Harvard professor warns of “imminent danger” in potential second Trump presidency

Steven Levitsky, the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies and Professor of Government at Harvard, gave a keynote address on December 4 drawing on themes from his recent book Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point. The event was a part of the Notre Dame Forum 2023-2024, “The Future of Democracy,” and was co-sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. 

At Harvard, Levitsky oversees the Center for Latin American Studies and lectures on comparative politics and global democratization. His research focuses on the rise and fall of democracies, authoritarianism, and political parties, particularly in Latin America. Along with Tyranny of the Minority, Levitsky co-authored How Democracies Die with fellow Harvard scholar Daniel Ziblatt. 

University President Fr. John Jenkins, C.S.C. introduced the address to a packed room in McKenna Hall and stated that the point of the forum is “to form respectful, informed dialogue” about democracy at home and abroad. Fr. Jenkins argued that although democracy has come under attack worldwide, the Catholic tradition encourages focus on the common good and “reach[ing] across party lines” in intellectual discussion.

Levitsky began his remarks with claims that the United States has been experiencing “democratic backsliding” since 2016. He pointed to the “Global Freedom Index,” on which the U.S. has dropped nine points since the 2010s, to support his argument. This deterioration, he added, is the result of the Constitution’s failure to adapt to the changing racial makeup of America.

Today, Levitsky said that the U.S. is undergoing a “historic transition” towards “multiracial democracy,” as evidenced by the growing diversity in Congress, the Supreme Court, and American culture as a whole. America’s newfound “multiracial democratic majority” has elicited a counter-reaction, says Levitsky: the pro-Trump sector of the Republican Party.

“One of our two major parties is no longer committed to playing by the democratic rules of the game,” Levitsky claimed. He suggested that the Republican Party has violated democratic principles, led by former President Donald Trump. Worse, Levitsky claimed, “Republican politicians—or some of them—have also begun to flirt with violence.” He cited Kyle Rittenhouse, the McCloskey family of St. Louis, and Republican ads featuring guns as examples of this trend. Levitsky grounded this movement towards violence in the “outsized fear of losing” shared by Trump’s supporters in the party, demonstrated by the events of January 6, 2021.

Levitsky compared the current Republican Party to southern Democrats of the Reconstruction era: just as “Democrats abandoned any pretense of democracy” when black Americans were enfranchised, Levitsky said that Republicans “panicked” when they realized they were “winning the white vote but losing the American vote.” He then detailed the history of race and the Republican Party, from the successful “party of self-identified white Christians” to today’s Republicans, who have not won the popular vote since 2004. “Many Trump voters feel like they’re losing their country,” Levitsky stated, “and that sense of loss has pushed many rank-and-file Republicans towards extremism.”

If anti-democratic Republicans are truly a minority, as Levitsky claims, how can they threaten democracy? Easily, Levitsky argued. He warned listeners that America is uniquely full of “counter-majoritarian institutions,” which allow a minority of far-right voters to wield “so much political power.” Levitsky listed several such “undemocratic institutions,” including the “malapportioned” U.S. Senate, electoral process, filibuster, and lifetime tenure of Supreme Court justices. He held that reforming these American institutions would realign America with other democracies and with the wishes of Founding Fathers such as James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. 

Levitsky concluded his speech with a call to action for all Americans concerned about the state of American democracy. “We face an imminent authoritarian threat,” he said, in the person of Donald Trump. Levitsky asserted that no candidate since World War II—“even Putin”—has been as openly authoritarian as Trump, who Levitsky believes will use federal agencies to prosecute his critics and antagonistic media outlets. To combat this threat, Levitsky said that politicians must form a “coalition” across party lines and avoid a “slide into minority rule.” 

The address concluded with a Q&A session hosted by Christina Wolbrecht, Professor of Political Science and the C. Robert and Margaret Hanley Family Director of the Notre Dame Washington Program. The Notre Dame Forum will continue on February 14 with “Liberal Democracy & The Catholic Church in a Change of Era,” a lecture on global Catholicism’s role in great power politics. 

Haley Garecht is a sophomore studying political science and minoring in constitutional studies and Irish studies. Currently, she is living in D.C. as a member of the Washington Program, where she is still struggling to navigate the Metro and mourning the end of the Eagles’ season. Please send any tips, condolences, or comments to hgarecht@nd.edu.

Photo Credit: Notre Dame Forum 2023-24

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