Terrifying news about the state of the Republic

Summary: Why watch horror films when you can read about the state of the American Republic? This paper is the most important thing you will read today. Perhaps this week. Perhaps this month. Perhaps this year. It might prepare you for what’s coming to America and the West. If we are lucky, perhaps it will motivate you to act. Do not let the mild title deceive you; the content is terrifying. I ran a longer excerpt of this paper in February, but it got little traction. Here is a briefer version; still horrific in its analysis.

Tombstone Builder

The Danger of Deconsolidation

By Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk.
Journal of Democracy, July 2016.

For four decades, Die Welt, one of West Germany’s leading newspapers, refused to acknowledge the existence of an East German state. Since the paper’s editors expected the communist regime to collapse within a matter of years, they put scare quotes around its initials whenever they discussed the German Democratic Republic (GDR). While other papers reported about the policies pursued by the GDR, Die Welt unfailingly wrote about the “GDR.”

Sometime in the summer of 1989, the paper’s leadership finally decided to give up on the pretense that the East German regime was on the verge of collapse. The communists had been in power for so long, and seemed so well-entrenched, that the scare quotes had become an embarrassing denial of reality. On 2 August 1989, reporters were allowed to drop the scare quotes when writing about the GDR for the first time in the paper’s history. Three months later, the Berlin Wall fell. On 3 October 1990, the GDR ceased to exist.

The editors of Die Welt radically misjudged the signs of the times. At precisely the moment when they should have realized that support for the communist regime was dwindling, they finally reconciled themselves to its durability. They were hardly alone. The collective failure of social scientists, policy makers, and journalists to take seriously the possibility that the Soviet bloc might collapse should serve as a warning. Even the best-trained and most methodologically rigorous scholars are liable to assume that the recent past is a reliable guide to the future, and that extreme events are not going to happen.

Three decades ago, most scholars simply assumed that the Soviet Union would remain stable. This assumption was suddenly proven false. Today, we have even greater confidence in the durability of the world’s affluent, consolidated democracies. But do we have good grounds for our democratic self-confidence?

Death of the republic

At first sight, there would seem to be some reason for concern. Over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliaments or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe. So has voter turnout. As party identification has weakened and party membership has declined, citizens have become less willing to stick with establishment parties. Instead, voters increasingly endorse single-issue movements, vote for populist candidates, or support “antisystem” parties that define themselves in opposition to the status quo. Even in some of the richest and most politically stable regions of the world, it seems as though democracy is in a state of serious disrepair.

Most political scientists, however, have steadfastly declined to view these trends as an indication of structural problems in the functioning of liberal democracy, much less as a threat to its very existence. A wide range of leading scholars …have generally interpreted these trends as benign indications of the increasing political sophistication of younger generations of “critical” citizens who are less willing to defer to traditional elites.

Keeping with a distinction made by David Easton in 1975, many scholars acknowledge that “government legitimacy,” or support for particular governments, has declined. But they also insist that “regime legitimacy,” or support for democracy as a system of government, remains robust. Thus people may increasingly feel that democracy is not working well in their country or that the government of the day is doing a poor job, but this only makes them all the more appreciative of the fact that liberal democracy allows them to protest the government or vote it out of office. According to this view, democracies such as France, Sweden, and the United States remain as consolidated and stable today as they ever have been.

In our view, however, this optimistic interpretation may no longer be tenable. Drawing on data from Waves 3 through 6 of the World Values Surveys (1995–2014), we look at four important types of measures that are clear indicators of regime legitimacy as opposed to government legitimacy: citizens’ express support for the system as a whole; the degree to which they support key institutions of liberal democracy, such as civil rights; their willingness to advance their political causes within the existing political system; and their openness to authoritarian alternatives such as military rule.

Each generation has less interest in democracy than the previous one.

Foa and Mounk - 1- Essential to live in a democracy
The 95% confidence intervals are shown in gray.

What we find is deeply concerning. Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated. …

How many people believe democracy is a bad way to run the nation?

Foa and Mounk - 2- Democracy is bad

Political participation: falling.

As a result, more recent generations are not just disengaged from the formal institutions of liberal democracy; they are also less likely to participate in nonconventional political activities, such as joining new social movements or participating in political protest.

Historically, citizens have been more likely to engage in protests when they are young. So it is striking that, in the United States, one in eleven baby-boomers has joined a demonstration in the past twelve months, but only one in fifteen millennials has done so. …This decline in political engagement is even more marked for such measures as active membership in new social movements. Participation in humanitarian and human-rights organizations, for example, is about half as high among the young as among older age cohorts. Thus we find that millennials across Western Europe and North America are less engaged than their elders, both in traditional forms of political participation and in oppositional civic activity.

