Let’s act now so that America doesn’t end from this pitiful, even disgraceful, cause

Summary: What happens when people lose faith in their political regime? Yesterday’s post gave us the Terrifying news about the state of the Republic: each generations of Americans has less faith in democracy than their parents. Today Foa and Mounk explain what happens next. We are locking ourselves into guaranteed failure: we don’t work our political machinery, which fails to function, so we lose confidence in it. Will this be the pitiful end of the great experiment of the Founders?

Colonel Stok (Soviet secret police):  “These Germans, sometimes I wonder how we managed to beat them.
Vaclav (Czechoslovakian secret police):  “The Nazis?”
Stok:  “Oh, we still haven’t beaten them.  The Germans, I mean.”
— From Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin (1964).

Losing faith in the American project.

Losing Faith in American democracy

The Signs of Deconsolidation

By Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk.
Journal of Democracy, January 2017.

Americans have long been growing dissatisfied with the state of their political system. As survey researchers have chronicled over recent decades, an overwhelming majority of citizens now believes that the United States is “headed in the wrong direction” {also see Gallup Polls} and Trust in such major institutions as Congress and the presidency has fallen markedly {see the GSS and Gallup Polls}. Engagement in formal political institutions has ebbed. The media are more mistrusted than ever (see data on all institutions here). Even so, most scholars have given these findings a stubbornly optimistic spin: U.S. citizens, they claim, have simply come to have higher expectations of their government.

As we showed in an essay in the July 2016 Journal of Democracy, that interpretation is untenable. American citizens are not just dissatisfied with the performance of particular governments; they are increasingly critical of liberal democracy itself. …

Americans’ dissatisfaction with the democratic system is part of a much larger global pattern. It is not just that the proportion of Americans who state that it is “essential” to live in a democracy, which stands at 72% among those born before World War II, has fallen to 30% among millennials. It is also that, contrary to Ronald Inglehart’s response to our earlier essay in these pages, a similar cohort pattern is found across all longstanding democracies, including Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand. In virtually all cases, the generation gap is striking, with the proportion of younger citizens who believe it is essential to live in a democracy falling to a minority.

Unless we have faith in the American political regime, it cannot work.

Without Faith You Cannot Face Fear

What is more, this disaffection with the democratic form of government is accompanied by a wider skepticism toward liberal institutions. Citizens are growing more disaffected with established political parties, representative institutions, and minority rights. Tellingly, they are also increasingly open to authoritarian interpretations of democracy. The share of citizens who approve of “having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections,” for example, has gone up markedly in most of the countries where the World Values Survey asked the question — including such varied places as Germany, the United States, Spain, Turkey, and Russia.

The stark picture painted by the World Values Survey is echoed in the findings of a large number of national polls conducted in recent months. …in the United States, 46% of respondents in an October 2016 survey reported that they either “never had” or had “lost” faith in U.S. democracy. …

These changes in opinion are worrying in and of themselves. What is all the more striking is that they are increasingly reflected in actual political behavior. In recent years, parties and candidates that blame
an allegedly corrupt political establishment for most problems, seek to concentrate power in the executive, and challenge key norms of democratic politics have achieved unprecedented successes in a large number of liberal democracies across the globe …

Radar Screen: early warning

An Early-Warning System.

Political scientists have long assumed that what they call “democratic consolidation” is a one-way street: Once democracy in a particular country has been consolidated, the political system is safe, and liberal
democracy is here to stay. Historically, this has indeed been the case. So far, democracy has not collapsed in any wealthy country that has experienced at least two government turnovers as a result of free and fair elections. But a large part of the reason that liberal democracy proved to be so stable in the past was its ability to persuade voters of its advantages. Indeed, while political scientists have offered many divergent definitions of democratic consolidation, they mostly agree on this key insight. …

Consolidated democracies are stable, Linz and Stepan argue, because their citizens have come to believe
that democratic forms of government possess unique legitimacy and that authoritarian alternatives are unacceptable. This raises a question that might have seemed to be of merely theoretical interest until a few years ago: What happens to the stability of wealthy liberal democracies when many of their citizens no longer believe that their system of government is especially legitimate or even go so far as to express open support for authoritarian regime forms?

To answer this question, we need to conceive of the possibility that democratic consolidation might not be a one-way street after all. Democracy comes to be the only game in town when an overwhelming majority of a country’s citizens embraces democratic values reject authoritarian alternatives, and support candidates or parties that are committed to upholding the core norms and institutions of liberal democracy.

