Is Democracy Eroding?

Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Photo by Bernardo Londoy.

Guest post by Jeff Colgan.

It is fashionable to compare Donald Trump to fascists like Hitler. Trump is certainly a vile candidate. But Hitler’s rise was made possible by the Weimar Republic, a regime set up after a devastating war against the wishes of much of the German populace. It was barely a decade old before Hitler took power. Its institutions never took root. The United States is not the Weimar Republic.

A better historical analogy is Venezuela. In the 1990s, Venezuela was an established democracy with entrenched civil rights and a well-functioning rule of law. For decades, its government had a president, a bicameral Congress, and a Supreme Court. Unfortunately, it also had two political parties that alternated in government and shared power in ways that benefitted the elite to the detriment of the country. Sound familiar?

Frustrated with the persistent hypocrisy of the governing elite, Venezuelans elected the populist leader Hugo Chavez in 1998. In office, Chavez played on the country’s polarization and gradually eroded the rule of law. He also ruined the economy by undermining the institutions and policies that supported prosperity. He did so from the Left, but a populist from the Right accomplishes the same just as easily – just look at Kansas or Louisiana.

The United States is not the same as Venezuela, but the point is that established democracies can and do erode – so swiftly they catch most citizens by surprise. What gets a democracy into a mess like the one Venezuela is in now? Two basic ingredients seem to be sufficient. First, the incumbent political parties take advantage of their position through greed and hypocrisy. Second, the country experiences a nasty economic shock, like the one Venezuela had starting in the late 1980s. When I was doing research in Caracas in 2008, one Venezuelan told me “look, GDP per capita went down by 25 percent. Voters were ready to write a blank check to anyone who promised to make it better.”

The United States has the first ingredient; it only awaits the second. Regardless of whether he wins, Trump’s rise is scary because it reflects the rot in America’s democracy. The Great Depression crushed democracy in Germany but not the United States because America had a strong democratic system. It doesn’t anymore. And eventually bad economic times will come. It is a mistake to think democratic erosion couldn’t someday happen here.

Indeed, the recurring violence already associated with Trump’s campaign might do considerable damage to American democracy. Several observers argue that the violence might get considerably worse. Scholars like Paul Staniland and Inken von Borzyskowski have investigated the causes and consequences of electoral violence in the developing world. In 2016, electoral violence is an American problem, too.

Many Democrats are smugly saying that Trump is the Republicans’ problem. In a sense, he is. The NY Times provides the best one-sentence description of the GOP: “It is a party of white people that protects its richest members and feeds off the anxiety of its poorest members by directing their anger at minorities, immigrants and women.” That kind of political Ponzi scheme was bound to run into trouble.

But the Democrats have been slow to grasp the implications of mass disillusionment and polarization. The dream is that Clinton will thrash Trump, the GOP will change its ways, and all will be well. This is false hope. The Sanders campaign shows how widespread the frustration has become. At some point, fixing governance isn’t just an issue, it’s the only issue.

The risks for America’s future are intimately tied to today’s political gridlock. Elites across party lines are failing to provide enough benefits to average people to justify the pains associated with national progress. Want to make progress on climate change or immigration reform or international trade?  Fine – but it comes with costs, and they aren’t distributed evenly. To make it happen politically, enough people have to believe that the country’s wealth is both growing and well-distributed. Good leaders know that any decent social contract has to offer enough benefits to their followers to make the costs of change worth bearing. America does not have those leaders right now. Too many Republicans are fear-mongering and hiding an agenda for the rich; too many Democrats want to force social progress without building the kind of trust and mutual benefit that make progress possible.

Plenty of people are saying that elites need to listen to the popular frustration that is fueling the Trump and Sanders campaigns. Not enough people are precise about what that message is. Some say it’s about overly scripted candidates or political correctness or the evils of Obamacare. No. The message is that for too long, elites have said “the system is broken” as a way of getting elected and perpetuating that system. Eventually you have to stop complaining about the system and actually fix the damn thing. Campaign finance reform won’t solve the problem on its own, nor will open primaries, nor will ending gerrymandering, nor will reducing the incumbency advantages in Congress. But some of those things, in combination, would make a pretty good start.

More importantly, leaders need to re-establish a culture of political decency, a respect for expertise, and a level of political dialogue that appeals to our better angels, not our basest nature.

Business elites, big donors, and party elders must drive the process of renewal. Individual politicians will never do it on their own, because they gain too much from the current system. But there are people in both parties who want to see a functioning democracy that actually governs – people like Tom Steyer and George Soros among Democrats, and Bloomberg and Paul Singer on the GOP side. America’s best hope is that this election convinces those people to demand necessary political reforms, notwithstanding a short-term partisan price.

The country has invisible assets called trust, decency, and faith in our institutions. It is possible to consume those assets for private gain, for a while, but eventually the whole system comes crashing down.

Jeff Colgan is the Richard Holbrooke Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Brown University and author of “Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War.” On Twitter, he is @JeffDColgan.

  1. ‘Business elites, big donors, and party elders must drive the process of renewal.’ They are not going to do this, though, because they are the same kind of people with the same values and the same practices as the politicians, bureaucrats, and manipulators who have brought us to the present predicament. As Uncle Karl observed, capitalism reduces every human relationship to the cash nexus. Since humans need something besides money, the system then falls apart. The only question is how long it will take.

  2. I disagree that “fixing governance isn’t just an issue, it’s the only issue” – especially when you’re looking at it in the light of Trump and Sanders. The people voting for Sanders and especially Trump are doing so because the system has screwed them – the system set into place in 1980-2000, when governance was all the rage and everybody thought you just had to entrust everything to that wizard Alan Greenspan. You can have a very smoothly functioning government that works for the élites and keeps the common folk down. Just ask Lee Kuan Yew.

    I suppose you could describe such a system as bad governance, but at that point it seems the term “governance” stops meaning anything beyond “government”: governance is indeed the only issue because every other issue is defined as being part of governance.

  3. Great analysis, Jeff! To the side reference to Kansas and Louisiana, I would add Wisconsin and Michigan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like