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Harvard professor assesses democracy in the United States

| Friday, March 22, 2019

Following the publication of his and Daniel Ziblatt’s book “How Democracies Die” over a year ago, Harvard professor of government Steven Levitsky visited campus to deliver a lecture on the current political climate of the United States.

Levitsky spoke as a part of a larger series titled “Perspectives on World Politics,” sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and referenced South Bend’s new-found political relevancy.

“Twenty years ago, South Bend was known as the home of Notre Dame Football,” Levitsky said. “Now it’s known as the home of Mayor Pete [Buttigieg].”

Levitsky’s talking points during his lecture tied directly to concepts he explained in his latest book, including mutual toleration, forbearance and political legitimacy.

“What prevents a democracy from falling is forbearance,” Levitsky said. “It’s institutional restraint.”

Using the American government as a model, Levitsky referred to the system of checks and balances and pointed out term limits for the presidency.

“It was not the Constitution but George Washington who set the precedent that presidents should not run for a third term,” Levitsky said.

Levitsky analogized the term forbearance as the “soft guard rails” of American democracy and expanded upon the idea of forbearance by adding his thoughts regarding mutual toleration — the idea that Democrats and Republicans should respect each other as legitimate political rivals. Levitsky said when two sides see each other as the enemy, and question their patriotism, society sees the destabilization of its democracy.

“When we lose mutual toleration, politicians abandon forbearance. When we view rivals as existential threat and as enemies, there’s a breakdown of the system,” Levitsky said. “The problem is not just electing a demagogue in 2016, but electing one at a time when the soft guard rails of mutual toleration and forbearance don’t seem to be there.”

Levitsky used the phrase demagogue in reference to U.S. President Donald Trump. He said the current administration’s contributes to government that appears more authoritative than democratic.

“The more polarized a society becomes, the more tolerable we are of abusive behavior by our own side,” Levitsky said. “We start to justify violence and election fraud. Donald Trump is a symptom of polarization but not the cause.”

Citing the most recent government shutdown, Levitsky said the shutdown reflects a severe breakdown in the working relationship between Democrats and Republicans.

“Democrats control the [House of Representatives], so the Trump administration cannot concentrate or abuse power,” Levitsky said. “Without minimum restraint, divided government can descend into institutional warfare. Constitutional checks and balances can be used as partisan weapons.”

Levitsky also discussed the backgrounds of the Republican and Democrat parties. Levitsky said the Republican Party has remained overwhelmingly white and Christian, while the Democrat party is comprised of a much more diverse base.

“White Christians are a declining share of the electorate. It’s a bleak electoral future for Republicans,” Levitsky said. “‘Make America Great Again’ reflects a sense of peril.”



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