By the same token, it can cease to be the only game in town when, at some later point, a sizable minority of citizens loses its belief in democratic values, becomes attracted to authoritarian alternatives, and starts voting for “antisystem” parties, candidates, or movements that flout or oppose
constitutive elements of liberal democracy. Democracy may then be said to be deconsolidating. …

Citizenship: hands together

The Consequences of Deconsolidation.

…The process of deconsolidation now taking place across most liberal democracies is a very serious warning sign. But neither fate nor destiny decrees that democracy will falter. For now, the window for political agency remains open. Whether democratic deconsolidation will one day be seen as the beginning of the end for liberal democracy depends in good part on the ability of democracy’s defenders to heed the warning and to mount a coherent response.

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

Abstract for this paper

“In recent years, parties and candidates challenging key democratic norms have won unprecedented popular support in liberal democracies across the globe. Drawing on public opinion data from the World Values Survey and various national polls, we show that the success of anti-establishment parties and candidates is not a temporal or geographic aberration, but rather a reflection of growing popular disaffection with liberal-democratic norms and institutions, and of increasing support for authoritarian interpretations of democracy.

“The record number of anti-system politicians in office raises uncertainty about the strength of supposedly ‘consolidated’ liberal democracies and highlights the need for further analysis of the signs of democratic deconsolidation.”

Update: More about this paper

This is a follow-up to “The Danger of Deconsolidation“ in the Journal of Democracy, July 2016.

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…

  1. Can we organize the political reform of America? Our past shows how.
  2. The First Step to reforming America — Organizing.
  3. The 1% are changing America. It’s our move.
  4. Resolve to begin the reform of America in 2017!
  5. A picture of America, showing a path to political reform.

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.”

34 thoughts on “Let’s act now so that America doesn’t end from this pitiful, even disgraceful, cause”

  1. maslow hierarchy of needs

    the future is dumb-bell politics. leftish v. rightish with an big apathetic. nihilistic center who’ll be happy as long as there are plenty of bread and circuses.

    thank you appalling state of civics education in schools and families

  2. That study is Ivy League indoctrination posing as empirical analysis. The cherry-picked polls are distorted to uselessness by US civic religion.

    American democracy is fake, the public knows that. Increasingly ridiculous statist propaganda has simply made the word a joke.

    In fact, Americans consistently prefer collective security and international law to the current hegemonic US police state. That means the UN Charter and what it entails, human rights. PPP polling shows this has been true for a decade. The public is well aware that comprehensive and objective review puts the US in the dregs of UN member nations.


    It’s a backward, less developed country. Just look at it. Look at you, stuck in the orange or red wastelands with the reeling basket cases of the world. (And that blue reporting rating is a humiliating pat on the head – US reporting on foreign and domestic torture has been years late, and when it’s finally turned in, it’s bad-faith gobbledygook.)

    Democracy is one clause of one article of one convention defining US obligations and commitments. Rigged US elections don’t meet the world standard, but that’s all the US regime can cling to, so they make a fetish of it. The US regime simply does not measure up. It gets straight Fs. Useful Harvard idiots wringing their hands over ‘democracy’ in a kleptocratic panopticon ruled by secret COG law under an illegal state of emergency – how can you quote that crap with a straight face?

    1. Drama,

      “American democracy is fake”

      What is your evidence for this astonishing statement? “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” But even some supporting evidence would be nice.

      Do you have evidence of massive and widespread electoral fraud at all levels? That there is voting by large numbers of ineligible voters? Multiple voting? Miscounting ballots?

      Are the ballots not secret, and individuals coerced into voting “correctly” or punished for voting “wrongly”?

      These are all commonplace things elsewhere, known because they are difficult to conceal. You claim that “public knows” this. What’s your evidence?

  3. Ohhh the Drama!

    Spoken like a guy who never looked at the cryptographically-authenticated DNC or Podesta emails; or the Freeman study on the 2004 charade. Or 2000, when Anthony Kennedy cast the only vote that got counted. Or crosscheck. Or the Gilens and Page study that shows the US fails to ensure free expression of the will of the electors, the international legal standard.

    So don’t give me astonishing. You may not like that claim, but it’s extraordinary only in grade-school civics class. A dwindling bare half of us even bother to vote. That’s in the OECD’s cellar.

