If Political Rivals Treat Each Other Like Enemies: Talking to Daniel Ziblatt

How might a polarized governing class (and the rest of us) reconceive of liberal procedural norms as the generative grounds from which any constructive politics might emerge, rather than as institutional constraints that just complicate, constrict, preclude effective decision-making? How might we make the most persuasive case that all participants lose when such rules of the game get manipulated, undermined, violated — regardless of which party presently finds itself in power? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Daniel Ziblatt. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, co-written with Steven Levitsky (a companion conversation with Levitsky can be found here). Ziblatt is a professor of Government at Harvard University and a faculty associate at Harvard’s Minda De Gunzburg Center for European Studies. He teaches and researches comparative politics, with a focus on democratization, state-building, historical political economy, and European politics. Ziblatt’s other books are Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy (2017), and Structuring the State: The Formation of Italy and Germany and the Puzzle of Federalism (2006). His work has received numerous publication prizes from the American Political Science Association. He directs a research program at Harvard University called Politics Through Time (a hub for social-scientific research on the political history of democracy), and has also been interim director of Harvard’s Center for European Studies.


ANDY FITCH: Given How Democracies Die’s urgent call to rehabilitate certain basic behavioral norms for democratic leaders and institutions (norms which you characterize as having corroded significantly for at least a generation, with that corrosion accelerating all the further since Donald Trump’s 2016 primary bid), could you first sketch a quick conceptual blueprint for precisely how “norms” get defined here? I ask because, progressing through your book, considering any number of contemporary political controversies, I found myself imagining how, from various perspectives, one could detect the stifling perpetuation, or the modernizing reformulation, or the delayed realization, or the democratic expansion, or the perverse distortion, or the dysfunctional eclipse of some seemingly consensus-based norm or other. I found myself wondering whether asserting the very existence of a norm always remains more of an argumentative act than an objective observation. So could you articulate, to a political-science novice like myself, when How Democracies Die conceives of norms as aspirational ideals, and/or as prevailing moralized protocol, and/or as time-honored (potentially explicit, or tacit, or not even conscious) habits of speech and procedural decorum, and/or as empirically measurable averages more easily traced through social-science data-crunching than through personal or collective self-perception?

DANIEL ZIBLATT: The simple definition of a norm is “an unwritten rule shared by many people that is sustained by punishing or rewarding certain behaviors.” Though not written down in any official behavioral manual, norms govern family life, school life, workplace life — constraining people’s behavior through social sanctions and rewards. And norms develop over time. The question of how widely a norm is shared remains an open question, but Steven and I come, at least indirectly, out of a sociological tradition associated with the great French sociologist Émile Durkheim, who discusses “norms” and “normlessness” (what happens when there aren’t norms). Durkheim describes norms as “social facts.” Social facts exist beyond any individual (that’s what makes them “social”), and one can recognize them by observing human behavior. So in terms of how we detect, define, characterize certain norms: when people experience the bite or reward of norms, these lived experiences are not what you call “statistical averages.” Social scientists might study these experiences, asking people questions and producing statistical measurements in order to make methodological points. But the real experiential significance of norms is that they constrain people’s lives.

Would someone like Pierre Bourdieu fit in here, presenting norms as the value preferences of a dominant class — preferences that might become naturalized, and might make it seem like things always have been or should be this way?

I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that. That view builds on Durkheim. Dominant norms can benefit the most powerful. We don’t necessarily think of norms as neutral. They certainly exclude certain forms of behavior. In sociology, “deviant behavior” runs counter to a set of dominant norms. So sociologists might ask: “Well, who gets to decide on these norms?” One can acknowledge certain norms as being created or reinforced by dominant groups, while still recognizing that these norms actually may benefit society as a whole or a political system. The question therefore is simply: what consequences do these norms have, and do we consider these consequences compatible or incompatible with basic value preferences — regarding, for example, democracy?

