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Is America uniquely vulnerable to tyranny?

What a brilliant new book gets right — and wrong — about America’s democracy.

An American flag with Trump’s shadow on it.
Trump on the campaign trail in Iowa.
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew are forced to navigate a strait bounded by two equally dangerous obstacles: Scylla, a six-headed sea serpent, and Charybdis, an underwater horror that sucks down ships through a massive whirlpool. Judging Charybdis to be a greater danger to the crew as a whole, Odysseus orders his crew to try and pass through on Scylla’s side. They make it, but six sailors are eaten in the crossing.

In their new book Tyranny of the Minority, Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt — the authors of How Democracies Die — argue America’s founders faced an analogous problem: navigating between two types of dictatorship that threatened to devour the new country.

The founders, per Levitsky and Ziblatt, were myopically focused on one of them: the fear of a majority-backed demagogue seizing power. As a result, they made it exceptionally difficult to pass new laws and amend the constitution. But the founders, the pair argues, lost sight of a potentially more dangerous monster on the other side of the strait: a determined minority abusing this system to impose its will on the democratic majority.

“By steering the republic so sharply away from the Scylla of majority tyranny, America’s founders left it vulnerable to the Charybdis of minority rule,” they write.

This is not a hypothetical fear. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, today’s America is currently being sucked down the anti-democratic whirlpool.

The Republican Party, they argue, has become an anti-democratic institution, its traditional leadership cowed by Trump and a racially reactionary base. As such, it is increasingly willing to twist legal tools designed to check oppressive majorities into tools for imposing its policy preferences on an unwilling majority. The best way out of this dilemma, in their view, is radical legal constitutional reform that brings the American system more in line with other advanced democracies.

Tyranny of the Minority is an exceptionally persuasive book. I think it is almost inarguably correct about both the nature of the modern Republican Party and the ways in which it exploits America’s rickety Constitution to subvert its democracy. I come to some similar conclusions in my own forthcoming book on democracy, The Reactionary Spirit (which, full disclosure, has benefited significantly from Levitsky’s feedback in drafting).

Yet at the same time, I believe he and Ziblatt slightly overweight the significance of America’s institutions in its current democratic crisis. Institutions matter for how authoritarian parties take power, but ultimately they may be less decisive than the social strength of the forces arrayed against democracy.

If a reactionary movement is popular or aggressive enough, it’s not clear that any kind of institution can stop it from threatening democracy. Hence why other advanced democracies with distinct institutional arrangements, like Israel, are currently going through democratic crises with root causes strikingly similar to America’s. It’s true that America’s institutions have paved a swift road for the Trumpist right’s attack on democracy. But they may not be quite as central to the story of its rise as Tyranny of the Minority suggests.

The American right’s turn against democracy

Ziblatt and Levitsky are two of America’s very best comparative political scientists, with expertise that makes them uniquely well-equipped for the subject they’re examining.

Ziblatt is the author of an important study of European conservative parties, concluding that their strategic choices played a unique role in determining the health of continental democracy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Conservative parties, by their nature, represent those forces in society — including the wealthy and powerful elite — opposed to radical social change. For this reason, Ziblatt found, they are especially important in determining whether defenders of the status quo attempt to stymie social change from within the democratic system or whether they reject elections and political equality altogether.

Levitsky is a Latin America specialist who, along with co-author Lucan Way, wrote a prescient analysis of a new style of autocracy back in 2002 — a system they termed “competitive authoritarianism” that subsequently emerged as the premier institutional means for turning a seemingly stable democracy into an autocracy (see: Hungary). Competitive authoritarian governments masquerade as democracies, even holding elections with real stakes. But these contests are profoundly unfair: The incumbent party ensures that the rules surrounding elections, like who gets to vote and what the media gets to say, are heavily tilted in their favor. The result is that the opposition has little chance to win elections, let alone pass their preferred policies.

