What is democratic erosion?
Democratic erosion is the phenomena in which government institutions fail to uphold democratic constitutions. There are many ways in which democracies can backslide into undemocratic governments, however, all forms of democratic backsliding happen with a leader’s purposeful intent to take away democratic systems. Bermeo defined democratic backsliding as, “The state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy.” (Bermeo, 6). Many times, democratic erosion occurs without citizen’s knowledge or consent. Executive aggrandizement “weaken[s] checks on executive power one by one, undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences.” (Bermeo, 10). This is done through legal means to slowly undermine democracy. The leaders who take these actions are often elected through undemocratic means, such using strategic harassment and manipulation. In the United States, this means populist leaders mislead voters during elections to gain power, and once in office erode democratic institutions from the inside. Democratic governments backslide specifically when they fail to provide free and fair elections which decide the governing policies. Schumpeter defines democracy as an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.
There are three themes that are key to understanding democratic erosion: economic emphasis, identity and affective polarization, and political parties, norms, and political institutions. Identity and affective polarization focus on personal and national identity and their effects on partisanship. Political parties and institutions looks at the influence of parties and specific political leaders and their impact on democratic institutions. Economic emphasis details how economic policy and inequality contribute to undemocratic institutions. I think economic emphasis is most useful to understanding threats to democracy, especially in the United States.
The role of economics
Economic emphasis is most useful to understanding threats to democracy because the other themes can be attributed to economics. In the United States, gender and race play large roles in a person’s political affiliation, however, this is also because of an economic predisposition based on gender and race. Gender identity in politics often affects family policies; women are more likely to vote in favor of family friendly policies like maternity leave, increased education spending, and combating the gender pay gap. But all these policies are inherently economic and require tax increases to implement. Gender can often impact economic status, which can influence political affiliation. Racial identity is similar in the United States. Race is a huge factor in economic status; when racial identity influences political affiliation it is in junction with socioeconomic status. Many government programs used to oppose racism are economic: used to combat economic inequality. Socioeconomic status plays the biggest role in political identity.
Economic inequality is extremely divisive in politics, especially in the United States. The way in which people vote is hugely dependent on their economic status. “Socioeconomic status and political attitudes and behavior have long been theoretically linked.” (Brown-Iannuzzi, Lundberg, McKee, 13). Additionally, because economic inequality is ingrained in United States politics, it perpetuates economic inequality. “Research suggests that American politics overwhelming represent the interests of powerful businesses and the extremely wealthy.” (Brown-Iannuzzi, Lundberg, McKee, 13). Powerful businesses have more influence in politics, diminishing the power of lower socioeconomic citizens. This pattern disenfranchises citizens voting power and undermines democratic institutions.
The economy of a country makes more of a difference in the way people vote than other platforms. Economic inequality can also pave the way for populist leaders. “Populism is a monist ideology in that it sees ‘the people’ as one, with each individual member of ‘the people’ sharing exactly the same key interests and values.” (Mudde, 579). Populism also creates an “us vs them” rhetoric to install inherently illiberal policies. In the United States populism is used to unite lower and middle-class citizens against an “elite.” Economic status is used to divide the nation and elect populist leaders. Populism threatens democracy because it takes away rights of certain citizens who are ousted by populist groups. Once elected, populist leaders can also teardown democratic institutions, such as diminishing the authority of checks and balances or dismissing the power of the “other group.”
Neoliberalism and Populism
The economic policy of neoliberalism provides the biggest threat to democracy and can pave the way for populist leaders. Neoliberalism is an economic theory that took over in the late 1970s and has persisted until today. Sitaraman explores neoliberalism and its role in society over the past 50 years. Chapter one of Sitaraman’s book “The Great Democracy” summarizes the core principles of neoliberalism. Sitaraman first states, “neoliberalism’s core came to be associated with four elements: deregulation, liberalization, privatization, and austerity” (Sitaraman 2019, 16). Deregulation is a mixture of not introducing new regulations and lightening regulations and restrictions already in place. Liberalization is the global market counterpart of deregulation, which promoted the privatization of the market and increased global free trade. Privatization focuses less on the market and more on government services, specifically cutting government services in favor of non-profits. Austerity focuses on macroeconomic policy, specifically inflation and tax cuts. Sitaraman also describes neoliberalism as a “totalizing ideology that touches not just public policy but all aspects of life” (Sitaraman 2019, 11). Because Sitaraman has already established neoliberalism as “totalizing,” his descriptions of economic and social circumstances are a consequence of neoliberalism. Chapter 30 of “Constitutional Democracy in Crisis?” takes the definition of neoliberalism a step further to describe its consequences, specifically because of economic inequality. Sitaraman takes this chapter to relate how economic inequality threatens democracy. Sitaraman explains the significance when he states, “when there is a mismatch between a constitutional structure designed for conditions of economic equality and the reality of a severely unequal distribution of wealth, the polity will formally remain a conditional democracy but functionally transform into an oligarchy.” (Sitaraman 2018, 540-541). Sitaraman does explain four types of constitutions with built-in solutions: “class warfare, antipoverty, anti-oligarchy, and middle class” (Sitaraman 2018, 541). However, Sitaraman also states that “neoliberalism at the global level might also contribute to declining policy responsiveness” (Sitaraman 2018, 538). Therefore, the more effective constitution types and policies may be less effective because of neoliberalism. According to Sitaraman, neoliberalism takes hold of an entire society and often creates economic inequality, therefore when constitutional democracies fail because of economic inequality, it is due to neoliberalism.
