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RBG, minority rule, and our looming legitimacy crisis

Political scientist Suzanne Mettler on why the threat to American democracy is perhaps greater now than ever before.

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A small group of demonstrators gathers outside the US Capitol to protest Republicans’ decision to hold a vote on a Supreme Court replacement.
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just weeks before a presidential election, leaves us in dangerous waters. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the election outcome is contested by one side and is ultimately determined by a Supreme Court with the deciding vote cast by Trump’s recent appointee. Indeed, both Sen. Ted Cruz and President Donald Trump have named this scenario as driving their urgency to replace Ginsburg. At that point, a legitimacy crisis looms.

Suzanne Mettler is the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions at Cornell University. Her work has focused on trust between citizens and their governments, but recently, she’s co-written a book with Robert Lieberman that is tailor-made for this moment: Four Threats: The Recurring Crisis of American Democracy. Its thesis is a dark one: America’s most dangerous political crises have been driven by four kinds of threat — political polarization, democratic exclusion, economic inequality, and executive power. But this is the first time all four threats are present simultaneously.

“It may be tempting to think that we have weathered severe threats before and that the Constitution protected us,” they write. “But that would be a misreading of history, which instead reveals that democracy is indeed fragile, and that surviving threats to it is by no means guaranteed.”

On this episode of The Ezra Klein Show, we discuss where Ginsburg’s passing leaves us, what 2020 election scenarios we should be most worried about, what the tumultuous election of 1800 can teach us about today, how this moment could foster exactly the democratic reckoning this country needs, whether court packing and filibuster elimination will save American democracy or destroy it, when people know they’re benefiting from government programs and when they don’t, and more.

An excerpt from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.

Subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show wherever you listen to podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.


Ezra Klein

As somebody who studies threats to democracy, how have you been thinking about the events and machinations following Ruth Bader Ginsburg death?

Suzanne Mettler

It’s really been overwhelming. If you contrast this to previous deaths of Supreme Court justices, it is pretty mind-blowing that Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday night and immediately Speaker McConnell came out and said we’re going to be installing a new Supreme Court justice. It feels awfully abrupt.

And it highlights the very polarized moment that we’re at where the two parties are really locked into a kind of existential crisis — where every issue turns into a battle where you need to vanquish your enemies. So I think it’s very disturbing for this to happen right now when we are only just over a month out from Election Day and people in some states are already voting. It really heightens the drama in what was already a very dramatic election year.

Ezra Klein

I want to try to look at American politics here a little bit from the outside. If I told somebody from another country that the same party which refused to give the president an important Supreme Court appointment years earlier decided to confirm a justice when they had control over the relevant parts of government, I think that person would say that seems like how political systems work. Yet this feels like and is being treated as a crisis.

So what’s different here? Why is this not just the normal functioning of a two party system in play?

Suzanne Mettler

We could talk about, first of all, the proximate circumstances: this is the death of a Supreme Court justice at a point in time when the two parties are at odds over key issues decided by the court. So there’s the real sense of a crisis — that whoever gets appointed is going to help to to shift the court more firmly toward one that is going to rule against all sorts of priorities of Democrats on all kinds of issues.

But, then, if you zoom out the way the political system has been operating, we are at a point in time right now where we’re seeing the kinds of conditions that scholars who study democracies around the world identify as threatening to democracy. We’ve got four threats looming right now: polarization, conflict over who belongs as a member of the political community, rising and high economic inequality and strong executive power that’s become increasingly centralized. Those four threats threaten the pillars of democracy, which have been eroding in various ways.

In the midst of that, you get this crisis over a Supreme Court justice right before a major election. So it’s making people on edge, wherever they stand politically.

Ezra Klein

Right after Ginsburg died, Ted Cruz released a statement saying that they needed to move fast on a replacement so the Supreme Court would have a full nine justices in the case of a contested election. I read that and thought: that’s exactly where the legitimacy crisis could come. Can you imagine a contested election in which the deciding vote is cast by this ninth justice that Donald Trump and the Senate Republicans rammed through in defiance of what they did and said they believed in 2016 over Merrick Garland?

It also represents this way in which minoritarian power can continuously perpetuate itself: A president who lost the popular vote and a Senate majority that represents a minority of Americans gets to make sure that the Supreme Court is controlled by the party representing the minority. And then that Supreme Court makes hands the presidency back to the minority party.

