Is democracy doomed

Maybe?

I’m far from convinced, but there’s a really good case made for it by Political Scientist Shawn Rosenberg and nicely described in this Politico piece:

As much as President Donald Trump’s liberal critics might want to lay America’s ills at his door, Rosenberg says the president is not the cause of democracy’s fall—even if Trump’s successful anti-immigrant populist campaign may have been a symptom of democracy’s decline.

We’re to blame, said Rosenberg.As in “we the people.”

Democracy is hard work. And as society’s “elites”—experts and publicfigures who help those around them navigate the heavy responsibilities that come with self-rule—have increasingly been sidelined, citizens have proved ill equipped cognitively and emotionally to run a well-functioning democracy. As a consequence, the center has collapsed and millions of frustrated and angst-filled voters have turned in desperation to right-wing populists.

His prediction? “In well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail.”

The last half of the 20th century was the golden age of democracy. In 1945, according to one survey, there were just 12 democracies in the entire world. By the end of the century there were 87. But then came the great reversal: In the second decade of the 21st century, the shift to democracy rather suddenly and ominously stopped—and reversed. [emphases mine]

Right-wing populist politicians have taken power or threatened to in Poland, Hungary, France, Britain, Italy, Brazil and the United States. As Rosenberg notes, “by some metrics, the right wing populist share of the popular vote in Europe overall has more than tripled from 4% in 1998 to approximately 13% in 2018.” In Germany, the right-wing populist vote increased even after the end of the Great Recession and after an influx of immigrants entering the country subsided.

A brief three decades after some had heralded the “end of history” it’s possible that it’s democracy that’s nearing the end. And it’s not just populist rabble-rousers who are saying this. So is one of the establishment’s pioneer social scientists, who’s daring to actually predict the end of democracy as we know it…

His theory is that over the next few decades, the number of large Western-style democracies around the globe will continue to shrink, and those that remain will become shells of themselves. Taking democracy’s place, Rosenberg says, will be right-wing populist governments that offer voters simple answers to complicated questions.

And therein lies the core of his argument: Democracy is hard work and requires a lot from those who participate in it. It requires people to respect those with different views from theirs and people who don’t look like them. It asks citizens to be able to sift through large amounts of information and process the good from the bad, the true from the false. It requires thoughtfulness, discipline and logic.

Unfortunately, evolution did not favor the exercise of these qualities in the context of a modern mass democracy. Citing reams of psychological research, findings that by now have become more or less familiar, Rosenberg makes his case that human beings don’t think straight. Biases of various kinds skew our brains at the most fundamental level. For example, racism is easily triggered unconsciously in whites by a picture of a black man wearing a hoodie. We discount evidence when it doesn’t square up with our goals while we embrace information that confirms our biases. Sometimes hearing we’re wrong makes us double down. And so on and so forth.

Our brains, says Rosenberg, are proving fatal to modern democracy. Humans just aren’t built for it…

He has concluded that the reason for right-wing populists’ recent success is that “elites” are losing control of the institutions that have traditionally saved people from their most undemocratic impulses. When people are left to make political decisions on their own they drift toward the simple solutions right-wing populists worldwide offer: a deadly mix of xenophobia, racism and authoritarianism.

The elites, as Rosenberg defines them, are the people holding power at the top of the economic, political and intellectual pyramid who have “the motivation to support democratic culture and institutions and the power to do so effectively.” In their roles as senators, journalists, professors, judges and government administrators, to name a few, the elites have traditionally held sway over public discourse and U.S. institutions—and have in that role helped the populace understand the importance democratic values. But today that is changing. Thanks to social media and new technologies, anyone with access to the Internet can publish a blog and garner attention for their cause—even if it’s rooted in conspiracy and is based on a false claim, like the lie that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a Washington D.C. pizza parlor, which ended in a shooting.

While the elites formerly might have successfully squashed conspiracy theories and called out populists for their inconsistencies, today fewer and fewer citizens take the elites seriously.

Anyway you look at it, thought-provoking stuff.  I remember listening to a podcast where Yashca Mounk argued that, perhaps, modern democracy was actually predicated on near-perpetual economic growth– which has clearly ground to a halt after the post WWII boom.  If there is one thing that Trump has taught us it is that our democracy is more fragile than we realized.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Is democracy doomed

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    The elites as a group don’t protect our norms as they once did. They are just as susceptible to corruption and anomie as anyone else. When the organizing rules or norms are breached, the feeling grows throughout the culture that everyone must act for themselves with lowered regard for the public welfare.
    The world’s chaos is caused by large migrations of people which will be increasing with continuing global warming and wars and population growth itself. A desire for order above all rises and people can move toward authoritarian leaders. Democracy is challenged by the speed of diversity of population, changing mores and ideals,and the progress of technology. Given that the weapons of war are ever more deadly, the building explosion can literally blow humanity back to the Stone Age if it survives at all.
    We are living in interesting times, in the words of the old Chinese curse.

    Our would be leaders must show us the possibility of taking hold of the future, turning it to the benefit of all. The people need a story teller who can paint that future and gather us together to create that future.

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