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“The central weakness of our political system right now is the Republican Party”

A political scientist explains why the GOP has to reform if we want to fix American democracy.

President Donald Trump, standing in front of American flags, raises his hand in a fist.
US President Donald Trump pumps his fist after speaking during election night in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, early on November 4, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

After the US Capitol was stormed by insurrectionists last week, American democracy is teetering on the precipice.

Democratic politics, at its core, has always been about navigating the tension between stability and progress. If a society resists change for too long, it becomes inert; if it changes too quickly, it becomes unstable. Traditionally, conservative parties have privileged stability and left-leaning parties have privileged change. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the point.

But what happens to democratic societies when conservative parties become radical in their defense of the status quo?

It’s a question we have to ask given the current state of the Republican Party. Even after the events of last week, even after at least five people were killed at the seat of American democracy, nearly 150 Republican lawmakers formally objected to the results of the 2020 election anyway. And even if that vote was performative, that so many GOP officials are still willing to play chicken with American democracy in this way speaks volumes about the state of the party.

Harvard political scientist Daniel Ziblatt (most recently co-author of How Democracies Die) argued in a 2017 book that the importance of conservative parties in democratic systems has been largely underappreciated. Democracies tend to evolve in the direction of more equality, and how a society responds to those changes determines how healthy and stable it is over time. Since it’s often the conservative parties that dictate this response, how they’re organized and what they do (or don’t do) is hugely consequential.

I reached out to Ziblatt to talk about his level of concern and how he views the GOP in historical terms. We discussed why democracies have buckled when conservative parties were too weak to control their more radical elements, why the Republican Party has become such an outlier, and why major constitutional reforms might be the only way to fix the problem.

Much of this conversation occurred before the US Capitol was besieged, so I contacted Ziblatt again after January 6 to get his thoughts on what transpired and what it means for the future of the country. After processing the attack, Ziblatt says it’s become clear that we’re facing “a regime-threatening moment” and a real tipping point for American democracy.

You can read a lightly edited transcript of our entire conversation below.

Sean Illing

Well, here we are, just a few days after the riot at the US Capitol. What were you thinking when you watched this unfold? Do any historical analogues spring to mind?

Daniel Ziblatt

I think what was so striking for everyone watching this is just how unfamiliar it all felt and looked — to American eyes. There is a record of these sorts of uprising across US states in recent years and in the past, but having this happen at the seat of power was so disorienting. Hence the proliferation of names to describe it: ”coup,” “putsch,” “riot,” “insurrection,” and so on. We just don’t know how to make sense of it.

But in the days since, it has become clear this was a regime-threatening moment. Not only because of the violence but also because the aim was to disrupt the constitutional transfer of power. This is serious business, and most worrying is that it has, at the very least, the tacit support of some leading figures in the Republican establishment.

As I saw the video of Sen. Lindsey Graham being harassed at the Washington, DC, airport for having failed to sufficiently support President Trump, I was reminded of Churchill’s definition of an appeaser — as one who feeds a crocodile, hoping he will be the last one eaten. We have a rotten sore in the midst of our political system, infecting the whole system, that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Sean Illing

Why are properly functioning conservative parties so essential to the health of democratic systems?

Daniel Ziblatt

I’m not sure if they’re more important than liberal or progressive parties, but their importance is definitely underappreciated by most liberals and progressives.

If you look at the history of democracy in Western Europe, and the US, to a degree, a pattern emerges: When economically powerful groups aren’t well-organized into parties that can compete and win in a democratic process, then those groups tend to go outside of the political process and undermine democracy. In places where you’ve had strong center-right parties, like Britain in the 19th century, there was a much more stable constitutional order, and in places where conservative parties were weaker, like Weimar Germany, democracy was much less stable.

Sean Illing

Can you clarify what you mean by “well-organized” conservative parties? Because in the case of the Republican Party, they’re still winning elections but they’re not strong or organized by your standard.

Daniel Ziblatt

The key thing is that conservative parties are governed by professional politicians who have a stake in the continuation of the political system. That’s more important than whether conservatives win elections or not. So you can imagine a situation like late 19th-century Spain or late 19th-century Germany where conservatives do really well in elections, but it’s because the elections are rigged, and you have state officials tampering with the election and repressing the vote so that conservatives win. That’s a strong conservative party but not in the sense that I mean it.

It’s critical that conservatives discover the power of political organization within the democratic context. Sometimes people will say, “Well, what about the Nazi Party? This was a strong party. This wasn’t good for democracy.” And that’s certainly the case, but that’s sort of the end of a long process under which conservatives hadn’t been particularly well-organized. And what happens when conservatives aren’t well-organized is they can’t control their most radical base — and that might be the clearest parallel to our current period.

Sean Illing

If you look across the democratic world today, how much of an outlier is the GOP?

Daniel Ziblatt

I don’t really have to guess at this. There’s an organization called Varieties of Democracy that we used in our book to categorize parties as abiding by democratic rules or not. And they’ve taken that and applied it to every major political party in almost every democracy since 1970. And what you see, based on the expert evaluations, is that in the mid-1970s, the Republican Party is basically in the same grouping as other major center-right parties throughout Europe.

