Tag Archives: decline of democracy

When What We Know Just Ain’t So

A recent research report from Journalists’ Resources examined whether regulations intended to protect the environment cost jobs. The belief that such regulatory activity has a negative effect on employment has been an article of faith among conservative Republicans, yet research on the issue fails to confirm that faith– there is little evidence that environmental regulations substantially impact overall employment figures.

I thought of that report, and a number of other areas where reality fails to confirm our firm expectations, when I read a post to an academic listserv in which I participate. The article of faith that Kim Lane Scheppele–an eminent comparative constitutionalist– called into question in that post is a critically important one: the belief that American democracy cannot be subverted.

Scheppele cited the work of a Columbia professor who had watched Turkey fall under the control of a populist autocrat who won democratic elections–and who sees dangerous parallels to Trump and the U.S.

Confidence in the exceptional resilience of American democracy is particularly misplaced in the face of today’s illiberal populist movements, whose leaders are constantly learning from each other. Trump has a wide variety of tried and tested techniques on which to draw; already, he has vowed to take pages out of Putin’s playbook.

Scheppele had just come back from Chile, where she had lectured on the advance of illiberal constitutionalism around the world.

People there asked me how Trump could have been elected in the US, and I showed them this data: Nearly one quarter of young Americans no longer believe in democracy and since 9/11, faith in the way America is governed has plunged to all-time lows (raised slightly in election years when Obama was elected, but then plunging back again).

These are danger signals that should have alerted us earlier to the possibilities of Trump. I might add that very similar danger signals appeared before the election of other populist autocrats of both left and right: Putin, Erdogan, Orbán, Kaczynski, Correa, Chavez.

There’s a clear pattern here. First people lose faith in the system. Then they vote to break it. And when the new leader decides to trash constitutional institutions, he is cheered on by those who want change at any price. When people wake up to the damage done, it is too late because their constitutional system has been captured.

Scheppele is particularly concerned because in our interconnected world, these autocrats learn from each other.

I am admittedly among the number of Americans who have always had a false sense of security: it can’t happen here. But as we have seen, that article of faith–that particular element of our belief in American exceptionalism– has proved to be fragile in other countries that had seemingly stable democratic institutions.

Just last weekend, the New York Times ran an article about the “alt-right” (our homegrown Nazis) and its ideal of leadership.

As the founder of the Traditionalist Worker Party, an American group that aims to preserve the privileged place of whiteness in Western civilization and fight “anti-Christian degeneracy,” Matthew Heimbach knows whom he envisions as the ideal ruler: the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.

Russia is our biggest inspiration,” Mr. Heimbach said. “I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.”

Despite our belief that America is somehow different, we are not exempt from the white nationalist fervor that is sweeping large sections of the globe. If we want to emerge from this very dangerous period of time with something resembling an actual constitutional democracy and the rule of law, we will need a determined and informed resistance.