[MUSIC PLAYING] THOMAS PEPINSKY: Welcome, everyone, to this afternoon's lecture by Steven Levitsky, the 2019 AD White Professor-at-Large here at Cornell, and David Rockefeller Professor at Harvard University. I'd like to start by just saying a couple thanks to some important people who made this all possible. To Penny Dietrich from the AD White Professor-at-White at program, for her tireless work in organizing everything and making this visit possible.
To David Feldshuh for his support and his advocacy for this. And to my colleague, Ken Roberts from government, for thinking up the idea to invite Steve and for doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of making it possible. Also, I'd like to extend a special welcome to participants from the workshop entitled Democratic Resilience-- Can US Democracy Withstand Rising Polarization?-- organized by the American Democracy Collaborative, and in particular, by my government department colleagues, Suzanne Mettler, and Ken Roberts again.
And we're especially pleased to have Professor Levitsky here to launch this workshop. So now, to the main event. Steven Levitsky is the David Rockefeller Professor of Latin American Studies in the Department of Government at Harvard University and the chair of Harvard's Weatherhead research cluster on challenges to democracy.
Professor Levitsky, you may also not know, is also an old Ithacan, who moved here at the age of six months and is probably the only graduate of Northeast Elementary School who's also been on Fresh Air. Steve's awards and accomplishments are way too many for me to list them all here and still have time for him to give the presentation.
So instead of singing his praises that way, what I'd thought I'd do is just take a minute to talk about what makes for an important scholar. I've always thought that the mark of a successful career in academia is if you have one good, novel, important idea, something that's useful and influential within your community.
That's the thing that gets you on the syllabus. If you have one really good idea, that makes for a good career. And the elite among us, the most successful in our disciplines and our programs, they maybe have two good ideas. By my count, in the 20 years since he graduated from Berkeley, Steve has had four good ideas.
His dissertation and first book on peronism in Argentina transformed our understanding of party organizations and of Latin American politics in general, and Argentinean politics in particular. A separate but related research agenda on informal institutions has made fundamental theoretical and conceptual contributions to the way that social scientists understand institutions and how they structure and are structured by the social world.
An entirely separate body of work launched the study of what he and Lucan Way termed competitive authoritarian regimes, which are kind of like the signature political regime form of the post-Cold War world. And yet we didn't even have a term for what these things were 20 years ago.
And finally, Steve recently co-authored the landmark book How Democracies Die, which unlike the more intellectual contributions that I noted previously, is so important that my sister is currently reading it in her book club. It is this last really good idea that brought Steve to Cornell this afternoon.
He is the preeminent political scientist studying democracy and authoritarian governments worldwide, and he commands extraordinary expertise in especially timely questions related to current affairs, both around the world and here at home in the United States. Please welcome me in joining him-- or join me in welcoming him.
STEVE LEVITSKY: Nervous. So first, some thanks to David Feldshuh and the other members of the selection committee for exercising phenomenally poor judgment in choosing me to be a Professor-at-Large. Thanks also to Penny Dietrich, who basically runs the show, I'm learning, in this program.
And special thanks both to Tom and to Ken Roberts for hosting me here at Cornell this week. They have made me feel very much at home in my old hometown. The snow was not necessary. Brought back a lot of nostalgia. Not a necessary addition.
So as Tom said, I grew up here in Ithaca. I went to Ithaca High School. I worked for many years at Collegetown Bagels, which means that I sold bagels probably to a long series of previous Professors-at-Large. I actually had my bar mitzvah reception at the AD White House.
And in fact, now that I think of it, I think the last public lecture that I gave at Cornell was my barmitzvah talk. And that, that did not go well. You know, we're supposed to tell jokes at the beginning of these, or I like to tell jokes the beginning of these lectures, but it's actually really hard in this particular program because nobody here is John Cleese. Right?
So I may avoid the jokes. In fact, my dad is a professor here, and he's a very good lecturer. And the one thing I learned from him, or that he taught me about lecturing is that people get bored after about 15 minutes or so. So you got to either tell a joke or tell a swear every 15 minutes.
And you usually mix those two things up. But since I'm afraid of telling jokes here, I'm just going to swear like a sailor. OK, it is wonderful to be back in Ithaca. I do want to say hello, special hello, to my family and old friends who were here, Mom and Steph and Sophie and Jean and Lewis, and to my dad and to Barb, and to my uncle Rob.
Rob is probably the person who, more than anyone else in the world, got me interested in politics when I was a young guy, long time ago. So I'm really, really happy to see all of you here. OK, now, according to social science standard, political science, Daniel and I should never have written this last book.
Political scientists have uncovered two pretty rock solid facts about democracies. First of all, old democracies never die. And secondly, rich democracies never die. In fact, no democracy even remotely as rich or as old as America's has ever broken down.
But we think there are at least three reasons to think we may have entered uncharted territory. First of all, levels of income inequality in the United States have risen to levels unseen since before the Great Depression. Secondly, the United States has begun a transition that, to my knowledge, no democracy has ever successfully undergone.
That's one in which a previously dominant ethnic group loses its majority status. I will return to that point. And third, of course, Americans have elected a president with visibly authoritarian instincts. None of that means that American democracy is dead. None of it means that American democracy is even necessarily dying.
But it is clearly cause for concern. I think it's pretty clear that we can no longer take the stability of American democracy for granted. Now, democracies do not die like they used to die. Democracies used to die at the hands of men with guns.
During the Cold War, during most of the 20th century, three out of every four Democratic breakdowns took the form of a military coup. Generals come in, send the president off packing, and form a military coup. Today democracies die in a much more subtle fashion.
They die at the hands, not of generals, but of elected leaders-- so presidents, prime ministers who use the very institutions of democracy to then subvert it. They use elections and referenda. They use acts of parliament or Congress. They use Supreme Court rulings.
This is Putin. It's Chavez. It's Erdogan. It's Viktor Orban in Hungary. What's so dangerous about this electoral road to autocracy is that it happens behind a pretty credible facade of democracy. There are no tanks in the streets. The constitution usually remains intact.
Elections are still held. Congress continues to function. And as a result, many citizens are not aware, or not fully aware, of what's happening often until it's too late. So if democratic breakdown begins today at the ballot box, rather than in the barracks, one of the keys to defending democracy, one of the keys to protecting democracy, lies in keeping autocrats from getting elected in the first place.
And here, political parties and political elites play a critical role. Parties are democracy's gatekeepers. Elected authoritarians very rarely, historically, come to power on their own. Almost invariably, if you look back, they get a hand from at least one of the mainstream political parties.
