Losing Faith in Democracy

I am this morning reading two very different sources claiming that Americans and our European allies are losing faith in democracy. One is the left-wing Vox, which might be dismissed if it were alone, but the other is Defense One considering the fight against Islamic extremism. That's a different enough source and context that it makes the claim worth considering.

Vox gives as its evidence five propositions. The first is that Americans trust our political institutions less. This is true. We talk about the "Confidence in Institutions" poll every year, and it's been a disastrous couple of decades for American institutions for the most part. However, it isn't just the political institutions that Americans trust less. Only three institutions garner majority trust: the military, small business, and the police. Two of those are government institutions, but not democratic ones -- coercive ones. The Federal institutions garner less than a third of voters for the Executive/Judicial branches, with Congress only getting 8% trust.

The general trend in that poll, though, has been for Americans to trust institutions in general less. Banks are down from the upper 50s to the 20s; organized religion from the 60s to the 40s. Public schools are down from the upper 50s to the upper 20s. Newspapers are down from around forty percent to the 25 percent range.

The police and the military are mostly unchanged, which is the real mark of their success. The military's historic low came after Vietnam, but with the odd high attached to momentary military victories, it's been right around where it is. The police are 52% in the beginning, 52% now. Faith in the criminal justice system is very low, but it's improved over the years: Americans expressing confidence in that institution rose from the teens into the twenties.

So it seems as if the issue isn't democracy, here, it's a collapsing faith in institutions generally. That could indicate a rising tide of individualism, which has certainly been observed during the same period (the mid-1970s to the present).

Next up is "young Americans giving up on politics." Eh, youngsters have always been bad about showing up to vote. That's generally good for democracy, as they don't yet understand the world they live in. This is proven by the third argument, which has to do with whether young people perceive it as "essential" to live in a democracy. Far fewer do than their elders -- but that's how they've been educated. They've also been taught to believe a lot of other nonsense they'll sort out in the real world. The other propositions they offer about America are for increasing support for fringe positions ("I hope the military takes over" garners support from 1 in 6 -- but it's a proposition I'll bet is disproportionately disfavored by actual veterans of the military).

What about the Defense One argument?
You can’t beat a surging ideology with no ideology or higher sense of purpose. In the face of the persistent challenge of violent Islamist extremism and the global recession of freedom, what the world has needed is a powerful reaffirmation of the universal relevance of liberal values. Instead, the democratic West has been retreating into moral relativism and illiberal impulses.

The assault on liberal values has been a defining feature of the democratic recession. During the past decade, democracy has typically ended not with tanks rolling in the streets or the president shutting down parliament, but rather in suffocating increments: with a regime steadily rigging elections, limiting opposition rights, taming independent media, and criminalizing the work of independent organizations.
Hm, now that does sound familiar. Even here in America, we've seen some evidence if "moral relativism" and "illiberal impulses" from the ruling party. Rigged votes are the order of the day in Congress -- the Iran deal, for example, was an exercise in pretending from start to finish. The Clinton campaign's weekend ploy with the DNC is another example, but the Clinton strategy is fundamentally anti-democratic: the real strength of her campaign is in having used a political machine to round up the superdelegates of the party, making it nearly impossible for actual voters to choose another candidate than her. The DNC has structured itself in such a way as to insulate itself from democracy.

My sense is that the real fear isn't that democracy may be losing strength, but that the people may be electing the wrong kind of candidates. Both authors suggest that the rise of right-wing nativist parties represents an enemy of democracy or at least of 'the universal values of liberalism.' That's not clear to me. It may be that one of the universal values is love of home, love of country, love of the way of life that is one's own. That's not incompatible with liberalism. It is incompatible with overarching super-governments that force everyone to live by all and only the same rules and not enforce border controls.

That's the common flaw of the US Federal government and the EU right now. The reaction against both is, I think, fundamentally democratic. It's the people who are furious about it, and who are going to the polls to try and stop it. They are doing so by electing political parties that organize for the purpose of running in democratic elections.

Someone is losing faith in democracy, but it isn't these people.


Ymar Sakar said...

The reaction against both is, I think, fundamentally democratic.

It's technocratic meritocratic democracy, not the Athenian or American model at all.

Meaning, it's democracy as seen on the internet, not in a State or the UN full of child rapists.

J Melcher said...

With great respect, I disagree the problem is "democracy". My alternative theory is that the people do NOT have the power (the demos- lack the overall -cratiness) to affect the bureaucracy. We especially lack power to replace the bureaucrats, to "throw the rascals out" from time to time.

I'm sure all are familiar with the classic BBC TV series _Yes, Minister_ so I allude to it without specific instances.

The impact is to turn the entire federal system into a imperial version of New York City's Tammany Hall. Mayor Daley's Chicago Machine. Even when the elected officials are turned out, the officials who have survived the bureaucratic selection pressures under a long-established political viewpoint remain. That viewpoint then continues.

