From the authors of How Democracies Die, Tyranny of the Minority is a call to reform our antiquated political institutions before it’s too late. It’s a daunting task, but we have remade our country before—most notably, after the Civil War and during the Progressive Era. And now we are at a crossroads: America will either become a multiracial democracy or cease to be a democracy at all.
Fear of Losing
On the evening of October 30, 1983, as the votes were being counted in Argentina’s first democratic election in a decade, Peronists who gathered in their Buenos Aires campaign bunker were in a state of shock. “When do the votes from the industrial belt come in?” party leaders asked nervously. But the votes were already in. For the first time ever, the Peronists—Argentina’s working-class party—had lost a free election.
“We didn’t see it coming,” recalls Mario Wainfeld, then a young lawyer and Peronist activist. The Peronists had been Argentina’s dominant party since Juan Perón, a former military officer, first won the presidency back in 1946. Perón was a talented populist figure who built Argentina’s welfare state and quadrupled the size of its labor movement, earning the deep loyalty of the working class. Those loyalties persisted even after he was overthrown in a military coup in 1955 and exiled from the country for eighteen years. Even though Peronism was banned for much of the next two decades, the movement not only survived but remained a force at the polls—winning every national election in which it was allowed to compete. And when an aging Perón was allowed to return and run for president in 1973, he won easily, with 62 percent of the vote. He died a year later, however, and in 1976, Argentina fell prey to another coup and descended into a seven-year military dictatorship.
Still, when democracy returned in 1983, just about everybody expected the Peronist candidate, Italo Luder, to prevail.
But much had changed in Argentina. Perón was gone, and industrial decline had destroyed hundreds of thousands of blue-collar jobs, decimating Peronism’s working-class base. At the same time, younger and middle-class voters were turned off by Peronism’s old guard union bosses, and as Argentina emerged from a brutal military dictatorship, most of them preferred Raúl Alfonsín, the human-rights-oriented candidate of the rival Radical Civic Union. Peronist leaders had lost touch with Argentine voters. They made the problem worse by choosing some thuggish and out-of-touch candidates. Their gubernatorial candidate in the all-important province of Buenos Aires, Herminio Iglesias, was known for his shoot-outs with rival Peronist factions during the violent 1970s. At the Peronists’ final campaign rally two days before the election, Iglesias stood prominently on center stage, on live national television, and burned a casket with the symbol of Alfonsín’s Radical Civic Union—a violent act that most Argentines, having just suffered through a decade of terrifying repression, found appalling.
When early results showed Alfonsín ahead in the 1983 race, Peronist leaders, searching desperately for explanations, briefly fell into a state of denial. “They still haven’t counted the votes from La Matanza” (a working-class Peronist bastion outside Buenos Aires), party boss Lorenzo Miguel insisted. The Peronist vice presidential candidate, Deolindo Bittel, even accused the election authorities of withholding the results from working-class neighborhoods. By midnight, however, it was clear that these hidden votes simply didn’t exist. Peronists have a saying: “The only truth is reality.” And the reality was that they had lost.
Defeat was hard to swallow. Party leaders, licking their wounds, initially hid from the press. But none of them considered rejecting the results. The next day, the losing Peronist candidate Luder joined President-elect Alfonsín in a press conference and congratulated him. When reporters asked Luder about Peronism’s historic defeat, he replied, “All politicians have to live with the fact that elections can produce . . . unexpected results.”
After the election, Peronists plunged into a heated internal debate over the party’s future. A new faction, known as the Renovación (Renewal), called for the resignation of the established party leadership, arguing that Peronism would have to adapt to changes in Argentine society if it wanted to win again. The party needed to broaden its base and find a way to reach middle-class voters who had been repulsed by the casket-burning Peronism of 1983. Though derided by internal critics as “jacket-and-tie Peronists,” the Renewal leaders eventually succeeded in sidelining Peronism’s rough-edged old guard, jettisoning many of its backward-looking ideas, and improving the party’s image among middle-class voters. Peronism won the next two presidential elections handily.