Beginning in the 2000s, however, it goes dramatically off course in terms of its commitment to democratic norms. The American Republican Party now looks like a European far-right party. But the big difference between the US and a lot of these European countries is that the US only has two parties and one of them is like a European far-right party. If the GOP only controlled 20 percent of the legislature, like you see in a lot of European countries, this would be far less problematic — but they basically control half of it.

So I think the central weakness of our political system right now is the Republican Party. We had what was basically a center-right party and over time it’s become more ideologically extreme while still doing well electorally, and that opens the system to further extremism and risks a kind of spiral in which both parties become more radicalized in response to the other.

Sean Illing

There aren’t any perfect historical parallels, but what are the most instructive examples in your mind?

Daniel Ziblatt

It’s a tough question, but I’ll go back to the German example. When I wrote the book on German conservatives, I was writing between 2010 and 2015 and I saw the Republican Party losing control in ways that reminded me of 19th-century Germany. It kind of freaked me out.

I remember Romney running for the GOP nomination, and so many people assumed he would win the primary because the party has all the control and he was the establishment incumbent guy. But I kept thinking, “Yeah, that’s true right now, but historically there are lots of cases where the grassroots gets control of the party, and when they do, it’s bad news for democracy.” Fast-forward to 2016 and Trump and you can see how that played out.

I do want to be cautious about this comparison, because there are a couple major differences. One is that Germany had a proportional system, so it was much harder to hold the conservative base together in a highly fragmented system. Also, the conservative party in Germany was very young, didn’t have deep roots or a deep history. We’re not talking about the party of Lincoln going back 150 years or whatever. The Republican Party is more substantial as an organization than the German conservative party ever was.

So there are real differences, and I’m always careful when making these Weimar comparisons. But as dangerous as it is to go wild with the Weimar comparisons, it’s just as dangerous to foreclose that comparison because it ended so badly.

Sean Illing

There do seem to be problems today that are unique to our time, or maybe it just seems that way. I’m thinking of the media landscape and the fact that so much of the GOP base has been captured by misinformation and false narratives.

Are there any examples of parties being subsumed by alternative realities in this way, or is this something that wasn’t really possible until the digital age?

Daniel Ziblatt

One of the most uncanny parallels to the Weimar era is that the leading figure in the German nationalist scene in the mid-1920s was this guy named Alfred Hugenberg, who had no political career. He was an adviser and a businessman. But slowly, he built up a media empire. He owned movie theaters and newspapers and even the official German wire service, which provided news to local newspapers.

As this new media infrastructure was developing, he was pushing a total nationalist agenda, infusing nationalist themes into newspaper stories. And he then got himself selected as the head of the German Conservative Party in 1928. He was uncharismatic and a failure as a politician, but he helped turn the political debate in a more nationalist direction.

Today, it’s more complicated because the media infrastructure is so all-encompassing. But I’ve seen people draw parallels to the end of World War I where you had this narrative emerge in Germany that basically said that Germans were stabbed in the back by liberals and Jews and communists, that they didn’t really lose the war. This myth was perpetuated after 1918, and it slowly spread throughout the political system. You could say that as people retreated more into mythology, they started to believe what today we’d call “alternative facts.”

But I do think our situation is much better because in the case of Germany, the entire national political system had experienced this humiliating defeat. The country was decimated by a major war. We’re not there. So whatever we’re dealing with here, it’s on a much smaller scale.

Sean Illing

Given everything you’ve said here, how alarmed are you not just about the Republican Party but the overall trajectory of American democracy?

Daniel Ziblatt

The need for major institutional reforms has become much clearer in my mind. The Republican Party is supposed to moderate in order to win votes. You’re not supposed to be able to go too far to the extremes and keep winning votes in a two-party system. That’s the puzzle in front of us. Two-party systems are supposed to be self-correcting. When it goes too far away from an average voter, you get punished and you moderate and go back to the middle.

This isn’t happening because our constitutional system is filled with all of these counter-majoritarian crutches (like the Electoral College) for any party that does well in rural areas, and that allows Republicans to win office without winning a majority of the electorate. So we have to reform our institutions to compel the GOP to compete in more urban, more diverse areas — that’s the path to moderation.

Sometimes people will say to me, “Well, we can’t engineer our way out of this problem. There needs to be deep societal change.” They say it’s naive to think we can reform our institutions. I say it’s naive to think we can get out of this without reforming our institutions. We simply have to change the basic incentives governing our political system.

It’s hard to imagine a realignment like the one that eliminated the Whigs in the 1850s. And that didn’t end well. The big dilemma is whether it makes more sense to keep the white nationalist anti-system elements within our system outside of the party. But that only works if their isolation can be accompanied by their weakening. My concern is that the electoral base for Trumpism is, at this point, real, broad, and deep.

More broadly, we should begin to think about the idea that Germans in the postwar period called “wehrhafte Demokratie” — this is a “defensive democracy” — one that embraces the inclusion, competition, and civil liberties of liberal democracy but one that doesn’t take democracy for granted.

In Germany, the theory of “defensive democracy” had two main thrusts — one is the attempt to bolster a democratic political culture through education, and the other is an aggressive willingness to isolate and exclude from political debate those views that endorse violence and that actively engage in violence. This doctrine was invented in the 1930s in response to Nazism. We may, ultimately, need a “wehrhafte Demokratie” for the social media age.