A New York Times write-up of Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa’s work showing a broad-based decline in support for liberal democracy across the Western world has rightly attracted significant attention, especially in left-of-center quarters of the commentariat. Mounk and Foa’s findings, which we covered here, give a coherence to many of the events of the last two years: The rise of tribalisms of various kinds, the attacks on free speech, and illiberal populist movements that seem to disdain democratic norms.
Many observers are painting Donald Trump as the avatar of the new authoritarianism, a perception that he seems intent to reinforce through various menacing Twitter proclamations. But it’s important to note that some of the biggest declines in pro-democratic sentiment that Mounk and Foa detected came from constituencies that are not at all part of Trump’s support base: In particular, young people (who opposed Trump in large numbers) and the wealthy (whose long-running drift toward the Democratic Party persisted in this election).
The nightmare of the Trump years, for many liberal intellectuals, is that he will build a kind of American fascism with the backing of a coalition of economically strained middle-aged and older whites. But the Foa and Mounk study actually found that “the rich are now more likely than the poor to express approval for ‘having the army rule,'” and that “on the whole, support for political radicalism in North America and Western Europe is higher among the young, and support for freedom of speech lower” (a finding that is amply supported by other recent polling).
None of this is to say that the Trump administration won’t bring about a period of “democratic deconsolidation” in the United States. The President-elect exhibited an alarming contempt for certain liberal norms during his campaign. The point is rather that the root of our current episode of democratic decay can’t simply be laid at the feet of the Trump movement, and that any attempt to do so will probably poison our discourse and diminish the liberal center even further. Different forms of anti-liberal politics feed off one another in subtle ways. Moreover, as John Judis points out in his latest book, institution-smashing populism tends to gain traction when democracy is already perceived to be broken for a critical mass of the population.
The lesson of Mounk and Foa’s work, then, isn’t necessarily that the center-left should launch a scorched earth resistance campaign against the incoming administration because liberal democracy depends on it. It is that people in both parties and from all ideological persuasions need to re-examine the ways their assumptions, strategies, and policies might corrode the foundations of liberal society over the long run, and be vigilant about authoritarian tendencies wherever they might arise.