Tyranny of the Minority analyzes the United States in light of these two broad themes, the importance of conservative parties and the ever-evolving institutional nature of authoritarianism. The first half of the book analyzes how and why the Republican Party went down an anti-democratic path. The second focuses on how the peculiar design of American institutions has created opportunities for the GOP to undermine democracy from within.

Around the world, they find two conditions that make political parties more likely to accept electoral defeats: “when they believe they stand a reasonable chance of winning again in the future” and when they believe “that losing power will not bring catastrophe — that a change of government will not threaten the lives, livelihoods, or most cherished principles.”

Trump walks offstage under a banner that says “Finish the wall.”
Then-President Donald Trump walks off stage after speaking during a rally at the El Paso County Coliseum on February 11, 2019, in El Paso, Texas.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In the 21st century, these conditions no longer held among the GOP’s conservative white base. Democrats were no longer a mere political rival, but avatars of a new and scary social order.

“Not only was America no longer overwhelmingly white, but once entrenched racial hierarchies were weakening. Challenges to white Americans’ long-standing social dominance left many of them with feelings of alienation, displacement, and deprivation,” Levitsky and Ziblatt write. “Many of the party’s voters feared losing ... their country — or more accurately, their place in it.”

This, they say, is what made the party vulnerable to conquest by someone like Trump. Rather than fight the base in democracy’s name, traditional Republican elites like Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) acted as “semi-loyal democrats”: leaders who say the right things about supporting democracy and the rule of law, but value partisan victory over everything else — including basic, non-partisan democratic principles. This enabled the entire party to become a vehicle for an anti-democratic agenda.

“Openly authoritarian figures — like coup conspirators or armed insurrectionists — are visible for all to see. By themselves, they often lack the public support or legitimacy to destroy a democracy. But when semi-loyalists — tucked away in the hallways of power — lend a hand, openly authoritarian forces become much more dangerous,” they explain. “Throughout history, cooperation between authoritarians and seemingly respectable semi-loyal democrats has been a recipe for democratic breakdown.”

How America’s system makes life easy for would-be autocrats

In the US, Levitsky and Ziblatt see a democracy made vulnerable by its own Constitution.

The Constitution’s framers were the first to take Enlightenment ideas about freedom and translate them to an actual political system. The only historical democratic experiences they looked at were from antiquity, in places like Athens and Rome. Classical sources repeatedly chronicled threats to democracy, even outright collapse, emanating from mob rule.

Though the founders knew that democracy was at heart about majority rule, they took the Greco-Roman experience seriously and designed a system where majorities were severely constrained. The tripartite separation of powers, bicameral legislature, indirect election of the president and senators, lifetime Supreme Court tenure, the laborious process for amending the Constitution: all of these were built, in whole or in part, as limitations on the ability of majorities to impose their will on minorities.

Some American counter-majoritarian institutions emerged not from well-intentioned design but political necessity. Leading founders like James Madison bitterly resented the basic structure of the Senate, where each state gets two seats regardless of size; Alexander Hamilton called it “preposterous” during a constitutional convention debate. It was included purely to mollify small states like Delaware and Rhode Island, who were refusing to join the Union absent sufficient protections for their interests.

A painting of the signing of the US Constitution.
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images/Howard Chandler Christy

Over time, the US shed some of these minoritarian trappings — senators are now directly elected, thanks to the 17th Amendment — but deepened others. In 1803’s Marbury v. Madison, the Supreme Court gave itself expansive power to strike down legislation that was not explicitly granted in the Constitution. More recently, the filibuster emerged as a de facto 60-vote requirement for passing legislation in the Senate — a practice similar to the supermajority vote that the founders explicitly rejected early on.

Levitsky and Ziblatt show that almost every other peer democracy went in the opposite direction.

The United States is “the only presidential democracy in the world in which the president is elected via an Electoral College,” “one of the few remaining democracies that retains a bicameral legislature with a powerful upper chamber,” and “the only democracy in the world with lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices.” Moreover, they note, “the U.S. Constitution is the hardest in the world to change” — making it extremely difficult for reformers to do anything about America’s minority-empowering institutions.

