The Backlash against Political Elites Is Strengthening Democracy, Not Threatening It
EspañolDemocracies end when they become too democratic. This is the central argument of Andrew Sullivan in a vitriolic, pre-election anti-Trump article in The New York Magazine (May 2016). Sullivan, who Forbes magazine has ranked among “The 25 Most Influential Liberals in the U.S. Media,” builds his highbrow case on a tortuous reading of Plato and the Founding Fathers.
The article warns that in our hyper-democratic times, as the authority of elites fades, establishment values cede to popular ones; the emotional component of politics becomes inflamed, and reason retreats because there are fewer elite arbiters to establish what is actually true or relevant. He concludes that we need elites to protect democracy from its own destabilizing excess, and urges anti-democratic measures to save democracy from itself.
Democracy is in crisis, but the cause is not “too much democracy” as claimed by Sullivan. The Democracy Index 2016, a yearly report on the state of democracy worldwide provides the data. The Index scores countries in five categories: electoral process, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture. Based on the scores, each country is classified as: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian state.
Over the last 10 years, 81 of the 167 countries covered by the Index (48.5 percent) have declined in their overall democracy scores. Currently, only 4.5 percent of the world’s population, in 19 countries, can be said to live in full democracies. In 2016, for the first time, the United States was downgraded to a “flawed democracy” as confidence in the functioning of public institutions declined during the Obama administration.
This years’ Democracy Index titled “The Revenge of the Deplorables” highlights how the political classes in Europe and the U.S. have lost touch with the people they represent, and often express contempt for sections of the electorate: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic-you name it…” (Hillary Clinton, September 2016.)
Surveys by Pew Research, Gallup, Eurobarometer, the World Values Survey, and others, document a growing deficit of trust in political elites. That is, distrust in government, political parties, politicians, the media, etc. According to Pew, only 19 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing “always or most of the time.” This erosion of public trust is down from 77% in 1964. Today, most Americans (55%) think that ordinary citizens would “do a better job of solving problems” than elected officials.
The Index draws on the June 2016 Brexit vote in Britain and the November U.S. election to make the case that both votes represented a rebellion against out-of-touch-elites. The votes show that “society’s marginalized and forgotten voters, often working class and blue collar, do not share the same values as the dominant political elite…”
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However, many in the leftist political elites consider the Brexit vote and the election of Mr. Trump “nothing more than outbursts of primal emotions and visceral expressions of narrow-minded nationalism.” Instead of seeking to understand the causes of the popular backlash against the political establishment, the elites have sought to delegitimize the Brexit and Trump outcomes by disparaging the values of those who supported them.
The leftist political elites fail to see anything encouraging in the increased political engagement of ordinary people. Some have even questioned whether ordinary citizens should be trusted to participate in important decisions such as the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. To them, increased popular participation is a threat to democracy.
Yes, the Founding Fathers, mindful of the turbulent Roman and Greek experiences, were fearful of democracy. But they also understood that the cause of disagreements is freedom itself; in Madison’s words: “Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire.” The backlash against political elites is not a threat, but a vindication of democracy.
The answer to what has ben called a “democracy recession” is not anti-democratic measures. Democracies do not end, as Mr. Sullivan argues, when they become “too democratic.” Democracies falter when the people are excluded.