This is how democracy should work. As the political scientist Adam Przeworski memorably put it, “Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections.” Losing hurts, but in a democracy it is inevitable. And when it happens, parties must do what the Peronists did: accept defeat, go home, and then figure out how to win a majority in the next election.
The norm of accepting defeat and peacefully relinquishing power is the foundation of modern democracy. On March 4, 1801, the United States became the first republic in history to experience an electoral transfer of power from one political party to another. On that day, the incumbent president, John Adams, a leader of America’s founding Federalist Party, quietly left Washington, D.C., by carriage before dawn. President-elect Thomas Jefferson of the rival Democratic-Republican Party, the man who had defeated Adams in the 1800 election, was inaugurated in the U.S. Senate chambers several hours later.
This transition was indispensable to the new republic’s survival. But it was neither inevitable nor easy. In 1800, the norm of accepting defeat and handing power to one’s opponent had not yet taken hold. The very existence of partisan opposition was regarded as illegitimate. Politicians, including many of the founders, equated it with sedition and even treason. And since no transfer of power had ever taken place before, it was hard to imagine that the opposition would reciprocate in future elections. Handing over power was a “plunge into the unknown.”
The transition was especially difficult for the Federalists, who suffered from what might be called the “founders’ dilemma”: in order for a new political system to take hold, its founders must accept the fact that they don’t get to call the shots forever. As designers of the Constitution and inheritors of George Washington’s legacy, Federalist leaders like Adams and Alexander Hamilton considered themselves the rightful stewards of the new republic. They viewed their own interests and the nation’s interests as one and the same, and they recoiled at the thought of yielding power to untested challengers.
The emergence of the Democratic-Republicans, America’s first opposition party, thus challenged the stability of the new nation. Democratic-Republican societies had originally sprung up in Pennsylvania and other states in 1793. The movement soon morphed into a genuine opposition, under the leadership of Jefferson and James Madison. The Democratic-Republicans broke with the Federalists on many leading issues of the day, including economic policy, public debt, and above all matters of war and peace. They regarded the Federalists as quasi-monarchists (“monocrats”) and worried that Adams’s diplomatic overtures to Great Britain constituted a covert effort to restore British rule to America.
Many Federalists viewed the Democratic-Republicans in turn, as nothing less than traitors. They suspected them of being sympathetic to France’s revolutionary government—at a time when mounting U.S.–French hostilities posed a real threat of war. The Federalists feared that Republican “domestic enemies” would aid a French invasion. These fears were reinforced by slave revolts in the South. Federalists charged that slave rebellions—such as Gabriel’s Rebellion in Virginia in mid-1800—were inspired by Republicans and their ideology as part of what Federalist newspapers called the “true French plan.”
At first, the Federalists tried to destroy their opponents. In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were used to jail Democratic-Republican politicians and newspaper editors who criticized the federal government. The acts further polarized the country. Virginia and Kentucky declared them null and void in their territories, which the Federalists viewed as sedition. Seeing Virginia’s behavior as part of a “conspiracy” to aid France, Hamilton called on the Adams administration to raise a “sound military force” that could be “drawn towards Virginia.” In response, Virginia’s state legislature began to arm its own militia.
The specter of violence—even civil war—hung over the young republic on the eve of the 1800 election. Mutual distrust, fueled by partisan animosity, imperiled prospects for a peaceful transfer of power. As the historian James Sharp put it, “Federalists and Republicans were willing to believe that their opponents were capable of virtually any action, no matter how treacherous, or violent, in order to gain or retain power.”
Copyright © 2023 by Steven Levitsky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are professors of government at Harvard University and the authors of the New York Times bestseller How Democracies Die, which won the Goldsmith Book Prize, was shortlisted for the Lionel Gelber Prize, and was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Time, and Foreign Affairs.