    Point is, democracy is one single dismal failure among the hundreds documented in the links above. So maybe you should look at that before you send me out to do your homework. Your constitution’s gone. You’re not getting it back. It’s obsolete crap anyway. The world standard’s much better and tighter. So when this disgraced US Stasi regime goes the way of the GDR’s, that’s what you’ll wind up with. You’ll be much better off.

    1. Ohh,

      Thanks. Good to know that you have no evidence, are just another bs’er.

      “cryptographically-authenticated DNC or Podesta emails”

      None of those show are remotely close to showing that US democracy is fake. If you are looking for a perfect system, just die and go to Heaven (but it is a monarch).

      “Or 2000, when Anthony Kennedy cast the only vote that got counted.”

      Court rulings on disputed matters that you don’t like don’t make the system “fake.” This just in: you are not the Pope of Democracy.

      “Gilens and Page study that shows the US fails to ensure free expression of the will of the electors”

      That’s quite the reading FAIL. That we don’t vote to enforce our will does not make the system “fake.” Perhaps we are foolish, or apathetic. Perhaps our revealed preferences are different than our declared preferences.

      “democracy is one single dismal failure among the hundreds documented in the links above. ”

      Bark away with your nonsense. The caravan will move on.

  4. I’m not a political scientist or historian or even a pundit. I can only offer my own experience with American democracy.

    Which is to say, there has been none. Oh I voted in the last 2 presidential elections, but never in my childhood did I or my parents go to a PTA meeting, or a town hall, or a citizens council or anything like that. I took a civics course in high school, but as a practical, everyday experience that has real ramifications for my life? Nonexistent.

    Between moving for college and moving for different jobs over the past decade, I’ve never had the chance to put down roots, either, and why bother getting involved into local politics if I’m just going to move again?

    I and my fellow 90’s kids talk about “big picture politics” like Trump or Obama care all the time, but I’ve never felt any practical, pressing need to participate in politics other than a vague sense of patriotism and citizenship. Vague sentiments don’t make for real, powerful institutions.

    1. Clued,

      Thank you for your sincere expression of our problem. Let’s hope that there are not too many like you. If there are, our Constitutional regime will collapse. I doubt you (or perhaps the next generation of your clan) will like what comes next.

      On the other hand, the experience will inform you (or the next gen) of the benefits of what you lost — and why you should have worked to preserve it.

      You could learn this lesson by reading about history, or looking at current events around the world. But if those don’t suffice, the personal experience will have to suffice.

      Also — since you are a bystander, I hope you never complain about the government. If you don’t help run America’s political machinery, you must be content with what you get.

  5. Ohhhh the Drama!

    Lots of statist brainwashing on display here. There’s the good ol’ blame-the-victim canard: to you, the structural rigidities documented by Gilens and Page just prove I didn’t vote hard enough, or something. There’s mindless appeal to authority: unprecedented interference by an international laughingstock of an apex court means all us good Right-Wing Authoritarians just have to suck it up when they install CIA’s choice. And did you actually read those emails? And from them you got… … imperfect? The Medicis and Sforzas went through the motions better than that.

    This always goes the same way with you patriots. You’re going to march around in your tricorn hat while every African pismire leaves you in the dust with modern world-standard constitutions. You’ll just get more and more downtrodden and more and more pissed off – at the public. And you’ll never know what you missed because ignorance of the world standard is a point of honor with you. You don’t know your rights and you’re proud of it.

    1. You’re tilting at windows in your own head, ’cause your rhetoric is referring to ideas and memes that don’t make any sense to anyone but yourself. Which is more important, to make yourself understood and appreciated, or to just bash people over the head with your own enlightenment?

      1. Clued,

        Since there are millions of us who are involved in working the system, your mockery is quite silly.

        Also, I really hope you don’t complain about the government which you don’t support in any material sense. But you are well suited to be a peon. Perhaps you’ll get your chance in the next regime.

    2. So what DOES “statist” mean? It seems like the libertarian equivalent of “fascist” or “liberal” – “this is a cuss word aimed at The Other, Who Doesn’t Get It, and Never Will, Unlike Us Very Smart Folks.” But I suspect there was – like “fascist” and “liberal” – another meaning originally, I just don’t know what it is.

      On the original topic, I wonder how much of this is because of the cultural sneering at democratic institutions that seems like it peeked up in the 80s and has been rolling along merrily through the 90s and 00s. Not that there wasn’t some justification for it, but it seems like that was when the cynicism about everything (except cynicism) took root. Culturally, at least, it looks like there’s some signs of regeneration lately.