So in Italy in the 1920s, liberal leader Giovanni Giolitti, hoping to tap into Mussolini's mass appeal, included the Fascists on his liberal party's list for parliament. Germany conservatives, as early as 1929, forged a working alliance with the Nazis, trying to draw on Hitler's grassroots appeal to shore up their own party's declining base.
In both of those cases, liberals in Italy, conservatives in Germany, mainstream political parties abandoned their gatekeeping role and let extremists in the door. Both cases obviously turned out to be a pretty tragic miscalculation. Now, historically, American parties have been pretty good-- in fact, they've been phenomenally good-- gatekeepers.
The United States has had no shortage of extremist demagogues on both the left and the right. Father Coughlin, Henry Ford, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace. Surveys show that each of the figures I just listed, at one point or another, enjoyed about 30% approval rating, which means that that's not far from where Trump was when he started his run for the presidency.
But none of these figures made it even close to the presidency. They were kept out for a bunch of reasons, but fundamentally by the political parties and by the candidate selection process. As all of you know, prior to 1972, our presidential candidates were selected by party leaders in conventions, and what we often think of as smoke-filled back rooms.
That system was not very open. It wasn't very inclusive. It wasn't very transparent. It certainly wasn't very democratic. But it was a pretty effective gatekeeping mechanism. Party leaders, party bosses knew the potential candidates because they worked with these guys. At this point, they were all guys.
So they knew their strengths. They knew their weaknesses. They knew how they held up under stress. And they knew which ones were fit for office and which ones were demagogues. In fact, for all of its shortcomings-- and the old candidate selection system had a ton of shortcomings.
For all of its shortcomings, the old system had a perfect record in keeping demagogues out. The primary system that we adopted starting in 1972 is much more open. It's much more inclusive. It is much more democratic. I like it, but it weakened party leaders' role as gatekeepers.
And we saw this very clearly in 2016. Republican leaders, you may forget this, but they despised Donald Trump. They knew damn well that Donald Trump was unfit for the office of the presidency. But under the primary system, they had very few tools with which to stop him.
So primaries, and this is the least popular part of our book, primaries are double-edged. They are more democratic, but they leave us more vulnerable to demagogues. Had the old convention system been in place in 2016, Donald Trump wouldn't have gotten anywhere near the White House.
Now, electing a demagogue does not condemn us to democratic breakdowns. Never a good thing, I wouldn't advise it, but doesn't condemn us to democracy's death. This is where our institutions come into play. And I want to spend some time on that.
Americans have a lot of faith in our Constitution for pretty good reason. We've got the oldest, arguably the most successful, constitution on earth. Our Constitution has checked a bunch of very ambitious, very powerful, and sometimes even abusive presidents in the past, from Andrew Jackson, to Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, to Nixon.
But one thing that became clear, researching this book, is that constitutions by themselves are never enough to protect democracy. Even the most brilliantly designed constitution on earth-- we've got a pretty good constitution-- does not just function automatically.
All constitutions, everywhere, have to be reinforced by strong democratic norms, or unwritten rules. And our book doesn't focus on all norms. Who don't care about all norms. We focus on two specific norms. One of them is what we call mutual toleration.
That's simply accepting the legitimacy of our partisan opponents. That means that no matter how much we disagree with our rival, no matter how much we personally dislike our rivals, we recognize, both publicly and in private, that they love the country as much as we do and that they have an equal and legitimate right to exist, to do politics, to compete, and if they win, to govern.
In other words, we do not treat our rivals as enemies. It's a crucial distinction. The second norm, a little more complicated, is what we call institutional forbearance. Forbearance means refraining from exercising one's legal right. It is an act of deliberate self-restraint, an underutilization of one's power.
We do not often think about forbearance in politics, but it is absolutely vital. Think about what the US president, constitutionally, legally, is able to do. President can pardon whomever she wants, whenever she wants. Any president with a congressional majority can pack the Supreme Court.
If they do not like the ideological or partisan composition of the Court, pass a law expanding it to 11, to 13, fill it with allies. Perfectly constitutional. The president can circumvent Congress, make policy through executive orders, or by declaring a national emergency.
The Constitution does not clearly prohibit such action. Or think about what Congress has the constitutional authority to do. Congress can shut down the government by refusing to fund it. The Senate can use its right to advice and consent to block the president fulfilling cabinet seats, to block the president fulfilling Supreme Court vacancies.
And the House can impeach the president on virtually any grounds it chooses. My point here is that the president-- or that politicians, excuse me-- politicians can exploit the letter of the Constitution in ways that totally eviscerate its spirit. Court packing, partisan impeachment, government shutdowns, national emergencies.
Legal scholar Mark Tushnet calls this behavior-- using the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law, he calls this behavior constitutional hardball. You look at any failing or failed democracy in the world, and you will find an abundance of exactly this, the constitutional hardball-- Spain and Germany in the '30s, Chile in the 1970s, contemporary Hungary, Poland, Venezuela, Turkey.
What prevents a democracy from descending into a destructive spiral of constitutional hardball is this thing called forbearance. It is a shared commitment among politicians to institutional restraint, to not using the letter of the law to subvert its spirit.
Two quick examples. Think about presidential term limits, historically, in the United States. Prior to 1951, the United States Constitution placed no limits on presidential re-election, which means that legally, American leaders could be president for life, just like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
But for nearly 150 years, following a precedence set by George Washington, no president made any serious effort to pursue a third term. It was not the Constitution that prevented ambitious presidents, like Jefferson, Jackson, and Grant, from seeking a third term. It was a norm of forbearance.
Or take the filibuster in the Senate. Filibuster's a pretty powerful tool. It can grind Congress to a halt, as we've learned in recent years. But for most of the 20th century, for a good chunk of the 20th century, the filibuster was rarely used. The Senate recorded an average of fewer than one filibuster a year between 1917 and 1960. Senators exercised forbearance.
These two norms, of mutual toleration and forbearance, serve as what Daniel and I call the soft guardrails of democracy. They are what helped to prevent normal, healthy, political competition from spiraling into the kind of partisan fight to the death that wrecked democracies in Europe in the 1930s, and South America in the 1960s and 70s.
Now, America has not always had soft guardrails. Did not have them in the 1790s, when partisan warfare between Federalists and Republicans nearly wrecked the republic before it could take root. America's guardrails, to the extent that they existed, collapsed in the 1850s, prior to the Civil War.
