America is in the midst of a unique political moment. The United States House of Representatives has been without a speaker for more than two weeks, after a far-right group of just eight Republican representatives were able to oust their own party's elected house speaker, Kevin McCarthy. The situation calls to mind the title of a new book by two Harvard political scientists, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, "Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point." It's not the first time the authors have shown a tendency to being prophetic. Their last book, "How Democracies Die," came out three years before the Jan. 6 insurrection. GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath spoke with Ziblatt about how we got to where we are politically. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Arun Rath: So this book, "The Tyranny of the Minority," examines many of the ways in which our democracy is being weakened and ways our country's institutions are susceptible to attack from within — how they're actually kind of baked into the Constitution. One obvious way, which you talk about, is the Senate. I think people can get that: where Wyoming, with maybe half a million people, has the same number of senators as California, which has 39 million people.
With the Senate at this moment relatively functional, I was thinking we would focus today on the House of Representatives, which is designed to be ideally representational of the population of the country fairly. So going back to where we got to where we are, what's wrong with how the House of Representatives is structured for democracy?
Daniel Ziblatt: Yeah, great question. So the House of Representatives, of course, is within the constitutional structure. It's a remarkable Constitution in many ways, but it was a Constitution designed in a pre-democratic era, which gave political minorities a lot of power — partly by design, partly because the Constitution itself was a was a set of compromises and improvisation.
So, you mentioned the Senate, the Electoral College, our federal judiciary at the national level, then the House of Representatives as the most majoritarian body, but I think what we're witnessing in the House of Representatives today reflects, broadly speaking, the kind of radicalization of the Republican Party, which itself is a function of lots of different things. Our constitutional structures generally have contributed to that. So this radicalization has empowered a small faction within the House of Representatives, which exerts incredible influence over the rest of the political system.
Rath: And this is an anomaly right now because of the rules that former Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to, right?
Ziblatt: Yes. This is this comes out of an earlier era. There was something called the "Hastert Rule," where in order to bring something to the floor, the Republican caucus had to be united. So between these rules and the radicalization of the Republican Party, this has given this one faction of the party incredible power. I think there's really two things contributing to this radicalization and why this group has such influence within the political system. One is the presence of Donald Trump on the political stage. This group of eight congressmen who brought this all upon Kevin McCarthy in the House and the nation as a whole are really close allies with Donald Trump. This empowers this group, number one. And number two, there's a sense that the beating heart of the Republican Party, the MAGA core of the party, is behind these eight congressmen and their various allies. So between these two things, this has empowered this group and has allowed this group to exert its influence really outsized to where the rest of the American electorate is. And so in many different dimensions of our political life — policy things like gun control, climate change — you have vast majorities of Americans who believe one thing, and yet our political system seems to be vulnerable to capture by this one group. Again, this is being reinforced by the structures of our system, because again, you have to remember the reason why Donald Trump is on the stage. He won the election in 2016 without winning the popular vote. He came very close in 2020 without winning the popular vote. So he's on the stage. The Republican Party has been pushed to the right, facilitated by and empowered by our constitutional structures. So the one institution where majorities do rule, even this institution is being influenced by these broader structures.
Rath: How do you see it then, working back from here? Will fixing things be as simple as a new party or different leadership in this party coming up with new rules?
Ziblatt: Yeah, So the founders were very worried, actually. Although we tend to think our system needs to protect political minorities — and that's right, all democracies are certainly more than majority rule — but our founders were very alert to this risk. Alexander Hamilton, for one, was really worried about having political minorities bring the whole political system to a grinding halt and the dysfunction that could result from that. So I think the dysfunction results from the radicalization of this one part, but what's really key is that any democracy needs two political parties to survive. So it's not enough for Democrats to win and to run things and run themselves. There's been a lot of talk that maybe Democrats should have come to the help of Kevin McCarthy. That may or may not be true, but the broader point is we need two political parties. We need to reach a point where two political parties are encouraged to moderate, and I think broadly. So one of the points of our book is to say that we need to reform our institutions to allow political parties to have to win majorities in order to govern. Too often in our political system today, in the Senate, in the Electoral College, political parties don't necessarily need to win. The Republican Party in particular doesn't actually need to win majorities of voters to win power. So that's why we need to reform our institutions and consider things like reducing the power of the filibuster, maybe eliminating the Electoral College to encourage the Republican Party to have to win majorities. If they had to win majorities, they wouldn't radicalize. If they didn't radicalize, we wouldn't have the dysfunction that we have today.
Rath: We focus a lot of this dysfunction on the House, and the Senate does maybe look relatively functional next to it, but we also do have a situation, a number of instances, where the minority party is able to obstruct things moving forward. Examples would be military promotions and, right now, President Biden's pick to be the ambassador to Israel.
Ziblatt: Yeah, to bring it back to the founders, Alexander Hamilton in the 18th century looked to Poland, which may seem like a strange place to look, but in Poland in the 18th century, the Parliament required unanimity to get anything passed. So he was really worried about this, because what happened in Poland is because they couldn't raise taxes and they couldn't raise an army, the country of Poland was swallowed by Austria, Prussia and Russia, who were Poland's neighbors. This kind of dysfunction really worried the founders because it has national security implications and this dysfunction is rooted in giving political minorities too much power. Again, we need to protect minority rights, but when there's too much power from political minorities, when they can block just basic legislation, then it leads to dysfunction that is incredibly worrying.
Rath: Short of actually being able to make changes to the Constitution, what are some of the other tools that could be used to make things more functional, at least in the short term?
Ziblatt: In our book, in the last chapter, we have 15 proposals. There are some things that are stretches, like getting rid of Electoral College, but some things don't require constitutional change.
Weakening the filibuster, if not outright eliminating it, doesn't require a constitutional change, that's simply a Senate rule. That's one thing.
But to bring it back to the House of Representatives, another proposal we have is to expand the House of Representatives. Currently, the House of Representatives is the same size as it was in the 1920s. Throughout American history, every decade after the census, there's an opportunity to expand the House of Representatives. This doesn't require a constitutional change, and if we increase the number of representatives, what this would mean, in effect, is we would be shrinking the size of districts. We would make our representatives more accountable to people, give populous states more power, and this may in fact, disrupt the kind of dynamics that we see today. So this is another one of our proposals that, again, doesn't require constitutional change.
A final thing I would mention is just make it easier to vote. A lot of states are introducing automatic voter registration. This is, again, something that doesn't require national or constitutional change, but this would change our dynamics to make our political system more functional.
Rath: Daniel, it's been great speaking with you. Thank you.
Ziblatt: Yeah, thank you.
"Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point" is out right now.