I have written several articles on postings related to politics. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these political events.
Is democracy failing and putting our economic system at risk?
The rule of law and democracy are crucial to capital markets. A free market balanced by a democratically elected, transparent and capable government, and a strong civil society (“an inclusive regime”) yield stable growth rates and greater social welfare. Conversely, threats to democracy are threats to the private sector, which is why business leaders and institutional investors cannot afford to remain on the sidelines when such threats emerge.
This paper explores the state of American democracy and whether it constitutes a systemic risk that impacts fiduciary duties. The paper proceeds in three parts. In the first, we assess the question of whether American democracy is backsliding towards failure, and argue that it is. In the second, we will examine whether democratic failure represents a systemic risk, and conclude that it does. In the third part, we offer some preliminary thoughts about what steps major private sector actors may undertake as part of their fiduciary responsibilities given the threats to U.S. democracy and markets.
SECTION 1: IS DEMOCRACY FAILING?
We examine this question along two key dimensions: public opinion and institutional performance.
THE AMERICAN PUBLIC
Based on six high-quality surveys conducted in the last year and a half, support for democracy as the best form of government remains overwhelming and mostly stable across party lines. However, about 1 in 5 Americans have views that make them at least open to, if not outright supportive of, authoritarianism.
But there’s an important qualification: Americans distinguish sharply between democracy in principle and in practice. There is near-universal agreement that our system is not working well—in particular, that it is not delivering the results people want. This is troubling because most people value democracy for its fruits, not just its roots.
Given that situation, it is not surprising that public support is very high for fundamental change in our political system to make the system work better. There is no party of the status quo in contemporary America: both sides want changes, but they disagree about the direction of change. Unfortunately, about 6 in 10 Americans do not think that the system can change. And because it has not changed despite growing dysfunction, polarization has led to legislative gridlock, which has generated rising support for unfettered executive action to carry out the people’s will.
Democracy means the rule of the people, but Americans do not fully agree about who belongs to the people. Although there are areas of agreement across partisan and ideological lines, some in our nation hold that to be “truly” American, you must believe in God, identify as Christian, and be born in the United States. In a period of increasing immigration and religious pluralism, these divisions can become dangerous.
Disagreements about who is truly American are part of a broader cleavage in American culture. 70% of Republicans believe that America’s culture and way of life have changed for the worse since the 1950s, while 63% of Democrats believe that they have changed for the better. Strong majorities of Republicans agree that “Things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own county,” that “Today, America is in danger of losing its culture and identity,” and that “the American way of life needs to be protected for foreign influences.” Majorities of Democrats reject these propositions.
Support for political violence is significant. In February 2021, 39% of Republicans, 31% of Independents, and 17% of Democrats agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” In November, 30% of Republicans, 17% of Independents, and 11% of Democrats agreed that they might have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
While public support for many of the reforms in federal compromise legislation is strong, there is a divide in the electorate on what they view as the largest problem in our current system. In September, only 36% believed that “rules that make it too difficult for eligible citizens to vote” constituted the largest problem for our elections, compared to 45% who identified “rules that are not strict enough to prevent illegal votes from being cast” as the largest problem.
The conclusion we draw from this quick review of public opinion is that if democracy fails in America, it will not be because a majority of Americans is demanding a non-democratic form of government. It will be because an organized, purposeful minority seizes strategic positions within the system and subverts the substance of democracy while retaining its shell—while the majority isn’t well organized, or doesn’t care enough, to resist. As we show in a later section, the possibility that this will occur is far from remote.
A second way of considering whether democracy is failing is to look at the institutions of government. Successful democratic systems are not designed for governments composed of ethical men and women who are only interested in the public good. If leaders were always virtuous there would be no need for checks and balances.
The Founding Fathers understood this. They designed a system to protect minority points of view, to protect us from leaders inclined to lie, cheat and steal, and (paradoxically) to protect the majority against minorities who are determined to subvert the constitutional order.
During the Trump presidency, the formal institutional “guardrails” of democracy—Congress, the federalist system, the Courts, the bureaucracy, and the press—held firm against enormous pressure. At the same time, there is evidence that the informal norms of conduct that shape the operation of these institutions have weakened significantly, making them more vulnerable to future efforts to subvert them. There is no guarantee that our constitutional democracy will survive another sustained—and likely better-organized—assault in the years to come.
We begin with the good news about our institutions.
Former President Trump did not succeed in materially weakening the powers of the Congress. He did not try to disband Congress, and while he often fought that institution, it fought back. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) had no trouble confronting him, and Democrats brought impeachment charges against him not once but twice. Although speculation was rampant, in the end then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) did not block either trial. While former Leader McConnell and allies have been called former President Trump’s lapdogs, on virtually all domestic policy issues they have acted like almost any Republican majority would act, and on foreign policy former Leader McConnell neither stopped nor punished Republican senators who tried to constrain Trump when they thought he was wrong.
The American system is a federalist system. The Constitution distributes power between the federal government and the state government, codified in the 10th Amendment to the Constitution. States have repeatedly and successfully exercised their power against former President Trump, especially in two areas, COVID-19 and voting.
Despite Mr. Trump’s attempts to pressure the nation’s governors and other state officials into doing what he wanted, he did not inflict lasting damage on the federalist system, and the states are no weaker—perhaps even stronger—than they were before his presidency. Citizens now understand that in a crisis, states are the ones who control things that are important to them like shutdown orders and vaccine distribution.
In the spring of 2020 then-President Trump, anxious to get past COVID in time for his re-election campaign, was pushing hard for states to open up early. Only a few complied, while many—including some Republican governors—ignored him. Seeing that the governors were not scared of him, Mr. Trump then threatened to withhold medical equipment based on states’ decisions about opening up. He came up against the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 10th Amendment, which prevents the president from conditioning federal aid on the basis of governors’ acquiescing to a president’s demands.
The guardrails between the federal government and the states also held when it came to Mr. Trump’s campaign to reverse the 2020 election results. In Georgia, the Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a stalwart Republican and Trump supporter, certified election results in spite of personal calls and threats from the president. In Michigan, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield did not give in to Trump’s attempts to get them to diverge from the process of choosing electors.
One of the hallmarks of failing democracies is a weak judicial system under heavy political control. But under assault from then-President Trump, the judiciary remained independent despite his repeated attempts to win in the courts what he could not win at the ballot box. President Trump-appointed judges often made decisions that thwarted Mr. Trump’s attempts to overturn the results. In fact, after the election Mr. Trump’s team and allies brought 62 lawsuits and won exactly one. (The others he either dropped or lost.) Many of those decisions were handed down by Republican judges. Perhaps former President Trump’s biggest disappointment was the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear election challenges concerning states he claimed he had won.
A free press is an essential element of a healthy democracy. Former President Trump spent four years using the bully pulpit of the presidency to mock the press, calling them names and “the enemy of the people” and referring to outlets he does not like as “failing.” He revoked the press credentials of reporters he did not like. (The courts restored them.) Nevertheless, reporters were not afraid to call out his lies. With Mr. Trump out of office for months now, no major news outlets have gone broke. Few are afraid to criticize former President Trump or his supporters.
The free press is still fundamentally free (although President Trump undoubtably contributed to some decline in public trust of the media, which in turn weakens its oversight and accountability functions). Its financial and structural problems, most of which are attributable to the challenges of internet age, predated Mr. Trump. Some argue that former President Trump increased distrust in the media but, as polling indicates, the lack of trust in media declined to less than fifty percent in the first decade of the 21st century and has stayed in the low forties in recent years.
One final point: democracies often fail when their military sides with anti-democratic insurgents. But in the United States, the tradition of civil control over the armed forces remains strong—especially within the military. After the chaos in Lafayette Park last June, when Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared with then-President Trump in military fatigues, Mr. Milley and other top military leaders went out of their way to reaffirm this tradition, which is drilled into all officers throughout their careers. A military coup is the least likely way for democracy in America to end.
SO WHY ARE WE WORRIED?
Although scholars and pundits have long chronicled with regret the rise of partisan polarization and the decline of congressional effectiveness, concern about the outright failure of American democracy was rare before the rise of Donald Trump. Never before in American history have we had a candidate, not to mention a president, who disparaged the integrity of the electoral system and who hinted repeatedly during his election that he would not accept the results of the election if he lost. This behavior began during the Republican primaries and continued in advance of the 2016 election, which he won, and the 2020 election, which he lost. It built to a crescendo that exploded on January 6, 2021, when supporters, called to Washington for a “Stop the Steal” rally, marched to the Capitol, attacked law enforcement officers, vandalized offices, and breached the Senate gallery where the electoral college vote was supposed to be taking place.
The non-stop attacks on American elections were part of a broader attack on the truth. Any story Mr. Trump and his supporters disliked became “fake news,” creating, slowly but surely, an alternate universe that encompassed everything from the integrity of the election to public health guidelines for the COVID pandemic. The very existence of a sizeable number of citizens who cannot agree on facts is an enormous threat to democracy. As the Yale historian Timothy Snyder points out in his 2018 book, The Road to Unfreedom, authoritarians like Vladimir Putin have no use for truth or for the facts, because they use and disseminate only what will help them achieve and maintain power. As our colleague Jonathan Rauch argues in The Constitution of Knowledge, disinformation and the war on reality have reached “epistemic” proportions.
Even though constitutional processes prevailed and Mr. Trump is no longer president, he and his followers continue to weaken American democracy by convincing many Americans to distrust the results of the election. About three-quarters of rank-and-file Republicans believe that there was massive fraud in 2020 and Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president. “A ‘Politico’/Morning Consult survey found that more than one-third of American voters feel the 2020 election should be overturned, including three out of five Republicans.”
The aftermath of the 2020 election revealed structural weaknesses in the institutions designed to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process. A focus of concern is the Electoral Count Act of 1887, which was adopted in response to the contested election of 1876. This legislation is so ambiguously drafted that one of former President Trump’s lawyers used it as the basis of a memorandum arguing that former Vice President Pence, whom the Constitution designates as the chair of the meeting at which the Electoral College ballots are counted, had the right to ignore certified slates of electors the states had sent to Washington. If Mr. Pence had yielded to then-President Trump’s pressure to act in this manner, the election would have been thrown into chaos and the Constitution placed in jeopardy.
Recently, former President Trump’s assault on the integrity of the 2020 election has taken a new and dangerous turn. Rather than focusing on federal government, his supporters have focused on the obscure world of election machinery. Republican majorities in state legislatures are passing laws making it harder to vote and weakening the ability of election officials to do their jobs. In many states, especially closely contested ones such as Arizona and Georgia, Mr. Trump’s supporters are trying to defeat incumbents who upheld the integrity of the election and replace them with the former President’s supporters.
At the local level, death threats are being made against Democratic and Republican election administrators, with up to 30% of election officials surveyed saying they are concerned for their safety. As seasoned election administrators retire or just quit, Mr. Trump supporters are vying for these obscure but pivotal positions. In Michigan, for instance, the Washington Post reports that there is intense focus on the boards charged with certifying the vote at the county level. Republicans who voted against former President Trump’s efforts to alter the vote count are being replaced. And most dangerous of all, some states are considering laws that would bypass the long-established institutions for certifying the vote-count and give partisan legislatures the authority to determine which slate of electors will represent them in the Electoral College.
American democracy is thus under assault from the ground up. The most recent systematic attack on state and local election machinery is much more dangerous than the chaotic statements of a disorganized former president. A movement that relied on Mr. Trump’s organizational skills would pose no threat to constitutional institutions. A movement inspired by him with a clear objective and a detailed plan to achieve it would be another matter altogether.
The chances that this threat will materialize over the next few years are high and rising. The evidence suggests that Mr. Trump is preparing once again to seek the Republican presidential nomination—and that he will win the nomination if he tries for it. Even if he decides not to do so, the party’s base will insist on a nominee who shares the former president’s outlook and is willing to participate in a plan to win the presidency by subverting the results of state elections if necessary. The consequences could include an extended period of political and social instability, and an outbreak of mass violence.
SECTION 2: DOES A FAILING DEMOCRACY THREATEN THE PRIVATE SECTOR?
For several reasons, America’s private sector has a huge stake in the outcome of the struggle for American democracy.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article headlined “Business Can’t Take Democracy for granted,” Rebecca Henderson argues,
American business needs American democracy. Free markets cannot survive without the support of the kind of capable, accountable government that can set the rules of the game that keep markets genuinely free and fair. And only democracy can ensure that governments are held accountable, that they are viewed as legitimate, and that they don’t devolve into the rule of the many by the few and the kind of crony capitalism that we see emerging in so many parts of the world.
Henderson further argues that, just as democracy sets the rules of the game for the private sector, the private sector can help to keep in place democracy’s “soft guardrails,” such as the “unwritten norms of mutual toleration and forbearance” upon which democracy relies. “CEOs are widely trusted by the American public, “and so the attitudes of the private sector towards government and democracy are consequential. Because the free market and democracy are interdependent, a systemic risk to one is, by definition, a systemic risk to the other.
Transnational evidence from the World Bank and Freedom House bolsters Henderson’s claim, as does the pioneering work by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson on the relationship between economic prosperity and political accountability. Sarah Repucci, Vice President of Research & Analysis at Freedom House, writes, “The political crackdowns and security crises associated with authoritarian rule often drive out business and place employees, supply chains, and investments at risk, in addition to raising reputational and legal concerns for foreign companies that stay involved.” This underscores that it is in the investment community’s own interest to actively push back on efforts to weaken or dismantle these democratic systems. The very nature of checks and balances provides for the stability of a free market, ensuring that a free and engaged citizenry will provide the most stabilizing market forces. “A more democratic world would be a more stable, inviting place for established democracies to trade and invest.”
The simple fact is that it is hard to plan and invest for the future in volatile, unstable circumstances. The United States is not exempt from the calculus of political risk analysis, even if we are not accustomed to applying it to our own country. Investors have a fiduciary duty that is dependent on their understanding and attempting to deal with systemic risk. According to a recent report, “Decisions made by fiduciaries cascade down the investment chain affecting decision-making processes, ownership practices and ultimately, the way in which companies are managed.”
Moreover, as overseas firms and countries begin to worry about the stability of our laws and institutions, they will think twice about investing in the United States, and mutually beneficial international partnerships will be harder to negotiate. Economists agree that “the free market needs free politics and a healthy society.”
The situation is worsened by the fact that large corporations in America are in a weakened position to withstand political attack. According to the Gallup organization, which has explored public confidence in major institutions for nearly half a century, the share of Americans expressing very little or no confidence in big business has never been higher, not even in the depth of the Great Recession. Among the 17 institutions Gallup assessed, confidence in big business ranked 15th, ahead of only television news and the U.S. Congress. Complicating its political challenge in a polarized country, corporate America is increasingly challenged by employees, activists, and indeed some shareholders to take stands on divisive social and political issues in ways that both reflect and reinforce blue/red polarization.