Rising Support for Authoritarian Alternatives.

Foa and Mounk - 4 - support for authoritarianism

It is clear that citizens today express less of an attachment to liberal democracy, interpret the nature of democracy in a less liberal way, and have less hope of affecting public policy through active participation in the political process than they once did. What is not clear is how serious a warning sign this is for democratic politics and institutions. …

In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a “good” or “very good” thing for the “army to rule” — a patently undemocratic stance — has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree. While those who hold this view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there have been similar increases in the number of those who favor a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections” and those who want experts rather than the government to “take decisions” for the country. Nor is the United States the only country to exhibit this trend. The proportion agreeing that it would be better to have the army rule has risen in most mature democracies, including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Similarly, while 43% of older Americans, including those born between the world wars and their baby-boomer children, do not believe that it is legitimate in a democracy for the military to take over when the government is incompetent or failing to do its job, the figure among millennials is much lower at 19%. …

Strikingly, such undemocratic sentiments have risen especially quickly among the wealthy. In 1995, the “rich” (defined as deciles 8 to 10 on a ten-point income scale) were the most opposed to undemocratic viewpoints, such as the suggestion that their country would be better off if the “army” ruled. Lower-income respondents (defined as deciles 1 to 5) were most in favor of such a proposition. Since then, relative support for undemocratic institutions has reversed. In almost every region, the rich are now more likely than the poor to express approval for “having the army rule.” In the United States, for example, only 5% of upper- income citizens thought that army rule was a “good” or “very good” idea in the mid-1990s. That figure has since risen to 16%. …

Remarkably, the trend toward openness to nondemocratic alternatives is especially strong among citizens who are both young and rich. Returning to the question of approval for military rule, in 1995 only 6% of rich young Americans (those born since 1970) believed that it would be a “good” thing for the army to take over; today, this view is held by 35% of rich young Americans. …

This is a striking finding: Rising support for illiberal politics is driven not only by the disempowered, middle-aged, and underemployed. Its vocal supporters can also be found among the young, wealthy, and privileged. While support for military rule among the young and the wealthy may seem like an aberration, their embrace of nondemocratic practices and institutions should not come as a surprise. If we widen the historical lens, we see that, with the exception of a brief period in the late twentieth century, democracy has usually been associated with redistributive demands by the poor and therefore regarded with skepticism by elites. The newfound aversion to democratic institutions among rich citizens in the West may be no more than a return to the historical norm.


… Democracies do not die overnight, nor do democracies that have begun to deconsolidate necessarily fail. But we suspect that the degree of democratic consolidation is one of the most important factors in determining the likelihood of democratic breakdown. In a world where most citizens fervently support democracy, where antisystem parties are marginal or nonexistent, and where major political forces respect the rules of the political game, democratic breakdown is extremely unlikely. It is no longer certain, however, that this is the world we live in. …

Read the next post describing their follow-up paper: Will America end from a pitiful, even disgraceful, cause?

—————————- Read the full essay—————————-

Abstract for this paper

“The citizens of wealthy, established democracies are less satisfied with their governments than they have been at any time since opinion polling began. Most scholars have interpreted this as a sign of dissatisfaction with particular governments rather than with the political system as a whole. Drawing on recent public opinion data, we suggest that this optimistic interpretation is no longer plausible.

“Across a wide sample of countries in North America and Western Europe, citizens of mature democracies have become markedly less satisfied with their form of government and surprisingly open to nondemocratic alternatives. A serious democratic disconnect has emerged. If it widens even further, it may begin to challenge the stability of seemingly consolidated democracies.”

Update: More about this paper

Their follow-up paper is “The Signs of Deconsolidation” in the Journal of Democracy, January 2017.

Three experts submitted critiques. They are here along with a reply by Foa and Mounk.

About the authors

Roberto Stefan Foa

Roberto Stefan Foa.

After completing his PhD in Government at Harvard University, Foz worked at the Financial Times, then the World Bank as designer of the Indices of Social Development. Now he is a Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Melbourne and a Principal Investigator of the World Values Surveys.

His research seeks to understand how institutions vary across the world, and why these patterns of variation prove so persistent and resistant to change over time. See his website.

Yascha Mounk

Yascha Mounk.

Yascha Mounk is a Lecturer on Political Theory at Harvard, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund, and a Nonresident Fellow at New America’s Political Reform Program. His essays have appeared in Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.  He has appeared on radio and television in over ten countries.

