I am an American citizen, white, straight and male. All of these factors would, by any metric, make me more predisposed to expressing my political values through a generally more conservative lens. Notwithstanding these attributes, my core political values skew exactly opposite of the “expected” norm. This is not necessarily a knock on conservative politics as a whole, nor does it seek to make any judgments on specific policy preferences. However, this does illustrate one key tendency: I do not strictly vote in conjunction with my self-interest. Zooming out, away from any specific partisan identity, this vein of thinking strictly through self-interest is making a meteoric rise in the American populace and is a catalyst for democratic erosion more broadly.
Democracy is difficult. Both institutionally and also for people at an individual level. Self-rule comes with incredible responsibility, both cognitively and emotionally. Democratic citizens must have the cognitive and emotional capabilities to observe and analyze their social or political situation and then determine what position they occupy in each. Furthermore, they then must be able to relate elements of that rhetorical stance to the larger context of the society in which they live.  This is a steep intellectual hill to climb, especially without guidance and agenda-setting of political elites due to our ever more democratizing world (due to mass media primarily).
Self-interest and societal interest are certainly not mutually exclusive. When one analyzes the situation as a whole, it is most certainly in one’s best interest to maintain a thriving, healthy, tolerant democracy. Due to current political trends, those on the left of the political spectrum have been more friendly toward these enumerated democratic ideals. Protecting institutions, norms, equality and tolerance has seemed to be generally more widespread among liberal parties. These factors, regardless of contemporary political party affiliation, have allowed for the unprecedented growth and leadership America has maintained in these last few centuries by creating a strong government and a diverse populace.
However, these complex behaviors and theoretical positions are losing their prevalence in contemporary political culture.  In the context of a society, elites are not able to effectively steer the ship to make up for these key shortcomings,  and voting in a supposedly rational self-interest conveniently fills the void in disenchanted voters who see that the system is “not working for them.” The manifestation of this political self-interest for many voters is Right-Wing Populism. This brand of populism is only detrimental to the core foundations of democracy if it is deployed with the emphasis on a discriminatory, norm-breaking, and nativist messaging among others. As Jan-Werner M̈uller emphasizes, populism is “an exclusionary form of identity politics…that poses a danger to democracy.” M̈uller goes on to explain that generally, populism is fundamentally at odds with “pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal but also irreducibly diverse citizens” in a democracy.  Voting along the lines of strict self-interest is an intellectual bridge to Populism. When this self-interest is tightly wound with an inherently more conservative political culture in the U.S., Right-Wing Populism is the result.
More specifically, what these new populists see in the United States is a growing social war waged by liberal politicians to weaken their established social standing.  Whether this is done through wealth taxes, affirmative action or subsidized education, these individuals see a broader culture war threatening their superiority in the system. They feel, in close conjunction with their perceived self-interest, that they must vote for anti-immigration, anti-elite, anti-environment, nativist social conservatives (Right-Wing Populists) in order to defend their social standing. This further develops how and why self-interest begins to materialize as a recognizable starting place in voter preferences in specific politics and policy. This self-interest leads them–inevitably–toward a candidate who espouses a brand of Right-Wing Populism, like Donald Trump.
Right-Wing Populism is dangerous because it offers relatively simple and easy solutions to complex problems. Behind the chants of “Make America Great Again” come sweeping changes that directly counter long-held democratic norms. Gavin Mcinnes, a well known far-right conservative commentator with thousands of followers worldwide, encapsulated this nativist view of self-interest that can overtake core democratic values. Micinnes suggested putting an end to legal immigration, and “letting refugees die” in order to “put our country first.”  This type of messaging is dangerous on many levels. Firstly, it creates an “us vs them” mentality in which elite lead polarization flourishes. This can lead to the strengthening of autocratic, anti-democratic actors seizing on the moment to consolidate power. On a societal level, it can also work to undo a lot of the social fabric that holds the diverse population of the United States together further weakening institutions and catalyzing the decline of democracy.
None of these slow regressions into populism or the subsequent weakening of democracy is through any illegal measures. Instead, they are “under the mask of law.”  The core components and legitimacy of the erosion lie in the original self-interest that voters expressed through democratic elections. This appeal to self-interest manifests itself as Right-Wing Populism coupled with external factors such as increasing polarization are all contributing to the disturbing democratic erosion that we are seeing today all throughout the world. Rosenberg, S. (2019). Democracy Devouring Itself The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Populism. Psychology of Political and Everyday Extremisms.  Foa, R. S., & Mounk, Y. (2016). The Democratic Disconnect. The Journal of Democracy, 7(23).  Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How democracies die. London: Penguin Books.  JMüller Jan-Werner. (2017). What is populism? London: Penguin books Lozada, C. (2016, September 1). A Berkeley sociologist made some tea party friends – and wrote a condescending book about them. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2016/09/01/a-berkeley-sociologist-made-some-tea-party-friends-and-wrote-a-condescending-book-about-them/  thegavin2000. (n.d.). Gavin McInnes. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/user/thegavin2000  Varol, O. O. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. IOWA LAW REVIEW.