Communities

It’s Time To Fall In Love With Democracy Again. Here’s How

by Alexander Besant

November 8, 2016
Image via Flickr/Sony200boy

It’s official: American democracy is in trouble

While Donald Trump’s rise has shone a spotlight on the issue, the fact of the matter is that American democracy has been on the ropes for decades. In 2015, two former political science graduate students at Harvard University, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, wrote an alarming essay called “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” which showed that a belief in democracy and its tenets was declining in the United States and Europe. Using data from the World Values Survey, the two found that Americans—particularly millennials—were less inclined to believe that democracy was the best political regime and that more of the populace supported authoritarian alternatives to override Congress and the courts. While a distrust of elected officials shouldn’t surprise anyone (more on that below), a waning belief in democracy itself may be a tougher pill to swallow.

“Twenty years ago, 6 percent of Americans, or one in 16, said that army rule was a good idea. Today, it is one in six,” says Mounk, “There’s a lot of reason to believe that it’s gotten worse over the last year, and frankly, how could it not have?” The Washington Post followed up their work with a report that showed American support for their system of government has eroded dramatically since 2006, particularly among young people, and now sits behind places like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Canada. You could say that Trump’s rise has vindicated these findings, with a large swath of the American voting public willing to support a candidate who has not only threatened to jail his opponent, but also to potentially challenge the outcome of the election if he’s not elected. Among his supporters, he’s thrown into question the legitimacy of the entire electoral process, with less than half of them believing that American elections are free and fair.

In that sense, Trump has challenged not only democracy’s fundamental institutions but also its less formal norms: such as respecting civil rights (think banning a religion); upholding the Constitution (think suggesting libel laws are used against critical journalists) and Bill of Rights; and maintaining a certain moderation and truthfulness (think pretty much every speech he has made since 2015). In the past, candidates would likely have been disqualified for such behavior or, at the very least, repudiated by their party. Today, it appears that a large part of the electorate (and the Republican party) is willing to accept and even embrace these divergences from the norm.

Given that the survey questions from the studies above are not the same over time and the data only reaches back a decade or two, it might be too hasty to jump to definitive conclusions about what this all means. But there’s no denying that Americans of all political stripes have lost a great deal of faith in the system and maybe even in democracy itself. The long-term consequences of that immense distrust are hard to predict, but they have certainly paved the way for populist politics both on the right and the left.


Why is this happening?

So, what’s really going on here? At first glance, the reasons for this are obvious: Hyper-partisanship and a refusal to negotiate between Democrats and Republicans has increased political stagnation. Attack ads are no longer demeaning policies, but accusing opponents of outright criminality. The notion of a loyal opposition has been replaced by, at least so far, partisan warfare. Additionally, Congress is deeply divided and factionalism has undermined the trust of the electorate, who increasingly see the institution as ineffective. While this is not in dispute, what might be is whether changing this equation would necessarily lead to more trust and more faith in democracy.

Still, it may be worth speculating on some causes deeper than hyperpartisanship, the most obvious of which are the interrelated forces of globalization and middle class wage stagnation. Middle incomes have stayed relatively the same since at least the 1980s and it is increasingly likely that living standards will not increase for the majority of the current generation and maybe others to come. This explanation for democracy’s declining prospects is favored by Mounk, who believes that it is one of the central causes for young people turning away from democracy and also for Trump’s rise on the back of economic anxiety.

Related is the dramatic force of globalization, which has quickly but subtly altered nearly every life on this planet. In the American and European context, globalization has been a double-edged sword, hollowing out the manufacturing base at lightning speed, while leaving ruined towns and populations susceptible to more extremist politics in their midst. Those educated enough to tap into globalization’s opportunities have been equally rewarded (typically urban and coastal residents), causing economic inequality not seen for hundreds of years. Of all places to read about these dramatic changes, Cracked.com recently offered a particularly apt description of this divide and its consequences on contemporary politics. It has also led to a renewed interest of the plight of the white working class—Trump’s base of support—whose geographies have been most affected by freer trade.

Just as globalization has outsourced power to the market, information technology and an exploding array of media options has dispersed power to a larger group of people weakening the consensus required for sustaining democracy. This means that we not only have a greater outpouring of opinions, but also a greater diversity of facts. “This has implications for political campaigning and the relationship between people and their democratic representatives,” says Vyacheslav Polonski, a researcher at Oxford Internet Institute. “It’s evident that you don’t read the news anymore. You read your news in a potentially different factual universe.”

This is well-trodden territory, but needless to say, social media and upstart media organizations with varying interests and political slants have created a bewildering amount of information, often unedited and too often untrue.


Should we blame millennials?

What’s wrong with this generation you might be wondering? Young people like myself have come of age in the shadow of two disastrous wars and a massive financial crisis that has destabilized the job market. Naturally, this has affected nearly every generation, but for many young Americans, this is the only federal government they’ve known. In addition, this generation has known only American political stagnation and partisan extremism, which seems to worsen year by year. They’ve also grown up in a confounding media environment, one which Politico Magazine has characterized as the “swift and shallow” current running through our smartphones. Nuance has been replaced with shrillness and intense hyperbole, making it harder to gauge proportions and making us more susceptible to bias. Social media has been a leading cause of this problem, as Nicholas Carr explained in his Politico article:

“Social media favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered. It also prizes emotionalism over reason. The more visceral the message, the more quickly it circulates and the longer it holds the darting public eye.”

This not only increases hyperpartisan behavior, which erodes trust, but it also saps authoritative facts from the system, which is essential in a functional democracy that relies on rationality and fact-based problem-solving (at least in theory it does). It’s not to say that older people aren’t affected by this new media landscape, it’s just that younger people have never known an alternative. This could be compounded by the current education system and culture, which has sought to shed the notions of authority in favor of individual expression and increased scrutiny on once sacred cows via critical theory and identity studies. While intellectually stimulating, it is detrimental to a belief in authority and feeds the notion that skepticism and cynicism can replace critical thinking and acquired wisdom. When nothing is sacred, neither is democracy.


Let’s solve the problem

via GIPHY

What can we do about all this beyond electing a strongman to solve all of our problems? Solving hyperpartisanism will not likely happen soon, but as long as it’s around, there are more chances that democracy could wither. Reducing inequality and bringing job and wage growth back to the American middle class may improve the outlook of Americans who currently believe the system is “rigged” against them.

Harvard political science professor Archon Fung says that there are many institutional fixes that we could enact that would, as he says, “unrig” the system and restore faith in democracy. He points out that both the left and right have claimed that the system is unfair in one way or another and solving those should be a priority. He suggests more civics education and participation; changing the way redistricting works to make elections more competitive and representative; and creating sensible campaign finance laws to keep money out of politics. The more that people are empowered, Fung suggests, the more stake they will have in a functioning liberal democracy.

Of course there are other things that just cannot be fixed. The dispersion of power—political, economic, and social—will mean that authority and, thus, legitimacy will be harder to grasp. The New York Times can do all the fact-checking they want, but their power as gatekeepers has been permanently undermined by other outlets and social media users who are less scrupulous. We should not underestimate the appeal of easy solutions to complex problems, as history has mostly proven that simplistic solutions usually make everything far worse. Democracy is a slow, ugly, and plodding political system that requires compromise on our most cherished principles. Even when it works, it’s never easy and is almost always disappointing. In an age of instant gratification, democracy’s need for patience and tolerance will come under serious strain. But compared to the alternatives, it’s still a system worth defending. Maybe this election and its aftermath will remind us of that.

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It’s Time To Fall In Love With Democracy Again. Here’s How