Debate: Death of U.S. Democracy

Claire Jeantheau ’21, Staff Writer

 A visiting government professor said in a recent Clarke Forum lecture that “old and rich” American democracy is “genuinely at risk.”

The event, titled “How Democracies Die,” featured Daniel Ziblatt, the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, with counterarguments from David O’Connell, assistant professor of political science at Dickinson College

The two discussed the resiliency of American democratic norms in the years following the 2016 presidential election. Ziblatt argued that the erosion of those norms poses a serious threat to American political life. O’Connell followed, arguing the situation was not as dire as Ziblatt claimed. 

 Ziblatt focused his argument on two political norms which he viewed as crucial “soft guardrails of democracy.” These are mutual toleration, or viewing political opponents as fair competitors, and restraint of power through forbearance. He believed that increased polarization in the United States over the last twenty years is causing these norms to recede. He used politically right movements like the Tea Party, and the rise of executive orders and filibusters during President Barack Obama’s administration as examples. 

Ben Fleming ’19, a history and political science double major, said he believed that Ziblatt’s argument directed an unfair portion of blame towards the Republican Party. 

“There are very clear examples of both sides doing the things [Ziblatt is] saying, and both sides have a fault in the final situation we’re in,” Fleming said. “I think he needed to be more honest in talking about that… Republicans are not not at fault. They absolutely have their issues they’ve done, things they’ve said, positions they’ve taken that are problematic. But the Democratic Party is just as at fault in every case, and I think if he had taken that route… that accomplishes his point a lot better.” 

In response to Ziblatt, O’Connell explained what he called an “optimistic” view of America’s political situation. 

“Although I do think there are some threats to America’s democratic stability, I don’t think they’re the same threats we’ve listened to this evening,” he said, in answer to Ziblatt’s original statement. “I don’t think American democracy is in danger or is dying.”

O’Connell said he believed that several of Ziblatt’s criteria for a troubled democracy were difficult to objectively measure. 

“I found both arguments pretty convincing,” stated Dalit Kluger ’21, “and going into the talk I would agree more with what Ziblatt said. But I think democracy is being held up by our institutions and now with Democrats winning the House. I’m in a class with O’Connell, and a lot of what he said about the use of executive orders and pardons is what we talked about in class, so I found that convincing too. Trump is very unpopular and says and does a lot of unsettling things, but a lot of what he does as president does fall in line with previous presidents as we talked about in O’Connell’s class American Presidency.”


In a follow-up to O’Connell’s rebuttal, Ziblatt said that despite their disagreements, the two shared much in common in their views. 

“I don’t think we disagree as much as it sounds like,” he responded. “I don’t think tyranny is just around the corner.”

“I found the lecture given by Daniel Ziblatt very informative,” said Elizabeth Stewart ’19, an international studies major with minors in Chinese and East Asian studies, in a written message. “In my senior seminar class with Professor [of Political Science Russell] Bova, we read and discussed Levitsky & Ziblatt’s article titled “How a Democracy Dies,” which now, after the [debate] I understand in more detail and depth,” said Stewart. “It was great to have both sides of the argument presented in a debate style. I am so thankful to have had the opportunity to hear Ziblatt in person, stating and defending his argument.” 

“How Democracies Die” shares its name with the book Ziblatt co-authored with Steven Levitsky, which Ziblatt said he wrote in response to Trump’s actions as a presidential candidate. Ziblatt said he believed the campaign passed a “litmus test” of warning signs of an authoritarian leader. Copies of the book were available for sale following the event. 

“‘We didn’t want to write a partisan book,” Ziblatt said, speaking of his and Levitsky’s aims. “We wanted to write a sobering book that drew on history and political science research.” 

“How Democracies Die” was held on Tuesday, Nov. 13, in the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium at 7 p.m. It was sponsored by the Clarke Forum for Contemporary Issues and co-sponsored by the departments of political science and international studies, as well as the Churchill Fund.