The defining moment of the 2016 presidential campaign for me came not during any of the party conventions or debates or from any action in particular by any of the candidates. Instead, it came during a somewhat overlooked Congressional Black Caucus Awards dinner in September, where, in his keynote speech, President Obama gave a full-throated plea for people to get out the vote because, in his view, our very democracy was on the line. That the rhetoric and actions during the campaign season forced a sitting US president to make such appeals calling for the preservation of a basic tenet in American life causes a shiver to run down the spine of many, but among developed countries in the West, it increasingly seems that the draw of democracy is slowly fading.
In a controversial new study, Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa sought to determine the stability of western democracies going forward and, for proponents of this political system at least, the study’s findings should be alarming. After analyzing the responses to a series of questions regarding the importance of freedom from those in various countries stretching over the past few decades and then noting the political outcomes of the respondents’ countries thereafter, the researchers concluded that, based on the answers to those same questions when posed now, there should be grave concern for the future trajectory of democracy in the West. The most shocking finding of the study was the consistent and drastic decline in support for the importance of democratic governance across many modern economies from the US to New Zealand with most countries showing significantly less than 50 percent support. And this appears to be a movement that is not going away anytime soon. In a separate study by the same researchers, only 19 and 36 percent of millennials in the US and Europe, respectively, would agree that a military coup in response to an incompetent government would be illegitimate, which is much lower than the previous generation.
Of course, these are the results of only two studies. And although there is some evidence elsewhere that corroborate Mounk’s and Foa’s results, other studies suggest that such findings are somewhat overblown. Nevertheless, the surprising results from elections and referendums over the past few months (among other things) are telling and proof that there is significant support for authoritarian-type leadership in the West.
But determining how much the public values democracy need not only be measured by evaluating its antipathy towards it or support for authoritarians. An argument can be made that a casual indifference towards our style of government in the US has existed since the turn of the twentieth century. Average turnout for presidential and midterm elections from 1828-1902 was over 74 and 64 percent, respectively. From 1904-2014 however, these numbers have dropped to 58 and 42 percent. Furthermore, this is a trend whose trajectory seems to be heading further south with turnout in the 2014 midterm elections only at 36 percent, the lowest of any election since 1940 (this despite the oft-cited 10 percent approval rating of congress). And in an election considered by many the most important election in American history, a surprising 45 percent of eligible voters didn’t bother casting a ballot in the 2016 presidential election, the lowest turnout rate in a presidential contest in two decades. Two very different styles of government rule were offered and the response by many was to essentially shrug their shoulders. It should also be noted that the US ranks among the bottom third of OECD countries in terms of turnout rates amongst its eligible voting age population in recent elections.
It’s hard to say what exactly explains this indifference. Maybe people take for granted and place full faith in America’s constitutional checks and balances that would ultimately protect them if any one branch of government overreached their constitutional boundaries (which has been offered to me as an explanation for voting one way or another, if at all). Or perhaps attempts by several states to limit access to the voting booth, many of which have been struck down by federal courts, have had their intended effect. Even more insidious and an extension of the previous point, maybe voter apathy is rooted in frustration by political dysfunction, which creates a vicious cycle further discouraging voter participation even more. It’s therefore likely that the causes are due to a combination of factors and not any one reason in particular, but whatever it is, there are many.
Personally, I find the tuning-out of our politics by the general population to be troubling for a variety of reasons, not the least of which because we owe it to the millions who have sacrificed on the battlefield and during the (ongoing) centuries-long struggle for civil rights in order for us to enjoy our relative freedoms. But beyond that, a more engaged society can help enact policies that are more reflective of the views of the American population and give people a greater sense that they have a stake in the direction of the country and their communities. This understanding of our interconnectedness and shared fate would hopefully combat the growing feeling of isolation among many Americans which is becoming a larger public health concern. Granted, research now shows that there’s no correlation between democracy and happiness and that, contrary to long-held dogma, happiness actually drives democracy, not the other way around. But an electorate that chooses politicians whose policies favor inclusive economic growth would lead to greater shared prosperity and happiness that no other political system could deliver, thus reinforcing our democracy and preserving it for future generations.
In his book Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama argues, after reflecting on a wide breadth of political systems beginning at the dawn of civilization, that the dysfunctional American political system is eroding and will continue to do so without change. He predicts this decay of our democracy will eventually manifest itself as a cultural reversion to tribalism which has been somewhat borne out by observations regarding the recent rise of populist movements. It is my hope that these events spark a democratic renaissance and cause us to reflect upon and reaffirm the success of American democracy, however imperfect, to bring about relative happiness and prosperity and through broader voter participation, tailor it to ensure that it remains the vehicle for socioeconomic progress going forward.