Then from a more concrete historical perspective, when we characterize, say, the first three quarters of the 20th century as an era of functionally stable (with notable exceptions) normative U.S. politics, and when we simultaneously acknowledge (as your book acknowledges) that this normative stability rested in part upon a white majoritarian commitment to racial exclusion, even this phrase “racial exclusion” can’t really do justice to the state-directed deprivations, disenfranchisement, daily domestic terrorism that people of color and other non-dominant groups have faced. So specifically within the fraught context of racialized U.S. history, what lived trajectory of 20th-century norms can you offer as most prescient precursor to discussing how we might want to conceive of, recommit to, reinvent prevailing norms today?

Our book traces, as one subtheme, the evolution of illiberalism. So as much as Donald Trump departs from many norms in many ways, he also reflects a continuous tradition running through the 20th century, going back to the anti-Semitism of Henry Ford or red scare tactics of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, or George Wallace’s segregationist political rhetoric in the 60s — as well as the broader fact that many norms we value today emerged in a context of racial hierarchy. We always need to keep in mind that norms by themselves are not necessarily democratic. In fact, the process of democratization often has to take as its focus demolishing norms of hierarchy. Democracy can’t succeed if we just always stick to every current norm.

At the same time, and even within that racial context you mentioned, certain political norms have become compatible with and crucial to our democracy. Our book emphasizes two norms critical for sustaining a democracy (and maybe even for creating democracy). The first, mutual toleration, involves accepting one’s political rivals as rivals — not as enemies or existential threats. You can’t have one group or party refusing to accept their opponents, refusing to accept an election loss, or a loss on an important policy debate. Democracy is in large part about losing elections. So treating rivals as rivals and not as enemies is an important norm.

The second crucial norm (you also could think of these as meta-norms, trickling down into many more specific domains within a collective) is what we call “forbearance,” actually a much older norm. It comes up in Shakespeare’s Richard II, for example. Leaders need to display forbearance, as a form of limiting their power — and not just in democracies. But this particular norm does run all the way through to Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t mention this in the book, but recently, I was reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where King elaborates his model of nonviolent direct action. King advocates being prepared to accept blows without retaliating. That’s a form of forbearance. Of course King here doesn’t just argue for compromise. He calls on us to fight hard. But forbearance still does demand, in some form, the underutilization of power. That also turns out to be important for sustaining democracy.

With “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (itself citing Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”) still in mind, you also seem to suggest that we always face competing (or internally conflicting) sets of norms, and always have to decide on which amalgam of norm-reinforcement and norm-resistance should prevail — which of course makes coming to any broad, foundational, consensus-based agreement on these topics even harder.

Here, I can give you a clear example of why forbearance matters so much in democratic politics. According to the U.S. constitution, the president can, at any point, pardon whoever he or she wants, for any reason. Likewise, the House of Representatives only needs a majority to impeach a president, before this process goes onto the Senate. Every time we have a divided government, one might expect an impeachment, but this norm of forbearance prevents that. Although officeholders retain this incredible power, they hopefully decline to use it. In order for that balance to endure, both of these norms remain critical.

And you could call forbearance a conservative norm, essentially telling us that even the winning side has to hold back. But again, the fact that these norms developed within the context of an incomplete democracy doesn’t invalidate the norms. The challenge becomes how to reconcile these norms within a more expansive, inclusive democracy. The tragic part of American history is that these norms developed in part because of foundational racial segregation and exclusion. As long as questions of racial exploitation and racial equality stayed largely off the table, from the 1870s through the 1960s, Southern Democratic senators and Northern conservative Republicans (all white men, of course) found it much easier to regard each other as legitimate, and to embrace this norm of mutual toleration. They didn’t consider each other existential threats. The most dangerous part of our politics, from their perspective, stayed off the table, so they could behave according to this norm of forbearance. Still I don’t think that invalidates the importance of these norms. It just highlights the contradictions in our history, and also the fact that, for a more inclusive democracy, we need not only to sustain but to expand these norms.

How might you address, say, colleagues on the left who openly disparage normative politics for the reasons you just described, who again always see in norms a mystification of pervasive social hierarchies — who would call on us to keep up a fundamental vigilance, to consistently question and counter liberal norms? How, basically, do you negotiate advocating for the maintenance of norms and pushing for progressive interventions at the same time?

