All around the world, there exists a growing concern about the future state of democracy. The considerable rise of populist ideas globally, but especially inside Western democracies is the main cause of anxiety for contemporary social scientists, journalists, and part of the general public. Moreover, Donald Trump’s unpredicted victory sparkled heated debates about the potential dangers to what appeared to be the most consolidated democracy in the world, after over three centuries strengthening American democratic norms and traditions.
Although in comparison with authoritarian countries, the state of the US democracy is still strong, enough indicators are already appreciable for us to take seriously the possibility of democratic backsliding in the US. Analysing how totalitarian leaders came to power in the past century can provide some very useful information. Historian Michael Burleigh, in his bestseller The Third Reich, compares the moral transformation of German society to rebuilding a railway bridge. Transformations cannot happen overnight, instead, the bridge is slowly modified, one bolt at a time, without people even noticing it. Then, at the end of this gradual process, the old bridge is gone, completely replaced by a new structure. Democratic erosion usually follows a similar pattern.
In fact, “the idea that democracy is unassailable is one of its greatest threats”. With this powerful sentence, Mitch Sanders, Director of Survey Research at Bright Line Watch, started our virtual conversation about their last findings in the survey (Wave 4) released on February 8, 2018. A group of political scientists, from Dartmouth College, the University of Rochester, and Yale University, founded Bright Line Watch after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. Concerned about the health of American democracy, Bright Line Watch has conducted a series of surveys in which both political experts and the general public assess the quality of US democratic norms and institutions.
The latest survey, Wave 4, was conducted after the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, from January 10-22, 2018. The general public is drawn from a representative nationwide sample of around 2,000 Americans from the YouGov online survey panel. The expert sample is composed of 1,066 responses from political science faculty members in American Universities. One of the main criticisms of the survey could be the lack of more detailed data about the demographics. Still, clear trends can be appreciated. Both experts and the general public agree on the existence of increasing erosion in American democracy. The principal concerns appeared in relation to the freedom of the press and judicial independence.
As usual, survey results tend to be more interesting on a comparative basis. For example, overall, the general public rates American democracy more negatively than political experts. Similarly, Trump’s approvers had a more optimistic view than Trump’s disapprovers. However, in comparison to the results of the previous survey (Wave 3) conducted in September 2017, the overall decline was widely shared by all groups. Hence, this these results, it becomes clear that there exists a general perception of democratic erosion among American citizens.
Moreover, other prestigious institutions have also warned about democratic erosion in the world’s oldest existing democracy. On this year’s assessment, Freedom House downgraded the United States rating due to “partisan manipulation of the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.” Likewise, The Economist’s 2017 Democracy Index also ranked the US as “flawed democracy”, alerting about a possible “greater risk of further deterioration” if social polarization continues to increase. Consequently, both American citizens and international institutions have recently called into question the legitimacy of the United States democratic norms, traditions, and institutions.
As scholars Linz and Stepan pointed out, legitimacy depends on efficacy and effectiveness, referring to the government’s ability to correctly identify problems, develop solutions, and being able to accurately implement them. Hence, in order to reverse the current trend, it is important to take into account that Donald Trump’s victory constitutes only a symptom of democratic backsliding, not the main cause. Perhaps, his oversimplified, populist rhetoric was able to gain substantial and widespread support because the democratic institutions had already lost part of their legitimacy. As research shows, criticizing Donald Trump methods or trying to correct his false statements, only leads to further social polarization and strengthening of his supporters’ dangerous pre-conceived ideas.
In conclusion, explicit signs of democratic erosion are broadly appreciable in nowadays American democracy. Particularly, the attacks on the media and judiciary are especially dangerous, since both represent the arbitrator institutions that sustain a free and fair democratic process. Furthermore, the trend towards more substantial democratic deterioration is clearly visible. Therefore, in order to preserve a high quality of democracy in the US, it is imperative to remain vigilant, remembering that democracy is not unassailable. It is not possible to take refuge in the cynical reflection that other countries are experiencing much worse situations. People who value democracy as the best system for social organization need to battle to reverse the current democratic erosion trend. It is necessary to restore and even improve the pre-Trump state of American democracy before it is too late, and the railway bridge has completely been rebuilt.
*Photo by unknown. Available: pxhere.com/en/photo/875717. Creative Commons Zero license.