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What the future holds for democracy in the U.S.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go back to a story that dominated political coverage earlier this week, one you might have skipped because it seemed like so much political arcana or a typical petty clash of political ego. Our next guest says it is much more important than that. We're talking about the decision earlier this week by Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, to insist she would not support her party in changing the Senate's filibuster rule, not even for the limited purpose of passing a voting rights bill. She was, of course, joined in that decision by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and all Senate Republicans. And while fights over filibuster rules and Capitol Hill gridlock may seem petty or business as usual, our next guest says they are a symptom of something more dangerous - the backsliding of American democracy.

Steven Levitsky is a professor of government at Harvard University and the co-author of "How Democracies Die." He argues that they don't generally die through coups or violent overthrows but more gradually through polarization, the erosion of democratic norms and efforts to limit access to the ballot. And he's with us now. Steven Levitsky, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVEN LEVITSKY: Thanks for inviting me.

MARTIN: So we should mention at the outset that this week, you spoke with Senate Democrats about your research and what it tells us about threats to American democracy. You were asked to not disclose the contents of that meeting - fair enough. But given what you saw on Capitol Hill, I'm just wondering, do you think your message was heard?

LEVITSKY: It's hard to say, but it doesn't look like the Democrats have unanimity they need to change the filibuster rules in order to pass critical legislation proving our election. So in that sense, no. I mean, if we went in hoping that we would generate a consensus behind ending the filibuster, we didn't achieve that.

MARTIN: So I just wanted to take a step back and talk about your broader research. When some people think about threats to democracy, I'm thinking that people would think about violent attempts to overthrow the government. And we just observed the one-year anniversary of the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol, whose purpose was to interfere with the certification of the elections. But you argued that democracies generally don't die through violent overthrows but the erosion of democratic norms. Talk a little bit more, if you would, about what that looks like and if you think we're seeing that now.

LEVITSKY: I don't mean to understate the importance of January 6, and as bad a symptom as January 6 is, that's probably not how American democracy would die if it does die. Elected autocrats - almost always, the first thing that they do, the first thing they try to do is capture the referee, is place loyalists in the courts, in the attorney general's office, the prosecutor's office, in the electoral authorities, in the intelligence agencies, in all the places that allow the law to be used as a partisan weapon both to protect the government from the investigation and to investigate and punish rivals.

MARTIN: So this is where I want to go back to the filibuster because that is so relevant to all the things that we're talking about here. But let's just talk about, like, the right-now moment. The argument that Republicans and the more conservative Democrats are using is that changing it discourages the parties from working together. And this is something that Senator Sinema has cited repeatedly, which is that she's looking for durable solutions that are bipartisan because that's what she says endorse. How does a rule like this fit within the construct of democracy? Is there a similar rule in other countries? Is there any merit to this argument that this rule actually helps those parties work together? Because we're certainly not seeing that right now.

LEVITSKY: No. I think there's very little merit to it, actually. The filibuster is a rule. It allows a partisan minority to systematically and permanently block the agenda of a legislative majority. That is outright antidemocratic, which is why no established democracy on earth has something like the filibuster except the United States. And so for most of our history, the filibuster was very rarely used. Little bit of data - between 1917 and 1970, there was an average of one filibuster a year. Senators exercised restraint in using the filibusters.

Only starting in the '70s, picking up in the '80s and '90s but really accelerating early 21st century that the filibuster, rather than being something that was used once a year, is used for every major piece of legislation. It's become a permanent minority veto. It never was historically, but it is now, in the last 20 years. So what Kyrsten Sinema is defending is not something designed by the founders. The founders opposed it. It's not something that existed during the golden age of American democracy because the filibuster wasn't used during the golden age of democracy. It's something emerged in the 21st century at a time that the U.S. democracy was heavily polarized and increasingly dysfunctional. It's only existed in this way at a time when U.S. democracy wasn't working. So I'm not sure what there is to preserve.

MARTIN: As a professor of political science who takes the long view, who looks at these issues both historically and also transnationally, is there anything, in your view, that encourages you?

LEVITSKY: Yes. I think that the United States has an opportunity to do something that is really unique in world history, and that is become a truly multiracial democracy. We became a multiracial democracy on paper in 1965, but we will not be a truly multiracial democracy until individuals of every ethnic group get treated equally by the state. We've made enormous progress in that direction. We're becoming a much more diverse and more racially egalitarian society.

It's precisely that movement towards multiracial democracy that Trumpism is pushing back against. But I think we're going to get there because the multiracial Democratic coalition in this country is a majority, it is growing and it's particularly pronounced among younger generations. But I actually think we stand a good chance of getting there. And when we get to the other side, the U.S. has a chance to become a multiracial democracy that can be a model for the world.

MARTIN: That was Steven Levitsky. He is a professor of government at Harvard University and co-author of "How Democracies Die." Professor Levitsky, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEVITSKY: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "ANYTHING YOU SYNTHESIZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.