“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States—a man who has praised dictators, encouraged violence among supporters, threatened to jail his rival, and labeled the mainstream media as “the enemy”—has raised fears that the United States may be heading toward authoritarianism. While predictions of a descent into fascism are overblown, the Trump presidency could push the United States into a mild form of what we call “competitive authoritarianism”—a system in which meaningful democratic institutions exist yet the government abuses state power to disadvantage its opponents.
But the challenges facing American democracy have been emerging for decades, long before Trump arrived on the scene. Since the 1980s, deepening polarization and the radicalization of the Republican Party have weakened the institutional foundations that have long safeguarded U.S. democracy—making a Trump presidencyconsiderably more dangerous today than it would have been in previous decades.
There is little reason to expect Americans’ commitment to democracy to serve as a safeguard against democratic erosion.
Paradoxically, the polarizing dynamics that now threaten democracy are rooted in the United States’ belated democratization. It was only in the early 1970s—once the civil rights movement and the federal government managed to stamp out authoritarianism in southern states—that the country truly became democratic. Yet this process also helped divide Congress, realigning voters along racial lines and pushing the Republican Party further to the right. The resulting polarization both facilitated Trump’s rise and left democratic institutions more vulnerable to his autocratic behavior.
The safeguards of democracy may not come from the quarters one might expect. American society’s purported commitment to democracy is no guarantee against backsliding; nor are constitutional checks and balances, the bureaucracy, or the free press. Ultimately, it may be Trump’s ability to mobilize public support—limited if his administration performs poorly, but far greater in the event of a war or a major terrorist attack—that will determine American democracy’s fate.
SIEGFRIED MODOLA / REUTERS A woman walks to a polling booth in Bangui, Central African Republic, February 14, 2016.
In the West, it is difficult to escape the pessimism that pervades current discussions of global affairs. From Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the never-ending crises of the European Union, to the Syrian catastrophe and the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), the world appears to be tearing at the seams. Meanwhile, democracy itself appears to be unraveling—helped along by resurgent authoritarianism, weakened liberal democratic values, rising populism, and contagious illiberalism.
Democracy has unquestionably lost its global momentum. According to Freedom House, there are only a handful more electoral democracies in the world today than there were at the start of this century. Dozens of newer democracies in the developing world are struggling to put down roots, and many older democracies—including, of course, the United States—are troubled. The theory that democratic transitions naturally move in a positive direction and that established democracies don’t tumble backward no longer holds water.
The gloom has become so thick, however, that it obscures reality. A number of politicians, journalists, and analysts are overstating or oversimplifying negative trends and overlooking positive developments. They too easily cast U.S. President Donald Trump’s rise, the Brexit vote, and the mainstreaming of populism in many parts of Europe as part of an all-embracing, global counterrevolution against liberal norms. Although the state of democracy around the world is indeed very troubled, it is not uniformly dire, especially outside the West.
We’re used to thinking hugely well of democracy. But interestingly, one of the wisest people who ever lived, Socrates, had deep suspicions of it. If you like our films, take a look at our shop (we ship worldwide): https://goo.gl/mQYmze
Join our exclusive mailing list: http://bit.ly/2e0TQNJ
Or visit us in person at our London HQ https://goo.gl/8UR9P5
His speech harked back to Washington and Eisenhower.
Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty
While the speech was broadly optimistic in tone and avoided any significant discussion of the man who will soon occupy the White House, the bulk of the text was devoted to expressing his fears about how things could go wrong for the United States.
Saying early on that his speech’s theme would be “the state of our democracy,” Obama went on: “There have been moments throughout our history that threatened to rupture that solidarity. The beginning of this century has been one of those times.”
The president named five specific threats he said he felt American democracy was currently facing: economic inequality, racial tensions, polarization, foreign threats, and decaying democratic institutions.
“How we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids, and create good jobs, and protect our homeland,” Obama said.
Presidential farewell warnings have a long history
The tradition of the presidential farewell address technically dates back to George Washington, who published the first and most famous such address (in text form) in September 1796. The tradition fell out of fashion for some time, but with the dawn of mass communication technology in the mid-20th century it came back in vogue, and since then, every president who’s served two full terms in office has delivered one.
Most farewell addresses are forgettable. They’re a time for presidents to brag about their accomplishments, say how much they’ve loved serving the country, and give a final goodbye on their way out. Few remember, for instance, George W. Bush’sfarewell reflections on the war on terror or Bill Clinton’s argument for fiscal responsibility.
Whether democracy will play a central role in Africa’s future has been an open question for most of the continent’s postcolonial history, and perhaps no events so vividly signify democratic progress as do elections. But by focusing on the details of the contests that define democratic transitions, it is easy to overlook the deeper roots of effective democratic governance, which lie in strong institutions and the political cultures that support them.
Last month’s presidential election in Ghana—its seventh since its return to democracy in 1992—was a reminder that the country is a case study in both of those positive tendencies. The election, won by Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), was free, fair, and competitive, and the handling of the vote was praised abroad. What sets Ghana apart is a long-standing history of institutional strength and nation-building. Preserving those advantages will require the more equitable distribution of the gains of the country’s economic progress in the years ahead.
Ever since the emergence of mass democracy after World War II, an inherent tension has existed between capitalism and democratic politics; capitalism allocates resources through markets, whereas democracy allocates power through votes. Economists, in particular, have been slow to accept that this tension exists. Instead, they have tended to view markets as a realm beyond the political sphere and to see politics as something that gets in the way of an otherwise self-adjusting system. Yet how democratic politics and capitalism fit together determines today’s world. Politics is not a mistake that gets in the way of markets.
The conflict between capitalism and democracy, and the compromises the two systems have struck with each other over time, has shaped our contemporary political and economic world. In the three decades that followed World War II, democracy set the rules, taming markets with the establishment of protective labor laws, restrictive financial regulations, and expanded welfare systems. But in the 1970s, a globalized, deregulated capitalism, unconstrained by national borders, began to push back. Today, capital markets and capitalists set the rules that democratic governments must follow.
But the dominance of capital has now provoked a backlash. As inequality has widenedand real wages for the majority of people have stagnated—all while governments have bailed out wealthy institutions at the first sign of trouble—populations have become less willing to accept the so-called costs of adjustment as their lot. A “double movement,” in the words of the Hungarian historian Karl Polanyi, occurs in such moments as these, when those who feel most victimized by markets reclaim the powers of the state to protect them. The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States is a product of this reaction, as is the strengthening of populist parties in Europe.