Is Democracy in Crisis?

Is Democracy in Crisis?

By Cindy Murphy McMahon, BA’74

Mid-year in 2016, when many Americans were trying to cool off from sum­mer’s sizzle and election rhetoric was heating up, an event quietly rocked the world of many political scientists.

What could alter our understanding of human nature and government began with a simple hypothesis: The future of democracy may be in danger.

A study in the July 2016 Journal of Democracy cited many reasons that democracy — even in developed nations — is approaching a crisis point. The article cast doubt on the accepted theory that once democracies are firmly established, or “consolidated,” they can be presumed to be self-sustaining.

One of the political scientists who was alarmed by the study, as well as a subsequent article in the same journal by the same authors in January 2017, was Erika Moreno, PhD, associate professor of political science and international relations at Creighton.

“Democracy serves as one of the trusses of what political scientists study because, in part, the discipline developed here in the U.S., and the U.S. is one of the more established democracies in the world,” Moreno says. “So to talk about democratic deconsolidation in advanced democracies is a radical departure.

“It is kind of a given that in new democracies, in the third wave of democratization in the 1980s in Latin America, Africa and Asia, you have seen growing pains and you do see reversals, or deconsolidation,” she says. The study of how democracy functions for the average citizen, especially across Latin America, is Moreno’s area of expertise.

“But we have not spent time on decon­sol­idation in established democracies,” Moreno adds. “To look at Great Britain, for example, the progenitor of modern democratic institutions across the world, and say, ‘I don’t know, is it going to stay that way or not?’ is groundbreaking.”

Moreno thought the ideas deserved further analysis, so she brought them to the attention of her students in Comparative Politics, a largely sophomore-level class.

“So far, we had studied the United States as an established democracy, and the same for most of the countries in Europe, and here was a study that was saying, ‘Hey, we need to be paying attention to some warning signs.’ ”

The first article, “The Danger of Decon­soli­da­tion,” authored by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, cautions that just as social scientists, policymakers and journalists failed to read the signs of the times and recognize the impending collapse of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s, there are signals being ignored today that liberal democracy is in danger.

World Values Surveys, which explore people’s beliefs and values in more than 100 coun­tries, show that citizens in a number of consoli­dated democracies in North America and Western Europe are not only more critical of their leaders, but also are more cynical about democracy itself. They also are less hopeful that they can influence public policy and more willing to express support for authoritarianism.

These views vary by age groups. For example, 72 percent of Americans born before World War II gave a “10” on a scale of 1 to 10 to the statement that it is “essential” to live in a democracy. However, for the millennial generation, only about 30 percent gave the same importance to the statement. A similar pattern is noted across all major democracies, including Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand.

The authors state that not long ago, young people were more enthusiastic than older people about democratic values. In World Values Surveys done in 1981–1984 and 1990–1993, for example, young respondents were much keener than elders on protecting freedom of speech. Today, the roles have reversed.

There are many factors that seem to add fuel to the theories presented in the Journal of Democracy.

For one, the United States recently was downgraded from a full democracy to a flawed democracy by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU). The EIU’s annual Democracy Index scores nations in five areas: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Nations are then rated into four categories: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.

The U.S. score fell to 7.98 from 8.05 the year before, which is below the 8.0 required for a full democracy rating. The 2016 report, released in early 2017, cited Americans’ growing distrust in governmental institutions as a key factor for the downgrade. Other flawed democracies with similar scores on the EIU index include Japan, France, Singapore, Israel, South Korea, Italy and India.

(The U.K., on the other hand, actually main­tained its full democracy status, raising its score to 8.36 from 8.31 in 2015 because of increased political participation with the Brexit vote.)

Pew Research Center data show Amer­i­cans’ lack of faith in government has been declining since the late 1950s. Only 20 percent of Americans in 2017 say they trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.”

When Pew began asking about trust in government in its National Election Study in 1958, about 75 percent of Americans voiced trust. The erosion began in the 1960s and continued through the 1970s, with some ups and downs the next two decades. Public trust reached a three-decade high shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but declined quickly. Since 2007, Pew says the public’s reported trust in government in the “always” or “most of the time” categories has never topped 30 percent.

Another troubling 2017 Pew Research Center survey of adults in 18 Central and Eastern European countries showed only lukewarm support for democracy among both the young and the old. Among those under 40, 49 percent said democracy was preferable to other forms of government, while 44 percent of those 40 and older agreed.

Additionally, freedom of the press worldwide declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016, according to a 2017 report from Freedom House, with unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new attempts by authoritarian states to control the media, even beyond their borders.

Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, says only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press, which it defines as “a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”

When people think of democracy, they often primarily think of free elections. But there’s actually more to it.