Say there are in general three factions (Madison's word) in a structure. One faction is most concerned with securing its own personal powers and privileges -- as detailed by James M. Buchanan. Another faction is most concerned with using the powers they possess to advance one side of a two-sided political struggle -- social versus market or whathaveyou. The third faction is concerned with advancing the OTHER side of that two sided struggle. As Madison would have predicted, the Buchanan-ite faction will make alliances back and forth whichever faction of the political struggle is temporarily in power. And in each swing the Buchananites succeed and gain strength, while the ability of the political powers -- responding to democratic forces -- is reduced. So we get entities like the TSA, born of a compromise between law-and-order Republicans and pro-labor-union Democrats, to create a highly-unpopular-with-ordinary-voters agency that grows without regard to need or effectiveness. Even if a libertarian leaning political leader wanted to, say, return airport screening functions to the city or state or highest-bidding private security agency with local reach and jurisdiction over an airport, the TSA itself could find bi-partisan allies enough overcome that initiative. This is particularly so when Congressional "Funding" powers get rolled up into omnibus legislation, so that none of the allies of the bureaucracy need defend a specific strategic point. By logrolling and horsetrading the allies of the TSA bureaucrats obtain support for their buddies, in trade with allies of, say, the Windmill or Standardized Testing bureaucracies.

Congress as a whole may posture against an agency but more likely any given voter or taxpayer or rich campaign contributor who has a particular and peculiar individual problem with a specific bureaucratic decision will find a legislator instead acting as a ombudsman or outside auditor -- to fix the one "exceptional" problem rather than even admit to the systemic problems.
So a particularly egregious sexual groper at the airport in Hastings Nebraska may, under the pressure of Congress, find himself reassigned to desk duty in Topeka. But the TSA as a whole will grope away, unphased.

One solution might be an abolishment of the civil service system with a return to the "spoils" process. Another idea might be to make high level (Cabinet or even Agency) jobs subject to vote, rather than executive appointment. (The way my state, Texas, elects people such as "Railroad commissioner" or "Comptroller of Public Accounts") A third might be "term limits" (including Glenn Reynolds "revolving door surtax" ) such that no senior bureaucrat holds federal authority for more than, say, ten years. I dunno, and don't have a strong preference. But I do believe we must correctly identify where the problem arises. I do NOT believe that democracy, as a concept, has failed.

Grim said...

With great respect, I disagree the problem is "democracy".

I appreciate the generosity of your expression, but I don't know that we disagree. If I were giving my own position, I would have said that the desire for home is so naturally human that any humane politics would make room for it.

The intensity of the reaction is coming from the fact that groups in favor of centralized control -- which is anti-democratic -- have stifled the ordinary democratic means for expressing that desire. You're getting fringe parties because the fringe is the only place left where these ideas are allowed any sort of expression. But they aren't fringe desires. They're ordinary, natural human desires.

Your point about the need to eliminate the entrenched bureaucracy is well founded. It's a difficult problem, given that any large human organization will need a bureaucracy -- and an efficient bureaucracy needs experienced hands. If we can't shrink the size of the government dramatically, you're stuck with choosing between corrupting entrenched interests, or else a permanently inexperienced bureaucracy that doesn't do its jobs very well.

raven said...

Maybe Yuri Bezmanov's predictions are coming true- this poll would rhyme nicely with them, and also another nugget I picked up somewhere- someone who studied propaganda, I cannot recall who, (Hannah Arendt?) the end stage of a propaganda assault was not that people had a positive belief in one thing, and a negative view of another, but that they disbelieved everything.

Larry said...

I agree, Raven. Another example is in The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis. Once Puzzle is unmasked as a false Aslan, the Narnians do not renew their devotion to the real Aslan. They decide instead that he never existed.

Ymar Sakar said...

They'll believe whatever they are told to believe.

Tom said...

I think the sentiments here are right. We haven't lost faith in democracy, but we no longer live in fully democratic states. We live in some kind of chimerical state that is partly democratic and partly oligarchic.

J, that's a great analysis. I think you're right.

Part of the answer to the bureaucracy problem is to have a lot less of it; permanently reduce the size and scope of the federal government and it becomes more manageable.

We also need to take a good hard look at the power of the bureaucracy to create regulations on its own and severely limit it.

We need far more transparency, and apparently we need laws allowing (requiring?) individuals to be immediately fired for things like spending their days watching porn on government computers and gross incompetence or neglect.

I understand that, in the past, qualified people have gone into the bureaucracy for the job security, often not taking higher-paying jobs in the private sector that were dependent upon the market. But that should not let anyone off for incompetence, negligence or bad conduct.

We need to eliminate government unions. Now, government employees could still voluntarily organize, but the government would be under no obligation to negotiate with those organizations.

I think these things would be a good start in reining in the bureaucracy.