In 2008, neoliberalism was both the cause and solution for the financial crisis. In 2008 the housing market in the United States crashed because of the lack of regulation in banks which created extremely low-interest rates and easy-to-get mortgages. When too many people could no longer pay their mortgages, the banks which gave these loans collapsed. However, these banks are fundamental to the greater economy, which meant their collapse had an immense impact. The government was then forced to bail out the banks because they were “too big to fail.” This meant that “Private debts of the banking system essentially socialized and replaced with public debt” (Blyth 2010, min 43). This saved the members of society who still had successful mortgages, but “exercised a class-specific pre-auction on the 80% of society that doesn’t have assets because by bailing out all of those banks and billing all of our assets we then turn around and horror and said my god look at all that debt we’ve accumulated” (Blyth 2010, min 46). This meant that governments increased taxes and cut spending on public services. The government used neoliberalism as a narrative to cut spending because according to Sitaraman neoliberalism includes “privatization” and “austerity.” These policies hurt the lower and middle classes more than the upper class, which allowed for more populist movements to grow. People were upset by the financial crisis and populist leaders took advantage of this by creating a story and someone to blame for their financial woes. In the United States that meant the big banks and financial elite. The United States saw a rise of “us vs them” often used in populism, where the “us” was the working class and the “them” were the big banks who were careless in their spending which meant the working class had to pay higher taxes. What is missing in this narrative is that the governments only had to take on the banks’ debt because they were “too big to fail” following decades of unregulated growth under the neoliberal policy.
In recent years, populism has gained influence in the United States. Neoliberal policy was instituted in the 1970s and continues to be standard today. Economic inequality is a defining part of American society. Because of this, populism took hold. Donald Trump used populism in addition to conservative rhetoric to promote anti-immigration policy and accuse “political elite” of ruining America. After the 2020 election, Trump used his populist platform to undermine the election results, prompting the January 6th Insurrection. The goal of this event was to overturn the results of a free and fair election. Luckily the Insurrection failed, but it threatened democracy in the United States nonetheless and represents the fragile state of our democracy.
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Blyth, Mark. “Austerity and the Politics of Money.” Mackenzie Lecture. Mackenzie Lecture, 2015, Glasgow, University of Glasgow.
Brown-Iannuzzi, Jazmin L, et al. “The Politics of Socioeconomic Status: How Socioeconomic Status May Influence Political Attitudes and Engagement.” Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 18, Dec. 2017, pp. 11–14., https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.06.018.
Graber, Mark A., et al. “Chapter 30.” Constitutional Democracy in Crisis, x, 725 p.
Mudde, Cas. “Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism (The Government and Opposition/Leonard Schapiro Lecture 2019).” Government and Opposition, vol. 56, no. 4, 2021, pp. 577–597., doi:10.1017/gov.2021.15.
Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. Taylor & Francis Ltd, 2003.
Sitaraman, Ganesh. “Chapter 1.” Great Democracy: How to Fix Our Politics, Unrig the
Economy, and Unite America, BASIC BOOKS, S.l., 2020.
Claire discusses the phenomena of democratic erosion, defining democratic backsliding as the purposeful attempt of leaders to erode democratic systems and eliminate institutions that sustain democracy. Such expansions of power are enabled by executive aggrandizement. She identifies three themes that are key to understanding democratic erosion: “economic emphasis, identity and affective polarization, and political parties, norms, and political institutions.” Economic emphasis is paramount to understanding democratic erosion, as economic inequalities cause political division and determine people’s voting choices. Lastly, the blog addresses the influence of populism, noting that issues of economic status are used by populist leaders to garner support, pitting lower and middle classes against elites.
I agree with the main points presented in this blog post but would like to expand on a few topics. The post claims that leaders who engage in executive aggrandizement are “often elected through undemocratic means.” However, as Levitsky and Ziblatt note, democratic decay tends to be spearheaded by leaders who are initially elected by popular support. Lee summarizes this infiltration of democracy, noting that populist leaders claim the mantle of popular sovereignty but degrade democratic institutions once in power. While populist leaders seek to expand their power through “undemocratic means,” they often attain their governmental positions by participating in and winning democratic elections. Despite being elected through democratic means, populists are likely to break down informal practices of democracies and deviate from norms. This includes attacking the media, promoting falsehoods, eroding the independence of the judiciary, and expressing anti-pluralist attitudes.
