Writing in the Washington Post, the Nathaniel Persily and Jon Cohen highlight new evidence supporting an increasingly well-documented trend in political science: On a number of dimensions, Americans are growing increasingly skeptical of the unstated norms and assumptions that underpin liberal-democratic governance:
When asked in this SurveyMonkey Election Tracking poll if they would accept the result should their candidate lose in November, just 31 percent say they definitely would see the outcome as legitimate. Nearly as many (28 percent) say it is either “unlikely” that they would accept the result or that they definitely would not. Again, Trump’s supporters were more apt to say they would question the legitimacy of a Clinton victory than vice versa, but sizable shares on both sides, representing tens of millions of Americans, indicate they would not accept the legitimacy of the next president of the United States.
It would be easy to chalk up this erosion of democratic values to the extraordinarily dispiriting presidential campaign we are witnessing. But the problems go much deeper than current events or even attitudes about government. The bonds of social trust that serve as the support structure for our democracy are deteriorating.
Americans’ lack of trust in government is representative of declining confidence in institutions across the board.
The findings are consistent with earlier work by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, who used World Values Survey data to show that attachment to freedom of speech and popular sovereignty appears to be weakening in many Western countries, particularly among the young.
There is no question that in the United States, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—with its cult of personality, authoritarian style, and racial antagonism—represents the clearest manifestation of a post-democratic politics we have seen so far on the national stage. But liberals trying to lay the blame for America’s political decay at Trump’s feet alone have run into a problem: Many of his allegedly anti-democratic antics—promising to investigate his political opponents, disputing the legitimacy of the election—were also indulged (albeit less ostentatiously) by liberals the last time they were out of power.
The point isn’t to say that both sides are equally culpable for the erosion of America’s democratic culture. That point can be debated (unproductively) forever. Rather, it’s that norm violations build on one another, and institutional rot in any segment of the body politic has the potential to spread to the entire system.
Rebuilding our battered institutions will require a greater level of solidarity, understanding and empathy than many partisans seem prepared to offer. Because as Steve Randy Waldman writes, “if your response is ‘they did it,’ whoever they are, you are, I think missing the point, missing the problem. We are in this together. Once we’ve made a civil war of it we have already lost, however just the side you choose to fight on.”