For much of the past century, Republicans were the champions, and Democrats the critics, of corporate America. But now the lack of support for big business is pervasive across the political spectrum. In mid-2019, 54% of Republicans had a positive assessment of big business’s impact on the course of our national life. Two years later, this figure had fallen to 30%, about the same as for Democrats. Republican support for banks and financial institutions as well as technology companies underwent a similar decline. If an elected demagogue citing national security or a hot-button social issue sought to restrict the independence of the private sector, public opposition to this effort would likely be muted at best.
At the elite level, the traditional bonds between the Republican Party and big business are also breaking down. For example, a recent op-ed by Republican Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) calls out corporate America for taking sides in the culture war: “Today, corporate America routinely flexes its power to humiliate politicians if they dare support traditional values at all.”
In short, while more work remains to be done, we believe that the fate of democracy constitutes a systemic risk to markets. The fate of democracy and that of the private sector are inextricably linked, and private sector leaders have reasons of self-interest as well as principle to do what they can to strengthen democracy.
SECTION 3: WHAT CAN THE PRIVATE SECTOR DO TO STRENGTHEN DEMOCRACY?
The private sector has a long and venerable track record in the public sphere. Perhaps the best- known campaign began on college campuses in the 1980s to encourage universities to end their investments in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. This movement spread to pension funds and to cities and states. By 1990, over 200 U.S. companies had cut investment ties with South Africa. By 1994, Nelson Mandela, the leader of the anti-apartheid movement who was freed after nearly three decades in prison, had been elected president of post-apartheid South Africa.
Other examples of corporate action include the Sudan divestment movement of the early-mid 2000s prompted by the Darfur genocide, which resulted in about half the U.S. states passing divestment statutes that remain in force for many state pension funds. The U.N. Tobacco-Free Finance Pledge, signed by almost 130 companies from the banking and finance sector, took place alongside the U.S. government’s tough regulatory push. More recently, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, companies pledged nearly $50 billion to address racial inequality. Many companies have made pledges or commitments to fight climate change—for example, through Climate Action 100+ “an investor-led initiative to ensure the world’s largest corporate greenhouse gas emitters take necessary action on climate change.” Marriage equality is another example of such impact. While progress remains uneven, investor action is making a difference.
In more recent years much of corporate America and Wall Street, including many large multinationals, have signed onto the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights/UNGP (June 2011) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals/SDGs (September 2015).
Finally, the movement for ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investing is strong and growing. Driven by investor demand and regulatory pressure, more and more institutional investors are implementing ESG investing. Asset owners such as pension funds are increasingly demanding sustainable investing strategies.
Until recently, democracy has not been a focus of corporate campaigns in the public sphere. However, in response to the 2020 presidential election and former President Trump’s attempts to overturn the results, some corporations entered the fray. In late October of 2020, a group of key business leaders, led by the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S Chamber of Commerce, issued a statement defending the integrity of the electoral process. When it became clear that Biden had won the election, members of this group made statements in support of honoring the outcomes, and they declared that the transition process for the peaceful transfer of power should begin immediately. Numerous companies halted their PAC donations to candidates who had voted against certifying the election results—and some, such as Charles Schwab, announced that it would stop its political giving altogether “in light of a divided political climate and an increase in attacks on those participating in the political process.”
The role of the private sector did not end with Joe Biden’s inauguration in January of 2021. As state after state moved to enact laws restricting the right to vote, corporations again took action. In May of 2021, hundreds of corporations and executives including Amazon, BlackRock, Google, and Warren Buffett issued a statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would make it harder for people to vote. Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express, organized the unified statement, highlighting that “throughout our history, corporations have spoken up on different issues. It’s absolutely the responsibility of companies to speak up, particularly on something as fundamental as the right to vote.” State and local officials, both past and current officeholders, applauded this statement and urged its signatories to do even more to protect democracy.
The continuing involvement of the private sector in the defense of democracy is essential for democracy, and for business itself. As a Chatham House report stated recently, “Business should recognize its own stake in the shared space of the rule of law, accountable governance, and civic freedoms…. Business has a responsibility – in its own interest and that of society – to support the pillars of profitable and sustainable operating environments.”
Discharging this responsibility requires a clear-eyed assessment of the dangers we face. As we have argued, the greatest threat to democracy in America is not that a majority of Americans will turn against democracy. It is that strategically placed state and local majorities will collude with an organized and purposeful national minority to seize control of key electoral institutions and subvert the will of the people.
In this context, the responsibility of large investment institutions is clear: to remain vigilant in the face of ongoing threats to democracy, to do everything in their power to urge corporate leaders to remain involved in the fight for democracy, and to reward them when they do. This responsibility can be discharged most effectively when investment institutions establish the framework for ongoing consideration of this issue—and when they act collectively in defense of the democratic institutions without which prosperity as well as liberty is at risk.
SECTION 4: FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION
The above discussion sets the stage for an action agenda. To start the discussion, investors need to ask themselves the following questions:
- Should threats to U.S. constitutional order as discussed in this paper be classified as a systemic risk to markets? And if so, is there a fiduciary duty on the part of investors to identify and pursue mitigating steps?
- Should corporate boards and chief executives of portfolio companies support efforts to protect the right of all Americans to vote in U.S. elections and condemn measures that unfairly restrict those rights?
- Should investors build into stewardship platforms a policy of mitigating risk to U.S. Constitutional integrity?
- Should portfolio companies follow responsible business practices by urging organizations to which they belong to terminate any financial or other support for measures that result in voter suppression in the U.S., and to withdraw from such organizations if such efforts fail?
- Should portfolio companies end any political contributions associated with elected officials or candidates for elected office who decline to accept the legitimate outcome of US elections or who support seditious acts?
- Should investors regularly monitor financial agents they may employ to ensure that they are aligned both in word and deed with our efforts to address the systemic risks to U.S. constitutional integrity?
Americans not only divided, but baffled by what motivates their opponents
As it became clear that Democrats would win control of the U.S. House of Representatives, pundits immediately began explaining the “Blue Wave.” Some said it was rooted in concerns that President Trump was leading the nation into dangerous territory; others pointed to alarm about health care, or compassion for citizens of color and refugees. But Republican voters were having none of this, according to a recent Penn State Mood of the Nation Poll.
The nationally representative poll of 1,000 citizens included 307 voters who cast votes for Republican Congressional candidates in the midterm elections. We asked them, “In your opinion, how many citizens voting for the Democrats did so because they sincerely believe that the Democratic party is best for the country?”
Republicans can’t understand Democrats
Only one in four Republican voters felt that most or almost all Democratic voters sincerely believed they were voting in the best interests of the country. Rather, many Republicans told us that Democratic voters were “brainwashed by the propaganda of the mainstream media,” or voting solely in their self-interest to preserve undeserved welfare and food stamp benefits.
We asked every Republican in the sample to do their best to imagine that they were a Democrat and sincerely believed that the Democratic Party was best for the country. We asked them to explain their support for the Democratic Party as an actual Democratic voter might. For example, a 64-year-old strong Republican man from Illinois surmised that “Democrats want to help the poor, save Social Security, and tax the rich.”
But most had trouble looking at the world through Democratic eyes. Typical was a a 59-year-old Floridian who wrote “I don’t want to work and I want cradle to grave assistance. In other words, Mommy!” Indeed, roughly one in six Republican voters answered in the persona of a Democratic voter who is motivated “free college,” “free health care,” “free welfare,” and so on. They see Democrats as voting in order to get “free stuff” “without having to work for it” was extremely common – roughly one in six Republican voters used the word “free” in the their answers, whereas no real Democratic voters in our sample answered this way.
Among the Republicans who seemed to try hardest to take the perspective of sincere and patriotic Democratic voters, the most common attributions were related to immigration – a topic made salient by President Trump in his campaign stops during the last month of the election. As in this Republican woman from Washington who said, “Democrats welcome all people into the country whether they are here legally or not.”
Democrats return the favor: Republicans uninformed or self-interested
The 429 Democratic voters in our sample returned the favor and raised many of the same themes. Democrats inferred that Republicans must be “VERY ill-informed,” or that “Fox news told me to vote for Republicans.” Or that Republicans are “uneducated and misguided people guided by what the media is feeding them.”
Many also attributed votes to individual self-interest – whereas GOP voters feel Democrats want “free stuff,” many Democrats believe Republicans think that “I got mine and don’t want the libs to take it away,” or that “some day I will be rich and then I can get the benefits that rich people get now.”
Many used the question to express their anger and outrage at the other side. Rather than really try to take the position of their opponents, they said things like, “I like a dictatorial system of Government, I’m a racist, I hate non-whites.”
Democrats think many Republicans sincere, and point to policy
Democrats, however, were somewhat more generous in their answers. More than four in ten Democratic voters (42%) felt that most Republican voters had the country’s best interests at heart (combining the top two bars in the figure below). And many tried their best to answer from the other’s perspective. A 45-year-old male voter from Ohio imagined that as a Republican, he was motivated by Republicans’ “harsh stance on immigration; standing up for the 2nd Amendment; promised tax cuts.” A 30-year-old woman from Colorado felt that Republican votes reflected the desires to “stop abortion… stop gay marriage from ruining our country… and give us our coal jobs back.”
Other Democrats felt that their opponents were mostly motivated by the GOP’s “opposition to Obamacare,” “lower taxes” and to support a party that “reduced unemployment.”
Taking the perspective of others proved to be really hard
The divide in the United States is wide, and one indication of that is how difficult our question proved for many thoughtful citizens. A 77-year-old Republican woman from Pennsylvania was typical of the voters who struggled with this question, telling us, “This is really hard for me to even try to think like a devilcrat!, I am sorry but I in all honesty cannot answer this question. I cannot even wrap my mind around any reason they would be good for this country.”
Similarly, a 53-year-old Republican from Virginia said, “I honestly cannot even pretend to be a Democrat and try to come up with anything positive at all, but, I guess they would vote Democrat because they are illegal immigrants and they are promised many benefits to voting for that party. Also, just to follow what others are doing. And third would be just because they hate Trump so much.” The picture she paints of the typical Democratic voter being an immigrant, who goes along with their party or simply hates Trump will seem like a strange caricature to most Democratic voters. But her answer seems to lack the animus of many.
Democrats struggled just as much as Republicans. A 33-year-old woman from California told said, “i really am going to have a hard time doing this” but then offered that Republicans “are morally right as in values, … going to protect us from terrorest and immigrants, … going to create jobs.”
Voters like these – baffled but not hostile – would seem to represent an opportunity. Their answers tell us that they might actually be interested in better understanding those at the opposite end of the political spectrum and that motivation could be the first step of a long journey toward reducing incivility and polarization. Whether such voters can long endure in today’s media and social media environment is a critical question – if they can endure and even grow, then the prospects for bipartisan cooperation in areas of shared concern will be possible. If not, polarization will continue to rise.
Democracy in Disarray:
How the World Sees the U.S. and Its Example
President Biden and his administration attempt to reaffirm America’s international leadership at a moment when America’s democracy and global standing are tested in new and profound ways: an insurrection in January made the country’s political polarization clear; countries with stronger central governments gained an early diplomatic advantage over the United States through rapid exports of COVID-19 vaccines; and mass protests in the wake of high-profile acts of police violence have brought worldwide attention to long-simmering racial injustice.
As President Biden aims to shore up democratic institutions at home, he also recommits the United States to engagement abroad: he has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, embarked on a global summit of democracies to address the rise of authoritarianism, and begun to more actively manage the global health crisis.
Seeking to understand what the world thinks about U.S. democracy and its global influence, we at the Eurasia Group Foundation have conducted our third annual international survey to investigate the attitudes and opinions of people from around the globe.
We asked more than five thousand people in ten geographically diverse countries detailed questions about America’s role in the world, U.S.-style democracy, and their own values and political beliefs. The following observations are included among the study’s findings:
-Generally, the United States continues to enjoy the goodwill of people from across the globe (respondents were 85% more likely to have a favorable rather than an unfavorable view of the U.S.);
-Sources of American soft power significantly drive pro-American sentiment around the world. People who have a connection to their country’s diaspora in the United States or consume American news or cultural products are three times as likely to have a pro-American attitudes than those with no association;
-For the first year in the past three years, a preference for a different American president did not significantly contribute to anti-American sentiment. (The survey was fielded in early March 2021, two months after the presidential transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden.);
-People in countries which are treaty allies of the United States tend to have less favorable attitudes of the democracy than people elsewhere. Russians and Chinese are more likely than Germans or Japanese to like American ideas of democracy;
-American interventionism fuels anti-Americanism; people who think a more restrained U.S. foreign policy would make American democracy more attractive are the most likely to have an unfavorable view of the U.S.;
-Disapproval of America’s continuation of the war in Afghanistan was a significant driver of anti-American sentiment. Respondents who wanted the U.S. to withdraw troops “as soon as possible” were on average about 2.4 times more likely to have an unfavorable view of the U.S.;
-Of respondents who disliked American democracy, pluralities in nine out of ten countries chose as the main reason for their dislike: “the U.S. idea of democracy is hypocritical – ordinary voters don’t actually have power;”
Positive perceptions of America’s global influence are in decline (the number of respondents who gave a “very positive” appraisal of U.S. influence decreased by 20% between 2019 and 2021);
-A large majority of respondents (81%) continue to prefer American to Chinese global leadership, though this is primarily driven by economic self-interest rather than support for democratic values;
-People who thought the U.S. handled the coronavirus pandemic poorly were 27% more likely to prefer a China-led world order than people who thought it handled it well.
This report’s main findings — that hard power hinders rather than helps the promotion of American democracy, and that soft power sows support for the U.S. internationally — comes as the Biden administration’s foreign policy takes shape. If the president follows through on pursuing a more humble foreign policy, people around the world may look upon American-style democracy as a model for their own governments.
But, if the Biden administration struggles to prioritize fixing American democracy at home, and pursues hard over soft power in America’s quest to shore up its global influence, anti-American sentiment could replace feelings of goodwill. With this in mind, turn to the Specific Findings section for a review of international trends, and a more detailed country-by-country analysis.
At the outset of the Biden administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared the United States will begin to pursue a more humble foreign policy, one which balances “humility with confidence.” By most accounts, the United States appears to be pursuing that path. In his first days as president, President Biden recommitted to diplomatic engagement, rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization and — recognizing the limits of American military might to engineer political outcomes — promised to end the “forever wars.” In February, the president initiated a Global Posture Review to recalibrate America’s global military commitments and, in April, he announced a plan to completely withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
But a truly humble foreign policy goes beyond decisions about what the United States does (or doesn’t do) in the world, to how it approaches such decisions. Critical to this is attention to and respect for the opinions of others. What better way to know the opinions of people outside the United States than to ask them?