And they remained weak through the end of Reconstruction. The 1860s and '70s were replete with constitutional hardball. Changes to the size of Supreme Court in 1866. In 1869, a presidential impeachment. In 1868, a contested, and probably stolen election in 1876.
Norms and mutual toleration and forbearance really only took hold in this country in the late 19th century. And it's worth taking just a second to think about why and how they took hold. Mutual toleration emerged after the Republican Party abandoned Reconstruction, which allowed the Democrats to establish Jim Crow in the South.
Southern Democrats viewed Reconstruction, and particularly black suffrage, as an existential threat. And they fought like hell against it, which led to extreme polarization. It was only after the Republicans essentially gave up and abandoned Reconstruction, essentially taking racial equality off the political agenda, that the two parties began to peacefully coexist.
So the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance that undergirded our 20th century democracy, that undergirded the democracy we grew up in, emerged out of a profoundly undemocratic arrangement, the political exclusion of African-Americans and the restriction of our political community, essentially, to white guys.
With that caveat in mind, norms of mutual toleration and forbearance were pretty strong in the United States in the 20th century. Democrats, Republicans accepted one another as legitimate rivals. And with rare exceptions, they avoided destabilizing acts of constitutional hardball.
So there were no impeachments, there's no court packing, there were no costly government shutdowns. Supreme Court nominees were approved even when the oppositional party controlled the Senate-- that took forbearance-- and outside of wartime-- there's a lot of wartime-- but outside of wartime, presidents refrain from circumventing Congress through executive orders and national emergencies.
So for more than a century, our system of checks and balances worked pretty well. But again, the system worked because it was reinforced by norms of mutual toleration and forbearance. We argue in the book that these two norms have been eroding over the last quarter century.
There were signs of this in the 1990s. Newt Gingrich became House Speaker in 1995, spent his career prior to that instructing his Republican allies to use terms like betray and anti-flag and traitor to describe Democrats. In other words, he encouraged his fellow Republicans to abandon the discourse of mutual toleration.
Gingrich is also a master, an early master, of constitutional hardball. He led the first major government shutdowns of the modern era. And, of course, in 1998 the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton arguably on a technicality. That was the first impeachment in 130 years.
The erosion of mutual toleration that really accelerated during the Obama presidency. Republican leaders like Gingrich, Palin, Juliette, Giuliani, Huckabee, Trump began to tell their followers, both publicly and in private, that President Obama did not love America, that Obama and the Democrats were not real Americans, maybe that Obama wasn't even American at all.
Just to give you one quote, Colorado congressman Mike Coffman said in a fundraiser, and I quote-- I think this is 2008 or '9-- "I do not know if Barack Obama was born in the United States of America, but I do know this-- that in his heart, he is not an American. He's just not an American."
Now, the US has always had an extremist fringe. But this is no longer fringe politics. These were national Republican leaders. This was the party's 2016 presidential candidate. Leading Republicans were starting in the early 21st century to question or even deny the legitimacy of their Democratic rivals.
That worries us because when mutual toleration disappears, politicians start to abandon forbearance. When we view our partisan rivals not as rivals, but as enemies-- when we view our partisan rivals as an existential threat, we grow tempted to use any means necessary to thwart them, to beat them, to stop them.
And that's exactly what's beginning to happen. After the 2010 Tea Party election, the Republican Congress treated the Obama administration as an existential threat that had to be beaten at any cost. There were more filibusters during President Obama's second term than in all the years between World War I and 1986 combined.
And it wasn't just trivial stuff. Congress twice shut down the government and at one point pushed the country to the brink of default. President Obama responded with constitutional hardball of his own. When Congress refused to pass immigration reform, when Congress refused to pass climate change legislation, he circumvented Congress and made policy through executive orders.
That was technically legal, but it clearly violated the spirit of the Constitution. But the most stunning act of constitutional hardball of all is, to my view during the Obama period, was the Senate's decision, 2016, not to allow President Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Scalia's death. That move was unprecedented since 1866.
All that stuff happened before Donald Trump was elected president. So the problem is not just that Americans elected a demagogue in 2016. It's that we elected a demagogue at a time when the soft guardrails protecting our democracy were coming unmoored.
So why is this happening? We argue that what's driving the erosion of our norms is extreme polarization. Over the last 25 years or so, Republicans and Democrats have come literally to fear and loathe one another. There's a famous, not pretty good, but famous survey from 1960 that asked people, that asked Americans, how they would feel their kids married someone from another party.
So in 1960, 5% of Democrats and 4% of Republicans-- I might have this reversed-- said that they would be bothered if their kid married someone from the other party. Today, that number is close to 50%. According to a survey, a Pew survey from last year, 49% of Republicans and 55% of Democrats say the other party makes them afraid.
And another study by Liliana Mason and some colleagues found that 60% of Democrats and Republicans believe the other party is a danger to the United States. They don't just disagree with their health plan. They think the other party is a danger to the United States.
We have not seen this level of partisan hatred since the end of Reconstruction. And it's not just traditional liberal and conservative polarization. People do not fear and loathe one another over taxes and health care. Today's partisan differences run much deeper than that.
They're about racial and cultural identity. Our partisan identities have changed dramatically over my lifetime, over the last 50 years. Go back to the late 1960s or early 1970s-- the Republican and Democratic parties, names are the same, they differed on a bunch of issues. But demographically and culturally, they were pretty similar.
Both of them were overwhelmingly white and Christian. Three changes have occurred over the last half century. First of all, the Civil Rights Movement led to a massive migration of southern whites from the Democratic to the Republican Party, while African Americans, in many cases, newly enfranchised, became mostly Democrats.
Second, the United States experienced a massive wave of immigration, first from Latin America and then Asia. Most of those immigrants and their kids have ended up in the Democratic Party. And third, since Reagan, evangelical Christians have flocked to the Republican Party.
As late as the late 1970s, the Evangelicals were evenly distributed between the parties. In fact, they were slightly more Democrat than Republican. Today they are overwhelmingly Republican. So even though the parties' names have not changed, they've come to represent totally different, fundamentally different, communities.
The Democrats are sort of a weird mix of urban, secular whites and a range of ethnic minorities, while Republicans remain overwhelmingly white and Christian. So what? Why does that matter? Matters because white Christians are not just any group.
Not only were they once an overwhelming electoral majority in this country, but they occupied, not that long ago-- they occupied in our lifetimes-- all of the top rungs of this country's political, economic, cultural, and social hierarchies. They filled the presidency, they filled Congress, they filled the Supreme Court, the governors' mansions.