These institutions allow the Republican Party to rule despite being a distinctly minority faction — one that holds extreme positions on issues like taxes and abortion, and has lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections.

So long as the party retains appeal among a hard core of racially resentful supporters, efficiently distributed around the country to take advantage of the Senate and Electoral College’s biases, it can remain nationally competitive. The right’s control over the Supreme Court will likely last decades, thanks to lifetime tenure, allowing it to remake American policy and institutions with impunity. The GOP’s disproportionate national power enables its cadres at the state and local level to pursue explicitly undemocratic policies for holding power, like felon disenfranchisement and extreme gerrymandering, without fear of federal intervention.

Hence the titular “tyranny of the minority”: The Republican Party, having broken with its core commitment to democracy, has now embraced a peculiarly American strategy for taking and wielding power undemocratically.

“America’s countermajoritarian institutions can manufacture authoritarian minorities into governing majorities,” they write. “Far from checking authoritarian power, our institutions have begun to augment it.”

Can good institutions save a rotted society?

Levitsky and Ziblatt are, in my mind, clearly correct about both of their two major points: that the GOP has become an anti-democratic faction, and that America’s minoritarian institutions have given them a straightforward pathway to wielding power undemocratically. The evidence for both propositions is overwhelming, and the book’s style — engaging historical case studies accompanied by a precise deployment of data — hammers them home persuasively. Tyranny of the Minority is an exceptional book, one of the very best in its genre.

But there are some tensions inside of it: in this case, a subtle conflict between the two halves of the argument.

The United States, Ziblatt and Levitsky note, is hardly the only wealthy democracy to have experienced the rise of far-right parties hostile to social change — citing the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and “all of Scandinavia” as prominent examples. Yet those democracies, in their view, “remain relatively healthy.”

The key difference, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, lies in the institutions. Because those countries are considerably more majoritarian, it is far harder for an authoritarian minority to corrode democracy at a national level. Therefore, they conclude, the best way to safeguard America’s institutions is to make them more like our peers abroad: abolish the Electoral College, eliminate lifetime tenure for Supreme Court justices, end the filibuster, switch to proportional representation in Congress, ban partisan gerrymandering, and make the Constitution easier to amend.

The obvious objection to these proposals is that they are impractical, that the very nature of the problem — Republican control over minoritarian institutions — makes reforming them infeasible. But there’s a deeper, and more interesting, question raised by Levitsky and Ziblatt’s diagnosis: Is it really the case that our institutions are what make America unique?

America’s minoritarian institutions certainly create a particular pathway for our domestic revanchist faction to gain power and wield it against democracy. But there are plenty of other ways for a democracy to eat itself.

Israel, for example, has an extraordinarily majoritarian political system. It is a parliamentary democracy, meaning limited separation of executive and legislative power, whose legislature is elected on a purely proportional basis. There is a simple majority requirement for passing legislation and even amending the Basic Law (its constitution-lite). The judiciary is, for all intents and purposes, the only check on unfettered majority rule.

Yet Israel is, at the moment, in the midst of a democratic crisis every bit as serious as America’s, perhaps even more so, in which an anti-democratic governing majority seeks to remove the court as a barrier to its radical agenda. The root cause of the crisis is very similar: a far-right faction of the population that wishes to protect existing social hierarchies from the threat of change. But the extremist strategy for cementing their power is the polar opposite: exploiting majoritarian institutions, not minoritarian ones. It’s the founders’ fear come to life, the Scylla to America’s Charybdis.

Demonstrators wave Israeli flags and stand by smoke flares to block a highway during a protest against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan in Tel Aviv on July 8, 2023.
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The point here is not that there are only two options for institutional design, America’s vetocracy or Israel’s blunt majoritarianism. Most advanced democracies fall somewhere in the middle, adopting a mix of majoritarian and counter-majoritarian institutions designed to generally permit majority rule while also preventing abuses of power.

