In the Information Age, facts have never been more elusive. Despite a robust civil society and strong education system, Americans struggle to secure the truth within an increasingly polarized political environment. The election of Donald Trump and the entrance of Senator Bernie Sanders into the Democratic primary election marked the reemergence of populist demands in American politics. Media sources, at both ends of the political spectrum, consistently discuss the concept of populism as an incredibly derisive and volatile force that could uproot the foundational principles of the US. Bright Line Watch – an organization that seeks to “monitor the status of democratic practices and highlight potential threats to American democracy” – recently released their fourth iteration of a survey report to assess the quality and performance of democracy in the US. Consisting of public and expert survey data, Bright Line Watch offers intriguing insights concerning the potential democratic erosion of the US. Despite a representative sample of 2,000 Americans being used for the public survey data, the sample characteristics of the expert data are far from representative. For this survey report, individuals are considered experts if they hold a PhD in Political Science and are currently employed at an institution of higher education – nothing more (or less). Bright Line Watch’s Director of Survey Research, Mitch Sanders, admitted the sample’s 1,066 respondents do not share their age, gender, race, or area of study. Therefore, I am less convinced with the expert survey data presented; however, I primarily take issue with the final discussion section, titled “Is American democracy eroding?,” of the report.
Bright Line Watch introduces Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s recent book, How Democracies Die, to add another layer of substance to their survey data. Through an evaluation of democratic erosion in Europe and Latin America, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest democratic erosion is incited through the abandoning of the behavioral norms of mutual toleration and forbearance by political leaders. Mutual toleration refers to political competition devoid of criticism of opponents’ loyalty, while forbearance is the norm of seeking out political compromise in a bi-partisan fashion. Please note the top-down nature of each of these norms, in which elected officials/leaders are of concern, not the American people. One may argue that the erosion of these norms is reflective in the American people. I absolutely agree, but one must admit this is certainly not a new phenomenon in American politics. Look to the age of McCarthyism; look to the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s; look to the partisan mudslinging of the early 1990s!
Bright Line Watch situates the perceived weakness of these norms as present within their survey data by noting that “the scores on those [norms] are so low across all survey waves that they could hardly have declined further.” Thus, Bright Line Watch suggests these norms may already be eroded within the US’s political environment. Partisan polarization accents and exacerbates the erosion of these norms (as Bright Line Watch notes); however, I contend that the fluctuating strength of toleration and forbearance in American politics is simply a condition of democracy. The American political system is unique in its ability to resist democratic backsliding due to its institutional resiliency, robust civil society, and attentive media. Although we can certainly learn from European and Latin American instances of democratic erosion, is that truly an appropriate way to determine the trajectory of American democratic institutions? Why do we not turn our attention to past episodes of democratic erosion in our country?
This practice of historical amnesia could be attributed to the nature of media and the partisan polarization of today, yet political commentators fail to critically engage and understand the true trends and consequences of populism in America. The left-wing populism of political figures, such as Tom Watson, William Jennings Bryan, and Huey Long, requires close study. Each of these political actors were considered hostile to the democratic values and party elites of their respective period, but each figure contributed to agricultural and economic reforms during the early twentieth century. Naïve charges that “to reverse or undo” certain legislative realities will leave the country in disrepair do not effectively address the importance and effect of these calls for major change. Even worse, the partisan presentation of populism as solely rooted in conservatism clouds one’s ability to perceive the needs of a populist base that may benefit the liberal establishment of the US. Partisan rhetoric that attaches populism to conservatism also ignores the potential pitfalls of left-wing populism and how populist movements (from the left and right) contribute to the political environment and practices of today. Wave Four of Bright Line Watch’s survey data is a strong indicator of public confidence – in conjunction with ideological biases – in American democratic institutions, but the data misleads its audience into believing democracy is eroding in our country. American populists, who contribute to the erosion of democratic principles, tend to enjoy ephemeral political careers that ultimately spur the reorientation of political discourse and the deliberation of potentially necessary reform.
Photo from the New York Daily News.