They were the CEOs, they were the newscasters, the TV newscasters, the college professors. They were the faces of both the Democratic and Republican Party. Those days are long gone. But losing a majority-- crucially, losing one's dominant social status can be deeply threatening.
Many Republican voters-- not all-- many Republican voters believe that the country that they grew up in is being taken away from them. For many, that feels like an existential threat. And Danny and I argue that that is what's driving the extremism of the Republican Party, and ultimately what's fueling our country's polarization.
Problem is that polarization can kill democracies. Research by political scientists Milan Svolik shows that the more polarized a society is, the more we become willing to tolerate abusive or undemocratic behavior by our own side, as long as it's against the other guys.
So when politics is so polarized that we view a victory by the other guys as something that's catastrophic, something that's unacceptable, beyond the pale, we start to justify using extraordinary means to stop that from happening-- things like violence, election fraud, coups.
Americans have not reached the point of supporting coups. But we have reached a point where, according to exit polls from 2016, one out of four Donald Trump voters believe, or said in exit polls-- people who pulled the lever for Donald Trump-- one out of four Trump voters said they believed he was not fit for the office of the presidency.
One out of four Trump voters did not view him as fit for the office of the presidency. And yet they still preferred him to the Democrat. We've reached a point where, according to Gallup polls consistently since 2016, Republicans have a much more favorable view of Vladimir Putin than they do of Hillary Clinton.
Those are dangerous levels of polarization. Donald Trump is a symptom of that polarization. He's not a cause of it. And his departure will not necessarily put an end to it. All right, so what's happened in the two plus years since we wrote How Democracies Die?
I would say that there's both good news and not so good news. The good news is that America's democratic antibodies are pretty strong. I think President Trump turned out to be every bit as authoritarian as advertised. He calls his critics enemies. He accuses them of treason.
He's tried consistently to purge and to pack our law enforcement agencies and to use those agencies to investigate and punish his critics. He's flouted congressional authority and the rule of law. And of course, he's now used the power of the presidency to try to persuade foreign governments to investigate his presumed rival in the 2020 election.
That is unambiguously autocratic behavior. But Trump has faced pretty serious pushback-- from the media, from the courts, from our law enforcement agencies, from civil society, and from American voters. Last year's midterm election, 2018 election, was a clear, important reminder that the United States is not like Russia, Hungary, Venezuela, or Turkey-- places where authoritarian governments effectively steamrolled weak oppositions.
United States doesn't have a weak opposition. It has a strong opposition. That opposition now controls the House. And it may well impeach Trump. That's the good news. The not so good news is that the underlying problems of polarization and norm erosion have not gone away. They persist.
Again, our system of checks and balances, our constitutional system of checks and balances, only works where there exists a minimum of mutual toleration and forbearance. Without forbearance, without restraint, divided government pretty quickly descends into institutional warfare, in which constitutional checks and balances essentially become weaponized.
This is a world of stolen Supreme Court seats, of partisan impeachments, of government shutdowns, of declarations of national emergency. That, I think, is the principal danger that we face today. Our democracy is becoming utterly dysfunctional. We've had, is it 10 months? 10 months of divided government under the Trump presidency.
During those 10 months, not a long time, we've experienced the longest government shutdown in US history. We've seen the use of a fabricated national emergency to openly defy the will of Congress. We've seen the launching of an impeachment inquiry. And we've seen the administration flatly refused to cooperate with that impeachment inquiry.
Last year, Daniel and I had the great fortune of having dinner with seven US senators. And one of the senators, who is running for president, which doesn't narrow it down very much, told us that-- this maybe narrows it down a little bit more, he's a pretty moderate guy-- told us that he thinks that, as things stand, we will never again see a successful Supreme Court nomination by a president who doesn't control the Senate.
In other words Merrick Garland is about to become the rule rather than the exception. That's a pretty dangerous, debilitating level of dysfunction. All right, so what can be done? For one, I think most fundamentally the Republican Party must change.
It has to become a more diverse political party. As long as the Republicans remain overwhelmingly white and Christian in a society as diverse and diversifying as ours, it will be prone to extremist, white nationalist appeals. I want to develop this point for a second because I think it's important.
Democracy requires that parties know how to lose. That means when we lose an election, we accept defeat, we go home, we get drunk, and we get up the next day, and we play again. Very simple, very important. But for parties to lose graciously, which is the norm I'm talking about, two conditions have to hold.
First of all, parties have to believe that they stand a chance of winning again in the future. And secondly, parties have to believe that losing will not bring ruinous consequences. When politicians fear that they're not going to be able to win again in the future, or when they believe that defeat is going to bring catastrophe, the stakes rise dramatically.
Politicians time horizons narrow. They throw tomorrow to the wind, and they use any means necessary to hang on to power today. In other words, desperation leads politicians to play dirty. Daniel, my co-author, found this dynamic in late 19th century Germany.
German conservatives were terrified of giving the working class the right to vote. For them, giving the working class the right to vote meant not only the conservatives' electoral demise, but it meant the demise of the entire aristocratic order. So the conservatives in Germany played dirty.
They used fraud and repression to hang on to power all the way through World War I. Or think about Southern Democrats in the aftermath of the Civil War. Reconstruction and the 15th Amendment brought widespread black enfranchisement across the South.
African Americans were a majority or a near majority in most post-Confederate states. So their enfranchisement scared the bejesus out of Southern Democrats and their constituents. Not only did black suffrage threaten the Democrats' electoral dominance, but it's threatened to overturn, at least potentially, the entire racial order.
Facing what they perceive to be an existential threat, the Democrats in the South played dirty. Between 1885 and 1908, all 11 post-Confederate states passed laws or constitutional reforms that allowed governments to use poll taxes, literacy tests, property and residency requirements, to effectively eliminate African American voting rights.
Black turnout in the South fell from 61% in 1880 to 2% in 1912. Unwilling to lose, Democrats strip the right to vote from nearly half the population in the South, ushering in nearly a century of authoritarian rule in the post-Confederacy. We fear that something similar is happening to the Republican Party today.
The Republicans medium-term electoral prospects are not great. As I said, Republicans are an overwhelmingly white Christian party today. But white Christians are a declining portion of the American electorate. 1992, not that long ago, when Bill Clinton was elected, 73% of the electorate was white Christian.
By 2012, that figure was down to 57%. By 2024, it'll be less than 50%. But it's far worse than that because younger voters are overwhelmingly Democrats. In the midterms last year, people aged 18 to 29 voted more than two to one in favor of the Democrats.