    3. Here’s one example of the shift: The last two “Star Trek” films. In “Into Darkness,” we essentially get a re-enactment of 9/11 truther theories.In “Beyond” we do not get this; instead, the antagonist has opted to tack his sail against the Federation for ideological reasons rather than because he was wronged or manipulated, and his scheme is averted through co-operation of the various characters, rather than superhuman rage or solitary superheroics.

      For various reasons I also have cause to watch a fair number of children’s cartoons. There are several series with complicated and realistic characters and storylines. “Adventure Time” and, slightly more guardedly, “Steven Universe” are good examples of these. The Japanese show “My Hero Academia” draws from the superhero stuff I’ve read you criticize, but from a Japanese perspective: there’s an extremely strong focus on the “saving people and behaving positively” aspect of such figures, and a wide range of characters who have plausible and complicated conflicts with each other despite a common pro-social orientation.

      The common thread I see in this stuff is that power – of whatever kind – is something that can be used responsibly, and which comes out of groups and team effort as much as individual uniqueness. I think there was a cynicism on the possibility of actual pro-social change coming out of the 80s, a fatalism which all these programs avoid. The realistic character writing (even if the characters themselves have strong fantastic elements) also accents this message, because imperfect people can choose to do good things – and succeed! Perhaps not completely, but meaningfully.

      1. SF,

        Thank you for this look at a broad range of films and cartoons!

        That’s a great point about Japanese cartoons! Whether “Star Blazers” (1974) or the Pokomon cartoons, they have a stronger emphasis on social solidarity.

  6. Ohhhh the Drama!


    I see. The most widely translated document in the world is ‘ideas and memes that don’t make any sense to anybody.’ Except me. Now that’s indoctrination. So the state propaganda apparat has produced a nation of hopelessly provincial goobers who can’t bear to look at the evidence they demand?

    You’re right, I could have been kinder. I was only really picking on Harvard, which selects for the kind of other-directed OCD apple polishers most prone to fall for state dogma. But US state brainwashing makes people leap to the defense of their country even when they’re outraged at its criminality and repression. The cognitive dissonance erupts in furious reaction to anything that transgresses the limits to discourse.

    That aborted consideration of the GDR is interesting here, because the threshold for reform in the USA is what happened to the USSR, or the GDR. Dismantlement, collapse. At that point reconstruction of the successor state(s) is determined by the minimum requirements for any sovereign state. Those are the standards defined up there that everyone here’s straining to ignore. That is what’s going to happen as the US regime degenerates.

  7. What is called “deconsolidation” above, I have known as “insanity”, throughout the Obama years. Bush Jr. drove the Democrats insane, and now Trump has driven the Republicans insane. What is behind it is a critical mass of adherence to false and inherently divisive dogmas, over good and honest reason, in the USA and in the world now. Do you, readers, see much good and honest reason in the above comments, for example? I don’t.

  8. Count me as one of the Millennials who isn’t really enamored with liberal democracy. The mistake some might make is that apathy drives it. Not apathy at all, just observation about a simple set of facts. America’s institutions are both obscenely expensive to run and completely incompetent. Consider public schools that manage to spend more per student than any other country aside from Norway but are on essentially the same level as Slovakia or Poland. Or government healthcare spending that is larger per person than the UK but manages to leave a large percentage of the population uncovered or covered by plans that leave ruinous out of pocket costs in place.

    Maybe the problem is that liberalism makes government ineffectual. Because everything is designed by committee, everything ends up as mediocre and expensive (so as to buy consent of the interest groups). It would also seem that the less liberal countries did a lot better in response to the Financial Crisis. Greece imploded economically but maintained its democratic process, Hungary recovered, but hollowed out liberal democracy to do it. China spends money on infrastructure and doesn’t bother with global events outside its direct interest, America spends money on wars and overextends itself. It would seem that a stronger executive and fewer “checks and balances” is exactly the right solution to the problem.

    I’m tempted to think that the US government should evolve towards a Singapore model with a strong state and powerful executive. Maintain an ultimate democratic check, but strengthen the state’s hand. It seems like the best way to run a nation in the 21st century.

    1. Lew Kuan Yew,

      You appear to be confident about scaling up from an ethnically homogenous nation (3/4 Chinese, 1/4 Malaysian) of 6 million to a diverse nation of 330 million. That seems unwise, to put it mildly.

      More likely is that the US would revert to the government — and success levels — of the the world’s far more common non-democratic nations. With their economic and social turbulence.