“What the journal articles brought out is how much more is involved in what we call liberal democracy than just elections,” says James Wunsch, PhD, the Rev. John P. Schlegel, SJ, Distinguished Professor of Politics and Government. Wunsch has taught political science at Creighton for more than 40 years, concentrating in comparative politics, public policy and political thought and development. He is particularly interested in global poverty and state performance, especially in Africa.

“There is the rule of law, which is critical; the distribution of powers, which can be done in various ways; respect for minority rights; a consensual process of making policies; respect for civil society and individual rights; a free media; and so on.

“So it takes a huge amount of things that come together to bring about a functioning democracy, and one of the biggest proponents of that, underlying all of this, is a support and belief among the public, largely unarticulated, that these sorts of institutions are the way we ought to govern ourselves.”

Confronting this broad, deeply held faith in these aspects of democratic governance today, Wunsch says, is public frustration.

“Frustration that is in some measure economic, following the events of the Great Recession, but in some measure more deeply rooted in the deindustrialization of the United States and other countries. There’s the feeling that democracy doesn’t work anymore, that it doesn’t solve our problems anymore. This tends to lead to the rise of populism.”

“We know that inequality has profound effects on a political system,” Moreno says. “A vibrant and strong middle class is essential to maintaining democracy.

“Inequality erodes the middle class. It eats away at it and we have seen that in the developing world. When you see that yawning gap between rich and poor, that’s when you begin to see an almost Darwinian struggle among groups within the same nation, which tends to tear at the fabric of the nation and make it difficult to conduct political discourse in a reasoned and civil tone.”

The national share of American adults in middle-income households decreased from 55 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2014, according to Pew data. At the same time, the share of adults in the upper-income tier increased from 17 percent to 20 percent, and the share of adults in the lower-income tier increased from 28 percent to 29 percent.

When Moreno initially presented the Foa and Mounk study to her students, she got a range of reactions.

“Some students were genuinely shook that young people (in the World Surveys) would be comfortable with a military government,” she says. “Many had questions about what the data mean, and some wisely wondered if this could be a fluke.”

A number of students presented research proposals to explore the theories in the study and several plan to carry out their research this academic year. One of those who took the subject to heart was Annie Fernandez of St. Louis, a sophomore majoring in political science.

She was just a freshman in Moreno’s class when a general interest she had in politics became more intense. “The 2016 election started me thinking about the principles and institutions experts see as essential to democracy, and whether any of those were in real danger of deconsolidating.

“To see this new research focusing on public opinion polls and people’s disaffection with democracy, their openness to alternative regimes and military rule, etc., was really striking.”

Fernandez says she and her classmates found it “pretty alarming and bothering” to think about a possible democratic backslide in countries that have for so long been thought of as some of the strongest democracies in the world.

“It is striking to think that some citizens might be losing faith in democracy and the institutions it is built on, instead of only being dissatisfied with the current government or the representatives in power.” The fact that younger people are especially dissatisfied, she says, simply could be because, “We tend to be a little more critical in general and don’t necessarily appreciate fundamental rights since we don’t know anything else and we take them for granted.”

So, this year, in her Research Methods course, Fernandez will take on a research project to delve further into whether democracies such as the U.S. and Great Britain are indeed in the early stages of democratic deconsolidation, combining both public opinion polls and expert assessments of democracy.

“I’m excited to see what the data say. It’s a new, pretty unexplored research question, so it will be exciting.”

The authors of the Journal of Democracy articles do offer some hope, saying, “Perhaps longstanding democracies have sufficient systemic resources to turn the growing anger of citizens into a force for democratic reform, as occurred in France under Charles de Gaulle or in the U.S. during the Progressive Era,” and conclude in their second article that the “survival of liberal democracy may now depend on the will of citizens to defend it effectively against attacks.”

Moreno and Wunsch both believe more research needs to be done to determine whether democratic deconsolidation is indeed hap­pen­ing in advanced countries, and they say there are fixes available if it is.

“One of the lessons is that these difficult, challenging problems, such as inequality for instance, are not unsolvable. You can enact a handful of policies that tend to undo inequality,” Moreno says. “Can we in the U.S. and in Western Europe look around and learn the lessons that other countries have had to learn the hard way, and apply them before it’s too late?”

“Everything is soluble,” says Wunsch, “there’s just a lack of political will. If we got government moving again on solving problems, that would solve a lot of the alienation.”

Wunsch also says he derives some hope from the next generation he sees in his classes. “Creighton students are fun to work with. There’s an intellectual curiosity and there’s a concern with social and world problems, and a desire to understand them and do something about them.”