30-somethings voted nearly 60% Democrat. But the problem is not just that Republicans potentially face a bleak electoral future. It's that the Republican base has come to view defeat as catastrophic. As I noted earlier, many Republican voters fear that they're on the brink, not just of losing elections, but losing their country.
The very idea of a white Christian America seems to be slipping away. So slogans like "Take our country back," "Make America great again," reflect that sense of peril. So like the old Southern Democrats, Republicans have started to play dirty.
In state after state after state, Republican governments are taking steps to make it harder for lower income and minority voters to register and to vote. They're closing polling places in universities and predominately African American neighborhoods.
They're purging voter rolls. They're making it harder to register. Since 2010, more than a dozen states, all of them Republican-led, have adopted strict voter ID laws that are clearly aimed at dampening turnout among poor and non-white voters. Georgia Republicans, as most of you probably know, used a voter suppression tactic in last year's gubernatorial race, including a Jim Crow style "exact match" law that basically allowed state officials to throw out any voter registration form that was not an exact match with other state documents.
So if you signed some state form as putting your middle initial and then forgot the middle initial in the voter registration form, they could throw it out. Earlier this year, Texas Republicans tried to purge the voter rolls of nearly 100,000 Latinos in North Carolina.
After Democrats won the governorship in 2016, the Republican legislature passed a series of last minute reforms to pack state institutions to weaken the incoming governor, including stealing two seats on the state court of appeals. Wisconsin Republicans followed a pretty similar playbook after Scott Walker lost the governorship in 2018.
So it's not just Trump. Republicans across the country are starting to play dirty. The only way out of this mess is for the Republicans to become a more diverse party. Once Republicans learn how to compete for urban, for secular, for non-white voters, they'll become more confident about winning on future elections, and they'll become more comfortable or less fearful of a multiracial America.
When that happens Republicans should deradicalize, and our politics should depolarize. When will that happen? That will happen when Republicans lose. One thing we know about political parties is parties change their strategies when their current strategies fail, when they lose elections.
So Republicans are most likely to change course when they receive, or after they receive, a series of electoral shellackings. But there's a hitch. Our institutions give Republicans a crutch. Both the electoral college and the Senate are biased towards sparsely populated territories.
And because the Senate approves Supreme Court nominees, that means the Supreme Court is also at least somewhat biased towards sparsely populated territories. Now, for the first two centuries of our history, that bias sucked for New York, and it benefited states like Wyoming and Vermont.
But it didn't have a partisan effect because both parties had urban and rural wings. So the essentially rural bias of our institutions didn't benefit one party over the other. It's only in the last generation that our parties have split so overwhelmingly along urban or rural lines.
Today the Democrats are overwhelmingly a party of big metropolitan centers, big metropolitan centers or what turn states blue. And the Republicans are overwhelmingly based in sparsely populated territories. That means the Republicans-- and this was not their fault-- it means Republicans have a systematic advantage in the electoral college, the Senate, the Supreme Court.
And that opens up the possibility of some form of minority rule. The last two Republican presidents, as you know, have come to office despite losing the popular vote. Democrats o pretty overwhelmingly won the popular vote in the Senate in 2016 and 2018. They still don't control the Senate.
And they're unlikely to control the Supreme Court for years to come. In the long run, over time, that gap between who gets the most votes and who hold public office, who has the most power could seriously erode the legitimacy of our democratic institutions.
But in the short term, it causes another problem. It causes another problem. It gives the Republicans a crutch. It gives them a way to hold on to power, to defend their interests, without having to win national, electoral majorities. In other words, the existence of strong counter majoritarian institutions weakens the Republicans incentive to adapt.
It creates a temptation for them to hold up in their white Christian bunker and rely on federalism, the Senate, and the courts to defend themselves. That will not work forever, but it could work long enough to inflict a hell of a lot of damage on our institutions.
So the question is, what should Democrats do in the meantime? There's actually been a pretty vibrant debate among progressives around that issue. One idea that I'm sure all of you have heard that's gained traction in the last couple of years among progressives is that the Democrats need to start playing dirty.
They need to learn how to fight like Republicans. The argument goes something like this-- if Republicans are going to continue to play constitutional hardball, Democrats must play tit for tat, for their own survival. If they don't, they will be the victim of an endless series of sucker punches.
Using forbearance while the other guy is playing hardball is basically entering a boxing ring with a hand tied behind your back. So the argument goes, Democrats have to use all the tools in the tool box-- government shutdowns, partisan impeachment, ram through DC and Puerto Rico statehood. There's even a movement, a pretty serious one, to pack the Supreme Court the next time the Democrats control the presidency and the Senate.
We think that would be a mistake. A tit for tat strategy would inevitably lead to escalation, which would only accelerate the politicization of our institutions and the erosion of our democratic norms. Once that spiral of escalating constitutional hardball begins, it becomes very, very difficult to stop.
If you look at other cases, historically, from Spain in the '30s, to Chile in the early '70s, to Venezuela and Turkey in the early 21st century, that sort of escalation does not end well. Democrats should keep in mind their time horizons. They should keep in mind that their medium-term prospects are much better than Republicans.
Their electorate is younger, their electorate is growing. Arguably, the single greatest threat to the Democratic Party's medium term prospects is an escalating conflict that puts our institutions at risk. One that either destroys our democracy, or leaves it utterly dysfunctional.
If Democrats start to fight like Republicans, there's a good chance they'll be hurling themselves down that very path. So, in closing, let me just ask the obvious question, which is would impeaching President Trump be an act of constitutional hardball? I think it would have been a hardball if the impeachment process had begun right when Trump took office, like Tom Steyer and Maxine Waters wanted.
I think it might well have been hardball had Democrats launched an impeachment inquiry when they took over the House in January, before the Mueller report was complete. But I think today, the situation is different. Remember, the norms surrounding impeachment is not that we should never use impeachment.
It's not that we should never break the glass under any circumstances. The norm is that impeachment should be used under extraordinary circumstances, should be deployed with great caution, with great deliberation, with great restraint. It should be a last resort. It should be option Z, rather than option A.
And if at all possible, it should be backed by a bipartisan coalition. . The Democratic leadership, arguably, thus far has adhered to those norms. It's exercised extraordinary caution and restraint. In fact, had it not been for the Ukraine crisis, I think there probably would have been no impeachment.
But the Ukraine scandal was a game changer for a bunch of reasons. But most fundamentally, the Ukraine scandal threatened the integrity of the 2020 elections. Over the last year or two, many people have argued-- correctly, I think-- that it would be far better to defeat Trump at the ballot box, in elections, than to impeach him.
