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Harvard professor predicts American government’s future at Miami lecture

Daniel Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard University, spoke to students and faculty at Miami University about the history of American Democracy.
Daniel Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard University, spoke to students and faculty at Miami University about the history of American Democracy.

More than 250 people, Miami University students and faculty alike, piled into the Heritage Room in Shriver Center Wednesday, Sept. 21 to hear Daniel Ziblatt go through the history of American democracy. He examined the causes and effects of its downfall.

“While our democracy was fundamentally incomplete, this also means that constitutional hardball administered the middle part of the 20th century,” Ziblatt said. 

Ziblatt, a professor of government at Harvard University, has written three books: “How Democracies Die,” “Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy” and “Structuring the State: The Formation of Italy and Germany and the Puzzle of Federalism.” He is a New York Times best-selling author and won the Woodrow Wilson Prize for the best book in government and international relations. 

Tim Melley, director of the Humanities Center coordinated the lecture. The Center’s Altman Program brings 10 to 12 visiting intellectuals, artists and writers to Miami each year for a series of lectures. The theme for this year’s lectures is “Contesting Authority.”

“[Ziblatt is] a leading thinker in the world on how democracies are created and how they fail,” Melley said.  “And that's what we want to think about this year, we're thinking about authority.” 

During the lecture, Ziblatt went into detail about political polarization and how political rivals don’t see each other as just opponents but enemies, foreshadowing a democratic breakdown.

Ziblatt said the election of former President Donald Trump has also put a stress on democracy. He said Americans were not alarmist enough to the challenges Trump was posing to democracy.  

“In [Trump’s] rhetoric in particular, the condoning violence, willingness to challenge basic constitutional rules,” Ziblatt said, “... all of this was a behavior that we had seen in other places and other times … so we already saw the warning signs.”

The two major questions of the night were how resilient American democracy is and what can be done to strengthen it. 

Ziblatt said old, rich governments rarely break down. With this in mind, he said, the odds of democracy dying in America are unlikely because even with inner turmoil, our government has been around far longer than many other countries’.

Ziblatt went on to talk about extremists. They are created when a political party veers off course dramatically, he said, and when a party goes off course, it loses voters.

“This is the essence of why democracies are more effective than authoritarian systems because they have the power of self correction, it's often messy,” Ziblatt said.

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Ziblatt emphasized the unfairness of the majoritarian system, which allows the party that wins fewer votes to win power repeatedly. He’s concerned that it has a feedback effect on the Republican Party – it has protection in the marketplace, which causes them not to try to reach over 50% of voters.

Ziblatt pointed out that this kind of self-correcting political marketplace is dangerous for a democracy because a party can radicialize without paying the price of losing voters.

He concluded his lecture with ways to fix these problems, including providing a positive right to vote in the constitution, adding Supreme Court term limits and getting rid of the electoral college.

“I think the way out of this is to democratize our democracy,” Ziblatt said.

He finished his lecture by saying he is optimistic about American democracy and that even though the country has faced rough days, there are also many positive improvements happening in government.

Carson Mentir, a senior creative writing major, attended the lecture because he has an interest in political science and political philosophy.

“He did a great job honestly,” Mentir said.  “I had a chance to really skim over his book but did not have a chance to read the whole thing, but he did a very good job of summarizing the ideas that he encapsulated in it.”