Morning Joe Panel Says Democrats Winning The House Was 'A Decisive Moment' For American Democracy

February 11th, 2019 3:33 PM

MSNBC's Morning Joe isn't one to shy away from hyperbole when talking about life in Trump's America and Monday's show was no exception.  The Monday panel was joined by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt to discuss the state of democracy and American institutions as their book, How Democracies Die, was being released in paperback.

Co-host Joe Scarborough thought things were going well because people do not like President Trump.  He cited the independent judiciary and intelligence community and Democrats winning control of the House of Representatives in November as proof that American democracy was doing well.  Ziblatt agreed, proclaiming: "I think it turns out the midterm elections were really a decisive moment." He was particularly relieved, given that "a lot of people feared" that the United States would turn into "Hungary or Turkey."

Scarborough and Ziblatt's standards would appear to be that democracy only works when Trump is rebuked. If Republicans maintained control of the House, would we be just like Turkey? If the courts voted the way Trump would like, would democracy be dying in America? If the voters agreed with Trump, democracy is at a crisis, but if they disagree then, the people are showing great wisdom in checking Trump and the Republicans.



Levitsky jumped in to say that he and Ziblatt wrote the book to look at "the underlying problems... which are the erosion of our core democratic norms, of mutual toleration and restraint and the underlying polarization and primarily, radicalization of the Republican Party that's driving that norm erosion." Republicans are engaged radicalization, but the Democrats who are trying to figure out how to ban the combustion engine and eliminate cow flatulence are not. 

Also not mentioned in the lamenting of norm erosion were Minnesota Democratic Representative Illhan Omar's anti-Semitic tweets. In fact, Morning Joe, which loves to decry Trump's tweeting habits, never mentioned Omar's comment once during the three-hour show.

Levitsky stated that lovers of democracy could rest easy knowing wasTrump is a "weak, "inept," and unpopular President.

Only President on the Council of Foreign Relations Richard Haass thought to add some nuance to the conversation.  He criticized schools for making it possible to go through school without reading The Federalist Papers or Alexis de Tocqueville and asked if Trump was "a symptom or reflection." Later in the segment, Haass asked the authors what the odds would be of their fellow Harvard faculty members supporting mandatory civics education.  Ziblatt said he would be in favor, with Levitsky admitting to a laughing panel, "It'd be a tough haul."

Here is a transcript for the February 11 show:

7:47 AM ET


JOE SCARBOROUGH: Now to other things, joining us Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and also Daniel Ziblatt there 2018 New York Times bestselling book entitled How Democracies Die is now out in paperback. So, let's talk about how things are today versus how things were when your book was first released. We of course have an independent judiciary that has been pushing back on the President, we have an independent Intel community that has been pushing back on President of the United States and some of his claims. We obviously have voters in mid-term elections pushing back on the President. We now have a Democratic House of Representatives, pushing back on the President. How have the institutions held up? How is this democracy doing?

DANIEL ZIBLATT: I think it turns out the midterm elections were really a decisive moment, it shows our electoral institutions work. With the election of President Trump, a lot of people feared we were on our way to Hungary or Turkey- single party control, certainly that is not the case.  But I think we’ve entered a new phase in our long simmering democratic crisis where we're in a situation where essentially have deadlock and dysfunction in increasingly institutional warfare, between the branches of government. So the checks and balances are working but, they’re not working as originally intended by our founders.

STEVEN LEVITSKY: Look, our institutions- we have some of the most robust democratic institutions in the history of the world. The United States democracy is in many respects very robust and one of the major differences between the United States and countries like Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, is that we have a very strong opposition, strong private sector, civil society, opposition party, and as Joe pointed out, all of these institutions have been pushing back, which is great. But the underlying problems that we focus on in the book, which is are the erosion of our core democratic norms, of mutual toleration and restraint and the underlying polarization and primarily radicalization of the Republican Party that’s driving that norm erosion, those things haven’t changed. They are hand manifesting themselves in different ways rather than one party dominating the other which was the fear a couple of years ago. We’re going to see as Daniel said increasing and really pretty dangerous dysfunction. Look, we've had less than two
months of divided government. Divided government is a key feature of our democracy, it’s really important for our democracy. We basically have been living either under government shutdown or looming government shutdown the entire period of divided government. That's utter dysfunctionality.

RICHARD HAASS: How is Donald Trump not a cause but a symptom or a reflection? In particular, one thing we don't do any more is transmit our political or democratic DNA. You can graduate from virtually any university in this country, even the best even like Harvard and if you navigate your course requirements properly you will not have read the constitution, you will not have read The Federalist Papers, you will not have read de Tocqueville, you will not know what makes a democracy democratic. How much of a problem is that? How do we change that?

ZIBLATT: One of the things we've been talking about this book, we've been impressed by is the degree to which people sense there's a crisis on civic education, even at a younger age starting in elementary school. So this is something it's clear we need to realize we can't take democracy for granted and I think for too long all of us including ourselves thought American democracy just works on its own and works automatically. That's not the case. We need robust, vigilant citizens and so I think there really needs to be a renewed attention to this kind of feature of education to protect our democracy.

LEVITSKY: I wouldn't say our democracy is dying. We wrote the book because as Daniel said too many Americans, ourselves included, grew up taking American democracy for granted. And we thought that the warning signs are sufficiently serious that we need to think about how to identify them and how to respond. It would be overstated to say our democracy is dying. But there's a lot to be concerned about, and a lot to learn from other democracies in the world that have faced crises. Where do we stand? We're fortunate Donald Trump is a weak president. We're fortunate he's a pretty inept president. A lazy president as someone just said. And that he's not as popular as he might have been.

HAASS: What are the odds that the Harvard faculty would support a required course where every graduate would have to study about American civics? Could you get through your own faculty?

ZIBLATT: I would be in favor of that.

LEVITSKY: It’d be a tough haul.