The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, which describes itself as a “collaboration of nearly two dozen analysts and scholars from across the political spectrum,” is out with an important new study on American democracy that looks at attitudes about democracy, military rule and strong-man politics. There is some good news, but there are also red flags. “This important report is the most comprehensive study of America’s attitudes to democracy is the Trump era,” said Yascha Mounk, an expert at Harvard University on authoritarian threats to democracies.
If given a direct choice, the overwhelming majority of Americans choose democracy. In fact, on each of the five questions we asked, three quarters or more of all respondents provide at least some support for democracy, and half or more express support for the strongest pro-democratic option. By contrast, depending on the question, between an eighth and a quarter of respondents provide an answer that does not support democracy. Moreover, we find evidence that conflicts with two key findings that have recently raised alarm bells about the state of democracy: (a) We do not find that public support for democracy in the U.S. is declining. (b) Nor do we find higher support among young people for an authoritarian political system.
That’s heartening, but democracy is holding on by a slim majority, with only 54 percent who “consistently express a pro-democratic position.” They find that “almost half of our respondents do not support democracy on at least one of the five survey questions. . . . Notably, 29 percent of respondents show at least some support for either a ‘strong leader’ or ‘army rule.’”
Once again we have some good news for the future of our political system. “Among those who rate democracy unfavorably, believe it is not so important to live in a democracy, or do not believe it is always preferable, just over half are opposed to a ‘strong leader’ and ‘army rule.’ This finding clarifies that dissatisfaction with democracy does not necessarily translate into openness to authoritarian appeals, though there is significant overlap among the two view.” The bad news, although hardly surprising, is that “the highest level of openness to authoritarian political systems is among those voters who supported Donald Trump in the primaries. . . . The highest levels of support for authoritarian leadership come from those who are disaffected, disengaged from politics, deeply distrustful of experts, culturally conservative, and have negative attitudes toward racial minorities.” (The latter description surely sounds an awful lot like many Trump voters, which explains his appeal.)
The weakening of support for democratic institutions and norms did not start with Trump. The authors recount, “Liberal democracies have been shaken by growing objective stresses due to immigration, globalization, rising income inequality and insecurity, and the economic displacement caused by the 2008 financial crisis. There is rising talk not only in the U.S. but also across Europe and even globally that democracy is not working well to address key policy challenges, and this has left voters feeling increasingly alienated. Trust in major institutions has been low and declining for some time now across many advanced industrial democracies.”
Mounk tells me that the report underscores the challenges for democracy. “It brings some good news: Young people, perhaps because they are concerned about the president’s behavior, seem to be less open to strongman leaders than in the past,” he says. “But it also shows two very worrying developments: There is increasingly a partisan divide on issues of democratic norms, with Trump supporters much more hostile to them. And young people are even more disenchanted with the functioning of the democratic system than they were in the past.”
The authors of the Voter Study Group are far from alone in their diagnosis. “The Republic At Risk” report reached a similar conclusion. Its authors find, “The erosion of American democracy . . . goes beyond the elevation of one unsuitable man to the presidency. It has been a long process with multiple and complex causes. Increased political polarization, globalization, the development of a postindustrial economy, demographic changes, technological advancements, new media landscapes, the entrenchment of power among special interests, and many other factors have changed our society in unprecedented ways, and have presented unforeseen challenges to our established democratic institutions.”
What do we do about this? The problem — the fragility of democracy — should be addressed from both sides of the equation.
Democratic governments need to reach disaffected voters who are prone to embrace authoritarians. Convincing them that they have a stake in the system and that others care for their welfare is critical. However, in a multiracial and multi-ethnic society it would be a mistake to concede the high ground on equality and inclusion, just as it would be wrong to buy into relativism by refusing to distinguish between fact and fiction. We should respect these voters enough to engage with them and present facts even if they conflict with their preexisting views. The antidote to talk radio and Fox News propaganda is more good, honest journalism and more civic education.
On the other side of the ledger, Western democracies plainly need to do a better job of shoring up institutions, touting the benefits of free societies, and explaining the connection between democracy, on one hand, and peace and prosperity on the other. What was self-evident in the Cold War can no longer be taken for granted.
In short, Trump didn’t cause the crisis of faith in democracy, but he has exploited it. To halt the erosion of support for democracy we need to acknowledge the challenges, provide real results for those who feel left behind and make the case for democracy. We’ve learned the hard way that there is nothing inevitable about democracy’s survival.