Rather, the United States and Israel put together illustrate that institutions are an at-best-imperfect check on far-right authoritarian movements. The American far right has built a strategy tailored to American institutions; the Israeli far right has adopted a strategic approach tailored to the Israeli context. In both cases, the root of the problem is that there’s a sufficient social foundation for far-right authoritarian politics: one that provides the raw political muscle for bad actors to attack democracy using its own institutions.

Other democracies are not immune to far-right surges, including some that Levitsky and Ziblatt cite as relatively healthy.

The AfD, Germany’s far-right party, is surging in popularity, topping recent polls in four German states. A survey in May found that Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Rally, would defeat President Emmanuel Macron in their second rematch by a 55-45 margin. The UK approved Brexit by a majority referendum. Even in Canada, one of the most democratically stable Western democracies, extremist-linked legislator Pierre Poilievre is leading the traditionally center-right Conservative Party, which is currently ahead of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the 2025 polls.

Not every far-right victory is a threat to democracy, of course, but it’s hard to be sure until they have power. Some Western far-right parties, like the AfD, are already showing troubling signs.

And in the US, where the far right is clearly undemocratic, surveys show a real chance that Trump wins the 2024 US election with an outright majority — not just in the Electoral College, but in the popular vote.

At root, Levitsky and Ziblatt appear a little too confident in their argument that the GOP’s extremism dooms the party to minority status.

It’s true that their agenda is out of step with the majority of Americans. But many voters, especially swing voters, don’t always vote on policy or ideology. They make ballot box decisions based on things like gas prices, inflation, and whether the party in power has been there for too long — factors that are often out of the president’s hands. Even if they do not agree with Trump that Mexicans are rapists or that the 2020 election was stolen, they’re willing to vote for him if they’re sufficiently frustrated with either the status quo or the other party’s option.

The same is true in other countries. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government was briefly dethroned in the 2021 election — only to return to power in 2022 after voters experienced life under a fractious coalition that spanned the right-left continuum. Marine Le Pen’s recent rise seems to be less about a majority of voters agreeing with her on immigration than a sense that she’s the only real alternative to an unpopular Macron.

Far-right parties, even potentially anti-democratic ones, can be politically viable under nearly any set of institutions. The key is to establish sufficient support among a large segment of the population that agrees with them, enough for there to be a large ideologically driven backlash. Once that happens, the party can establish itself as a viable alternative to the mainstream. And once that happens, they gain the potential to win over less ideological swing voters who simply have frustrations with the political status quo and look to any port in a storm.

This is not to let America’s institutions off the hook. Levitsky and Ziblatt are absolutely right that its outdated constitution makes it easier for the GOP to travel down an authoritarian path.

But “easier” doesn’t mean “necessary.” While Levitsky and Ziblatt ultimately take an institutions-first approach, seeing their reform as our way out of America’s crisis, I take a more society-first view: that America’s problems are primarily the result of deep social fissures exacerbated by outdated and poorly designed institutions. Even if the United States had a more authentically democratic institution, we’d still be riven by divides over race and identity that have unerringly produced the worst political conflicts in the country’s history.

It follows from this that institutional reforms are not enough: In addition to policies for political reform, we also need to think about ways to reduce the social demand for extreme politics. More bluntly: If widespread hostility to social change enables the GOP’s far-right authoritarian lurch, we need to figure out ways to shift Americans’ beliefs in a more egalitarian direction.

But such a proposal should be considered in addition to Levitsky and Ziblatt’s proposals, not in replacement of them — much as my critique of their book more broadly is less a fundamental concern than a difference in emphasis.

Tyranny of the Minority is one of the best guides out there to the crisis of American democracy. It just puts a touch too much focus on institutions at the expense of the deeper social forces rotting their foundations.