When we get that type of response, I sense a basic misunderstanding of what we’re saying, as well as a disagreement over the way the world actually works. I’m all for eliminating norms of hierarchy and oppression, norms that rationalize racial inequality through some questionable sense of superiority. On the other hand, certain norms seem especially valuable. In daily life, the norm that you don’t steal your neighbor’s newspaper off his front step each morning might reinforce a power relation, because one person pays for a subscription and the other doesn’t. But to maintain social order, I still regard this norm as beneficial. Similarly, in our politics, certain norms stand out as worth preserving. It’s true that their emergence reflects historical power relations, but these norms don’t only benefit those who have power. They benefit all participants. If you eliminate the norm of mutual toleration, then when your rivals get into office, they will destroy their political opponents. They’ll destroy you because they think disagreement should be eliminated. The liberal perspective assumes that nobody holds a monopoly on the truth, that competition for power benefits society, and most important, that one prerequisite for this type of competition relies on nobody monopolizing power. Both sides of course might get frustrated, but if nobody does have a monopoly on the truth (keeping in mind that politics involves the competition of ideas), then we need the norm of mutual toleration to sustain that. Again, as with the Martin Luther King example, this of course doesn’t mean you don’t fight hard.

In terms of norms not having any fixed political affiliation, how would you approach, say, conservative politicians quoting King on the importance of colorblind equal opportunity, yet with those same politicians tolerating pervasive social disparities? How systematic would you (or should we) try to get about what it means to define a norm, implement it, track its lived consequences?

First of all, I should say that we mostly focus on norms governing the procedures of political decision-making. We don’t dwell on the norms of public policy. I do find it critical to distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome, but I consider that a separate but important debate about policy.

Our book focuses on the political process: how elections get organized, with which procedures within a legislative body, with what rules governing how people acquire political power. And you simply can’t have genuine debate about important policy questions until you have some degree of consensus about procedural questions. You can’t hold a political meeting until you have agreed on the ground rules of the meeting. If political rivals treat each other like enemies, you can’t even begin to debate about equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. The norms we stress may not feel sufficient, but I do consider them necessary. They are a precondition for a political life where we can discuss these issues.

I guess that alongside these fundamental questions of procedure, I also appreciated when How Democracies Die asks us to conceive of a healthy state not just in terms of a coherent institutional arrangement, or a nexus of established offices, but in terms of the necessarily active, ongoing, stabilizing, rejuvenating contributions made by individual officeholders and their constituents. So how crucial do you consider everyday civic agency in maintaining and revitalizing democratic norms? Given, for instance, your vivid account of the “electoral route to authoritarianism,” along which democratic nation-states don’t disappear in some dramatic military coup, so much as gradually reduce themselves to the superficialities of an institutional/constitutional/electoral democratic charade, how would you hope for an individual reader of your book to envision his/her own lived historical relation to the living normative democratic state?

We definitely do focus mostly on political elites, and what governs their behavior. Of course individual citizens do play critical roles. But here we’ve zeroed in on how political leaders treat each other, treat their rivals, define their own values and roles, perceive what their rivals want, and so on.

Still the whole point of a democracy is that citizens matter. They matter in direct connection to this question of holding elected officials and various representatives to certain standards. We wrote this book in part to alert readers to this very important role. If you see politicians and elected officials calling their rivals enemies for unjustified reasons, or declaring national-security threats for unjustified reasons, you need to recognize the dangers of these tendencies and hold those officials accountable. We felt the need to highlight, both to political leaders and individual citizens, the fragility of democratic institutions across the contemporary world, but also right in the U.S. We can’t take for granted these institutions and the norms that govern them.

Specifically when making your case to political leaders, how do you calibrate, say, telling a center-left audience: “Hey look, the right has corroded our basic procedural norms for a generation,” alongside telling a broader political spectrum: “Hey, we all value these basic procedural norms, and we all need to get back to them”? When (if at all) do you find it particularly valuable not only to describe, but to show yourself enacting these very norms of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance — for example by referencing progressive-identified violators of these norms (so forbearing from dwelling solely on Republican failings)? And/or, more generally, please feel free to address why such gestures towards a perspectival reciprocity would seem misplaced, misguided, or first in need of serious refinement at present.

