In recent years, a fear has taken hold that democratic erosion is occurring all across the globe, from the United States to the Philippines. Many theories have been introduced in an attempt to explain why this is occurring and how it can be stopped. While the subject matter means that these none of these theories are particularly upbeat, one theory, recently put forward in The Economist, is particularly grim because of who it blames for the recent democratic backsliding: the people themselves.
The article, titled “Democracy’s Enemy Within,” begins by describing the scenario typically associated with the death of a democracy: a military coup where democratically elected officials are thrown out of power and the will of the people is ignored. This scenario is promptly dismissed, and the article instead argues that a pervasive sense of cynicism among voters is the reason why so many authoritarian populists have recently risen to power across the globe.
The article then discusses the state of affairs in Hungary, which is quite possibly the poster child for the recent democratic backsliding in the West. Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Fidesz, his political party, have used their power to seize control of previously non-partisan democratic institutions, businesses, and the media, as well as changing the rules for elections to ensure that they maintain their grip on power. Orban has avoided breaking the law in his pursuit of power by simply having parliament change the laws for him. But democratic backsliding is hardly contained to Hungary. According to the article, it is occurring in fellow young European democracy Poland, as well as the long-established democracies in the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
The article argues that one of the main causes of democratic backsliding is cynicism among voters, once again using Hungary as an example. When the head of the socialist government that was widely viewed as corrupt admitted that his party had lied to voters in the 2006 election to hold onto power, voters were taught to assume the worst about all politicians. Orban has done everything he can to inflame these tensions, using fear mongering, anti-immigration rhetoric to distract the public from his frequent power grabs. Anti-immigrant attitudes tend to be a major part of populist leaders political platforms, exploiting what Diana C Muntz calls status threat, a fear among groups that are traditionally high-status (mostly white men) that their status is being threatened by rising minority groups, causing them to vote for politicians who emphasize traditional hierarchies and returning to the past. Muntz examined this phenomenon in her study “Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote.” While Muntz’s study was about the 2016 American presidential election, the same principal applies across western democracies.
The Great Recession was a catalyst for much of the cynicism seen in the US and the rest of the world. Ordinary people lost their jobs, their savings, and their way of life, only to see the big banks that caused the recession be bailed out by their government. While it can be argued that the bailout was necessary to prevent a total economic collapse, the optics of the whole incident could not have been worse. It showed rank-and-file voters that democratic institutions did not work for them and that their concerns would always be second to the needs of the wealthy elites. In rural communities, the Great Recession reinforced resident’s pre-existing notion that the government, and other supposedly “elite” institutions could not be trusted, a concept explored by Katherine J. Cramer Tin her book, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker. The article cites studies that back up this claim, with one study showing that a majority of those surveyed in North America and Europe were dissatisfied with how democracy was working for them. With so many people doubting the utility of democracy, it is no wonder why so many populist leaders have been able to get away with brazenly undemocratic actions: Their voters see their anti-democratic tendencies as a feature, not a bug.
While states like Hungary and Poland are seriously in danger of ceasing to be true democracies, the article argues that older democracies like the US and the UK have less to worry about. While still at risk from democratic backsliding brought on by extreme partisanship and polarization, these democracies benefit from having norms and institutions that have been established for much longer then the norms and institutions of countries like Hungary and Poland, which makes it harder for populists to completely uproot them. This does not mean that people who are concerned about democratic backsliding in the US can rest easy, because even though it is more difficult to outright eliminate American democracy, it is not something that can be taken for granted, and must be fought for at all costs.