For the third year in a row, we at the Eurasia Group Foundation have sought to better understand how people in a variety of countries view the United States and its form of government. Though we also asked other questions, a primary focus on the U.S. could be critiqued as merely tilting in the direction of empathy — a survey version of “Enough about me, what do YOU think about me?”
Nevertheless, we believe this endeavor is worthwhile. Efforts to change “hearts and minds” and conduct public diplomacy rarely measure their impact in meaningful ways. Our annual survey of international attitudes certainly has policy implications. It was designed with the premise that listening and understanding, especially in the context of a humble foreign policy, is intrinsically as well as instrumentally valuable.
This year’s report arrives on the eve of the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, which precedes a global summit for democracy the Biden administration is planning for later this year. The U.S.-hosted summit will aim to show the universal appeal of democratic governance. But by including countries which have flirted with autocracy, it brings into stark relief how the democratic model may accommodate more illiberal tendencies. It also reveals how “democracy” is interpreted in such varied ways. As our survey findings below demonstrate, majorities in all of the ten countries we surveyed — including China and Russia — believed their government to be “democratic.”
President Biden seems attentive to the lure of competing models. Speaking to reporters moments before his joint address to Congress on April 28, he said, “They’re going to write about this point in history… about whether or not democracy can function in the 21st century. [This is] not a joke… things are moving so damn rapidly… Can you get consensus in the timeframe that can compete with autocracy?” The acknowledgement that other forms of government might offer advantages over democracy is, in Washington, a rare expression of humility indeed.
EGF’s international survey was informed, in part, by conversations we had with colleagues at other mission-driven research organizations who thought there was a need to better understand foreign opinion of American democracy. We took some inspiration from the Pew Global Attitudes Project and borrowed their question about “American ideas of democracy” — though we added follow-up questions based on the responses to this question, and ran a number of multivariate regressions to identify relationships between opinions of specific U.S. policies and opinions of American democracy (and of the U.S.) overall.
This year we added questions to understand what people thought about their own country’s government, America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and whether they support America’s continued military presence in Afghanistan (asked a month before President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops by September 2021).
We found a significant relationship between U.S. soft power (e.g., connection to a country’s diaspora in the U.S. and consumption of American media) and pro-American sentiment. We also found resentment over U.S. hard power (e.g., belief that the U.S. should end its decades-long war in Afghanistan or that a more restrained U.S. foreign policy would most make American democracy more attractive) contributed significantly to anti-American sentiment.
Policymakers might heed these results when considering how to address an immigration system widely considered dysfunctional, and in conducting the review of America’s globe-spanning network of military bases in an era when the primary threats to the United States and its democracy are arguably non-military.
With the United States leaving Afghanistan and recalibrating its involvement in the Middle East, one of the primary foreign policy concerns is the increasing geopolitical influence of China. We gave respondents a binary choice between the U.S. or China as a preferred global leader, and asked follow-up questions to understand their choice. President Biden challenges the U.S. to be more mindful of the “power of its example” and not simply the “example of its power.” So, it’s interesting to note the answer option most popular among those who prefer China’s leadership and least popular among those who prefer America’s global leadership was that the chosen country “sets a good example for national development.”
As with any survey, ours is an imperfect tool of understanding the complicated opinions, attitudes, and beliefs of others. Surveys are susceptible to various types of bias, effects, and cultural variation. Even though responses are anonymous, some might feel drawn to responses they perceive to be socially desirable. In some countries, it might be customary to register a neutral response if a strong opinion is not held, whereas in other countries, respondents might shy away from a neutral response, feeling an imagined pressure to register an opinion.
Nevertheless, given the loose talk in Washington about how the world views American leadership, we thought it wise to inject some empiricism into discussions about the international influence of the United States — and its form of government. A clear-eyed look at our data requires the kind of “humility and confidence” for which Secretary Blinken calls. And if, at this pivotal moment for democracy, America truly wants to be understood by the rest of the world, it should seek to understand the world first.
The United States continues to enjoy, in general, the goodwill of people from all over the globe. Of the respondents in ten diverse countries we surveyed, half had a favorable opinion of the U.S., and of those who didn’t, more registered a neutral rather than a negative opinion. This breakdown also applies to the responses given to a question assessing whether people wanted their country’s system of government to be more or less (or neither more nor less) like that of the United States.
We sought to understand how certain experiences with the United States might relate to these attitudes. People who, in the past five years, have either traveled to the United States or have a friend or family member living there are significantly more likely to have a positive opinion of the U.S. People who consumed American movies, music, or news are also slightly more likely to have a positive opinion of the U.S. In contrast, of respondents who have none of these connections, only 18% held positive views of the United States. These results certainly have implications for immigration policy and the strength of American soft power, because we found having little to no association with the U.S., its people, or cultural products is a driver of anti-U.S. sentiment.
Interestingly, sentiment toward “American ideas of democracy” is warmer in countries which aren’t treaty allies, and in several cases, where geopolitical tensions run high. Russians, Chinese, and Egyptians are more likely than Germans or Japanese to have a favorable opinion of the America’s democratic ideas. Majorities in four out of ten countries liked “American ideas of democracy,” but none of these is a treaty ally. Pluralities in both Germany and Japan, two of America’s most important allies, had neutral opinions of these ideas and, as seen above, of the United States in general.
We examined whether opinion of the war in Afghanistan influenced attitudes toward the United States. Those who believe “U.S. troops should leave as soon as possible” were on average about 2.4 times more likely to have an unfavorable view of the U.S. The primary rationale among those who think U.S. troops should leave the country was: “Afghanistan needs to stand on its own. The U.S. should not be policing other countries.” This data, collected before President Biden’s announcement in April of the plan to withdraw U.S. troops, seems to suggest Biden’s termination of America’s longest war might create goodwill among certain populations.
Perceptions of American democracy’s shortcomings also contribute to attitudes toward the United States. Respondents were asked what would make America’s style of democracy more attractive and provided ten answer options. The two most significant drivers of anti-American sentiment were wishing “the foreign policy of the U.S. was more restrained” and “there was less corruption in politics.” There is also a strong correlation between people who wish “the gap between the incomes of rich and poor people was smaller” in the U.S. and unfavorable attitudes.
Internationally, support for American ideas of democracy remains consistent with past years, although negative attitudes decreased slightly (by 3%) between 2019 and 2020. As with previous years, more than twice as many people like as dislike American ideas of democracy. Among a set of possible reasons provided, the top choice for liking American ideas of democracy is the protection of individual liberties.
Plurality populations in nine out of ten countries we surveyed—allies, partners, and adversaries alike—said their main reason for disliking American democracy was that “the U.S. idea of democracy is hypocritical – ordinary voters don’t actually have power.” The outlier was Japan where, among the third of the population which disliked American democracy, the main rationale was that the opinions of political minorities are disregarded.
This year, we polled the level to which respondents felt their own country was democratic. Given the Biden administration convening a democracy summit (along with calls by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to create an “alliance of democracies” and by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to create a “D-10”) it is notable that majorities in every country we surveyed, including China and Russia, believed their country was at least “somewhat democratic.” Majorities in only two countries considered their country “very democratic” — Germany and India.
Respondents were also asked about the recent impact of American leadership and influence. Nearly half of the people in the ten countries surveyed believe the U.S. has had a positive influence in their region or country during the past twenty years. However, positive perceptions have steadily declined. The number of respondents who gave a “very positive” appraisal of U.S. influence has declined by nearly 20% since 2019, while the number of respondents who made a negative appraisal has increased.
Of the ten countries surveyed, three—Germany, Japan, and Poland—are U.S. treaty allies who host more than 110,000 active duty servicemembers. One might assume, therefore, that people in these countries would think “the U.S. military’s involvement” in their region would have promoted stability.
And yet, pluralities in Germany and Japan had either no opinion or didn’t know, while most of the remaining respondents only “somewhat” agreed. Perhaps more worrying for U.S. force planners and diplomats alike, pluralities in Germany, Japan, and Poland said U.S. influence had made “little or no difference” in their region over the past 20 years. These results suggest the return on investment of U.S. troop commitments may not be as great as U.S. foreign policymakers would believe.
Internationally, a strong majority of people continue to prefer American to Chinese leadership (majorities in all countries we surveyed, except China and Russia). Among those who do prefer Chinese to American leadership, the top rationale is “China sets a good example for national development for my country” followed by “China does not interfere in the politics of my country.” Last year, the most popular rationale was “China values economic and political stability over individual freedom.” The data from last year were collected before the Chinese and American responses to the COVID-19 pandemic had been widely assessed, and it’s possible the new emphasis on China as a “good example” could result from a perception that the Chinese government responded swiftly and effectively to the outbreak there.
The top rationale for preferring an American-led world order is “the United States is the largest economy in the world and is a trustworthy economic partner,” followed by “my country has a history of working closely with the U.S.” These answer options, which spoke to the national interests of the respondents’ home countries, were more popular than answer options focused on human rights and democracy, individual freedoms, and the U.S. as a good example for national development. The majority of respondents in seven out of ten countries chose economic cooperation as the driving factor. Only one country, Nigeria, chose the promotion of democracy and human rights, and only two chose individual freedoms (Egypt and Germany).
Additionally, discontent with both American military adventurism and America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be a boon to China’s soft power and public diplomacy. People who thought the U.S. handled the coronavirus pandemic poorly were 27% more likely to prefer a China-led world order than people who thought it handled it well. tAnd, respondents who think a more restrained U.S. foreign policy would most make American democracy more attractive in their country were significantly more likely to register a preference for Chinese over American global leadership.
Nevertheless, people in our ten-country sample continue to register a general preference for democratic government. Asked to rank the top three countries with the best form of government, respondents answered in descending order of preference: the U.S., Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan. Of course the inclusion of some of these countries in our sample likely contributed to their overall popularity.
We asked four questions which intended to gauge the preference for liberal values in the face of more communitarian concerns. As with last year, among our full international sample, slight majorities prefer making decisions based on the political majority, and protecting national unity and the social order, over the enforcement of civil liberties.
We examined how people around the world view the United States and its style of government, how they compare America’s global influence with China’s, which governments they most admire, how they want their own government to negotiate certain liberties, and how they feel about their country’s relationship with the U.S. Respondents were asked whether they’d like to see their government become more or less like that of the U.S., and whether they want to see their country’s relationship become more or less supportive of the U.S. Half of respondents would like to see their system of government become somewhat more or much more like that of the U.S., roughly the same amount who want their country to be more supportive of the U.S.
A majority of Brazilians continue to hold favorable opinions of the U.S., with a ten percent uptick from last year. Support for American-style democracy also remains high; nearly two-thirds of Brazilians like American ideas of democracy. Among those who view American ideas of democracy favorably, the two most popular reasons given were: “the protection of individual liberties is important” and “laws are better when politicians must be responsive to voters.” As in previous years, nearly 75% of respondents believe their government should be more, rather than less, like that of the U.S.
Probing further into what would make American-style democracy more attractive to Brazilians, the most frequently selected answers were: decreasing income inequality, treating minority groups more fairly, tackling corruption in politics, and combating climate change. This is unsurprising given Brazilians rank respect for individual and civil liberties, and laws that apply equally to citizens, highly on the list of democracy’s most important components.
How do Brazilians view America’s role in the world? When asked if U.S. influence has made the world a better or worse place in the past twenty years, two-thirds chose better. Similarly, the majority of Brazilians believe U.S. influence in and around Brazil has been positive, although slightly more respondents were critical of U.S. influence in Brazil than U.S. influence globally.
Not all types of American influence are given equal weight, however. American economic influence, for instance, is viewed much more positively than the presence of the U.S. government within Brazil. The types of American influence viewed most positively were “the import of American consumer products,” “investment by private American companies,” and “economic aid from the U.S. to support development.”
Overall, people in Brazil look upon American influence favorably. Majorities believe the U.S. (70%), its democracy (70%), and free market economy (71%) set a positive example for the world. Support for hard power appears weaker, however. Only 42% of respondents believe U.S. military involvement in their region has effectively promoted stability.
Despite concerns within the U.S. about China’s rising influence in South America and elsewhere, 81% of Brazilians believe the U.S. as the world’s superpower, rather than China, would be better for their country. This represents an increase from last year (75.5% selected the U.S. in 2020). The most popular rationales for choosing the U.S were: “the United States is the largest economy in the world and is a trustworthy economic partner” and “my country has a history of working closely with the United States.”
Given the ratcheted-up rhetoric between Chinese and American leaders, it is unsurprising that Chinese respondents continue to hold largely unfavorable views of the United States. With 20% claiming neutrality, 45% of Chinese respondents held unfavorable views towards the U.S., compared with 34% who had favorable views. The percentage of Chinese who feel “very unfavorably” towards the United States has more than doubled since we began this survey in 2019, spiking from 9% to 23%. When asked about the American people, the views of Chinese respondents improved slightly. More respondents felt positively than negatively towards Americans (36% vs. 29%). Yet the number of those who feel “very unfavorably” towards Americans quadrupled from 3% in 2019 to 12% today.
More respondents reported liking American ideas of democracy than did not (34% vs. 27%). When asked to choose a rationale for why people like American ideas of democracy, the most popular answers were “everyone, including political minorities, is treated equally by the state” and “the protection of individual liberties (e.g., freedom of speech and religion) is important.” For the 51% percent of Chinese respondents who reported disliking American ideas of democracy, the primary rationale was: “the U.S. idea of democracy is hypocritical – ordinary voters don’t actually have power.” When asked whether they wanted China to become more like an American style democracy in the next 20 years, 30% did and 35% did not.
While more respondents like rather than dislike American ideas of democracy, the opposite is true when it comes to their opinion of U.S. foreign policy. For example, far more Chinese believe the U.S. has made the world worse over the last 20 years than better.Notably, almost as many respondents said U.S. influence has made the world “somewhat better” as said it had made the world “somewhat worse” — suggesting that people without strong opinions are roughly divided. However, far more believe U.S. influence has had a negative impact in their region than believe it has had a positive impact.
Only a quarter of Chinese respondents want their country to have a more supportive posture toward the United States. The rest were fairly evenly split between desiring a more oppositional relationship and being content with the status quo.
This suggests that, underneath the party-line posturing, the Chinese people do not have a strong appetite for conflict with the United States. That said, roughly 70% of Chinese respondents believe the presence of U.S. bases encircling their country inhibits their independence — a greater percentage of the population than of any other country in our survey. And, China had the second-highest percentage of respondents (after Russia) who said a more restrained foreign policy would make American-style democracy more attractive in their country.