      That so many people agree with you — in general terms — is why Barbara Tuchman’s summary of history is called March of Folly. As a millennial you might live long enough to get your wish. Please don’t whine about the result.

  9. I can assure you, I don’t wish for the collapse of liberal democracy into autocracy. A reinvigorated republic with a democratic system like Switzerland would be ideal. It just seems like the US is on a historical glide path towards that as a result of the same factors that turned the Roman Republic into the Empire. Wealth inequality, changes in the economy that reduced the value of labor relative to capital, and the flouting of political norms by the ruling class all are chipping away at the historical conditions which make a representative system possible.

    It would seem that perhaps small countries are easier to govern well in any case. Norway and Switzerland are both nations of about 5-6 million and are easily the best performers among Western democracies. How much of that performance is due to oil wealth and financial services vs better quality citizenship is an interesting question to raise

    The typical answer to this problem would be more federalism since it allows for problem-solving on a scale similar to the Norwegians or Swiss are dealing with. The problem is that the state governments can be even less responsive to voters than the federal government. And why not? Turnout for state, much less local elections are lower than even the abysmal turnouts for federal ones. Combine that with the fact that even informed voters are paying attention to nationally-oriented news and have little idea about what occurs on the state or local level, the state and local officials have essentially no incentive to respond to voters rather than ALEC or other rent-seekers.

    A small country doesn’t have that same issue since all local and regional issues are closer to being national issues as well. Higher quality democratic oversight results. Or perhaps the Swiss are just less decadent.

    1. Lee,

      “reinvigorated republic with a democratic system like Switzerland would be ideal.”

      I find odd your belief that large multi-ethnic nations can successfully copy the system of a tiny homogenous nation. First Singapore, now Switzerland. There are 8 million Swiss and 325 million Americans. American is on its way to not having a majority ethnicity — or even a majority race. There is little reason to think that works in Singapore or Switzerland will work here.

      Remember the engineer’s maxim: a quantitative change of 10 is a qualitative change. A 10x change makes something different, not just larger.

      1. Lee,

        “The typical answer to this problem would be more federalism since it allows for problem-solving on a scale similar to the Norwegians or Swiss are dealing with.”

        That’s a conventional answer, but history provides little support for it. Federalism nurtures centrifugal forces which can easily destroy the structure, an outcome especially when under stress.

        For example, it encourages internal migration patterns that reduce diversity in the individual states — people migrating to be with those like themselves — which can quickly become self-reinforcing. The loyalty to the Federation weakens until the structure flies apart when some groups believe (inevitably, probably correctly) that they will gain from independence. Even when the State doesn’t gain, local elites almost always gain from fragmentation.

        The United States had a strong federalist system. The Civil War tempered our enthusiasm for it, after which the trend has been slow centralization. There is little evidence that State or local governments are on average more efficient, better run, or less corrupt. In fact, probably none of those are true.

  10. These comments are pathetic. US democracy still works if you get involved. I know from experience that lawmakers at the state level will listen to your issues if you try. Commenting on the internet is not trying. Joining interest groups and setting up meetings is trying.

    If you don’t like trump or Obama or whoever there is another branch which actually makes the laws and is up for election all the time.

    Also, local politics is a big part. If you don’t want to be involved with the pto and the school board, don’t bitch about the schools.

    Finally, crazy ascerberic jerks get little play in any forum

  11. To follow on my comments, I am a member of a legislative action committee representing a particular interest group. The way the sausages get made is that grandma Smith complains to her state senator that xyz was unfair to her.

    Mr. Senator introduces a bill to address her legitimate concerns that has a number of inadvertent affects. Interested parties get involved and help negotiate write a better bill. Anyone concerned can participate.

  12. And even if influencing Obama care is beyond you you damned sure can influence your local town board. You may not win, but that’s democracy.

  13. I’ve found that American politics is seriously grass roots and that getting involved in the local municipality gets you involved in the county as a matter of course. By turn you meet the state players, and them the national ones. It’s less than 6 degrees.

  14. Dear FM,

    Let’s write a post about how to engage in the Democratic process. I think most people think it is some kind of impossible shibboleth. In reality it is relatively simple work.

    1. Zemtar,

      How about 60 posts about ways to participate in the Democratic processes! There is something here for everybody: Reforming America: steps to new politics.

      These are the least popular posts among the 4,000+ on the FM website. “Responsibility” and “work” are to Americans today what crosses and sunlight are to vampires. I don’t see much willingness to commit “our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to the defense of America.

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