That one should not take the good things in life—say, a happy marriage—for granted is a sound piece of advice. But imagine being told by your spouse every day that you should not see your marriage as a given. Similarly, since the election of Donald Trump the unending stream of well-intentioned warnings about the imminent danger of populism to Western democracies has become counterproductive.
The chance of a breakdown of democracy within the next four years is an “alarming 11.4 percent,” according to a recent survey of political scientists. Not dramatic enough? Rest assured that “the United States faces a sixty-percent chance of civil war over the next ten to fifteen years,” based on an estimate in a widely shared New Yorker article. Could the National Rifle Association have written more effective advertisements for guns and shelters?
“Anyone who started 2018 by downplaying the threat Trump poses should be ashamed of themselves,” castigates one liberal columnist. “We may be reaching the end of the liberal world order,” warns Anne Applebaum. Last year, Edward Snowden stated that “autocracy. . . is increasingly near [in the United States]”. Portrayals of Mr. Trump as a dark and dangerous figure were used throughout much of the 2016 election campaign; they would help to bring about “a landslide” for Hillary Clinton, some predicted.
The red flags did not work two years ago, and they are no more effective today. The temptation to interpret everything that the President says or tweets as an affront to democracy is akin to being warned constantly by your parents, as some of us were in our childhood years, about the myriad risks that the world posed to your health from climbing trees to drinking iced beverages. Far from achieving the desired effect, the constant sense of panic has likely numbed Americans to dangers posed either by Mr. Trump or by future authoritarians.
Mr. Trump’s leading critics deplore the “post-truth” nature of our political debate, yet they too appear keen to highlight evidence to support the most alarmist of scenarios. Take the oft-repeated finding by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stan Foa, respectively of Harvard and University of Melbourne, that young people across the world value democracy less than older generations. But Erik Voeten of Georgetown University has shown that in most countries Millennials support democracy no less than other citizens. And other evidence shows over 90 percent of Italians, Germans, Poles, and other Europeans in the 18-to-24-year age cohort believe that “free and fair elections are important for their countries.” The fact that the proportions are virtually indistinguishable from those within other age groups does not lend support to the narrative of a global, generational decline in support for democratic governance.
Or, consider the notion that the internet is facilitating a return of fascism, put forward in a recent opinion piece by the Yale University historian Timothy Snyder. Data from American National Election Study show, however, that “the growth in polarization in recent years is largest for the demographic groups least likely to use the internet and social media.”
And three economists have just circulated a research paper speculating that Americans were manipulated by social media when casting their ballots in 2016, simply because the volume of tweets about Donald Trump was higher in those states where the GOP received a greater share of the vote. The belief in the magical power of tweets and Facebook posts is common, though as with advertising, most critics see themselves immune to such tricks. Yet the consumption of “fake news” has been concentrated in a small subset of the electorate ahead of the last presidential election: “almost 6 in 10 visits to fake news websites came from the 10 percent of people with the most conservative online information diets.”
Other chilling narratives are often entertained by pundits. Some, like the possibility of a hyper-partisan future, are not necessarily far-fetched. But we are not there yet. Polarization has been driven primarily by political elites and should not be confused with a wholesale abandonment of democracy by the voting public.
When Steve Bannon was fired from his position in the White House, 90 percent of Republicans surveyed by YouGov either thought that it was the right decision, or said they had no opinion. Among those who had an opinion on Bannon, a majority of Republicans said that Bannon’s departure was a “good thing for the country.” 89 percent of Democrats expressed the same position. Would you expect to see such data highlighted in the press? It does not paint the American public as deeply divided, so don’t count on it.
On some policies, Americans are in greater agreement over policies than meets the eye. Even before the Parkland tragedy, for example, 86 percent of Americans said they supported a rule requiring all gun sellers to run background checks on anyone who buys a gun. The near-consensus indicates that gridlock in Washington does not reflect everyday life as most Americans experience it. When Pew Research Center approached more than two thousand Americans, six in ten respondents said that when two people disagree about politics, it “generally doesn’t say a lot about how much they’ll agree on other topics.” Perhaps open minds have not gone out of fashion after all. When an American sets up an appointment with a teacher, a banker, a landlord, or a regulator, questions of partisan identity do not come up in people’s interactions.
Work by political scientist Morris Fiorina and others suggests that America’s polarized politics is to a large extent a consequence of the transformation of political parties into more homogenous voting blocs further away from each other, rather than of fundamental shifts in attitudes of the electorate. On top of that, add the breakdown of norms in the U.S. Congress, particularly of the role played by committees in facilitating legislative bargains, and the permanent political campaigning as well as the “sound-bite culture” deplored by Ben Sasse in his maiden speech in the Senate becomes a logical consequence.
No wonder that the public’s trust in politics in the United States has declined significantly since the 1960s. But other institutions of public life, such as universities and churches, have faced a similar decline. We do not know which “influencers”—if any—will inspire confidence in the future, and whether these new actors will be constructively involved in politics.
For instance, more and more celebrities are taking clear political positions in America, although that development might be self-limiting as political activism could reduce their popular appeal. It is possible that the future looks like a commercial marketplace, where large shares of the population will choose not to pay attention to politics, unless celebrity candidates make political contests entertaining.
Besides, there are institutional reforms that would restore Congress’ role as an effective decision-making body. Contrary to what many commentators suggest, those have little do with making the legislature more “democratic” or “responsive”— or with stricter regulation of campaign finances. Rather they involve the strengthening of norms that enable it to reach compromises: reintroducing earmarks, filibuster reform, ensuring concurrent consideration of appropriations in House and Senate, among other things.
While no dispassionate observer can claim that the United States has become Trump’s fiefdom, democracy has weakened in several countries, leaders of some countries are certainly following a competitive authoritarian’s playbook, and there is no doubt that politics on both sides of the Atlantic is undergoing a major transformation. It is easy to point to countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where state resources are used to reward cronies, bully the opposition, and maintain a semblance of a level playing field. But don’t mistake such events for a “populist wave” that is predestined to somehow sweep and ruin Western democracies.
No one can know how societies will change, but there is a distinct possibility that American democracy will be fine, even if it might look different from the version we long took for granted. And neither should the fact that democracy no longer generates policies some of us wish for be seen as evidence that we are “past the breaking point.” Not every departure from the status quo, objectionable as it may be, is necessarily a step towards tyranny.