But we now have evidence that Trump's trying to recruit foreign intervention to sway the 2020 election. He is undermining the integrity of the 2020 election, which strikes at the very heart of democracy. So I think impeachment is the constitutionally appropriate step.
And eventually, I think we may see some-- some-- Republican support for it. Three Republican governors already support the impeachment inquiry. But even if impeachment is appropriate, it is really, really unfortunate, because in all likelihood, impeachment will only accelerate our descent into institutional warfare.
Impeachment should never be seen as a political victory. Democrats should never cheer it. Joe Biden says that the Trump presidency is an aberration, that it's an accident of history. He is wrong. The United States is in the middle of an immense political earthquake.
We've begun to transition, again, that to my knowledge, no democracy has ever successfully undergone, one in which a previously dominant ethnic group loses its dominant and majority status. I think there's good reason to think that we will be the first democracy to successfully make that transition.
But to get there, we're inevitably going to have to pass to a period of intense polarizing reaction. That's where we are right now. During that period of intense polarizing reaction, Americans cannot afford to be reckless with our institutions. We have far, far too much to lose. Let me stop there. Thank you.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: So what we do is we have about 25 minutes for questions. And I'll just-- if you raise your hand, I will recognize you, and you'll have a chance to ask Professor Levitsky your questions. So looking around the room, we have one right here.
AUDIENCE: Beautiful. And sorry, I would stand up, sir. Please forgive me, but my leg is doing its facacta again, nevermind. All right. So my question is, sir, and I have many, but the one I most want to ask is the relationship you think between polarization and cancel culture, is that-- sorry, I'm an engineer. But I am curious because it seems to be that the rise of social media and everything else has led to a bunch of things that make it easier to try to drown out somebody who you disagree with, which in turn has a bunch of second and third order effects.
STEVE LEVITSKY: It's a great question. Let me very, very briefly take on two topics I know nothing about, which is social media and the effects of social media and cancel culture. I think that we had cancel culture when I was an undergrad in the 1980s. I think the biggest difference between-- I may be wrong, but I think the biggest difference between today in the 1980s is that when some idiot 19-year-old at Yale says something really stupid, Fox News knows about it like this, which has an impact.
But I'm not sure that there is some devastating rise in political correctness. I think that university students have always been somewhat silly at times. We just know about it a lot more now. And political parties have an incentive to let their constituents, or the ideological polls have a strong incentive to play that 19-year-old's statements over and over and over again.
This is not my area of expertise, but there seems to be pretty good evidence that social media, exposure to social media, does have the effect that we expect it to have. It does have an echo chamber effect. It does tend to push us towards ideological extremes.
But I want to temper that by saying that social media never is the underlying cause of polarization. It can exacerbate it. It can exacerbate it in ways that we're just beginning to learn how to respond to. So I'm not denying that this is a serious problem. But it's not the root cause of our polarization.
Spanish did not need Twitter to descend into civil war in the 1930s. The Chileans did not need Facebook to descend into polarization in the early 1970s. We did not need YouTube or Facebook to descend into civil war in the 19th century. So the underlying causes of our polarization are not in the realm of media technology. They are in the realm of social and cultural identity.
AUDIENCE: Thanks, sir.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: All right, raise your hands nice and high so that I can see them, and I'll come around and give you the mics.
AUDIENCE: Thanks, Steve. It was chilling. But there was also a note of optimism in the part of your talk where you talked about the Republicans losing and learning from it. That's your positive message, that if things keep up the way they have been, demographically, the Republicans will lose. And they will look at themselves in the mirror, and they will correct their stance.
But I want to ask you why that hasn't happened already. I want to ask you why it didn't happen after they lost hugely in the 2008 and 2012 elections. And I hope you'll have an answer to that. The possible answer that I don't like is that the rot had already gotten too deep, that they had been taken over by the forces of darkness following the 2010 Tea Party election, and that they were unable to learn the lessons that you hope they will learn if they lose the 2020 election.
STEVE LEVITSKY: That is a not only terrific, but terrifying question. So first of all, the Republicans almost learned after losing the 2008 and 2012 election. The party leadership after Romney lost to Obama commissioned a study, which has been described as the Republican Party autopsy of the 2012 election, that the conclusions of which read a lot like chapter 9 of our book.
The Republicans need to appeal to younger voters, to urban voters, to women, to secular voters, to non-white voters, if they're going to survive. They cannot continue to go on as a white Christian party. Why did they not fully learn? In part, because Republican primary voters had other ideas.
In many respects, our party organizations, our party leaderships, are very weak. And party leaders no longer-- they never really had many tools, but they certainly don't have tools to impose their will on candidates. And again, the primary process pulled the Republican Party in a completely different direction.
The other reason why they haven't lost is-- well, let me first step back and say, you may be right. There's a scenario in which just the opposite happens. And we're already seeing this, that as the Republicans lose, where they're losing is actually in the purple areas and the blue areas.
They're losing in the suburbs. They're losing their moderates. And so as the Republicans continue to lose, they're becoming a party that's more and more centered in deep red districts, places where it's going to be a long time before it's going to be a long time before the Republicans lose Mississippi and Alabama.
And increasingly, as they lose Orange County, California, as they lose Bucks County, Pennsylvania, as they lose Dallas, Texas, and maybe even all of Texas, the Republican Party, in the medium term, could be shrunken down to the deepest-- I wouldn't say the deepest rot, let's call it the deepest red.
And so things could, quite plausibly, get worse before they get better. But I think a series-- elections have been pretty close, in general, over the last 20, 25 years. So the kind of decisive and repeated electoral shellacking that I'm talking about-- I'm talking about a 1964, 1984, 1972 kind of shellacking-- more than once, that's harder to do than it was. Yeah, let me stop there.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: Saw some hands over here.
AUDIENCE: Hi. Great talk. That was really, really engaging. My question is, if social and cultural change is the main force that's driving this polarization, why are we seeing this phenomenon kind of worldwide? Like, we're seeing it in Europe, we're seeing it, specifically, in Brazil, that might not have those same kind of forces driving it. And if they are the same kind of forces, what are some of those countries doing that might be more successful than what we're doing to overcome the problems of forbearance and mutual intolerance?
STEVE LEVITSKY: That's a great question. I wouldn't overstate the degree to which we're seeing this phenomenon worldwide. Oftentimes we see a sort of a new and shiny phenomena, and that scares us or that we find very compelling in a few cases, and we start to see it everywhere. And we overgeneralize.
