Sunday, 20 September 2015

Across the globe, a growing disillusionment with democracy

Economic stagnation, rising inequality and growing political power of the rich cast doubts on its legitimacy
By Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, Published The Straits Times, 19 Sep 2015

Signs of democratic dysfunction are everywhere, from Athens to Ankara, Brussels to Brasilia. In the United States, the federal government has shut down 12 times in the last 35 years. According to political scientists Christopher Hare and Keith T. Poole, the two main American political parties are more polarised now than they have been at any time since the Civil War. Meanwhile, a Gallup tracking poll shows that trust in the presidency and in the Supreme Court stands at historic lows - while faith in Congress has plummeted so far that it is now in the single digits.

Some citizens of democracies have become so unhappy with their institutions that - according to disturbing new studies of public opinion around the world - they may be tempted to dispense with partisan politics altogether. Would it not be better to let the President make decisions without having to worry about Congress - or to entrust key decisions to unelected experts like the Federal Reserve and the Pentagon?

According to a growing proportion of Americans, the answer is yes.

Back in 1995, the well-respected World Values Survey, which studies representative samples of citizens in almost 100 countries, asked Americans for the first time whether they approved of the idea of "having the army rule". One in 15 agreed. Since then, that number has grown steadily, to one in six.

To be sure, that still leaves five out of six Americans who would rather not have a military coup. And, of course, not every American who tells a pollster that he would rather have the army in charge would actually support a coup. But the willingness to countenance alternative forms of government, if only by a small minority, reveals a deep disillusionment with democracy, one that should concern everyone living in an advanced democracy, including those in Europe and Asia.

The generational differences are striking. When the World Values Survey asked Americans how important it was for them to live in a democracy, citizens born before World War II were the most adamant. On a scale of one to 10, 72 per cent assigned living in a democracy a 10, the highest possible value. Among many of their children and grandchildren, however, democracy no longer commands the same devotion. A little over half of Americans born in the post-war boom gave maximum importance to living in a democracy. Among those born since the 1980s, less than 30 per cent did.

Political scientists are well aware that poll after poll shows citizens to be more dissatisfied than in the past. Yet they resist the most straightforward conclusion: That people may be less supportive of democracy than they once were.

Professors Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, for example, argue that expectations of citizens have grown rapidly in recent decades, leading to disappointment with the performance of individual politicians and particular governments. But while government legitimacy may have taken a hit, regime legitimacy - that is to say, faith in democracy as such - is as strong as ever, they say.

Worryingly, though, questions in the World Values Survey that directly speak to regime legitimacy no longer support that optimistic interpretation. In countries from the United States to Sweden, and from the Netherlands to Japan, citizens over the last three decades have become less likely to endorse the importance of democracy; less likely to express trust in democratic institutions; and less likely to reject non-democratic alternatives.

This raises a question that would have seemed strange, even preposterous, to us until we started to embark on our current research: Could the political system in seemingly stable democracies like the US be less imperturbable than meets the eye?


Scholars have long believed that democracies are stable once they have, in the words of professors Juan J. Linz and Alfred C. Stepan, become "the only game in town". In such "consolidated" democracies, where an alternative system of government no longer seems like a possibility, an overwhelming majority of the citizens believes that the only legitimate form of government is democratic. Mainstream political actors refrain from subverting the rules of the democratic game for partisan advantage. And political forces that seek to dismantle the main aspects of the democratic system, like an independent judiciary, are weak or non-existent.

Until recently, all of these statements described countries like the US. Today, it is far from obvious that they still do.

It is not just that citizens like democracy less than they once did: Respect for the rules of the democratic game is also eroding. While most Americans still have a deep emotional attachment to the Constitution, the informal norms that have kept the system stable in the past are increasingly disregarded in political practice. Parliamentary procedures long reserved for extraordinary circumstances, for example, are used with stunning regularity. It is not uncommon to threaten impeachment, or to use the filibuster to block legislation - not because the Bill is especially transformative, but simply because a legislative minority disagrees with it.

The rise of parties that are critical of key aspects of liberal democracy, like freedom of the press or minority rights, is even more disconcerting. Since the early 1990s, votes for populists have soared in most major Western democracies, whether the National Front in France or the People's Party in Denmark.

