Saving democracy is the challenge of new millennium

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”


In their new book “How Democracies Die,” professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard University examine the growing threat to democracy worldwide, including in the United States. 

A lot has been made about Donald Trump as an authoritarian figure, with some even comparing him with Hitler. However, Levitsky and Ziblatt see Trump as symptomatic of much wider, deeper forces at work that are raising concerns about the future of democratic governance.

To be sure, warnings about the imminent demise of democracy have been sounded before. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission published a report entitled “The Crisis of Democracy,” in which it noted that Western industrialized democracies were not functioning well in addressing economic and other needs of their citizens. 

Likewise, in 1997, Joseph Nye and his colleagues at Harvard authored “Why People Don’t Trust Government,” observing the growing decline of public confidence in government not only in the United States but in Japan and throughout Western Europe. 

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They cited polls showing that in 1964, more than 75 percent of Americans agreed that “you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time,” whereas by the end of the century that level of support had dropped below 25 percent. Such mounting cynicism could be seen in public opinion polls elsewhere as well. 

So the current malaise experienced by the United States and other democracies is not altogether new. But it does seem to be getting worse. In the United States and the West generally, confidence in our institutions continues to fall; this applies not only to government but also to corporations, labor unions, media  and other major societal actors. 

What is going on?

On the one hand, the long-term arc of human history favors democracy. The Freedom House and Polity IV research projects that track historical trends in democratization show the expansion of democracy worldwide over time since 1800. 

However, democracy has hit a bump in the past decade. In its latest annual report, “Populists and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy,” Freedom House writes that “2016 was the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” 

Numerous countries were going backward. Not only was there growing autocratic rule in places such as Russia and China, but new democracies saw recent progress reversed while well-established democracies were experiencing stresses (e.g. the rise of right wing parties in Hungary, France and other European states; the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey; growing corruption in Venezuela and other Latin American states).   

Although Polity gives the United States a perfect “democracy” score of 10, and Freedom House counts us as one of 87 “free” countries, with more than half of the world’s 195 nations only “partly free” or “not free,” we should not be too self-satisfied  given the current state of our state. 

As Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, the problem is not limited to Trump but is found in our larger political system and culture. To note just a few disturbing developments: 

• Long before Trump arrived in Washington aiming to drain “the swamp,” many commentators had lamented the unprecedented partisan gridlock that was paralyzing efforts to deal with the national debt, immigration, infrastructure investment and other issues (“See America: Land of Decay and Dysfunction,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2014).

• The decline in perceived trustworthiness of government has been traced to a number of societal factors, including the post-Watergate negativity of mass media political coverage (“gotcha journalism”); the tendency of K-12 schools and universities to be increasingly critical of the Founding Fathers and our constitutional system and to downplay “American exceptionalism” and patriotism; and personal insecurity accompanying the weakening of the family, religion and “social capital” linkages.  

• A widening rich-poor gap has led people to look for simplistic explanations and solutions, blaming globalization and free trade, when the main cause is technology and the changing nature of work. Shockingly, the Washington Post (April 26, 2016) reported, based on a Harvard University poll, that “a majority of millennials now reject capitalism.” As Arthur Schlesinger once said, “You can have capitalism without democracy, but you can’t have democracy without capitalism,” because predominantly state ownership and control of the economy is a recipe for totalitarianism.

• Curiously, at the same time as Americans increasingly distrust government, young people especially look to it as their savior. Younger voters supported the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in 2016 despite the fact he was a self-described socialist, whose policies would have increased the size of the federal government by 50 percent and added $2 trillion to $3 trillion to the annual budget (The New York Times, Feb. 16, 2016). 

• Young people seem unsupportive of not only economic freedom but also civil liberties. The Washington Post (Sept. 18, 2017) reported that “a chilling study shows how hostile college students are toward free speech,” citing a Brookings Institution survey finding students more interested in enforcing speech codes (maintaining “safe spaces” and banning “microaggressions”) than protecting First Amendment rights. No doubt they have learned this from their liberal professors, who dominate American academia. (I recently attended a talk by an education professor who, amazingly, argued that you should not ask someone “Where are you from?” because that is a microaggression implying that the latter is an outsider.) 

• Freedom of information and exchange of ideas is also threatened by the very titans of technology who claim they are the champions of democracy. Google, Facebook, Apple and other tech giants are gaining near-monopoly control over what people know and think. They were accomplices to the dissemination of fake news in the last election. They are also destroying community; when they are not promoting isolation as iPhone users increasingly bury their heads in their electronic devices rather than meet and chat at the office or mall, they are creating groupthink bubbles where people only interact with like-minded digital denizens. 

• As modern life becomes more transient and unfamiliar, especially as America becomes less WASPish and more multihued, there is a tendency to look for scapegoats in order to cope with the fallout from change. This provides opportunities for anti-Semites and other racists to fuel populist movements against Jews, blacks, Muslims and other minorities. Open-door, unregulated immigration only exacerbates the problem.

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama, in his essay “The End of History?,” famously  declared “the final triumph” of liberal democracy, as fascism had been defeated in World War II and communism in the Cold War, seemingly leaving no more ideological competitors left standing in the ring. His claim, of course, proved wrong. Democracy — in Churchill’s words “the worst form of government except for all the rest” — remains a fragile type of political system that needs constant nurturing if it is to survive.  

Hopefully, Americans, along with others on the globe, are up to the challenge as we make our way through the new millennium.