I'm not convinced that what's happening in Brazil is the same thing that's happening in the United States. However, in the Western democracies, clearly there is a phenomenon. There's a phenomena in which you're seeing the rise of a sort of cosmopolitan, urban metropolitan center, and a harsh reaction on the part of more rural, peripheral areas.
And there is, in most Western democracies, a racial and cultural element to it because most Western democracies have either experienced a fair amount of immigration and migration over the last few years. Or their political leaders have convinced them that it's happening, even though it's not happening very much, like in Hungary and the Czech Republic.
So there has been a common shock across Western democracies. I don't think this generalizes much to Latin America, for example. And I think we're just beginning to come to grips with exactly why we're seeing that kind of polarization.
The other thing that I think is happening across the board-- and this does include Brazil-- is that political establishments are weakening. By political establishments I'm thinking about political parties, traditional interest groups, and traditional media.
If you go back 50, 60 years, in any democracy, politicians, any politician, those institutions-- political parties, established interest groups, and traditional media-- newspapers, and the ABC, NBC, CBS in the United States-- they more or less monopolized, 50 years ago, 60 years ago, the resources that a politician needed to get elected and to sustain a career.
You simply could not ignore the establishment-- whether it's France, or Brazil after it democratized, or the UK or Canada, the US-- you could not ignore or thumb your nose at the establishment and expect to sustain a political career. You had to be on good terms with the party leaders to get nominated before 1972.
You pretty much had to be on good terms with Walter Cronkite if you're going to get the airtime to reach voters. And you had to conform to certain normative and policy boundaries to get finance to get elected. Over the last 50 years, the power, the monopoly that the establishment had over the resources politicians need has been eroding.
Establishments, for better or worse, had been losing that monopoly. That means that whereas 50 or 60 years ago, politicians had to be responsive to constituents, they had to be responsive to the establishment, and they had to be responsive to voters, today, increasingly, politicians can pay attention to voters.
They can be responsive to voters. They don't have to care very much about what the establishment thinks. They can give the voters what they want. That is a profoundly democratizing process.
Voters, in some sense, the balance of power between voters and establishments has shifted towards voters. That also makes our democracies more vulnerable to demagogues. And that is the place where the United States and Brazil are, in fact, similar.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: Hands nice and high.
AUDIENCE: Hi, I'm a high school history teacher. I teach social studies, and specifically I teach 12th grade government and economics.
STEVE LEVITSKY: Wow, at IHS?
AUDIENCE: At Trumansburg High School. And so I tried to teach civil discourse and understanding bias and backing your arguments or facts up with opinions. What do you think would be the most imperative thing that I pass on to my students in our current polarized climate?
STEVE LEVITSKY: Boy. That's--
AUDIENCE: It's a loaded question.
STEVE LEVITSKY: It's pretty far outside of my-- I'm going to mostly punt on that question because I honestly don't know the answer. But let me say this-- my colleague Bob Putnam has increasingly become convinced that the decline of civic education in public schools is one of the reasons we're in the mess that we're in today.
That, as all of you know-- I never took a civics class. It was basically after the Vietnam War, many, many public schools either reduced or got rid of civics classes. They were abandoned. So today's generation did not have the kind of civic education that earlier generations had.
And Putnam thinks that matters, that our ability, whether it's to tell truth from fact or to respect core democratic norms or, particularly-- if I had an answer to your question, it would be this-- that norms of mutual toleration, the distinction between a political rival and an enemy and recognizing that, recognizing that distinction, is crucial.
And it doesn't just come in the water. We can't rely on our parents to teach it. Putnam thinks that actually civics classes had an impact.
AUDIENCE: Jerry Stenger from civil engineering. Thank you for all the insight. You mentioned just a moment ago of the idea of honesty. And I'm 68. And I just can't imagine, 20 or 30 years ago, people lying the way they do now and not being embarrassed when they're pointed out that they did a lie.
There seems to be, in my perception, a loss of responsibility on a person's part to tell the truth. And they aren't embarrassed when it's revealed. I don't understand how you have a public conversation when people feel it's OK to make up whatever they need to to support their argument. How does that result in a debate that allows people to make a informed decision?
STEVE LEVITSKY: It's pretty hard. That is precisely what we're talking-- there are a lot of reasons why we're seeing this change in discourse is and this increasing difficulty, or unwillingness, to separate truth and fact. But one of them is polarization. We become-- in a context of extreme polarization, when we think the other side is evil, is the enemy, is dangerous, we are much more likely to believe lies about them and to spread lies about them than if they're just the other party that, it sucks that they win, but we can deal with it.
So polarization is making us much more receptive to lies. And obviously we're being exposed to much more through social media. But again, p if I had to point to a master variable, it would be polarization, that the acceptance of lies is, in good part, a product of polarization.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: I want to make sure that, if you are a student who has a question, make your hand extra, extra high so I can see. You sure?
AUDIENCE: I am a student.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: But you already had a question.
AUDIENCE: That's true.
AUDIENCE: Hi, thank you for the talk. It was wonderful. A lot of Democratic candidates have said that if they were elected, their first priority would be democratic reform, namely getting rid of things like the electoral college. Do you think that policies like that would exacerbate the kind of partisan conflict that we seem to be in? Getting rid of the kind of minority mechanisms.
STEVE LEVITSKY: Do I think it would exacerbate the problem? I mean, think about some of the promises the Democratic Party candidates are making, is they require Republican cooperation to get them through. You can't eliminate the electoral college. You can't carry out a constitutional reform to end the electoral college without a fair amount of Republican support.
So one of two things will happen. Either Democrats will find a way to strike a bargain to achieve Republican support to make that reform happen, or it won't happen. So there's no chance of a democratic sort of hardball imposition of the end of the electoral college, I don't think.
So I would make a distinction, a couple of distinctions. First of all, I would make a distinction between reform and hardball. A call for institutional restraint is not a call to do nothing. It's not a call to sit on our hands. It's not a call to never reform anything.
Institutions are constantly in need of innovation and reform. And God knows our democratic institutions are in need of a fair amount of reform. In fact, a-- blanking on its name. But a constitutional scholar at Columbia has written a couple of pieces in arguing that Democrats should respond to hardball politics with what he calls "anti-hardball" reforms, which are reforms that blunt Republican power grabs at the same time that they, rather than escalate, lower the partisan stakes.
So one example is to respond to Republican gerrymandering, not with democratic gerrymandering like they tried in New Jersey, but rather reform to depoliticize the process and create independent commissions to oversee redistricting, like in Michigan.
