Cracks in American Democracy

By Evan Chiacchiaro, Master’s Candidate of the Democracy and Governance Program at Georgetown University

Political science suggests that the American political system may be approaching a crisis point. It’s time to pay attention.

It has been over 150 years since we as Americans have had to confront a true internal existential threat to the stability of American democracy. Since then, presidents have been impeached, they’ve been assassinated, they’ve died of natural causes while in office, and they’ve shattered existing term limit norms. In each case, the rules and institutions of the political system continued to function, and every four years an election was held and an executive elected. Recent trends and events, however, make it crystal clear that American democratic stability is under threat from three distinct but interrelated angles. To save it, Americans who care about our democracy must mount a full-throated defense.

Political science theory and research has identified two broad factors that provide a political system with stability: effectiveness and legitimacy. Both are in dwindling supply in the United States.

Let’s begin with effectiveness. Sixty-five percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup in early 2014 stated that they were very or somewhat dissatisfied with the effectiveness of the government. Similarly, as of early May 2017, sixty-six percent of respondents to a monthly Gallup poll reported that they were “dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time.” This is not just a ‘Trump effect,’ either; a review of the poll’s history shows that January 2004 was the last time a majority of respondents reported being satisfied with the state of the union. Americans have not believed in the government’s effectiveness for over a decade, and there are no signs of this improving anytime soon.

It is certainly possible to dispute the validity of these views. The United States bounced back relatively quickly from the Great Recession compared to other industrialized countries, and unemployment rates have steadily decreased since the beginning of 2010. Regardless of these facts, however, large swathes of the American people either do not agree or do not credit the government for this economic improvement. Any argument for political stability based on government effectiveness falls largely on deaf ears.

With effectiveness claims largely gone, can American democracy rely on legitimacy, the other pillar of stability? Political legitimacy is hard to define—political scientist Samuel Huntington once called it a “mushy concept that political analysts do well to avoid.” [1] Much of the specifics may indeed be ‘mushy,’ but it is generally understood that democracy’s legitimacy is derived from its citizens’ ability to reconstitute the government at regular intervals. This is democracy’s great advantage—with each election, a new government is selected which reflects the will of the people, and legitimacy is renewed.

This line of reasoning does still function today in the United States, but there are reasons to worry. To start, if one looks holistically at President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, hanging chads in Florida, ‘birtherism’ conspiracies, and Russian meddling, a common theme emerges: politics centered not on policy but on challenging the very legitimacy of the president to govern. This focus can be corrosive over time and erode Americans’ faith in our political system.

To this end, of greater concern is some well-publicized research by political scientists Yascha Mounk and Robert Stefan Foa regarding perceptions of democracy by generation. Their methods are not flawless, but the results do indicate that a small but significant number of millennials do not value democracy for democracy’s sake. Millennials in the United States express in greater numbers the opinion that democracy is not a good way to run a government, while at the same time showing more support for a “strong leader” instead of elections than do older generations. Taken together, the results suggest that more millennials are linking legitimacy to effectiveness, rather than tying it to elections. “Put up or shut up,” they’re effectively saying; and as we know, Americans do not believe the government is ‘putting up.’

Baked into this declining faith in the political system itself is the third major threat to American democratic stability: the emergence of politics as a zero-sum game in the United States. Regular elections not only renew the democratic system’s legitimacy, they also serve to moderate its citizens. Don’t like the people in government? Vote them out next time. This attitude relies, however, on the electorate’s belief that losing an election does not signal the end of the world. If citizens come to see the victory of their opponents as a grave threat, these moderating benefits do not emerge and the system loses some of its appeal.

The United States is reaching that point. According to a 2016 Pew survey, fifty-five percent of Democrats and forty-nine percent of Republicans stated that the other party makes them “afraid.” When limiting the survey to those “who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns,” those percentages rose to seventy percent of Democrats and sixty-two percent of Republicans who reported fear of the other party. If the opposition gaining power evokes this much fear, the perceived incentives of operating outside the bounds of the democratic system increase, and citizens may turn to non-democratic options. We have not yet reached this tipping point, but it is difficult to believe that we are not approaching it.

To sum up this bleak picture, Americans do not believe the government is effective, younger generations have less faith in the democratic system of governance, and fear of the opposing party could incentivize citizens to cast democracy aside if it means retaining power. What, then, can we do about this?

There is no single answer, but the first step is to vocally reassert the intrinsic value of democracy and its attendant values and tout the benefits our system provides. Liberal democratic beliefs no longer retain the allure of the shiny and new, and so American institutions must purposefully reinvigorate this attraction, putting democratic values at the forefront of civic education and invoking both their intellectual and their emotional appeal.  We cannot immediately solve the problems caused by globalization or increasing partisanship, but we can remind our friends, our families, our colleagues, and our students of the inherent worth of being able to choose one’s leaders, and of democracy’s benefits and the dangers of leaving them behind. In fact, we must do this. The future of our democracy depends on it.

[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) 46.