Like previous years, Egyptian opinion of the United States is mixed as just around 40% of Egyptians have a favorable opinion of the U.S. Survey respondents have a slightly more positive opinion of the American people (52%), and of American ideas of democracy (57%). This could be attributed to the fact that Egyptians interact with the U.S. less than other countries do. Regardless, nearly 60% of Egyptians want their system of government to be somewhat or much more like that of the U.S.
Why? Among those who like American ideas of democracy, the two most popular reasons were: “the protection of individual liberties (e.g. freedom of speech and religion) is important” and “everyone, including political minorities, is treated equally by the state.” This makes sense given Egyptians rank “laws apply equally to citizens” and “respect for individual and civil liberties” high on the list of democracy’s most important components. Like last year, nearly two-thirds (60%) of Egyptians believe American democracy sets a positive example for the world, although that percentage decreased by 10% this past year.
Among those who held a more negative view of the U.S. and its democratic form of government, the most popular reason was: “the U.S. idea of democracy is hypocritical – ordinary voters don’t actually have power” and “when the majority rule, the opinions of political minorities are disregarded.” When asked what would make American-style democracy more attractive, the top three answers were: decreasing income inequality, increasing the number of immigrants and refugees allowed to enter the U.S., and treating minority groups more fairly. Interestingly, this finding differed slightly from the responses given in 2020. The rationale “if the foreign policy of the U.S. was more restrained” was replaced with “treating minority groups more fairly.”
However, the treatment of minority groups and refugees is not the only concern Egyptians have with the U.S. They are increasingly critical of U.S. foreign policy. Nearly 4 out of 10 respondents think the U.S. has made the world a worse place compared to 36% who think the U.S. has made the world a better place (26% are neutral). Similarly, more respondents view U.S. influence in and around Egypt negatively compared to those who view it positively. And, slightly more people want Egypt to be more opposed to than more supportive of the U.S.
American foreign policy of all types is scrutinized more heavily in Egypt than in the other countries surveyed. Forty-two percent disagree that the U.S. military’s involvement in their region has effectively promoted stability compared to 35% who agree that it has. And, a majority of Egyptians believe the presence of U.S. military bases in or around Egypt threatens their independence.
The critical opinion Egyptians have of the U.S. correlates with their increasing interest in China (over the U.S.) as a global superpower. The rationale for why some in Egypt favor China over the U.S. is: “China does not interfere in the politics of my country” and “China can provide my country with economic investment or assistance.”
Overall, people in Germany continue to have a tepid opinion of the United States, with a plurality expressing a neutral sentiment. This is, however, a positive change from previous years, where more Germans expressed unfavorable than neutral or favorable opinions of the U.S. This past year, “somewhat favorable” attitudes increased by 10 percentage points while “somewhat unfavorable” opinions decreased by a similar amount. This change is likely attributable to the election of Joe Biden, as Donald Trump was particularly unpopular among German respondents last year.
Positive opinions of the American people also increased. Though, those warmer feelings do not seem to extend as strongly to American democracy. While favorable attitudes of American ideas of democracy improved between 2020 and 2021, still, fewer than one quarter of Germans approve of American democracy (42% express a neutral opinion). Of the one-third of respondents who disapprove of American ideas of democracy, the primary reason, was American democracy is “hypocritical” in that voters do not have any real power. Additionally, when asked what people in Germany do not like about U.S. elections, a majority cited “the role of money in politics.” Nearly 50% of respondents disagree with the statement that America’s democracy sets a positive example for the world.
It may be that more Germans approve of the American people than they do of American democracy because they are so confident in their own democracy. Among the ten countries surveyed, only India is more confident in its status as a democracy than Germany. Nearly 9 out of 10 German respondents indicated Germany is democratic . This likely contributes to the continued coalescence of neutrality of German public opinion on the question of whether they wanted their government to “become more or less like that of the U.S. over the next twenty years.”
Although Germans remain skeptical of American democracy, they presented slightly more positive views about the U.S., its people, and its version of democracy than in previous years. How do they feel about U.S.-German relations? While, 47% of Germans wish for the relationship between Germany and the U.S. to remain the same over the next 20 years, the percentage of people who want their country to be somewhat more opposed to the U.S. decreased by almost 12 percentage points this year, and the percentage of people want Germany to be more supportive of the U.S. increased by 7 percentage points.
What do people in Germany think about America’s global influence? Respondents this year continued to doubt whether the United States has made the world a better place: about 40% think the U.S. has made “little or no difference” in the world, while 27% think the United States has made the world “somewhat worse.” Though, Germans are slightly more positive this year about American influence in their region. Given the significance of America’s relationship with Germany as a leader of the European Union, it is surprising that Germans remain so ambivalent about America’s foreign role. A plurality of Germans selected “No opinion / I don’t know” when presented with the statement: “the U.S. military’s involvement in my region of the world has effectively promoted stability.”
Given the fears of China’s rising influence in Europe, and in Germany in particular, Germans overwhelmingly support a U.S.-led world order than one led by China, despite their skepticism of American foreign policy. Nearly 9 in 10 German respondents believe having the U.S. as the world’s leading power would be better for Germany.
Of the ten countries we surveyed, Indians hold the U.S. in the highest regard, with 45% holding “very favorable” views of the country. Indians also hold the most positive views about the American people. Consistent with this affection is the finding that two-thirds would like to see their government become more like that of the U.S. When asked which attributes of American democracy they find most compelling, the first choice was the protection of religion, and second was equal treatment of all people.
The vast majority of Indian respondents – over 90% – prefer U.S. global leadership to Chinese global leadership, thinking it better for both the world and their region. The primary rationales were that the U.S. is a trustworthy economic partner and that India has a history of working cooperatively with the U.S.
It is not surprising, then, that Indians view American influence as a positive force in the world. Seventy-one percent of respondents said U.S. influence has made the world better and almost 75% believe it has made their region better.
India remains vexing for U.S. defense planners who would like to deepen the relationship. On the one hand, India values military cooperation with the United States. More than 75% of respondents believe U.S.-India military collaboration is positive, with 40% indicating it is “very positive.” On the other hand, Indians are averse to anything that would compromise their independence. This bears out through two survey questions. Most believe the presence of U.S. military bases in or around India threatens its independence, an attitude that complicates any attempt by U.S. defense planners to place bases in India.
Indian public opinion which endorses the normative goodness of U.S. power does not necessarily indicate a desire for their country to wholly align with American interests. While a quarter of respondents said they would like their country to be much more supportive of the U.S., almost as many (23%) report they would prefer the relationship to stay the same. As the founder of the Cold War’s Non-Alignment Movement, India combines an affinity for the U.S. with a desire for independence.
Nearly three-quarters of Indian respondents believe the U.S. has a duty to protect vulnerable populations using military intervention. Seventy-one percent indicated U.S. military involvement in the region has promoted stability. And, polled before President Biden announced the upcoming withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, a majority of respondents (57%) expressed a desire for the U.S. to keep troops there until the situation stabilizes. The rationale might be one of self preservation. With Taliban tactics like sticky bombs affixed to vehicles in Kashmir, India shares America’s vulnerability to violent extremism, and their survey responses may reflect the hope that a continued U.S. presence will keep more violence from bleeding over their borders.
The United States and Japan have been treaty allies since 1960. A 60-year-long relationship perhaps should result in some warmth of feeling. And yet, only three in ten Japanese respondents have a favorable view of the United States, and most expressed a neutral position. When asked about their view of Americans, barely 25% held a favorable opinion of the American people, while 13% responded unfavorably and 63% remained neutral.
Over the past 20 years, U.S. influence has made the world a worse place according to 40% of Japanese respondents, and about 32% believe the U.S. has made the world a better place. When asked to evaluate U.S. influence on their region, the Japanese respondents yielded slightly more positive assessments. Still, only 38% believe the U.S. has had a positive impact.
However, about as many believe U.S. influence has had no impact, and 26% believe it has made things worse. This is a surprising result from a treaty ally that hosts tens of thousands of U.S. forces and is the cornerstone of America’s foreign policy in Asia – so much so that, between 2016 and 2019 alone, the United States spent about $21 billion to keep its forces there.
When asked how they wished their relationship with the United States might change, the Japanese did not register strong preferences: 51% said they wished the relationship would stay the same. However, more wished Japan would become more opposed (26%) than those who wished Japan were more supportive of the U.S. (23%).
A large number of Japanese respondents hold neutral opinions of specific vectors of U.S. influence, including the presence of U.S. embassies and diplomats, economic aid, private investment, military collaboration with the U.S., and U.S. weapons sales. Many Japanese are even neutral on whether U.S. military involvement in Asia has “effectively promoted stability” (31%). However, more respondents hold negative opinions of U.S. weapons sales (35%) than positive opinions (28%). This result coincides with reports that the Japanese government is re-evaluating the amount of U.S. weaponry it buys, which accounts for almost ten percent of its defense budget. The budget for foreign military sales grew as a result of previous Japanese administrations’ attempts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan relationship, so a re-evaluation of sales might correspond to a re-evaluation of the relationship as a whole.
Given Japan’s long-standing adversarial posture toward China, a great majority of Japanese chose the United States over China when asked who should assume global leadership. Twice as many Japanese respondents chose the U.S. because it is a trustworthy economic partner than because of American respect for individual freedoms, suggesting this preference for American leadership is driven more by economic interests than values.
Japan’s concerns about climate change drives its view of American democracy. The passage of laws to combat climate change was chosen most frequently as that which would make American democracy more attractive. Only 42% of Japanese reported American democracy sets a positive example for the world. When asked what aspect of American democracy the U.S. government demonstrates best, a majority chose “respect for individual and civil liberties.” Interestingly, this was the aspect of democracy that most Japanese respondents thought Americans valued most for themselves.
Last year, Mexico did not have a particularly favorable opinion of the United States and its style of democracy, and came closer to favoring a China-led world older. That changed this year. Favorable opinions of the U.S. increased between 2020 and 2021, and unfavorable views decreased.
Last year, Mexicans selected Canada and Germany as the countries with the best system of government. This year, the U.S. replaced Germany in the survey rankings. When asked this year how people in Mexico felt about American ideas of democracy, results for those who either “somewhat like” or “strongly like” those ideas increased 6 percentage points from 36% to 42%. The main reason given for liking American ideas of democracy was: “the protection of individual liberties (e.g. freedom of speech and religion) is important.” The number of people in Mexico who want to see their system of government become more like that of the U.S. also increased this past year.
This likely stems from Mexico’s dissatisfaction with Donald Trump as president, whereas more positive feelings of the U.S. could be associated with the election of Joe Biden. Last year, when asked what would make America’s style of democracy more attractive, the fourth most popular answer option was “a different person was president.” This year, “a different person was president” ranks among the two least popular responses among a list of ten answer options of what would make U.S-style democracy more attractive.
Those who expressed less favorable views toward American democracy selected one reason most frequently: “the U.S. idea of democracy is hypocritical – ordinary voters don’t actually have power.” When asked to rank the top three choices of what would make America’s style of democracy more attractive, the two most popular choices were: if “minority groups were treated more fairly,” and if “more immigrants and refugees were allowed to enter the U.S.” This likely speaks to Mexicans’ particular sensitivity to stories of police violence and the heightened visibility of what many see as dysfunctional immigration policies.
How do people in Mexico view U.S. foreign policy? Like favorable opinions of the U.S., favorable opinions of America’s global role increased this past year too. Since last year, positive views of U.S. influence in Mexico increased by 10 percentage points. Similarly, positive views of U.S. influence around the world increased by about 8 percentage points.. Respondents in Mexico also want their country’s relationship to be more supportive of the U.S. compared to last year.
Last year, Mexicans were torn about whether China or the U.S. would be better as the world’s leading power. The percentage of people who prefer China over the U.S., however, decreased by seven percentage points. The top reason selected for why they favor the U.S. over China is: “the United States is the largest economy in the world and is a trustworthy economic partner.” The most frequent rationales selected by respondents who favor China chose: “China sets a good example for national development for my country,” and “China can provide my country with economic investment or assistance.”
Nigerian opinion of the U.S. and American democracy remains high for the third year in a row. Of the Nigerians surveyed, 70% have a somewhat favorable or very favorable opinion of the U.S. (with 40% having a very favorable opinion). Less than 10% have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S.
People in Nigeria have an even greater appreciation for American-style democracy. Over 80% of respondents reported they either somewhat like or strongly like American ideas of democracy. When asked what contributes to their support of American-style democracy, the most popular answer choice among Nigerians was: “the protection of individual liberties (e.g. freedom of speech and religion).”
A strong majority of Nigerians also want to see their system of government resemble that of the U.S. Nearly 90% of respondents want their government to either be somewhat more or much more like that of the U.S. For Nigerians, the most important components of democracy are “laws apply equally to all citizens,” “citizens can freely vote and run for office,” and “respect for individual and civil liberties,” and they find the U.S. displays these characteristics.
America’s global influence is also viewed positively by the majority of people in Nigeria. Majorities believe American democracy and free market economy set a positive example for the world (82% and 79% respectively). This makes sense given majorities also indicate globalization has benefited them, their towns, and their country.
Majorities also think the U.S. military’s involvement effectively promotes stability, and bears a responsibility to protect vulnerable groups of people even if it requires armed intervention. And, Nigerian respondents don’t believe the presence of U.S. military bases threatens their independence.
Given the continued positive opinion of the U.S., American-style democracy, and U.S. foreign policy among Nigerians, it is unsurprising that support for a China-led world order decreased this past year, and support for a U.S.-led world order increased. Support for China leading on the global stage decreased by 10 percentage points. Why? A plurality of respondents who support the U.S. over China selected: “the U.S. promotes democracy and human rights around the world,” and “the U.S. values individual freedoms more than other countries do.”
The number of Poles surveyed who had a favorable opinion of the United States decreased for the second year in a row. Though Poles have a more favorable view of the U.S. than most other countries surveyed, favorability of the U.S. among Poles has dropped by 15 percentage points since 2019. Still, Poles are almost four times as likely to have a favorable opinion of the U.S. than an unfavorable one. This cooling trend was also found for Poles who were asked about their views toward the American people.
This cooling effect is even more clearly reflected in Poles’ attitudes towards American-style democracy. A plurality of Poles (48%) either “somewhat like” or “strongly like” American ideas of democracy. But, since 2019, the number of Poles surveyed who support American ideas of democracy has dropped from 72% to 48% in 2021, a drastic decrease.
There is no clear explanation for why favorability of American style democracy has declined. A plurality of Poles disapprove of the role of money in American politics, and among those who held a negative view of the U.S. and its democratic form of government, the most popular reason was: “the U.S. idea of democracy is hypocritical – ordinary voters don’t actually have power.” When asked what would make American-style democracy more attractive, the top three answers were: decreasing income inequality, tackling corruption in politics., and combating climate change.