His idea-- I'm not sure if this one is constitutional-- but respond to stolen Supreme Court seats not with court packing, but with a reform that creates fixed terms on the Supreme Court and maybe rotation in and out of the Court to depoliticize the process of selection.
So there are reforms that can be undertaken that can move us, that can de-escalate rather than escalate conflict. Specifically, the electoral college-- I mean, after Latin America became independent in the 1820s, elites across Latin America adopted some variant of US constitutions.
And several countries, including Argentina, copied the electoral college. All of them, including Argentina in 1994, got rid of their electoral college because it was a pretty useless institution. Americans tend to be very small c conservative when it comes to institutional change.
Institutions that were created by our founders, we treat them as pretty close to biblical, like can't touch them. They're somehow-- so it's hard. Institutional reform is really hard. But the electoral college I think, particularly given the distribution of the two parties, and the fact that it's biased towards Republicans, it's in great need of reform. But precisely for that reason, you'll never see a change. Republicans benefit from it.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. This has been really interesting. And I wanted to ask about what role, if any, you see of our current economic system and how that kind of plays into this, because you've identified this issue of extreme polarization related to racial and cultural identity, and that white Americans feeling extraordinarily threatened to losing their dominant position.
Is there not maybe a need to think about the role of the economic system, for example, losing Democrats, to losing union workers, working class voters in the last election? And, yeah, just any potential changes needed in that regard, because it hasn't really been brought up.
STEVE LEVITSKY: Yeah, I know. One of the critiques of our book-- we aimed for parsimony in our book. We tried to make a sort of a clean explanation that focused on a few big causes. And therefore, there are a bunch of very real causes, or very real problems that we set aside in the name of parsimony.
And growing inequality is definitely one of them. It's, I would say, not so much our economic system, but the policies championed and maintained by policymakers, really, in many Western democracies, but particularly the United States over the last 40 years, have led, one, to dramatic increase in income inequality, and two, to stagnation for 40% of our society.
The bottom 40% in this country has not seen any income gains since the 1970s, two generations of stagnation. Based on the-- and there's a big debate about whether-- is it race or is it class that's driving polarization? In my view, economic inequality is secondary.
But there's no question that the frustration and the perceptions of unfairness created by the growing inequality and the decline in social mobility across much of this country has exacerbated the problem of anger, made people more prone to right wing populist appeals and more prone to anti-systemic appeals.
So there's no question that it has exacerbated the problem. We don't think it's the fundamental problem. If you look at Trump's electorate, it's actually very diverse. It's not just low income, white losers from globalization. There are a lot of people who are pretty well-off who voted for Trump. But there's no question that it's an exacerbating factor.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: Student?
THOMAS PEPINSKY: Right. It's hard to tell.
AUDIENCE: Thank you for the talk. It was really good. My question is, if there's always an advantage to be gained by parties ignoring restraint and these democratic norms, then what incentive is there to follow them in the first place, besides just goodwill or playing fair?
STEVE LEVITSKY: Great question. Why should anybody follow restraint? It's most likely to occur when politicians, because of their parties, have longer time horizons, when they expect to be playing the game at round two, three, and four. If I know I'm playing you tomorrow and next Monday and next Thursday, I might be slightly less likely to try to cheat you today. That's one reason.
The other factor that contributes to, or that makes it easier to do that is, essentially, social homogeneity. It was a lot easier in the good old days, when the political community was essentially confined to white Christian men to maintain a set of norms of reciprocity, than it is in a big, much more diverse society.
That is our challenge. We must somehow get back to norms of restraint in a society of diversity and racial equality because there ain't no going back.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. What advice would you give to a congressional candidate in a district such as this one? They're laughing because I am--
STEVE LEVITSKY: You're running for congress?
AUDIENCE: --a congressional, a Democratic congressional candidate. I was in the last election, and I am now. Specifically, how would you speak to the resentment that's, if not fully conscious, is certainly felt and then lived out through the politics that you described? I encounter it every day.
STEVE LEVITSKY: That's a great que-- if I actually had an answer to that question, I would have a much better paying consultant job than I have. This is a terrible answer, but I'd be lying if I tried to make up an answer. I mean, political scientists are very good at uncovering the problems.
We're not so good at finding solutions. It's one of the central challenges that the Democratic Party faces today. And I'm going to shut up, because I really-- I don't know.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: We're almost out of time. A couple more, very brief if possible. Sure.
AUDIENCE: To identify myself for the purposes of the question-- I'm an economist visiting in the Latin American studies program. And I see that what you're doing is extending, with your coauthors, the work of Douglass North in very interesting ways, I might add, from hearing your talk.
But I wonder, is there any question why you de-emphasize men with arms so much, and why you don't pay much attention to the impact of the financial crisis of 2008, and the previous one of 1929, which had such effects on democracy by virtue of its encouragement of fascism? Anything--
STEVE LEVITSKY: Anything.
AUDIENCE: --you could say to that?
STEVE LEVITSKY: The patterns of partisan polarization that we focus on, the realignment of our party system along certain racial, cultural, geographic lines began way before the financial crisis. Might have been slightly accelerated by the financial crisis, but were not caused by the financial crisis. The voting patterns in the US-- part partisan identification and partisan voting-- was not dramatically changed by the 2008-2009 crisis.
It helped to defeat the incumbent party in 2008. There's no question that it exacerbated frustration and anger at perceptions of unfairness, but it did not create the fact that we're lined up, that our party identifications reflect these much, much broader social identities and communities. So I don't think it's the princ-- it was an accelerant. I don't think it's a principle problem.
Men with arms. I'm not sure exactly what-- I mean, I'm not one who believes that fascism is around the corner. The United States has a pretty effective state and one that, thus far, has shown itself capable of controlling the men with arms. Obviously, in a context as polarized and as hostile as we face now, one has to worry about men with arms.
What will happen if Trump loses the election and declares that he had the election stolen from him, or he gets impeached and removed, and he declares it a coup? Could there be violence? Of course there could be violence. Will we descend into civil war? I think probably not. I think the US state, thus far, remains capable of controlling violence. That's why the men with guns didn't come up.
THOMAS PEPINSKY: I'm sorry to cut the conversation short, but our time is up. Please join me in thanking Professor Levitsky.
STEVE LEVITSKY: Thank you very much.
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Steven Levitsky gave the first public lecture of his Andrew D. White professorship on Nov. 7, 2019. He spoke on the subject of his recently published book, "How Democracies Die," co-authored with Daniel Ziblatt. Levitsky is a professor of government at Harvard University and the David Rockefeller Chair of Latin American Studies.