Liberal Democracy Confronts a Winter of Discontent

We track major trends with implications for governance here at the Institute and so have been most interested in one of the central puzzles of the 2016 presidential election campaign: the willingness of Donald Trump’s supporters to rationalize, shrug off or ignore his frequent violations of long-standing democratic norms, including his personally scandalous behavior and his refusal to share any information concerning his financial situation. Trump voters continued to support him despite his attacks on war heroes, his open misogyny and clear, if not overt, appeals to racism, and the fact that he was caught on tape bragging about his assaults on women. He also attacked his election opponents with schoolyard-style epithets in an unprecedented undermining of long accepted norms of civility in political campaigns. However strained election contests have become in the past, candidates felt obliged to honor those norms of respect and consideration. Trump ignored all pleas for decorum and civility. Meanwhile, his rhetoric was long on grandiose promises and short on details. His claims were also often ugly, particularly those that scapegoated immigrants for “stealing” American’s jobs and for costing U.S. citizens money for social support services. More, Trump openly and obviously lied, repeatedly, grossly overstating the level of crime in the United States as well as unemployment in the nation. He also assailed the international order the United States had labored with many other Western nations decades to create as “too expensive” and called for pulling back on American commitments to the European Union and Japan and South Korea (among other nations) in the name of his isolationist “America First” position. His supporters routinely explained this behavior as Trump’s effort to “talk straight” and to cut through “political correctness.” It was, in fact, no such thing, but instead an open attack on liberal democracy by exploiting the fears of those whose votes he set out to attract. One need not imagine that all of Trump’s supporters are racists or radical white nationalists to argue nonetheless that he ruthlessly took advantage of three broad and continuing anxieties associated with deeper social and economic trends and realities to gain office:

  • Economic anxiety resulting from ongoing globalization and workplace automation as well as relative wage stagnation, especially among white working class high school-educated voters
  • Ethnic and racial anxiety arising from demographic shifts that have not yet seen whites lose their absolute position of numerical superiority in the population nationally, but that have nonetheless resulted in changes in the mix of demographic groups at state and local levels. Those shifts have raised concerns about the role of “others” in specific communities and it is those fears and perceptions that Trump exploited during the campaign with his scapegoating of immigrants
  • Growing economic inequality between rural and urban populations, as a larger share of the nation’s GDP has come to be produced in the country’s principal metropolitan centers, leaving those residing in other areas feeling worse off in comparative terms and increasingly isolated and resentful.

If these concerns were central to Trump’s appeal for many voters, they were coupled with, and reinforced by, a broader trend in media communications and journalism that has found a major share of such outlets organizing, for some decades now, around specific audiences to secure revenues. Thus, we have the public ratings leader and very profitable Fox News, which has elected to pillory and demonize the Democratic Party and the idea of government in favor of the Republican Party and all things purportedly conservative, while MSNBC has taken a similar stance in favor of progressive causes and the Democratic Party. But, more importantly, this trend has allowed voters to sequester themselves and receive only specific forms of information that reinforce their existing dispositions, biases and norms. Thus, if 41 percent of GOP voters remained fallaciously convinced when responding to an August 2016 survey that former President Obama is not a citizen of the United States because their principal information outlets (and their now President) had often argued the same, they are unlikely to be dissuaded of their error by new information they obtain from the sources that had led them to adopt that view.[1] In addition, many media businesses today gain their audiences not simply from promoting specific ideological valences or beliefs, but also by actively campaigning against American institutions and political actors, irrespective of their stands, so as to garner listener and viewer outrage and thereby ratings and revenues.

These major shifts in media organization and the news industry and ongoing economic and demographic change have been accompanied by a continuing radicalization of the Republican Party, which has chosen not to support Americans dislocated by globalization, but instead to work to deny them health and other benefits and to press for additional tax cuts for the nation’s most wealthy. The upshot of the combined effects of these trends taken together has created an American citizenry that is “increasingly critical of liberal democracy itself.”[2] The percentage of millennials, for example, who believe that it is “essential” to live in a democracy has fallen to just 30 percent in recent polls.[3] Likewise, an October 2016 survey found that 46 percent of Americans responding reported that they had “never had” or had “lost” faith in United States democracy.[4] These beliefs allowed Trump to campaign against an ill-defined “corrupt establishment” and claim that only he could address citizen anxieties. As he did so, he challenged the nation’s most basic democratic norms, and he continues to do so. He also repeatedly warmly embraced Vladimir Putin and his corrupt autocratic government and even held the Russian up as a model of leadership. Trump’s supporters cheered him for doing so.