Unlike its neighbor Germany, Poland does not have a conception of itself as a strong democracy: only 19% of Poles describe their country as being “very democratic.” A plurality of Poles (48%) describe Poland as being “somewhat democratic” and a quarter describe their country as being “not democratic.” While Poles grow less fond of the U.S. and its style of democracy, a majority still want their government to become more like that of the U.S. over the next 20 years, however the number of Poles who support this position has declined. American-style democracy is still worth emulating for many Poles, even as their government advocates for illiberal policies. It’s possible recent events have eroded Polish faith in the United States as a good model for its own system, especially since the majority of Poles support more liberal policies.
Polish views of the United States as a worthy ally—while still present—also declined. In previous surveys roughly two-thirds of Poles reported the United States has used its influence within Eastern and Central Europe positively. This year, over a third believe the United States has made little or no difference in the region. Still, 45% of Poles surveyed want their country to be more supportive of the United States over the next 20 years. Still, this result is a vote of confidence in the relationship. Only 16% of Poles want their country to be more opposed to the United States. While more Poles surveyed this year selected China as their preferred “world leader” than last year, nearly nine out of ten prefer the United States.
Russian respondents were asked to rank the top three countries with the best form of government, and the most popular choices (in order) were: Russia, Germany, China, and Japan. Only then came the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. When asked whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the U.S., slightly more respondents this year had a favorable opinion of the U.S., though the results remain mixed. Nearly half of Russians reported having a favorable opinion of the American people. Far fewer express a negative opinion of American people than of the United States overall.
As with last year, more Russians like American style democracy than dislike it, but a plurality of Russians expressed a neutral opinion (44%). Russians who report an unfavorable opinion of American democracy indicate as their primary rationale: “the U.S. idea of democracy is hypocritical – ordinary voters don’t actually have power.” Among those who like American ideas of democracy, the most popular reason was: “the protection of individual liberties (e.g. freedom of speech and religion) is important” and “with check on power (e.g. independent media and courts) nobody gets too powerful.”
When asked what would make America’s style of democracy more attractive, the most popular answer option was not if “the gap between the incomes of rich and poor people was smaller” or if “there was less corruption in politics,” as was indicated for the overall international sample. For Russians, the most popular answer was: if “the foreign policy of the U.S. was more restrained.”
Do these feelings preclude Russians from wanting their country to be more democratic, like the United states.? An equal number of respondents want the Russian government to be “more” and “neither more or less” like that of the U.S. over the next two decades. The percentage of those who selected “much less” dropped by 6% compared to last year, with an increase of 6% to “neither more nor less”.
There is a preference within Russia for the state to take the interests of political minorities into account—nearly half versus fewer than a third who think the government should rule in the interests of the political majority. Russians are more unified however in seeing a government role in restricting immigration based on religion, restricting media, and restricting protests. There has been a small swing in favor of protests (+2.33%), which might be attributed to the country-wide protests earlier this year against opposition leader Alexie Navalny’s detention.
Russians more widely diverge in their views of how they would like the relationship between Russia and the United States to change in the coming years. Nearly 4 out of 10 Russians surveyed want their country to be either “somewhat more supportive” or “much more supportive” of the United States. A plurality (35%) of Russians, however, would like the relationship to stay the same, and 28% of Russians would like their country to be either “somewhat” or “much more opposed” to the U.S.
This aligns with Russian perceptions of U.S. foreign policy, which have remained negative, but stable: a majority of Russians believe the United States has used its influence to make the world “somewhat” or “much worse.” However, not all types of American influence are given equal weight. “Investment by private American companies and investors” and “the import of American consumer products” are viewed positively by a majority of Russians, while other types of American influence like the “importation of Western education models” and “the presence of the U.S. government to support the development of my country” are viewed negatively.
As journalists and pundits anticipate a global summit for democracy later this year and the Biden administration reasserts American leadership in a world becoming inexorably less unipolar, it has never been a better time to take stock. Our survey, like any survey, is an imperfect instrument for understanding the complicated and dynamic views of various populations. And though we now have three years of data and can begin to observe trends over time, each of those datasets is but a snapshot.
After taking this around-the-world tour of public opinion and beliefs, it becomes clear that views about the United States and its form of government vary. The values central to American ideas of democracy, which are often held out as universal, are apprehended through the values and beliefs shared within — not simply among — countries.
Notably, many of the countries in our sample with the most experience of democracy are the least enthusiastic about it. This should not necessarily be a cause for pessimism, as people in countries who yearn for more democratic freedoms might idealize the form of government they want to emulate, while those of us who live in democracies have a better view of its imperfections.
Perceptions of the United States vary significantly between countries. A significant number of Russians, Brazilians, and Germans think American democracy would be more attractive if there were less economic disparity between the rich and poor in the United States. This reason isn’t as prevalent for Mexicans or the Japanese. Japanese and Chinese respondents thought the reputation of American democracy would improve if politicians were more respectful of each other, but Brazilians and Mexicans were less concerned with this.
Mexicans and Nigerians believed improved treatment of minorities would make American democracy more alluring for their countries. But Russians and Japanese respondents were much less likely to think that. While there was a lot of diversity of opinion within countries, a very strong plurality of Russians and Chinese believed American democracy would be more attractive if American foreign policy were more restrained.
It is worth reiterating that countries with whom the United States has treaty alliances are among the least bullish on America’s ideas of democracy. Japan and Germany are particularly downbeat.
This report supplies reasons for both optimism and pessimism. Unlike the previous two years, a desire that “a different person was president” is not driving anti-American sentiment. Although the number of respondents who believe the United States has a very positive influence in their region has declined for a second year in a row (and nearly 20% between 2019 and 2021), the United States topped the list of countries ranked as having the best form of government and was followed immediately by four other democracies: Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Japan.
Still, critically important geopolitical partners are less than enthusiastic about American democracy, while people in countries characterized as competitors are surprisingly supportive. German and Japanese respondents are less likely to like American ideas of democracy than Chinese and Russian respondents. As world leaders proclaim the virtues and value of democracy at this international summit, it’s important to scrutinize whether and how these views are shared among their constituents.
American democracy finds itself at a pivotal moment. After a violent mob of protestors and insurrectionists overran the United States Capitol, instigated in part by an outgoing American president who openly (and falsely) questioned the legitimacy of the election results, a new American president argues for the need to rehabilitate democracy at home and champion it abroad. We hope this report can inform, in however modest a way, how the administration might satisfy that need.
This survey was developed and commissioned by EGF. The survey instrument was written by Mark Hannah with the help of two research assistants7 in 2019 and was updated for 2021 by Caroline Gray, Mark Hannah, and Caroline Baxter. The survey was distributed online by Qualtrics, a large, commercial survey company to a geographically and demographically diverse sample of 5,187 adults. This included a sample of approximately 730 respondents in China and India, and 470 respondents in each of the other eight countries. The survey was distributed between March 3 and March 19, 2021. Our survey partner created quotas to ensure gender and age balance. The representativeness of this sample and margin of error, of course, vary with the population size of each country. For example, our results from China and India have a larger margin of error than those from Germany or Egypt.
We commissioned professional translators to translate the survey into the dominant language in each country and offered our survey respondents the option to complete the survey in that language or English. This year, a second professional translator reviewed the translations for each dominant language, except for Japanese. We did not translate the survey into other regional languages and dialects (e.g., Bengali in India or Cantonese in China).
For all survey questions that had the answer option “I don’t know,” the answer option was changed to “No opinion / I don’t know” this year in order to create a values-based, as opposed to knowledge-based, answer option.
Answer choices for all non-demographic multiple- and rank choice-type questions were randomized. Establishing statistical significance in the associations between questions, we used a multivariate regression using several control variables. Whenever reference is made in this report to a “significant” or “statistically significant” relationship, significance is established beyond the 1% level. We welcome questions about the details of our model from other researchers.
The question about “American ideas of democracy” was taken from a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey in consultation with a senior member of the research staff there. Depending on the user’s response to that question, we used a skip logic function to pose a follow-up question seeking reasons for “liking” or “disliking” American ideas of democracy. This same skip logic function was used for the question “Having ____ as the world’s leading power would be better for my country.” Depending on the user’s response to that question, we sought reasons for selecting either “China” or “The United States.”
Why are the Democrats such losers?
Looking back, one can see the landscape created by the shifting of politics’ grand tectonic plates. As they are slowing grinding into new alignments it is almost impossible to understand the changes underway.
As Conrad Black delineates in his powerful new biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was only by the beginning of the war that one could see how dramatically he had altered America’s political geography. It was only after his death that one saw the genius of his plan for a post-war world.
Today we can look back to the Republican convention in 1964 and see the first cracks in Democratic control of American political life. Some might point to Ronald Reagan’s hard right challenge to Gerald Ford — which came amazingly close to victory — in 1976 as the next big crack in the fundament.
Thirty years from now, presidential historians might point to the split between the socons and the neocons, between the Buchananites and the Wolfowitzers, as the beginning of the end to the GOP lock on the presidency and power.
But today this much at least is certain: the Democrats are in decline and may be in peril. It is incredible to reflect that no Democratic presidential candidate has won an election without divine or illicit human intervention since FDR in 1944.
Bill Clinton in 1996, the first re-election of a Democratic president in 60 years, is the exception that proves the rule. This is the record of the party that dominated every level of American politics for half of the 20th century. It is an appalling record in a two-party system where the electoral college system is biased towards large
Democratic states, and where on most major issues, a majority of voters nominally support the Democratic position.
The list of anomalies that have disguised this disgrace is impressive:
- Harry Truman squeaks to victory in ’48 on FDR’s legacy and a little post-balloting assistance from the big city machines in St. Louis, Chicago and New York.
- John F. Kennedy gets an illicit leg up as Boss Daley of Chicago stuffs an extra 50,000 votes downstate. Richard Nixon contemplates an injunction, then concedes, recognizing that, in Illinois, co-operative witnesses rarely survive.
- Lyndon Johnson shamelessly milks the JFK assassination, the nation’s grief, and his “partnership” with the beloved dead president. It helps in 1964 that Barry Goldwater is the worst candidate ever nominated.
- Jimmy Carter is delivered to power by the flood of revulsion at Watergate in 1976 and proceeds through total ineptitude to kill Dems chances for a decade.
- Bill Clinton is elected by Ross Perot’s vote-splitting in 1992. But he goes on in 1996 to become the only Democrat to be re-elected since FDR.
(Kvetchers may complain that George W. Bush was only “elected” by Ralph Nader and Clarence Thomas in 2000. That Al Gore’s appalling campaign came as close as it did to winning is surely further proof, however, of the Dems’ call on divine intervention.)
Depending on assassination, scandal and ballot-stuffing is not perhaps the most reliable strategy for a serious party seeking power. Even worse, despite these “tilt” election victories, the Dems have been able to hold the White House for only 20 of the past 50 years. Nor is it easy to explain GOP success in terms of their strategic brilliance: the venality, vulgarity and racism of many Republican campaigns was less responsible for their victory than the Dems’ incompetence.
One in five Americans called themselves Republicans when Carter was elected; today Republicans have edged into a clear national majority. Among middle-class voters, the group that votes most heavily, party ID has slipped by nearly 20 percent. However, even this decline in partisan ID is misleading, for solidly “Democratic” cities and states — New York, Los Angeles and California — have elected and re-elected Republican mayors and governors.
Until 1980, the Dems never held fewer than 30 of the 50 governorships, and in many years held all but a dozen. Today the GOP has reversed those standings. Similarly, the Dems held control of 34 state legislatures as recently as 1982; today that number has been cut in half.
These defeats are catastrophic for the future. Lose 10 congressmen and you lose 10 votes on key bills. Lose the governorship of California and you lose thousands of patronage jobs, and millions of donor dollars. Lose control of both houses of Congress but hold all the key cities and states, and you’ll recapture everything again soon enough.
Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor is expected to turn out workers and voters for the national ticket, as is the governor of Pennsylvania if they expect any favours from a future White House. And a Canadian politician would drool at the power these machines have.
A Canadian political delegation visiting Chicago City Hall to meet the original Mayor Daley on Democratic primary day in 1972 inquired naively why the vast Stalinist pile was so empty. They were informed with a snicker that all the municipal employees were out “assisting” election officials. The 26,000 workers main task was handing out “disability voting cards” to wobbly Democrats so that they could be “assisted” in voting the Daley ticket by a supervisor.
This power has faded only somewhat. The Democratic mayor of a large US city, berating his fellow mayors for their failure to work hard enough for the 2000 ticket, at a lunch at this year’s convention, reminded them jocularly of their vote-delivering power: “Why I remember a couple of campaigns ago, being a poll captain in Philadelphia where they have very ‘special’ election rules. We turned out thousands of voters, 96 percent of the list, in one housing project — which was an achievement, as the project was still under construction.” (Much guffawing.)
Indeed, the corruption of voting practice revealed in Dade and Broward counties in Florida, essentially Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, last time came as little surprise to those expert in the machinery of American elections. Not only do the voting machines “malfunction,” and voters of certain backgrounds get erased from voters’ lists routinely, turnout levels rise and fall like storm tides from election to election in the same districts.
But Democrats can hardly point to “Republican corruption” as the source of their failures. Sure Republicans lied, cheated and stole some recent campaigns, but few of their shenanigans were original. They had only copied, and occasionally improved, what they had endured from big city Democrats for decades previously.
So why are the Democrats such losers?
It is a cliché among pundits and political scientists to bemoan the irrelevance and Disneyesque shallowness of American political conventions. It has become a more universal piece of conventional wisdom each election cycle.
It begs two questions however:
How then do parties attract nearly 50,000 participants to these meaningless and boring events? (5,000 delegates, 10,000 family, friends and alternates, 5,000 lobbyists and staff, 15,000 journalists, 15,000 security, not counting the 200,000 demonstrators in New York.)
And why do American businesses and interest groups spend nearly $50 million on parties, gifts, and more stretch limos than Hollywood on Oscar night, at each one?
Americans are not short of other forms of summer diversion. Convention attendance surely cannot be an alternative to Vegas or the cottage. American business executives and Israeli lobbyists may be many things, but perennial stupidity wasting millions of lobbying and entertainment dollars is not among them.
No, the conventional wisdom is not only wrong, it gets more wrong with each cycle. The conventions’ importance to American political culture grows every four years, as the power of local party organization continues to fade, as primaries become ever more candidate- and not party-driven exercises, and as American interest in politics at all levels continues to waste away.
For a young Democratic activist from Utah, there is no way to connect to her party as quickly, emotionally, and in many cases permanently, than the euphoria of a convention week: the blur of parties, famous people up close, flirtation and friendship, and transcendent group celebration. Yes, the networks give only an hour of primetime to the strange staged celebrations these days, but the “echo coverage” on newscasts and in print lasts for days.