Well the Weekly Standard and various other conservative publications have reviewed our book. When we wrote it, we had hoped to reach broader audiences, with different parts of our argument feeling most relevant for different audiences. But mostly Democrats have picked up on the book so far. Some conservatives have reached out, partly because people will say: “This is a great book as it describes Germany and Italy and Chávez’s Venezuela. But these smart authors are so partisan — and we have become so polarized that they can’t analyze the U.S.” So coming back to a point you made earlier, I will find myself ironically thinking the same: This is terrible. These very smart readers appreciate some of what we said, but we have become so polarized that they can’t or won’t connect the historical analysis of other countries to more recent events in our own. I do consider that obvious disconnect deeply disconcerting. Similarly, other readers will say: “You’re calling President Trump a threat to democracy, so how is that displaying mutual toleration? Isn’t this just the same as what you decry about how Republicans treated President Obama?” My response is simple. When people accused President Obama of threatening our democracy, they weren’t operating in a fact-based world — they couldn’t cite actual, real specific actions or words. We can and do with Trump. That is the point of our book.

That said, I want to be clear: we don’t ever declare Trump an illegitimate president. Some progressives have questioned the electoral college’s role in Trump’s election, but we reject that criticism. Those are the rules as they stand, by which our president gets elected, so if you are committed to democratic procedure, you can’t really question President Trump’s legitimacy on those grounds. Maybe in the long run, change those rules. But for now, those are the rules we all operate under. On the other hand, you can say, on safer ground, that while on the campaign trail and in office, Trump has engaged in actions that violate very specific democratic procedural norms. It’s been hard to make that case to conservatives, although I do remain hopeful.

What about your examples of Lincoln and F.D.R. violating basic democratic norms? Do these examples feel safer for progressives to discuss, tucked away as American history?

We do try to call “balls and strikes” as we see them. So take the F.D.R. example. In my personal view, he was a great president. But he did try to stack the Supreme Court in the 1930s, and we offer that example. Our book mostly offers examples of Republicans violating norms, it’s true. But we do also put a large burden on Southern Democrats sustaining an authoritarian system in the American South through the 1960s. We point out that Barack Obama used executive orders in a way that arguably violated norms. And while Obama considered these actions legal and constitutional, they did sometimes violate a norm of forbearance. We point out these cases because we want to be accurate. As social scientists, that professional ethic underpins us. As it turns out, professional ethics themselves play a significant role in an age of democratic crisis — whether for lawyers, journalists, elementary-school teachers, or social scientists. Maintaining one’s commitment to professional norms play a really important part in resisting authoritarian encroachment. And we want to do our part.

Maybe we here could pivot back to democratic ideals as well. Jonny Thakkar stands out as one contemporary philosopher looking at how, within a corrosive political context, professional norms can model a more idealistic approach. And if both toleration and forbearance suggest, for instance, a rhetoric of restraint, does it seem worthwhile to place alongside such normative constraints the comparable value present in certain types of positive idealizations and desiring affiliations? Here I think of how, from the outside, an individual or a collective might seem constrained by certain norms, while from the inside, such parties might perceive themselves as embracing romantic love, family, community, spiritual purpose, nation, profession. All of these projective identifications of course can prove problematic in any number of ways, but, particularly in a diversified/stratified society like ours (in which it might seem patronizing for any well-positioned group to demand that everyone internalize its own etiquette of self-restraint), particularly at a polarized moment like the present (when basically no one wants to hear from two white guys at Harvard, or from me, about how to circumscribe one’s personal behavior), what types of aspirational, desire-infused narratives, myths, affective relations do you see as crucially existing alongside these norms of tolerance and forbearance? Or here again, what to make of Barack Obama’s particular record as a political leader uniquely talented (at least to my mind) both at channeling mythic aspects of his own personal narrative and at soberly delineating the mechanistic virtues of institutional norms — with the former approach often succeeding at shaping pivotal national conversations, and the latter approach appearing far less successful?

First this conversation already has been useful for helping to clarify misunderstandings that come up when we talk about norms. We’re talking very specifically about procedural norms. They’re commitments to a set of institutional procedures, and to the norms underpinning those procedures for how we conduct our political life.

