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What the leaked Jan. 6 recordings say about democracy right now


In just about every major scandal involving this country's top political leaders in recent decades, one big question looms over it all. What did the top people know, and when did they know it? That question came back in a new and disturbing way this past week when prominent Republicans were forced to explain things they'd apparently said or wrote privately in the days after the January 6 mob attack on the Capitol which directly contradict their public statements.

In recordings released by The New York Times, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed that President Trump accepted responsibility for the attack on the Capitol, contradicting previous public denials by both men. And in another tape, McCarthy expressed concern that far-right members of Congress would incite violence against other lawmakers. When House Republicans met on Wednesday, McCarthy attempted to explain himself, but he also tried to shift the focus to winning back the House in November, which is a top priority for him, as he hopes to become speaker.

Given that the stakes are so high, we thought it was important to listen back to exactly what was said and what was denied, and we want to ask what the implications of this could be for the country. For that, we called Steven Levitsky. He is a professor of government at Harvard University and the co-author of "How Democracies Die." Professor Levitsky, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

STEVEN LEVITSKY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Let's start with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. In the days after the attack, he told House Republican leadership that he would ask the president to step down in the wake of another impeachment. And I'll just play that.


KEVIN MCCARTHY: And, yeah, I mean, the only discussion I would have with him is that I think this will pass, and it would be my recommendation it should be done.

MARTIN: And of course, as we know, that this is the first time we had heard this statement about his views of the matter because in public, he'd been very publicly supportive of the former president. How do you understand this? I mean, what about this is most significant to you?

LEVITSKY: What's most significant to me is in a small-d democratic party, a political party that is committed to democracy, party leaders should be unambiguous in breaking with figures, groups, factions that either endorse violence or that seek to undermine democratic rules of the game. Anti-democratic elements should be shunned, should be expelled, denounced and shunned by mainstream political parties. That's what democratic parties do. When parties are not fully committed to democracy, they behave in exactly the way that Kevin McCarthy is behaving, trying to have it both ways, speaking out of both sides of their mouth, kind of denouncing when they need to but not really, not following up, ending up sort of condoning or tolerating or hiding under the table and remaining silent instead of expelling anti-democratic forces from their ranks.

MARTIN: The chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, was an impeachment manager in the first impeachment trial. He wrote a book subsequently about that experience and, you know, and others. And he said very bluntly in the book and he said very bluntly in conversations after the book was published that Kevin McCarthy should never be speaker because he's a liar. And he offered certain examples of this, but clearly, he didn't have access to this particular sort of bit of information. How important is that that a public figure at this level is willing to - if these tapes are accurate - is willing to contradict - to absolutely contradict publicly what he says and apparently believed privately? How important is that?

LEVITSKY: Sure. I think it matters on two levels. First of all, any lying by public officials, by elected officials is problematic for the quality of democracy. If citizens cannot trust that their elected officials are telling the truth, that will undoubtedly undermine the public's confidence in the democratic process. But it also matters what they're lying about. I mean, it's - I'm not condoning this, but certainly the public expects that politicians occasionally fib about something about their past record or something they may have said or done 20 years ago. But here we're talking about an assault on the - our democratic republic, an assault on the Constitution. And Kevin McCarthy, potentially the speaker of the House of Representatives, a man who could potentially hold our democracy in his hands, in some respects, is lying about an assault on our democracy. There is - in terms of our constitutional system, there's little more important that he could have to speak on, and he's lying about it. So yeah, that's a devastating sign.

MARTIN: Let's talk about another figure whose communications were in the news this week. That's Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. She's a controversial Republican from Georgia. She's known for embracing bizarre conspiracy theories. Text messages she sent were unearthed by the House's January 6 committee that show that she suggested to a former White House chief of staff that the president invoked martial law to retain control of the White House. Given that, you know, she's not an especially kind of well-respected figure - I mean, she's been stripped of her committee assignments for, you know, previous sort of conduct, but she is a member of this body - how should we think about that?

LEVITSKY: We should think that - not that Marjorie Taylor Greene is a controversial member of Congress. Marjorie Taylor Greene is an authoritarian member of Congress. Republicans are electing authoritarian figures to higher office. It's true she's not a high-ranking Republican, but she is among the best fundraisers now among all Republican House members. She is a rock star among the Republican rank and file. And most importantly, she is a demonstrably authoritarian figure who has, at various points of time, flirted with if not embraced acts of violence or violent rhetoric and has not been expelled from the Republican Party ranks. One thing that we learned that's crystal clear from democratic breakdowns in Europe in the 1930s, from South America in the 1960s and '70s, is that when mainstream parties tolerate and accommodate anti-democratic extremists within their ranks rather than expelling them, condemning them, distancing themselves from them, democracies are in trouble.

MARTIN: You study comparative democracies. That's one of the reasons that we called you. And I'm wondering if you have a sense of where this kind of conduct lives when you see democratic institutions start to break down because I think that some of this seems kind of abstruse to people, as we know that many members of the public don't necessarily have a high opinion of elected leaders anyway. And I think some people might think that this conduct is normal.

LEVITSKY: Well, I think that the process by which the public comes to accept some of this behavior as normal is a gradual one. And to a large extent, it's the responsibility of the political elite. It's the responsibility of political party leaders - also the media - to call out this behavior and to tell the public - to tell the public, to inform the public that this is not acceptable behavior. And that, systematically, over the last - I would say it began in the 1990s but really picked up during the Tea Party period and, obviously, during the Trump presidency - we have been continually, to borrow Daniel Patrick Moynihan's phrase, defining deviancy down. We've continually been accepting sort of new lows and new extremes and new levels of violent rhetoric. And so it becomes normalized. It's accepted. It's said. It's done. People - maybe they shake their hands a little bit, but it - but politicians are not punished for this behavior. In fact, they are rewarded. Marjorie Taylor Greene will turn around and get a huge fundraising haul out of it.

MARTIN: So what should the next steps be? I mean, the fact is, if that is the case, then this isn't just a leadership problem. This is also a - I don't know what I'd say - a citizenship problem. So what should the next steps be? I mean, first, what should the next step be for the January 6 committee and after that?

LEVITSKY: I think it's very important that we build and sustain a broad, multiparty, small (inaudible) democratic coalition, coalition in defense of democracy. And what the January 6 commission has to do, first of all, is make public just how dangerous, how unconstitutional, how illegal, how anti-democratic the behavior of the president of the United States, his circle and much of the Republican Party was and get very public. But the process needs to be not a - needs not to be a progressive process or a largely Democratic Party process or a blue state process. It has to be backed by a very broad swath of society. It needs to have - there needs to be business leaders, religious leaders, conservatives and as many Republicans as possible.

I'm talking about the old Bush network, the Bush-Cheney network, which has basically hid under the table since Donald Trump became the Republican Party candidate - the time for them to crawl out from under the table and embrace this report. And then we need to think in future elections of building broad coalitions to ensure that the MAGA-led Republican Party is defeated politically because that's the only way we're going to stop them. We can't - we're not going to ban them. We're not going to fight them physically. They need - an authoritarian force in - within a democracy needs to be defeated electorally and politically. And that's going to require building a very broad coalition that extends, frankly, from AOC to Liz Cheney.

MARTIN: That was Steven Levitsky. He's a political scientist and the co-author of the book "How Democracies Die." Steven Levitsky, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEVITSKY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.