Imagine the thrill to a new political enthusiast to be greeted at a state delegation breakfast, by name by a future president. The memories of steamy convention flings are endlessly relived by middle-aged delegates at subsequent convention encounters. Delegates learn political technique, meet mentors, assess allies and competitors, and get drunk, all for free and under the glare of television.
For the Cranberry Growers’ Cooperatives of America, spending $200,000 on a party that attracts Bill Clinton, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter and George McGovern and several hundred assorted senators, stars and hangers on, to meet their execs and hear their problems selling cranberries is a very good investment indeed. (This correspondent sipped appalling cranberry vodka cocktail mixtures and, along with the rest of the crowd, stared wide-eyed at Ben Affleck’s new lady.)
To stand hot and squeezed on the floor on a “big night,” as a Clinton or a Rudy Giuliani is whipping the 10,000 partisans to an orgiastic promised land, as the high-tech “son et lumiére” magnifies every bead of sweat and blazing smile, and as the hustling young sign crews spew thousands of new signs and flags to the sometimes frail, always eager, often frenzied hands — to know that the “whole world is watching” — is to see American political passion, logistical brilliance, group solidarity, and technology-whipped storytelling rhetoric in its glory.
Yes, the conventions are rather like Nuremberg on occasion: that sadistic growl, and the cruel Dick Cheney sneer, syncopated by the hideous chant of “USA, USA, USA,” does understandably give pause to refugees from totalitarian mob violence. But to critics of the “empty show” of American conventions one might observe that there was little “policy deliberation,” or “leadership selection” at Goebbel’s Nuremberg celebrations. As attention-getting, movement-building, enemy-terrifying demonstrations of power they worked pretty well.
American political conventions are not fascistic slogan fests. But neither are they without great impact in party building, influence peddling, and in shaping the image and therefore the choice of an American president.
Democrats throw the best conventions. Their skill in the subsequent campaigns, as this year’s election media star Jon Stewart likes to say, is “Well, not so much.”
This is not a coincidence.
Democratic conventions and their delegates have been transformed since the disaster of Chicago in 1968. They now attract the most stars: Hollywood, rock and athletic. This year the contrast was painful: the GOP’s “stars” were known to Christian rock radio listeners and NASCAR video fans only. The Dems hold the best parties: 950 officially this year — a tireless party crasher could slurp free champagne and munch huge shrimp around the clock for five days. (Republican activists taste in music and food entertainment seemed to extend to food and dress as well: too much chiffon in cake form and under dresses, to the snickering bemusement of New Yorkers.)
A Democratic party convention looks more like America, racially and ethnically, than almost any other event one can attend in that increasingly divided society. To see young affluent blacks, laughing and hugging young Texan women, Asian-American lesbians hysterical with joy at Barack
Obama’s “we’re all Americans message,” is to see an America that does not exist in very many places.
To a Canadian who loves Americans and their culture, but whose own culture has grown in a more integrated direction, it takes a few days to figure out what is strange about this. Then it dawns: instead of the “normal” American sight of black garbage sweepers making way for a gaggle of white male lawyers in a convention hotel lobby, or young hispanic waiters making themselves scarce amid tables of loud young white party goers, one sees a more “Canadian” sight, a more colour-blind mix of races and roles. Puff Daddy’s limo rolls up behind Hillary’s, and out pour young and old, black and white from each.
Democrats in convention do not, however, look like white America.
They are too rich, too tanned, too skinny, and too well dressed. They reek of New York — New England liberal grandee. Sadly, nothing epitomized the divide more than the sight of the prospective First Daughters’ convention appearances: the young Kerry women, all Radcliffe, Anne Klein clean lines and gentle curves, soft-spoken, self-deprecating, and demure.
The giggly, jiggly Bush girls appear in WalMart outfits as a cross between Hooters waitresses and suburban housewives late on their karaoke girls’ night out. However, as the biting satirist Lewis Black put it, “Hey, don’t be mean. Anytime the Bush girls appear in public — standing — that’s a victory!”
Commenting on the 14 percent of Republican delegates who were not white, he also deadpanned, “We treasure our minorities, unlike Democrats. That’s why they get the best seats in front of the cameras, that’s why we get them to talk so much, that’s why they get all the closeups. Those Democrats they have so many minorities they just treat them like dirt, you know…”
It’s hard to describe the Republican delegate demographic without descending to unfair social stereotype. Suffice it to say that the WB, Fox News, and Us magazine are probably the majority news sources. USA Today would be “a big read.” In this, the Republican activist model is closer to its core voter than the Democrat’s equivalent by far. After all, most Americans, and for that matter most Canadians, do care more about the winner of the latest Canadian/American Idol contest than they do about any election. Most voters, unlike Democratic party delegates, are not too thin, too rich and too sophisticated to care about the fate of Paris Hilton or her dog.
Republican conventions are all about pounding home a simple message: “We are tougher, meaner, stronger, better Americans than Democrats!” Clinton’s fabulous slur on this street punk approach to statesmanship, “Strength and wisdom are not opposing values,” was a hit among the Dems, but far too subtle for a Texas bumper sticker.
After all, who can remember a great Republican convention speech?
Perhaps Reagan in 1976 or 1984, at a stretch. John McCain this year, if you give more points to drafting than delivery, perhaps. The list is not long since Teddy Roosevelt passed. Yet there has not been a Democratic convention in living memory without at least one display of soaring oratory: Mario Cuomo, Hubert Humphrey, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Barbara Jordan, Adlai Stevenson, JFK, LBJ, Clinton, Ann Richards, even George Wallace. This year alone: Jimmy Carter, Obama, Al Sharpton, Clinton. Even Kerry and his daughters outshone every bloodthirsty, insult-filled, rant from the GOP stage.
So what is the problem?
These powerful crowd pleasers leave little in the way of voter impact even hours later. The Kerry convention “bounce” was not in double digits, it was in decimal points.
As one media veteran of both parties’ quadrennial “product launches” put it, “You leave a Democratic convention with a nice champagne buzz, a bit overfed, but feeling good about yourself and your colleagues, certain that the world really can be a better place. You leave a GOP event with your ears ringing, on an adrenalin high, Red Bull in your veins and blood in your eye, keen to rip the arms off any girlieman who disses your car, your party, your candidate or your country.”
Functionally, the latter “takeaway” is more useful than the former, as Bush’s ten-point post-convention bounce amply demonstrated. As one GOP wag put it, at the end of their successful invasion of New York, “They have the rich and the poor now. We have the super-rich and all the ordinary folks.” As a crude summary of the American political divide, it’s not far wrong.
Recent studies of the “red/blue” divide in American political culture underline this puzzling divide: if you are old, white, a high school dropout and small town, you are a Republican; if you are a “coast American,” Catholic, with a university degree and affluent, you are more likely a Democrat. If you are black or Hispanic in the west, or Asian in the east, you are a Democrat.
Academics are divided about how deep and how real this shift in party ID is. Some argue that it is far less a permanent GOP advantage than it appears, and is demographically tilted by an aging population. Be that as it may, the trend line is clearly in the wrong direction for Dems. But they have an additional serious problem.
Nowhere is politics a demonstration of how civilized, well dressed, smart, or nice you are. Demolish your opponent or be crushed. “Motivate your base” as the current cliché has it, or lose. At this, the Dems have failed consistently and the Republicans have become expert.
American presidential politics has become as ferocious and viciously partisan as any in the democratic world. If Adlai Stevenson was “too pointy-headed” to survive 1950’s US political culture, Al Gore was a joke as a political gladiator half a century later. Another pundit cliché is to bemoan the “increasing negativity” of presidential campaign tactics, to which the political historian can only roll his eyes and say study 1912, 1932, or 1944, and then tell me about civilized discourse.
Lyndon Johnson was after all the inventor of the classic “back against the wall” political tactic: “Then call him a ‘pig-lover’ and watch him deny it” (the original Texan is too ripe for repetition). Joe Kennedy had no qualms about using his mob connections on behalf of young Jack in the West Virginia primary. It was Carter’s southern Christian operatives who recycled Nixon’s line that Gerry Ford had played “a little too much football without a helmet,” in response to his habit of stumbling over his feet and his lines. Not exactly Marquess of Queensbury rules.
As Chris Matthews, the former Democrat turned television host of the aptly named Hardball! put it, “I have never seen a better campaign team than the Bush team this time: tougher, meaner, smarter, more focused and more disciplined than ever.” High praise indeed given that he knew the infamous Reagan heavies, and Lee Atwater, creator of the infamous Willie Horton revolving door parole ad that worked so well for the first George Bush against Michael Dukakis in 1988.
This presents at least three problems for Democrats: how to rebuild an activist coalition that more resembles the electorate, how to motivate its own non-white base to vote without scaring off white swing voters, and how to deliver a powerful competing message without descending further into the political gutter.
Policy differences on a wide range of traditional issues between the two parties, even in today’s bitterly partisan era, are really not that wide. There is little distance between Dems and the GOP on trade issues, on agriculture, on taxes, or even foreign affairs. The rhetorical battles heighten the gap, but the substantive difference on troop deployment or softwood lumber is notional. The real divide is cultural: gays, drugs, guns, abortion and God.
America has not often been a warrior state; indeed, until recently Republicans regularly attacked the “Democrat wars” — the First and Second World Wars, Korea and Bosnia. Nor has it been a culture obsessed with its own internal security, barring the madness that was McCarthy.
The 1960s and now 9/11 have changed all that, if not forever, certainly into the foreseeable future: the Vietnam war, blacks, suicide bombers, gays, women and drugs all combine to assault old verities. The apparent calm that settles for periods of time about these battles is never real. Whether the trigger is gay rights, a particularly vicious racial killing, a new drug hysteria, or another terrorist attack, the wounds are ripped apart along now conventional lines repeatedly.
For the Democrats the tragedy is that they are bewitched by the conviction that they are on the wrong side of each of these divides, that they need therefore to disguise their weakness. Cynically, or out of conviction depending on your point of view, Republicans have been masterful at exploiting this weakness: from Willie Horton to flag-burning, from gays in the military to Swift Boat slurs.
Democratic counter-attacks have sometimes seemed laughable (Dukakis in a tank) and sometimes adroit (Kerry surrounded by his mates on stage). But in few cases have they been as merciless and effective as Republican attack and counter-attack.
If you, as a television producer, received a script featuring a beloved senator, a Vietnam vet with one functioning limb, being ambushed by a smear campaign trashing him as weak in support of “the homeland” and depicted in TV ads as a silent partner of Osama Bin Laden, you’d file it, unread. Yet that is the story of the defeat of former Senator Max Cleland, whipped in just such a campaign by Karl Rove’s Georgia protégés.
But — this just in — the right lost the culture wars. The forces of tolerance and liberalism in social values won.
In the immortal words of the California statesman: “Don’t be such girliemen!”
This wimpy stance in the face of Republican attack has caused much muttering in the corridors of the Democratic party leadership. The failure of the Kerry campaign to hit hard enough fast enough is agonizing for its friends to watch. Where are the hard-hitting TV messages that show we are a party as ferociously determined to win as the Republicans, is the quiet moan of many activists. With the election clearly slipping away from him, Kerry finally moved to shake up his campaign in September, bringing in the battle-hardened strategist James Carville, who crafted Clinton’s rapid response reactions in 1992 on everything from bimbo eruptions to his draft deferments.
A campaign is no time to be subtle. Morning in America might have worked for Ronald Reagan in 1984, but it won’t work for Kerry in 2004. By wrapping himself in the flag, and bringing out his band of brothers, he has been playing to Bush’s strength rather than his own. Kerry should be making it about Bush, not about himself. He should be making it about the economy and Bush’s job creation record — the first negative job growth record, and the worst, since Herbert Hoover, father of the Great Depression. He should be making it about health care, and how 44 million Americans have no coverage in a nation that spends 15 percent of its GDP on health care. He should be making it about Bush’s half-trillion dollar deficit, after the Democrats balanced America’s books. He should be making it not about the war in Iraq, but about post-war Iraq, and the bungled US occupation. More US troops have died since Bush declared mission accomplished than died during he war itself. He should be making it about Bush. The real Democratic bumper sticker is “Beat Bush.”
In the past, Democratic party consultants often used money as the excuse — we don’t have enough of it to go negative. This time, by some measures, Kerry/Edwards and associates have more money than Bush.
Another wooden leg in previous lost campaigns was “we won’t descend to their level.” To which the sharp retort should be, “Fine, just don’t be wimps.” None of the campaign messages above is close to Swift Boat sleaze, but each could be more damaging than the flag-waving foolishness of much of the Kerry campaign.
The American media, like their counterparts in each of the democracies, does have a liberal tilt. How could it be otherwise when journalists are schooled on, “Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted”? Fox News and the codeine-addled Rush Limbaugh are infamous because they are successful, and rare. Reporters do, however, have a macho enthusiasm for winners, and a visceral disdain for wimps. “Wimp attacks” are far more often behind the savage coverage Kerry gets than right wing conspiracy.
But the most astonishing failure of the Democrats since the disastrous campaign of George McGovern in 1972 is continuing to misunderstand the power of the 1960s revolutions.
To the generation of voters borne since 1960, who will be a majority of voters by the end of this decade, equal treatment for women, gays and non-white Americans is history. For a majority of the post-70s generation, tolerance about recreational drug use, alternative life styles, and body piercing, combined with skepticism about corporate power and its respect for the environment or third-world citizens, are values as integral as respect for sexual freedom and openness.
The GOP hardliners, the Christian right, Fox News and Pat Buchanan are so angry and frothing because they know they lost. So why is this victory not part of Democratic political leadership armour today? It is in many other democracies: the German foreign minister is a former anarchist and proud of it; Tony Blair was a youthful peacenik.
Heck, even in Canada, the finance minister of our largest province was a committed BC hippie for years.
Clinton came closest to playing effectively on the difference that his generation and his values meant, until his self-indulgence almost ruined him. But in grinding their teeth about his confusion of sexual freedom with stupidity, the Democrats need to recall the power of his broader message and appeal. The president playing a saxophone on television and dancing to Fleetwood Mac at his inauguration communicated subtly but effectively who won the culture wars. It was part of what made him such a hated target of the right.
Pete Townshend, who had always been very very careful about who gets to use the Who musical archive, was appalled when he heard that the Bushies’ private celebration on the night of the Supreme Court decision in favour of Bush in 2001, was a loud playing and replaying of his great anti-totalitarian anthem, “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” But the drollery captures the broader irony of the two parties’ approach to their histories and places in it.
