“Democracy’s Enemy Within,” an article published by the Economist in August of 2019, discusses the fatal flaw that is deteriorating many of the world’s modern democracies from the inside out: Cynicism. Cynicism in a political sense is public distrust towards leaders in power. There are many different causes of cynicism within a country, but it most often occurs after an economic recession that results in accusations of self-service against those in power. These assumptions lead to distrust in democracy. Cynicism in America has opened the door for populists to prey on the doubt that citizens have in the current political system. Foa and Mounk (2016) expose the true extent of how a combination of cynicism and blissful ignorance has turned into full-blown democratic backsliding and brings to light just how little confidence young people have in democracy. Although current leaders worldwide are using this to their advantage, Donald Trump specifically is abusing the increasing distrust in democratic institutions that resulted from the 2007-2009 recession in order to maintain power in office and dismantle concurrence within the Democratic Party as is evident in the way he addresses the country. As we enter yet another time of economic and social insecurity, Americans are left to wonder how a populist leader will handle the pressure and if democracy is in more danger than ever before.
The current levels of democratic distrust in the United States can be largely tied to the lasting effects of the Great Recession that occured in the first decade of the millenium. A 2018 study conducted by the European Research Council and authored by Markus Gangl and Carlotta Giustozzi attributes these effects to both macroeconomic conditions and personal experiences (such as unemployment). The significant difference between the two is that distrust as a result of macroeconomic conditions recovers fairly quickly, but the distrust on the basis of personal experiences runs deeper and results in “much more persistent political alienation.”
Donald Trump has used fear tactics to benefit his campaign; he knows many, many Americans are still licking their personal economic wounds. This was evident from the moment Trump accepted the presidency; in his inaugural address he claimed, “January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.” Trump knew the economic hardships that occured while the previous administration was in power, and he knew of the feelings of helplessness Americans faced as they watched their homes become reclaimed, their jobs fall away, and their kids go hungry.
As Donald Trump’s presidency has unfolded, he has proven to be a forward thinker. A late 2019 tweet says all it needs to, “If I hadn’t won the 2016 Election, we would be in a Great Recession/Depression right now. The people I saw on stage last night, & you can add in Sleepy Joe, Harris, & the rest, will lead us into an economic sinkhole the likes of which we have never seen before. With me, only up!” He is once again preying on the public fear left over from the recession to ensure his victory in the 2020 election. By imitating interest in the “forgotten men and women,” Trump is actively making an empty promise designed to distract from his true political agenda that mirrors that of Hungary’s populist prime minister, Viktor Orban: “the artful manipulation of obscure rules and institutions to guarantee his hold on power” (Democracy’s Enemy Within). It’s working.
Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk authored “The Danger of Deconsolidation” in 2016, which compared generational support for democratic institutions in The United States and Europe. The findings were worrisome; only one in three American millennials “accord maximum importance to living in a democracy.” 26% of millennials say that it is unimportant to choose their leaders in free elections, while only 10% of people born in the interwar years agree. Foa and Mounk hypothesize that those who came after the Cold War don’t recognize the importance of democracy not because “ they are indifferent toward their system of government, but simply that they have never experienced a real threat to it.” Unfortunately, that may be about to change.
As the world enters a pandemic-induced global recession, global leaders need to revert political rhetoric to promote national unity and resilience rather than abusing the fear encompassing the world to serve as a means for political gain. With the upcoming election and Coronavirus not showing signs of slowing down, it is unavoidable that the virus will affect democratic institutions and people will once again be targeted by macroeconomic and personal damages. How long the damage to these institutions will last after the end of the pandemic is up to governments around the world. Will Donald Trump respect the checks and balances of election season, or will they happen to disappear? Will cynicism become a driving force for a new administration, or will it break down American democracy past the point of repair?
Photo by Randy Colas, Unsplash, Creative Commons Zero license.