See his website. His second book came out in May: The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State (details below).

For More Information

We can fix America. See the suggestions in Reforming America: steps to a new politics.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about politics in America, about the Trump years in America, and especially these…

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See Mounk’s new book.

The Age of Responsibility: Luck, Choice, and the Welfare State
Available at Amazon.

From the publisher…

“A novel focus on ‘personal responsibility’ has transformed political thought and public policy in America and Europe. Since the 1970s, responsibility ― which once meant the moral duty to help and support others―has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient. This narrow conception of responsibility has guided recent reforms of the welfare state, making key entitlements conditional on good behavior.

“Drawing on intellectual history, political theory, and moral philosophy, Yascha Mounk shows why the The Age of Responsibility is pernicious ― and how it might be overcome.

“Personal responsibility began as a conservative catchphrase. But over time, leaders across the political spectrum came to subscribe to its underlying framework. Today, even egalitarian philosophers rarely question the normative importance of responsibility. Emphasizing the pervasive influence of luck over our lives, they cast the poor as victims who cannot be held responsible for their actions.

“Mounk shows that today’s focus on individual culpability is both wrong and counterproductive: it distracts us from the larger economic forces determining aggregate outcomes, ignores what we owe our fellow citizens regardless of their choices, and blinds us to other key values, such as the desire to live in a society of equals. Recognizing that even society’s neediest members seek to exercise genuine agency, Mounk builds a positive conception of responsibility. Instead of punishing individuals for their past choices, he argues, public policy should aim to empower them to take responsibility for themselves―and those around them.”

20 thoughts on “Terrifying news about the state of the Republic”

  1. America is not a democracy though it is acting as one. In a democracy the majority rules. We are a republic where the rights of the of minority are protected by a constitution. Minorities include all religions as well as conservatives even “alt righters”, tea partiers, pro lifers. It was designed to give a voice to everyone and it was intended to be enforced by the Police the right to speak without interference by angry violent mobs.

    1. Wayne,

      That’s incorrectly pedantic. Democracy in general use refers to systems where the people are the source of legitimacy (consent of the governed). There are various forms. You confused “democracy” with “direct democracy”. America is a “democratic republic”.

      “rights of the of minority are protected by a constitution. Minorities include all religions as well as conservatives even “alt righters”, tea partiers, pro lifers.”

      That language has become almost meaningless by the proliferation of imagined rights. The proposed EU constitution took this to a mad extreme, creating hundres of rights which no government this side of Heaven can guarantee.

      In America a few carefully enumerated rights are given to all people, whether members of a minority of one or a majority of three hundred million. The framing of rights given to “minorities” probably be abhorrent to the Founders, who feared factionalism most of all. As America disintegrates into tribes — each jealous of their “rights” and seeing insults everywhere — the Founders’ wisdom becomes more obvious.

  2. Democracy is, properly understood, a measure of how responsive a government is to the will of the citizens from which it derives its legitimacy. A republic can be highly democratic or not democratic at all, and the latter is what we now have in the United States. It’s questionable that the U.S. has ever been much of a democracy at all, but even the illusions of equality and legitimacy are now gone. Elites don’t even bothet to pretend any more.

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  4. Glen Osterhout

    When what you have are functionally oligarchies, with merely the trappings of democracy, it is little wonder that growing numbers of people are not happy about that

    1. Glen,

      “with merely the trappings of democracy, ”

      Totally false. Elections are held regularly. Countless studies show that the votes are counted fairly, with the usual rare exceptions. Nobody puts a gun to the head of each American, forbidding participation in the candidate selection process and forcing the vote.

      But we do excel at making excuses for our apathy and passivity. If fine excuses made a great nation, America would be Heaven.

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  6. Terry Gross broadcasted an interesting radio interview with Al Gore yesterday, in which he compared the compulsion to fundraise in today’s Congress with his experience there years ago. Surprisingly worth a listen.

    Today’s legislators seem entirely beholden to the special interests who fund them and write their legislation for them. This preoccupation with money and the short-sighted goals of monied interests has corrupted the workings of our democracy.

    1. Stefan,

      “has corrupted the workings of our democracy.”

      The Founders assumption was that parts of the system would inevitably become corrupt. Elections were the cure. The broken part is not Congress, but the Americans who reelect them like sheep — despite awareness of the problem.

      Americans will do anything, suffer anything — rather than look in the mirror to see the problem. Reform is impossible until we recognize that.