The Dems may be saved by divine intervention once again. W’s snorting a few lines off the Camp David pine furniture, or some other youthful indiscretion until now successfully covered up, may yet halt the waltz to reelection. In the long-term though, the GOP now has a serious problem: it’s become too successful. This is the crisis that hits every party in power eventually. It has made too many compromises, spread its coalition-building a little too thinly, and opened itself to contradictions and conflicts that may yet tear it apart, just as similar pressures at the turn of the last century did when Teddy Roosevelt split the party, electing Woodrow Wilson.
There is no common cause between the Michael Bloombergs and the Tom Delays of this world. Except in sharing power, they wouldn’t be seen in the same room together. Arnold Schwarzenegger is no more a social conservative than Al Sharpton. The rifle-toting, gay-bashing, born again, “illegal wetback” hating, anti-free-trade Republican activist is as far from the convictions of the management of corporate America as Ralph Nader. That such activists and execs are both Republicans is as much a Democratic failure as a GOP victory.
The cracks in this coalition are emerging: former Nixon cabinet member and New York investment banker Peter Peterson is attacking “profligate deficit spending.” Southern activists are grumbling about Bush’s being “soft on illegal immigrants.” Anti-big-government conservatives are furious that the Bush administration has raised public spending — even excluding the Iraq spending sinkhole — more than any president since Johnson. Pat Buchanan, representing the venerable isolationist tradition in the party, is attacking the “wars of misadventure.” Log Cabin Republicans (the GOP’s gay caucus) are supporting only liberal Republican candidates and not George Bush.
But these fissures can be pried wide open by a more confident and assertive Democratic party. If the Kerry/Edwards team is able to squeak out a victory this year, party optimists will draw a line between the Clinton 1996 victory, the 2000 stolen election, and a win this year. This trajectory will allow some to claim that it points to a rebirth of the party’s coalition with new members and new possibility.
More realistic partisans might better breathe a sigh of relief and get down to the long-term slog of party-building at the city and county level. Reconstruction based on a clear vision of a different America — one with an appeal to ordinary middle-class Americans that FDR’s vision had three generations ago. Whether that vision focuses on cleaner air or cleaner government, on full employment or full health care for all Americans is less important than that it is a distinctive, believable populist message of greater economic equality and fairness, delivered every day by credible candidates.
At the same time, at the local level in urban America, the party will need to replace its dependence on trade union money and muscle with its own organization and tools. The GOP has adroitly captured the zeal of Christian evangelists as organizational footsoldiers. Sadly, those zealots outnumber trade union members now by two to one. Tactical partnerships with the environmental movement, black and hispanic organizations are valuable, but nothing can replace the power of your own fulltime “feet on the street.”
Democratic party chair Terry McAulliffe has masterfully assembled in Washington a powerful edifice for fundraising, direct marketing and research, with an equally massive war chest. It is a little bit backwards, but the same now needs to be done in places like Miami and Pittsburgh and Cleveland. That process will win local contests and train future national candidates.
Finally, the party needs to stop being defensive about its recent history, and be the first to attack and counter-attack. Republicans have carved out a new chunk of political geography for themselves — the traditional family, the aggressive use of force globally, tax cuts, the protestant right. That constellation excludes at least half of America, that rejected chunk of political geography and voters is waiting to be reclaimed by a renascent coalition such as that constructed by FDR.
His rebuilding took place in the face of far greater forces of opposition and with far fewer resources. Instead of whining about the conspiracies arrayed against them, today’s party leadership should study FDR’s organizational and political genius, take a deep breath and begin again.
OUR VIEW OF DEMOCRACY & PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY
ACHIEVING AMERICA, ONE COMMUNITY AT A TIME.
Some of us complain incessantly about our politics and politicians. Others dodge any discussion of politics whatsoever. As a society, we have become less and less adept at rising above our political biases, listening to divergent views and reaching consensus. Worse yet, we seem to be losing faith, not only in our civic institutions and democracy, but in one another. Most of us sense that our capacity to forge a shared vision and solve big problems is slipping away.
At some level, most of us recognize the flaws of our political system and the looming threats to the next generation, but how much do we really care about solutions? How many of us stop to ask ourselves how we got here or how we might have contributed to the problem? More regrettably, how many of us ask ourselves what we can do as individual citizens to make things better? Why are so many of us content to blame politicians instead of accepting responsibility?
After 200 years, the global growth of what we have come to know as liberal democracy has stalled. Just 25 years ago, democracy was ascendant. The Soviet Union, South Africa’s apartheid regime and the Berlin Wall had fallen. Even China spawned hopes of democratic reforms. But, since the so-called End of History, we have witnessed a growing assault on democracy, from demagogic policies in the US to nationalistic victories in Europe to authoritarian regimes in Philippines, Turkey and Venezuela.
There are many causal factors for the success of anti-democratic movements. Voter faith in democratic institutions and elites has plummeted, especially since the Great Recession. The unsettling effects of economic disruptions, stagnant wages, demographic shifts and migration trends have placed harsh demands on civic institutions and revealed the fragilities of democracy. Desperate voters have found it increasingly difficult to resist the appeals of loud demagogues promising simple solutions. The threat of populism, especially in nations lacking rigorous constitutional frameworks and deep cultural ties to individual freedoms, is serious and enduring.
We were fortunate—to a point. While our founders were fallible, they foresaw the potential risks of pure democracy. They designed our constitutional system as a representative republic rather than a direct democracy. By doing so, they sought to reconcile the best features of democracy (e.g., majority rule) with constitutional controls that would protect individual liberties (e.g., separation of powers and indirect selection of US Senators and President). They argued that the best way to translate public opinion into public policy was through elected representatives, not direct democracy.
The results have been mixed. Some constitutional controls, like federalism, have met the framers’ expectations, but others have not. The imperial presidency and increasingly partisan (and activist) Supreme Court have upset the separation of powers equilibrium. The Electoral College has wandered far from its origins. In addition, 20th Century democratic reforms (e.g., 17th Amendment, 19th Amendment and 1965 Voting Rights Act) have been offset by profound anti-democratic developments (e.g., gerrymandering, voter suppression, Citizen United and special interest lobbying).
OUR CURRENT SITUATION
The causes of our political dilemma can be difficult to distinguish from its symptoms. And academic discussions of democracy, populism and other political systems can be bewildering, if not maddening.
What is clear is that something is wrong. Our civic problems have worsened and the political systems on which we have long relied to solve them are failing us. For instance:
- Many citizens have become cynical, alienated and ill-informed; in 2016, US ranked 26th of 32 among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations in voter participation
- Trust in civic institutions is plummeting (per the Pew Research Center, only 18% trust government “always or most of time,” down from 62% in 1968) and our support for authoritarianism is growing, especially among the young, less educated and less politically engaged
- Media outlets have become increasingly divisive, with echo chamber business models that are more about fueling acrimony than providing objective news, analyses and ideas
- Too many citizens have shifted from joining civic groups to using social media platforms (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) that spread disinformation, inflame grievances and discourage compromise
- Extreme gerrymandering and voting barriers are making our elections less competitive and outmoded conventions (e.g., the Electoral College and US Senate) are exacerbating the underrepresentation of urban areas, racial minorities and, in some cases, popular majorities
- Hyper-partisanship and low-turnout primaries are giving political zealots disproportionate clout in both parties, making civil dialogue, compromise and problem-solving more elusive
- Candidates for public office are increasingly rewarded for fear mongering, inflammatory rhetoric and big promises, yet demonstrably under-prepared for the challenges of executive office
- Public policy is increasingly shaped by wealthy elites and narrow interest groups rather than our elected representatives, at both the federal and state levels
- The Federal government, exemplified by a polarized Congress, erratic White House and partisan Supreme Court, has become a calcified vetocracy, incapable of adapting to new challenges
- State governments, structurally unchanged since colonial times, have become more and more infected by the same diseases that have rendered our Federal government so weak
- Public accountability has been gutted by proliferating agencies and administrative rule-making at the federal level, diffused executive powers at the state level and fragmented government and dying media outlets at the local level
Examining such problems can be daunting, partly because they seem so complex, but also because they seem so insurmountable. They are broad national problems that demand multi-faceted solutions, many beyond our individual capabilities. This can reinforce our sense of futility and alienation.
But, if the American idea is at least partly about individualism, perhaps we should view our politics partly through an individual lens. There are many questions we can ask of ourselves, such as:
- What makes politicians so different from me? If they are all corrupt, were they corrupt when I voted for them or did they become corrupt after they took office? Would I be any different?
- Why do I blame others for my economic anxieties or misfortunes? Why do I blame certain groups (e.g., CEOs, immigrants or minorities) more than others? Is such finger-pointing productive?
- If I don’t trust government or other civic institutions, why aren’t I more interested in holding such institutions and their leaders more accountable? What makes me think that an authoritarian leader, regime or system would do a better job (especially if I can’t hold them accountable)?
- Even if I’m angry or skeptical about politicians, politics and government, is that really a satisfactory excuse for being ill-informed or indifferent about civic decisions that could impact me?
- Instead of relying solely on partisan echo chambers for my information about politics, shouldn’t I explore media sources that offer different perspectives?
- Wouldn’t it be more useful or at least interesting to join civic groups or associations that would give me insight into other people with different views?
- Is there a better way to communicate about civic issues than social media?
- Is there anything that I’ve done or that I’m doing that contributes to the corrosiveness of our politics?
- Can I be part of the solution? If so, how?
Once we have gathered the courage to ask ourselves these kinds of questions, we can focus our attention on actions we can take on our own and without the intervention of others. It is then that we can become better citizens and share the principles of citizenship with the next generation.
Most every problem has solutions and the dysfunctionality of our political system is no different. The good news is that there is much that we can do as individuals. There are small steps that each of us can take to honor democratic principles. They include the following:
- Think for ourselves – embrace our independence, diversify the sources from which we learn about the world, continually seek reliable civic education tools, subject what we read or hear to honest scrutiny and develop our own opinions (instead of parroting the views of others)
- Relentlessly pursue civility – accept that we all have biases and blind spots (no matter how strongly our views, we could be wrong), demonstrate the humility and grace to learn from others, listen to others with respect and generosity and find constructive ways to communicate about civic issues
- Promote good citizenship – monitor and assess the quality of civic education in our schools, support student self-governance programs in churches and civic groups and continually find ways to help our young people learn the principles of citizenship and become great citizens
- Celebrate elections – register to vote, study the candidates and ballot issues, cast a vote for every race in every election, volunteer on campaigns and even consider running for office
- Take civic action – join civic groups, volunteer for nonprofit and community projects, monitor your local government and serve on local government and nonprofit boards
Civic Way suggests three types of actions for restoring our democracy and strengthening our political system: 1) individual measures (actions we can take as individual citizens), 2) community measures (joint actions we can take with other citizens, but without changing laws or raising taxes) and 3) political measures (changes to laws, policies or budgets). We have summarized some individual measures above and will offer some community and political measures in future newsletters.
The US political system is ours. We can complain about it. We can even tear it down or replace it with something else, but it remains our system (at least for now). And we should not presume that removing one office holder will cure our political dysfunction or revive our civic institutions.
We will have to do many things to revitalize our democracy and align our political system with the challenges ahead. Some will require collaboration (community measures) and others will require new laws, policies and investments (political measures).
But we must not neglect the actions we can take as individuals. Instead of engaging in moral grandstanding or avoiding politics altogether, we must adopt civics as what Abraham Lincoln once called our political religion. By renewing our commitment to and involvement with America’s political system, we can transcend our narrow political identities, reconcile divergent views and even achieve meaningful progress around shared values.
Perhaps we can even become what Walt Whitman saw as blades of grass, arising from and returning to nature, but ultimately becoming part of something larger, stronger, more unified and more inspiring. Or we can stay affixed to our devices, watching cat videos.
The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy
Across the West, economic dislocation and demographic change have triggered a demand for strong leaders. This surge of populism is more than an emotional backlash; it encourages a political structure that threatens liberal democracy. While populism accepts principles of popular sovereignty and majoritarianism, it is skeptical about constitutionalism and liberal protections for individuals. Moreover, populists’ definition of “the people” as homogeneous cannot serve as the basis for a modern democracy, which stands or falls with the protection of pluralism. Although this resurgent tribalism may draw strength from the incompleteness of life in liberal society, the liberal-democratic system uniquely harbors the power of self-correction, the essential basis for needed reforms.
For those who believe in liberal democracy, it is sobering to review the events of the past quarter-century. Twenty-five years ago, liberal democracy was on the march. The Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union had collapsed; new democracies were emerging throughout Europe, and Russia seemed to be in transition as well. South Africa’s apartheid regime was tottering. Even though China’s government had brutally repressed a democracy movement, it was possible to believe that a more educated and prosperous Chinese middle class would eventually (and irresistibly) demand democratic reforms. Liberal democracy had triumphed, it seemed, not only in practice but also in principle. It was the only legitimate form of government. There was no alternative.
Today, the global scene is very different. Liberal democracy faces multiple external challenges—from ethnonational autocracies, from regimes claiming to be based on God’s word rather than the will of the people, from the success of strong-handed meritocracy in places such as Singapore, and, not least, from the astonishing economic accomplishments of China’s market-Leninist system.
But there is also an internal challenge to liberal democracy—a challenge from populists who seek to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism. Liberal norms and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people. Thus, liberal institutions that prevent the people from acting democratically in their own interest should be set aside. It is this challenge on which I wish to focus.
Across Europe and North America, long-established political arrangements are facing a revolt. Its milestones have included the Brexit vote; the 2016 U.S. election; the doubling of support for France’s National Front; the rise of the antiestablishment Five Star Movement in Italy; the entrance of the far-right Alternative for Germany into the Bundestag; moves by traditional right-leaning parties toward the policies of the far-right in order to secure victories in the March 2017 Dutch and October 2017 Austrian parliamentary elections; the outright victory of the populist ANO party in the Czech Republic’s October 2017 parliamentary elections; and most troubling, the entrenchment in Hungary of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s self-styled “illiberal democracy,” which seems to be emerging as a template for Poland’s governing Law and Justice party and—some scholars believe—for insurgent parties in Western Europe as well. This revolt threatens the assumptions that shaped liberal democracy’s forward march in the 1990s and that continue to guide mainstream politicians and policy makers of the center-left and center-right.
When I began writing about this emerging revolt a few years ago, I believed that economics lay at its core. Contemporary liberal democracy, I argued, rested on a tacit compact between peoples on the one hand and elected representatives together with unelected experts on the other. The people would defer to elites as long as they delivered sustained prosperity and steadily improving living standards. But if elites stopped managing the economy effectively, all bets were off.
This compact began to weaken with growing competition from developing nations, which put pressure on policies designed to protect the citizens of advanced democracies against labor-market risks. The erosion of the manufacturing sector and the urbanization of opportunity—the shift of economic dynamism away from smaller communities and rural areas toward a handful of metropolitan centers—destabilized geographic regions and political structures. Inequality rose. A globalized economy, it turned out, served the interests of most people in developing countries and elites in advanced countries—but not the interests of the working and middle classes in the developed economies, which had done so well in the three decades after World War II.