It is no foregone conclusion that such parties will one day take over the government, nor that they would dismantle liberal democracy if they did. And most citizens say they still want to live in a democracy. But the democratic consensus is more brittle than it was. Scholars who long ago concluded that post-war Western democracies have "consolidated" must reckon with the possibility that a process of what we call "democratic deconsolidation" may be under way.


In our view, there are three main explanations for this development.

First, most Americans still have materially comfortable lives, especially by international standards. But a long period of stagnating incomes for average citizens has led to a shift in perspective. For two centuries, most Americans knew they were better off than their parents - and expected that their children would be better off still. Occasional surges of populist discontent were cushioned by their fear of upsetting a system that had served them well, and was expected to continue delivering tangible benefits. That optimism is gone.

Second, rising income inequality has transformed the views of the rich more radically than the views of the poor. In egalitarian societies, elites identify with the middle class, and believe that uncorrupted democratic institutions serve their own economic interests. In oligarchic societies, economic elites share few material interests with ordinary people, and have much to lose from policies that would improve their lot.

Even though economic policy has, by virtually any objective metric, treated wealthy Americans favourably over the past decade, for example, many of them genuinely believe they are the victims of a "war on the rich".

This helps to explain the seeming paradox that the rich are now more likely to be critical of democracy than the poor. According to the World Values Survey, less than 20 per cent of wealthy Americans (those in the top income quintile) approved of having a "strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress or elections" back in 1995. Today, more than 40 per cent do.

The less comfortable the wealthy are with the democratic process, the more inclined they are to invest in influencing electoral outcomes, via lobbying legislators or funding campaigns. The greater the role of paid influence and campaign spending, the more ordinary citizens feel that the political system no longer listens to them. That is the third reason for democracy's loss of legitimacy.

Consider a recent study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, who analysed who has been most successful in determining policymaking in the US over the past 30 years. It found that economic elites and narrow interest groups were very influential, while the views of ordinary citizens and mass-based interest groups had virtually no impact. "When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organised interest groups are controlled for," they write, "the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy". Their takeaway: "In the United States, the majority does not rule."

Citizens are aware of this disconnect. When asked by the World Values Survey to rate how democratically their country is being governed on a 10-point scale, a third of Americans now tend towards the end - "not at all democratic".


Paradoxically, the solution to democracy's ills will have to involve daring more democracy. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, who recently announced that he will run for president unless other candidates get serious about reforming the electoral process, is right: To restore democracy's promise, we need ambitious institutional overhauls to curb the political power of the rich.

Strict limits on campaign finance contributions are essential. The influence of corporate lobbyists has to be curtailed. The revolving door between Washington and Wall Street needs to be jammed. And, given that most members of Congress are now millionaires, a more economically diverse generation of politicians needs to take over the reins.

Institutional change, however, is only the first step towards the real goal: Redistributive policies that improve the standard of living of citizens. In times of slow growth like the present, the rapidly rising fortunes of the rich are being purchased at the price of material stagnation for everyone else. If we want the bulk of ordinary citizens to remain invested in democracy, we need to channel a much greater share of our economic output to them.

Never in modern history has a rich and long-established democracy collapsed. Recent public opinion data may be worrying, but it hardly proves that doom is imminent. Most citizens still support democracy.

Yet the warning signs are clear enough that it would be folly to ignore them. Democracies are not as consolidated as they once were, in good part because citizens no longer enjoy the material advances they once took for granted. There is no historical precedent that can tell us what happens to established democracies when most citizens go years, even decades, without an improvement in their standard of living. The future of democracy is uncertain. In the West, democratic systems have proved strong enough to weather the disappointments of the past decades. It's perfectly possible that they can weather more. But to put off serious change because it is so easy to assume that democracy is here to stay, is to put at risk the very stability of democratic government.


Roberto Foa is a doctoral candidate in government at Harvard University and a principal investigator of the World Values Survey. Yascha Mounk is a lecturer in political theory at Harvard University and a Carnegie Foundation Fellow at New America, a think-tank.

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