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The Decline in Support for Democratic Institutions: Use Them or Lose Them

Saturday, February 4, 2017 2:05
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Populist candidates are gaining ever larger shares of the vote in a number of European countries.  Donald Trump, as a populist candidate, is now the president of the United States.  The hallmark of a populist candidate, once in power, is to weaken the institutions of government that restrict the actions of the political leader and protect the rights of minorities.  Trump seems to be moving full speed in that direction.  Representative democracy is being weakened and replaced by a form of slightly-restrained autocracy.  Is this a brief aberration to which democracies will respond and recover their balance, or is it an inevitable trend that will continue to grow for the foreseeable future?
Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk argue, in their article The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect, that we should not be overconfident and thus complacent.  History has taught us that change can come very suddenly and we should be constantly vigilant.  As an example they provide the experience of a large German newspaper, Die Welt, in dealing with East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) while under Soviet control.  For decades the paper refused to recognize the integrity of the GDR and referred to it only in quotes, “GDR,” as a way of noting its illegitimacy.  When they finally decided that the GDR was firmly established and would endure they decided to remove the quotes from GDR references.
“On 2 August 1989, reporters were allowed to drop the scare quotes when writing about the GDR for the first time in the paper’s history. Three months later, the Berlin Wall fell. On 3 October 1990, the GDR ceased to exist.”
“The editors of Die Welt radically misjudged the signs of the times. At precisely the moment when they should have realized that support for the communist regime was dwindling, they finally reconciled themselves to its durability. They were hardly alone. The collective failure of social scientists, policy makers, and journalists to take seriously the possibility that the Soviet bloc might collapse should serve as a warning. Even the best-trained and most methodologically rigorous scholars are liable to assume that the recent past is a reliable guide to the future, and that extreme events are not going to happen.”
The authors argue that sufficient warning signs are already evident to arouse our concern for the safety of our democratic institutions.
“Three decades ago, most scholars simply assumed that the Soviet Union would remain stable. This assumption was suddenly proven false. Today, we have even greater confidence in the durability of the world’s affluent, consolidated democracies. But do we have good grounds for our democratic self-confidence? At first sight, there would seem to be some reason for concern. Over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliaments or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe. So has voter turnout. As party identification has weakened and party membership has declined, citizens have become less willing to stick with establishment parties. Instead, voters increasingly endorse single-issue movements, vote for populist candidates, or support ‘antisystem’ parties that define themselves in opposition to the status quo. Even in some of the richest and most politically stable regions of the world, it seems as though democracy is in a state of serious disrepair.”
The authors use data from World Values Surveys over the period 1995-2014 to demonstrate that support for democratic institutions has fallen dramatically in the United States and in Europe.  In particular, they find that those born in the period when democracy was most challenged, before and during World War II, have the highest respect for democracy, but the subsequent generations lose enthusiasm for it as they are further removed from this period.  This also means that younger people view living in a democracy as being less important than older people.  This change in attitude is strongest in the United States.  This chart illustrates the generational shift in attitudes.
The next chart presents survey data indicating that younger voters are becoming increasingly disenchanted with democracy.
A strong democracy requires broad-based participation in elections and other political activities.
The health of a democracy depends not only on support for key political values such as civil rights, but also on the active participation of an informed citizenry….This makes it all the more troubling that there has been a long-documented withdrawal from formal democratic participation: Since the 1960s, voter turnout has fallen and political-party membership has plummeted in virtually all established democracies.
This chart indicates that interest in democratic activities has fallen in Europe as the young become less involved.  The story is somewhat different in the United States where political participation has stayed at a more nearly constant level because older citizens have increased their participation level to partly counteract the diminished interest of the young.
The diminished demand for strong democratic institutions has been accompanied by an increase in those who would welcome rule by a “strongman” or by a military takeover.
“In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ thing for the ‘army to rule’—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree. While those who hold this view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there have been similar increases in the number of those who favor a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections’ and those who want experts rather than the government to ‘take decisions’ for the country. Nor is the United States the only country to exhibit this trend. The proportion agreeing that it would be better to have the army rule has risen in most mature democracies, including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.”
The authors define a “consolidated democracy” as one that is firmly established and has no competing approaches to governance.  They fear that the process of deconsolidation may have begun in the United States.  Publishing their article in July, 2016, they had the United States and the Trump campaign as evidence in support of that contention.
“In the United States, citizens have rapidly lost faith in the political system; in early March 2016, for example, public approval of Congress stood at a mere 13 percent. Wealthy businessman and television personality Donald Trump, having attracted fervent and surprisingly broad support by railing against the political system and promising policies that would openly violate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, appears to have won the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. Meanwhile, even mainstream political actors are increasingly willing to violate the informal rules for the sake of partisan advantage: To name but one example of the resulting gridlock and constitutional dysfunction, the U.S. Senate has refused even to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court.”
As this is being written, Donald Trump has been president for about two weeks.  That has been a period in which the nation and the world have been shaken by his autocratic mode of operation.  He has issued edict after edict showing little respect for the press, other branches of government, or the norms of traditional governance.  He has surrounded himself with a small group of family and advisors who seem to owe their allegiance to him personally rather than to the nation.  Trump’s Republican allies thought they could ultimately control him and make him agree to their agenda, but they were wrong.  They have been left to cower in the background, rubberstamping just about anything he is likely to propose.
The authors are correct in warning us that we are in a dangerous time.  Those who do not agree with Trump and his policies seem to sense this danger and recognize that this is not a simple case of one party replacing the other in the presidency.  They have begun to mobilize as if to counter an existential threat.  Trump is an existential threat, and if he is going to ignore the norms of political behavior then those who feel they must not acquiesce to his policies should feel free to also ignore traditional norms of behavior.  Perhaps Trump’s threat to our democratic institutions is enough to rouse our youth and others whose disenchantment with the workings of democratic governance has left them disinterested in political participation.  You don’t appreciate what you have until you see it slipping away.
Those who feel a need to hit the streets and protest should be encouraged.  Flex your democratic muscles!  Don’t ever again be indifferent to political participation.  Do whatever you must to limit Trump’s quest for power.
The interested reader might find the following article informative:

You can learn a little about a lot of things or you can learn a lot about a very few things. Guess which is the most fun.


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