The blog cites Bermeo’s definitions of democratic backsliding and executive aggrandizement. Bermeo’s essay also discusses strategic election manipulation, a practice typically employed by populist leaders to preserve and expand their power. Strategic manipulation includes, “using government funds for incumbent campaigns, keeping opposition candidates off the ballot, hampering voter registration, packing electoral commissions, changing electoral rules to favor incumbents, and harassing opponents— all done in such a way that the elections themselves do not appear fraudulent” (Bermeo 10). By maintaining an illusion of operating by the “rules of the democratic game,” leaders who use such tactics hijack and degrade democratic institutions to serve their own interests.
Claire writes that economic inequality contributes to division and paves the way for populist leaders. While the post argues that populists appeal to “lower and middle classes,” it is notable that “for poorer citizens, economic inequality works to sharply depress their interest in politics” (Solt). Hence, populists are more likely to claim to represent the “forgotten” middle class than to reach for support from lower classes. Such claims are effective in mobilizing voters because there is truth to the notion of leaders failing to represent the interests of the middle class. Over time, discontented citizens are more likely to support non-democratic governments. In “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness,” Gilens writes, “Most middle-income Americans think that public officials do not care much about the preferences of ‘people like me’” (794). Unfortunately, the limited impact that middle-class voters have on actual policy outcomes reinforces this view. Gilens reveals, “the preferences of the well-off are more clearly reflected in government policy than those of poor or middle-income citizens” (788). This difference in influence over policy can be attributed to the ability and willingness of high-income Americans to donate to parties, candidates, and interest organizations (Gilens, 793). The theme of “economic emphasis” is central to the study of democratic erosion because the issues caused by economic inequality can be exploited by charismatic populist leaders who claim that they alone can rectify corrupt political systems by representing the interests of the unheard masses. Thus, addressing economic inequalities, enabling median voters to have a stronger sway on policy, and mitigating tensions between classes is essential for democratic preservation.
Furthermore, the post discusses the 2008 financial crisis, arguing that the U.S. housing market crashed due to a “lack of regulation in banks” and unregulated growth under neoliberal policy. Many authors agree with the importance of regulation, such as Comiskey and Madhogarhia, who argue, “We must have sensible regulation. Excessive regulation might weaken or even kill an industry… but if some businesses and industries are too big to fail (as we believe some are), such that taxpayers must bail them out with billions of dollars in the event they founder, government has every right to limit the risks they may take” (274). This importance of regulation is also highlighted by Streeck in Buying Time. Based on these readings, the blog correctly identifies a lack of regulation as the core problem behind the 2008 financial crisis and distrust between the working class and financial elites.
Claire claims that the concerns raised by the financial crisis have fed into the growing influence of populism in the U.S., mentioning Trump’s use of populism to accuse the “political elite” of ruining America, as well as his attempts to contest the 2020 election. This provides an accurate description of Trump’s use of populist tactics. I would like to note that while the January 6th insurrection represents the fragility of American democracy, the failure of the insurrection also points to the stability of American institutions. As Acemoglu notes, democratic institutions, “once created, have a tendency to persist” (29). Additionally, rather than viewing January 6th as an isolated incident, we can compare the Capitol Riot to the smaller-scale Brooks Brothers Riot of 2000, in which pro-Bush supporters sought to put an end to voting recounts. Panetta writes, “Like the January 6, 2021, pro-Trump siege on the US Capitol, it sought to replace the rule of law with mob rule… The weapon-toting, MAGA hat-clad insurrectionists of 2021 directly descend from the buttoned-down, stop-the-steal rioters of 2000.” By connecting efforts to contest the 2000 and 2020 presidential elections, we can observe the larger issue of deepening polarization in modern American politics. While it is comforting that our democratic institutions are resistant to erosion, a rise in efforts to undermine democratic norms shows us that we must remain vigilant and knowledgeable of political trends if we are to sustain democracy.
Acemoglu, D., & Robinson, J. (2005) “Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy” Chapter 2
Bermeo, N. (2016). “On Democratic Backsliding.”https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
Lee, F. (2020). Populism and the American Party System: Opportunities and Constraints. Perspectives on Politics. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/populism-and-the-american-party-system-opportunities-and-constraints/80267F1481932B2D381F456BA397153A/share/d3a030c5f4e0b0bf94fb9f3b7240cac62518849b
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019). How Democracies Die
Panetta, G. (2022) “The Insurrection on Capitol Hill Directly Descends from the Legacy of the Brooks Brothers Riot and Bush v. Gore.” Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/capitol-hill-insurrection-has-roots-in-brooks-brothers-riot-2021-1
Solt, F. (2008). Economic Inequality and Democratic Political Engagement. American Journal of Political Science, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25193796
Weyland, K. (2020). Populism’s Threat to Democracy: Comparative Lessons for the United States. Perspectives on Politics https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/populisms-threat-to-democracy-comparative-lessons-for-the-united-states/BF94B9ED2AE558EBCC8682CF4DC08F7A/share/e2100d1f228b260120362320c97de0707bfa4275