I think, I'm not sure how critical that is.

I think the broader point, the broader message of my book, I mean to sort of focus on the spirit of your question here is that we need to look outside the U.S. There are points in American history. Most of the time, Americans tend to think we have the best system in the world and we're insular. We don't look at other democracies, we don't look at other ways that universities are run in other countries.

There are these moments in American history. I think the beginning of the 20th century was one of these periods where there was a lot of interest in what was happening in other parts of the world. Our university system was set up based on people studying in Germany and Britain, and realizing we need to reform our institutions. My institution, Harvard University, was totally remade after people understood how German universities were run.

Similarly, the Progressive Era in the early 20th century, where there were people who were interested in urban reforms going to look at how municipal governments were run and sewer systems, public transportation systems, and openness to the rest of the world. I think this moment that we're living in is a moment in which we need to have the ambitious modesty, I would say, to look beyond our own borders, to look for inspiration.

No cookie cutter, every political system is different, but we need to look at and be curious about the rest of the world. I think there's a lot to learn.

(Audience applause)

Chris Tomlins: The reception follows.

[Music: "Silver Lanyard" by Blue Dot Sessions]

Outro: You've been listening to Berkeley Talks, a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. Follow us wherever you listen to your podcasts. You can find all of our podcast episodes, with transcripts and photos, on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.

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