You can apply the general idea of norms to everyday values, to family (however defined), or to education. You’ll probably find that any particular visions of society quickly come into conflict as one tries to implement them, as one encounters clashing worldviews. But hopefully, at some abstract procedural level, people at least can agree on how we will disagree. Here again, procedural norms provide at least a partial solution to this pressing problem of conflicting ideals. They allow us to sustain order despite those disagreements. Of course in order to allow families or schools to flourish and be safe, we will need to implement some aspects of these various competing visions of society. But without procedural norms structuring this process, we have nothing else to hang on to.

To offer then one procedurally minded test-case specifically for intellectual forbearance, a case which builds out from your book: if progressives can declare a violation of the fundamental norm to mutual tolerance when Newt Gingrich’s political action committee instructs Republican candidates “to use certain negative words to describe Democrats, including pathetic, sick, bizarre, betray, antiflag, antifamily, and traitors,” when does this impose an obligation on progressives likewise to refrain from over-usage of summary (absent any more illuminating explication) categorical dismissals, say under the sign of “racist,” “sexist,” “bigot,” even “authoritarian” — all of which terms remain essential when confronting unacceptable extremist tendencies (of a kind that have become far too prominent during Trump’s presidency), yet each of which terms (especially when deployed on its own — as fixed, characterologically classifying noun, rather than as attribute-describing adjective) often fails to provide a sufficiently comprehensive account of real-life citizens? Here I definitely feel uncomfortable with my own question. I certainly believe that realities of systemic discrimination carry much more weight than a privileged person’s perception of unfair name-calling. I just wonder how your own appeal to establishing functional normative parameters, here for instance amid present-day conversations on charged social topics, might navigate such concerns.

Look, these are difficult questions, and these are the substance of politics. These sorts of accusations of being either “antiflag” or “racist” are obviously loaded and powerful terms. One should act with care and caution when using them. But we can expect our elected officials to act in ways that have some basis in empirical reality. The charges from the Republicans under Newt Gingrich, or the accusations (during the 2004 presidential campaign) that John Kerry was disloyal in his Vietnam service, were fabricated. They were not based in reality. So for that reason, they can be dismissed. I think, likewise, accusations from elected leaders that President Trump is a “traitor,” or is working for the Russians, should wait until we hear the results of the Mueller investigation. At that point, anything validated by the investigation process is fair game.

I guess I was still thinking about professional norms, particularly for you and I. I wondered throughout the book how you see How Democracies Die addressing a progressive U.S. intellectual class particularly prevalent within the academy. When you write, for example, of many moderate Republicans abdicating their responsibility to suck it up and vote for Hillary in 2016, I recall many left-leaning colleagues likewise finding this hard or even impossible. When you recount histories of conservative elites abetting the rise of norm-dismantling populist leaders, I note many peers longing for the day when radical progressives might get a chance to do the same. So how (again especially when operating as a public figure, a scholar, and a teacher simultaneously) to promote empathic toleration, to articulate the collective long-term benefits of strategic forbearance, and to issue compelling calls to progressive action all at once — and all amid tense, ominous moments like the present?

The thing that has left me most distraught and most puzzled over the past year is the degree to which American politics is so deeply polarized. How did it get to be this way? We provide one answer in our book. But what can disrupt it? We offer some thoughts on this, but the scale of the polarization is beyond anything I ever expected. It has reached genuinely dangerous levels. Of course some polarization and disagreement are good in our politics. But today, in the summer of 2018, when we have significant portions of the American electorate actually condoning (if not outright supporting) the separation of children from their immigrant parents at the U.S. border, just because the president says this is necessary, we have moved into dangerous terrain. The line of decency preventing the unthinkable in our country has become more and more unsustainable. What is the point at which Americans will address such abuses? It’s hard to see how this ends. That worries me.

And also worrying: these problems we face are undeniably acute and urgent. They demand instant solutions. But the cures, it turns out, may only come in the form of long-term solutions. They might require rebuilding and investing in our civil institutions and societal structures, in ways that may take a generation. This is where we are as a country, and that worries me as well.