I wonder how long the American political system is stable under those conditions. How long do liberals say that’s fine? We’re going to put up with a political system that systematically underweights our interests because we had the gall to live in more populous places in states and cities? It doesn’t seem stable to me. It seems like a recipe for some kind of eventual collapse, crisis, or split.

Suzanne Mettler

I’m sorry to say this, but I agree with you. And I come to that not just from looking at these circumstances, but from looking at the history of the United States. In Four Threats we look at five earlier periods in American history when people were nervous — they felt that democracy as they knew it at that time was going to be subject to backsliding or deterioration rather than remaining stable. There were great fears about the instability of the country and the damage to the promises of democracy that had been insured up to that point. That’s happened again and again.

We think of American democracy as being something very safe and secure — the Constitution’s been around longer than that of any other country in the world. And we think that, even if it wasn’t Democratic at the outset, that it’s become more so over time — that there’s been an arc that has been bending toward justice and toward increased democracy. But when you look at this history, what you see is that the United States has democracy has always been fragile. Time and again people have really been nervous about what could happen. Sometimes there has been real backsliding and damage that has lasted a long time.

And those historical circumstances happened when only one, two or three of the threats that I mentioned was present. But right now, for the first time ever, all four of the threats present together in a confluence. So I think it’s a really dangerous time.

Ezra Klein

When you talk about the four threats to American democracy, three of your four — polarization, racial exclusion and economic inequality — in their most toxic forums are currently represented by the GOP much more so than by the Democratic Party. The fact that Democratic Party nominates Joe Biden for president and the Republican Party is Donald Trump tells you a lot about polarization.

Do we have an American political system problem or do we have a Republican Party problem? And is there even a difference between the two?

Suzanne Mettler

That’s a great question. When we wrote the book, we did not from the outset think the Republican Party was the problem.

If you look at political polarization, there are ways in which both parties have led to its escalation. But Republican leaders have taken much more initiative to try to drive their party in a way that has been polarizing.

We also put a little bit more the blame on Republicans when it comes to what we call the conflict over who belongs — who is a member of society, what their status is. This is a kind of conflict that’s happened again and again in American history, very often involving the status of African Americans.

But at certain moments, like the 1850s, it becomes organized along the lines of the party system where one party is saying our way of life is under threat and the other party is saying we want greater equality in this country — we want to expand the promises of the Declaration of Independence that all are created equal. In that sense, it is both a threat to democracy and there’s also the possibility that democracy becomes stronger and more robust.

Then there’s rising economic inequality. Here again, it has been particularly the Republican Party that has been working for tax cuts to the affluent, deregulation etc. There are some ways in which the modern Democratic Party have help businesses and the affluent, but the Republican Party has done more.

Executive aggrandizement, the fourth threat, is the one that has really been engaged in pretty equally by both parties since FDR. But what I would point out is that when the Republican Party gets the White House now in the contemporary period, they are using it to advance those goals of undermining efforts for greater racial equality and other kinds of equality. And they’re they’re using their power to do the bidding of the affluent. And so the parties do very different things with that executive power.

Ezra Klein

I want to pick up on something you said in there, which is that the irony of the American political system and American history is that it’s these moments of democratic crisis that often lead to the strength of democracy.

I think that’s the case today. A few years ago, I would have told you that we were in a democratic crisis where the White House and the Senate and the House and the Supreme Court are often occupied by the party that won fewer votes. But because things felt stable enough to people, they weren’t paying as much attention to that.

But I’ve been talking to Democratic senators for the past couple of days and what McConnell is doing here with Ginsburg, given what he did with Garland, has taken Democrats in the center of the caucus — people who would always push back on me when I said it was time to abolish the filibuster — and move them to that position. One of them told me that things that were radical a couple of years ago are becoming the mainstream position now.

Clearly, this is a moment of danger. But at the same time, maybe there was no point we would reckon with the failings and inequities of our constitutional system without this confrontation. And that in that way, Mitch McConnell is playing the role that he needs to play by taking away the mythology and legend and high rhetoric that sometimes protect people from seeing what’s really going on here and what confrontations really need to be had.

Suzanne Mettler

I think all of that is is really well said. As Rob Lieberman and I wrote this book, we kept thinking we were going to learn some positive lessons about how people in the past got out of these crises and saved democracy. And the more we studied the past, the more we thought we are not really seeing positive lessons, with the one exception being Watergate.

What was extremely disturbing to us was we began to realize that there was a settlement that came out of each period that had to do with restoring racial hierarchy or even just never even acknowledging a conflict around it and building on top of it. So the question is, Can now be different?