Trump’s willingness to lie to the public repeatedly concerning immigration and immigrants and crime and his predecessor, among many other matters, points to a politics of social anxiety that

… uses the power of the majority to confront perceived or actual elites in the media, courts, and the civil service; disregards the rights of unpopular minorities; and attacks the institutional roadblocks such as independent courts as illegitimate impediments to the popular will.[5]

President Trump’s continuing attacks on the courts, immigrants and the free press neatly evoke the accuracy and timeliness of this argument.

If these signs are deeply concerning for the health and continued viability of America’s long stable democracy, it is not immediately clear how they might be overcome. Consider the following current realities of our nation’s politics:

  • The House of Representatives is strongly gerrymandered along party lines and the leaders of the Republican majority in that body have made it clear they are not inclined to challenge President Trump so they can attain their primary agenda of rolling back health insurance for millions of Americans and providing tax reductions to the nation’s most wealthy individuals. Gerrymandering has sharply polarized House members along partisan lines. All members are afraid to stray far from primary voters’ perceptual orthodoxy, however detached from reality those perceptions may be, for fear of losing their electoral base. It is difficult in such circumstances to contemplate working with others across the political aisle.
  • Trump supporters have also proven themselves to be energetically engaged in supporting the President by actively discounting and discountenancing information that contradicts their views of him and of world conditions. Experts have labeled this behavior “identity protective cognition.”[6] Voters today also routinely engage with the views of media sources with which they already agree (confirmation bias) in order to gain their information concerning politics. The phenomena of identity protective cognition and confirmation bias together help to explain why so many Trump supporters were willing simply to ignore his aberrant behavior during the campaign and continue to support him, notwithstanding his often erratic behavior during his brief tenure in the White House.
  • Finally, as noted above, many American voters are already disposed to support a “strong leader” to address their disquiet concerning continuing social and economic change, imagining that a more autocratic chief executive could “set matters right.” This is, of course, precisely what Trump contended in his campaign: that he alone could secure needed change.

These realities suggest that reestablishing conditions in which Americans of all beliefs can reason together to address the shared challenges our society now confronts is unlikely to be easy. In any case, it will not simply be a matter of providing “the facts” to those “others” who do not understand, since so many are already ill disposed to listen to anyone with differing views. This said, in truth, there are few other options available to accomplish the goal of shared democratic deliberation, other than civil conversation, even as so many, including the President, attack that aspiration. In consequence, all of those wishing to counter the current negative trends undermining self-governance and democracy here in America and other liberal democracies must work harder than ever to listen carefully and to share information as clearly and frequently as necessary so all concerned can grapple with the trends now evident. For our part, we here at the Institute will continue to pursue our research and outreach efforts with just such in mind. Indeed, the current trend toward the deconsolidation of democratic governance in the United States provides a compelling reminder of the vital role of universities in our national life. We hope to live up to that challenge here at VTIPG in what are sure to be difficult days and months ahead.

Notes

[1] J. D. Durkin,” New Poll Shows that 41% of Republicans Still Don’t Think Obama was Born in the U.S.,” Mediate, August 11, 2016, http://www.mediaite.com/online/new-poll-shows-that-41-of-republicans-still-dont-think-obama-was-born-in-the-u-s/, Accessed March 8, 2017.

[2] Robert S. Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” Journal of Democracy, 28(1), p.5.

[3] Foa and Mounk, “The Signs of Deconsolidation,” p.6.

[4] Foa and Mounk, p.7.

[5] Foa and Mounk, p. 13.

[6] Dan Kahan, “‘Fake News’-enh. ‘Alternate Facts Presidency’-watch out!,” Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School, February 20, 2017, http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2017/2/20/fake-news-enh-alternative-facts-presidency-watch-out-talk-su.html , Accessed March 3, 2017.