    2. Some years ago I was struck by something Zbig Brzezinski said, something to the effect that “Democracy is not possible without an informed electorate.”

  7. …”disempowerment” of “the people” cannot be construed as “apathy”…subsequent bush-cheney economic and entire Middle-East destruction, “the people” hired the guy we all believed would reverse bushit…leaving the next (HC) to promise “more of $ame”, which was guaranteed loser…back to the drawing (truth) board…

    1. noeclassical,

      “…”disempowerment” of “the people” cannot be construed as “apathy””

      That’s absurd. The campaign and election processes remain open to public participation, as they always have been. It’s sad to see the thousands of comments here about US political reform, almost every one a justification for Americans sitting on their butts and whining.

      Post reform movements in the American and Britain tackled far larger problems against much worse odds — and carried them to successful conclusions.

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  9. Douglas Proctor

    The 2011 35-44 age group holds the same view (14%) of the “goodness” of having a democratically run government as they did 20 years ago, when they were the 16-25 age group in 1995. A lot of bad stuff has happened since then. While the value may be perceived as less now by the 16-25 group, it is not to say the next 16-25 group will agree, though the graphs show that the last groups became less convinced as they aged. But what would the thoughts have been during the latter days of the Viet Nam war?

    We may conflate how the population view THIS democratically run government is running things with ANY democratically run government. In other words, people irritated at what they see around them rather than what they want to reject in an absolute sense.

    The MSM and social justice warriors make a lot of people feel they are being poorly treated by “the Man”. Mostly, as I see it, they don’t want rid of “the Man”, they just want that Man to be one of them. So they’ll complain about the “system” but really just want to be the ones running it, not some authoritatian on top telling them what to do (unless it is them, again).

    What I’d say is more worrisome is the attitude that seems to say the elites of any sort are not to be held accountable. Whether it is Hillary or the Donald, or Al Gore or the CEO of GM, it seems as if all the bad stuff that they do doesn’t have an impact. Regardless of a system of authority, if those in charge are not held responsible, it hardly matters. Congressmen and Senators don’t seem to listen to either the voters or to the President, but it doesn’t seem to matter. And the people don’t seem to care. That’s where I see the troublesome issue. It’s like everybody admits and concurs with an elite group doing what it wants to do, but the argument is with which tribal group of elites does the deeds. It’s not really democracy in action anyway.

    Just thoughts.

    1. Douglas,

      Thanks for sharing your analysis of this paper. You raise some great points. I don’t believe I understand you last paragraph, however.

      “What I’d say is more worrisome is the attitude that seems to say the elites of any sort are not to be held accountable.”

      I don’t see that belief at all amongst the American people. Our ruling elites don’t want to be held accountable. No surprise, almost nobody does — when it comes to them!

      “Whether it is Hillary or the Donald, or Al Gore or the CEO of GM, it seems as if all the bad stuff that they do doesn’t have an impact.”

      Hillary and Gore both lose elections. What more could be done to them? CEOs are often fired. The average job tenure of a CEO is only 5 – 6 years (it drops during economic downturns). That includes the large numbers fired after 2 years with those few stars that last decades.

      “Congressmen and Senators don’t seem to listen to either the voters or to the President”

      That’s quite false. They shouldn’t listen to the President. They do listen to their constituents. Talk to anyone politically active, who works with politicans. They spend fortunes on polls, have people read and categorize their mail, have large constituent service ops.

      “And the people don’t seem to care.”

      As I said, apathy and passivity — two killers of the Republic. Very late Republic Rome.

      “It’s not really democracy in action anyway.”

      These comments show a misunderstanding of democracy. It’s not the Blue Fairy granting your wishes. It a means for people to work thru the political machinery to elect representatives of their choosing.

  10. Lee Kwan Yew was right. Truly Multicultural democracies are impossible. This should be obvious when the mix includes cultures for whom the cultural norms underlying the rise of liberal republics in the west (high trust, low ethnic and kinship identification, a predisposition toward universal moral norms) are incomprehensible.

    In my experience, those who argue otherwise are either young, naive or are working another agenda.

    1. Huckleberry,

      Lee Kwan Yew was one of the 20th centuries greatest and most successful statesman. In the West we are testing his insight – without getting consent from voters. Or even planning and analysis. It is one of history’s largest and most feckless experiments.

    2. Editor,

      I am afraid you are right.

      If what is happening in Europe is any indication, it will not turn out well here.

      That said, people throughout the West have begun to awaken. Trump’s greatest achievement might be as another kind of Cunctator…

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