Against this backdrop, the Great Recession that began in late 2007 represented a colossal failure of economic stewardship, and political leaders’ inability to restore vigorous growth compounded the felony. As economies struggled and unemployment persisted, the groups and regions that failed to rebound lost confidence in mainstream parties and established institutions, fueling the populist upsurge that has upended U.S. politics, threatens the European Union, and endangers liberal governance itself in several of the newer democracies.
In recent years, however, I have come to believe that this is only a portion of the truth. A structural explanation that places economics at the base and treats other issues as derivative distorts a more complex reality.
The United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union all failed to deal with waves of immigration in ways that commanded public support. Not only did immigrants compete with longtime inhabitants for jobs and social services, they were also seen as threatening established cultural norms and public safety. Postelection analyses show that concerns about immigration largely drove the Brexit referendum, the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the gains of far-right parties across Europe.
In government, the media, and major metropolitan areas, technological change has spurred the growth and consolidation of an education-based meritocracy, giving rise to new class divisions. For citizens with less formal education, particularly those in rural areas and smaller towns, the dominance of this new elite has led to feelings of marginalization. Too often, individuals who have prospered in this meritocracy are seen as harboring a sense of superiority to their fellow citizens. Denying the equal dignity and worth of others is self-defeating: Insult does even more than injury to fuel resentment, one of the most dangerous of all political passions.
With these developments, divisions among citizens based on geography, formal-education levels, and value systems are growing sharper. Supporters of dynamism and diversity increasingly clash with proponents of stability and homogeneity, beneficiaries of technological change with those harmed by the resulting economic shifts. As the British analyst David Goodhart vividly puts it, democratic citizenries are being divided into “Anywheres” (individuals whose identities are professional and who can use their skills in many places, at home and abroad) and “Somewheres” (individuals whose identities are tightly bound to particular places). A college degree, it turns out, not only expands economic opportunities but also reshapes an individual’s entire outlook.
As I wrote in these pages in April 2017, “elites’ preference for open societies is running up against growing public demands for . . . economic, cultural, and political closure.” All too often, liberal democracy is conflated with the spread of a cultural liberalism at odds with custom and religion. The combination of economic dislocation, demographic change, and challenges to traditional values has left many less educated citizens feeling that their lives are outside their control. The national and international governing institutions they thought would step in to help seemed frozen or indifferent. In the United States, partisan polarization gridlocked the system, preventing progress on critical issues. In Europe, the opposite phenomenon—a duopoly of the center-left and center-right that kept important issues off the public agenda—had much the same effect.
In light of this apparent inability to address mounting problems, governments across the West face growing public ire. Many citizens, their confidence in the future shaken, long instead for an imagined past that insurgent politicians have promised to restore. As popular demand for strong leaders grows, rising political actors are beginning to question key liberal-democratic principles such as the rule of law, freedom of the press, and minority rights. The door seems to be opening for a return to forms of authoritarianism written off by many as relics of the past.
What Is Liberal Democracy?
To clarify what these developments may mean for liberal democracy, it is helpful to distinguish among four concepts—the republican principle, democracy, constitutionalism, and liberalism.
By the republican principle I mean popular sovereignty. The people, this principle holds, are the sole source of legitimacy, and only they can rightly authorize forms of government. This idea is at the heart of the most American of all documents, the Declaration of Independence, which famously asserts, “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Consistent with the Declaration, James Madison wrote: “We may define a republic to be . . . a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.”
Democracy, at the most basic level, requires both the equality of all citizens and broadly inclusive citizenship. A society in which all citizens are equal but only 10 percent of all adults are citizens would not, today, count as a democracy. Together with equal and inclusive citizenship, the other key pillar of democratic governance is majority rule. This means, first, that public decisions are made by popular majorities of citizens whose votes all count equally; and second, that democratic decision making extends to a maximally wide range of public matters. Majoritarianism is limited only by the imperative of preserving the liberties and powers—freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, among others—that citizens need to influence public decisions.
In this conception of democracy unmodified by any adjective, there is nothing essentially undemocratic about majoritarian decisions that systematically disadvantage specific individuals and groups or invade privacy rights. If it wishes, a democratic public may embrace the maxim that it is better for ten guilty individuals to go free than for one innocent individual to be found guilty—but it is no less democratic if it adopts the opposite view. Nor is it undemocratic per se to conduct judicial proceedings in the same manner as legislative affairs. The Athenian assembly that condemned Socrates may have been wrong, but it was fully democratic.
The third concept, constitutionalism, denotes a basic, enduring structure of formal institutional power, typically but not always codified in writing. This codified structure is “basic” in that it provides the basis for the conduct of public life. And it is “enduring” because it typically includes some mechanism that makes it harder to change the structure itself than to amend or reverse decisions made within it.
In addition to organizing power, constitutions also establish boundaries for the institutions that wield it. These limits can be horizontal, like the familiar “separation of powers” and “checks and balances.” They can also be vertical: Through federalism, public power is divided among different levels of jurisdiction (national, regional, and so forth). These limits need not constrain public power in the aggregate. If the national government has limited police powers but subordinate jurisdictions are free to regulate what the national government may not, then in principle there is nothing beyond government’s reach. This is why the decision to limit public power in all its aspects marks the line between constitutionalism in general and the specific type of constitutionalism we call liberal.
This bring us to the fourth and final concept: liberalism. Benjamin Constant famously distinguished between the “liberty of the ancients” and the “liberty of the moderns.” For the ancients, liberty entailed “active participation in collective power”—that is, in direct self-government. The sheer size of modern political communities, however, makes this impossible, even for those communities founded on republican principles. One might conclude, then, that the liberty of the moderns consists in the selection of representatives through free and fair elections in which all may participate on equal terms. But this is only part of the story. In fact, Constant presents the “peaceful enjoyment of individual independence” as the modern alternative to direct participation in government. The exclusion of most citizens, most of the time, from direct self-government opens up a large sphere of nonpolitical life—economic, social, cultural, and religious—that citizens expect to conduct on their own terms.
We have now reached the core idea of liberalism: recognizing and protecting a sphere beyond the rightful reach of government in which individuals can enjoy independence and privacy. In this spirit, the U.S. Declaration of Independence not only invokes but also limits the republican principle. If all human beings are endowed with “certain unalienable rights” that governments do not create and individuals may not surrender, then the republican principle can authorize only forms of government that uphold these rights. Governments, the Declaration reminds us, are created to “to secure these rights,” not to redefine or abridge them.
We can now venture a more precise characterization of liberal democracy. This type of political order rests on the republican principle, takes constitutional form, and incorporates the civic egalitarianism and majoritarian principles of democracy. At the same time, it accepts and enforces the liberal principle that the legitimate scope of public power is limited, which entails some constraints on or divergences from majoritarian decision making. A liberal order can use devices such as supermajority requirements or even unanimity rules to limit the majority’s power, or it can deploy constitutional courts insulated from direct public pressure to police the perimeter beyond which even supermajorities may not go.
How Does Populism Challenge Liberal Democracy?
These distinctions also shed light on the populist challenge to liberal democracy. Populism is not merely, as some observers have suggested, an emotion-laden expression of disappointment over frustrated economic expectations, resentment against rigged rules and special interests, and fear of threats to physical and cultural security. Even if it lacks the kind of formal theoretical underpinnings or canonical texts that defined the great “isms” of the twentieth century, populism nonetheless has a coherent structure.
Of our four key concepts, populism accepts the principles of popular sovereignty and democracy, understood in straightforward fashion as the exercise of majoritarian power. It is skeptical, however, about constitutionalism, insofar as formal, bounded institutions and procedures impede majorities from working their will. It takes an even dimmer view of liberal protections for individuals and minority groups.
It might seem, then, that the aim of contemporary populism is what many scholars and at least one national leader (Orbán) call “illiberal democracy”—a governing system capable of translating popular preferences into public policy without the impediments that have prevented liberal democracies from responding effectively to urgent problems. From this perspective, populism is a threat not to democracy per se but rather to the dominant liberal variant of democracy.
Indeed, some observers contend that populism, so understood, is not without merit: It represents “an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism,” and thus is less an attack on democracy than a corrective to a deficit thereof. These observers argue that elites, by taking important issues such as economic, monetary, and regulatory policies off the public agenda and assigning them to institutions insulated from public scrutiny and influence, have invited precisely the popular revolt that now threatens to overwhelm them.
But to stop here would be to leave half the story untold—the more important half, in my view. Because populism embraces the republican principle of popular sovereignty, it faces the question inherent in this principle: Who are the people? When we say “we,” what do we mean?
This may sound like an abstract theoretical question. It is anything but.
Today, “we the people” is understood to mean all citizens, regardless of religion, manners and customs, and length of citizenship. The people is an ensemble of individuals who enjoy a common civic status. During the founding period of the United States, however, a thicker understanding prevailed. In Federalist 2 John Jay wrote, “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.”7 We may wonder where this left African Americans, not to mention Catholics and those for whom German was the language of daily life. How, if at all, did Jay’s understanding of the American people differ from the understanding of peoplehood in today’s Hungarian constitution, whose preamble “recognizes the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood,” praises “our king Saint Stephen” for making Hungary “a part of Christian Europe,” and speaks of “promoting and safeguarding our heritage, our unique language, [and] Hungarian culture”?
Historically, right-leaning populists have emphasized shared ethnicity and common descent, while left-leaning populists have often defined the people in class terms, excluding those with wealth and power. Recently, a third definition has entered public debate—the people as opposed to cultural elites. In its U.S. version, this definition sets “real people” who eat hamburgers, listen to country and western music, and watch Duck Dynasty against “globalist” snobs who do whatever PBS, NPR, and the New York Times deem refined.
When populists distinguish between the “people” and the “elite,” they depict each of these groups as homogeneous. The people have one set of interests and values, the elite has another, and these two sets are not only different but fundamentally opposed. The divisions are moral as well as empirical. Populism understands the elite as hopelessly corrupt, the people as uniformly virtuous—meaning that there is no reason why the people should not govern themselves and their society without institutional restraints. And populist leaders claim that they alone represent the people, the only legitimate force in society.
This approach raises some obvious difficulties. First, it is divisive by definition. In the context of popular sovereignty, splitting a country’s population into the people and the others implies that some parts of the population, because they are not really part of the people, do not deserve to share in self-government. Individuals outside the charmed circle of the people may therefore be excluded from equal citizenship, violating the principle of inclusion that is essential to democracy.
Second, the populist definition of the people is inherently counter-factual. According to Jan-Werner Müller, a leading scholar of populism, populists “speak and act as ifthe people could develop a singular judgment, a singular will, and hence a singular, unambiguous mandate.”9 But of course they cannot. In circumstances of even partial liberty, different social groups will have different interests, values, and origins. Plurality, not homogeneity, characterizes most peoples, most of the time.
Populism is the enemy of pluralism, and thus of modern democracy. Imposing the assumption of uniformity on the reality of diversity not only distorts the facts but also elevates the characteristics of some social groups over those of others. To the extent that this occurs, populism becomes a threat to democracy, which, as Müller puts it, “requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens.” Whatever may have been possible in classical republics, no form of identity politics can serve as the basis for modern democracy, which stands or falls with the protection of pluralism.
Equally counterfactual is the proposition that the people are uniformly virtuous. They are not, of course. Political movements based on this premise inevitably come to grief, but not before disappointment gives way to a violent search for hidden enemies. Populist leaders attack “enemies of the people” in moralistic terms, as corrupt, self-seeking, and given to conspiracies against ordinary citizens, often in collaboration with foreigners. Populism requires constant combat against these enemies and the forces they represent.
In this way, presuming the people’s monopoly on virtue undermines democratic practice. Decision making in circumstances of diversity typically requires compromise. If one group or party believes that the other embodies evil, however, its members are likely to scorn compromises as dishonorable concessions to the forces of darkness. In short, populism plunges democratic societies into an endless series of moralized zero-sum conflicts; it threatens the rights of minorities; and it enables over-bearing leaders to dismantle the checkpoints on the road to autocracy.
How Serious Is the Threat?
On the one hand, this is no time for complacency. Liberal democracy faces clear and present dangers. On the other hand, I must underscore a less fashionable point: This is no time for panic either. The best stance is reality-based concern, as detached from fear and foreboding as we can manage.
History offers a valuable corrective to myopia. A recent study of politics in the wake of financial crises over the past 140 years finds a consistent pattern: Majority parties shrink; far-right parties gain ground; polarization and fragmentation intensify; uncertainty rises; and governing becomes more difficult. Economic historians tell us that the effects of financial crises, unlike cyclical recessions, typically take a decade or more to abate. It was not until this year that middle-class families in the United States regained the level of income they enjoyed prior to the onset of the Great Recession in late 2007. They have not yet regained the wealth they lost during this period. The lag in Europe is worse.
We may also gain perspective, and a measure of comfort, from a cross-national survey released just a couple of months ago. Although there is widespread discontent with how democratic institutions are performing in the European and North American countries included in the survey, median support for representative democracy across these countries stands at 80 percent. By contrast, only 13 percent support a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from the legislature or the courts. Even fewer support military government. That said, while publics are not turning their back on representative democracy, they are willing to consider other forms of decision making. Seventy percent favor referendums in which citizens vote directly on major national issues, and 43 percent believe that allowing experts to make decisions about what is best for their countries makes sense.
Over the past year, I have been part of a bipartisan Voter Study Group that has been working to understand not only the 2016 presidential election, but also Americans’ views of their democratic system. The news is mostly good. Among respondents, 78 percent believe that democracy is preferable to any other form of government, while 83 percent think it is very important to live in a democratic system. Nonetheless, 23 percent are open to a strong leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections, and 18 percent would countenance military rule. Openness to undemocratic alternatives was most pronounced among voters who combine economic liberalism and cultural conservatism—the policy profile most characteristic of U.S. populists. It was also evident among voters who favor one primary culture over cultural diversity, believe that European heritage is important to being an American, and harbor highly negative views of Muslims. Nearly half the voters who supported Barack Obama in 2012 but switched to Donald Trump in 2016 favored a strong, unencumbered leader and declined to endorse democracy as the best form of government.
It is not clear that these findings represent a break with the past. Overall support for a leader who can act unchecked by Congress and the courts is no higher than it was two decades ago. Readers familiar with Seymour Martin Lipset’s scholarship will recall similar themes in his 1970 text The Politics of Unreason and in the work he did on working-class authoritarianism in the 1950s. Nonetheless, there are grounds for concern, not least because our system allows aroused political minorities to exercise disproportionate influence.
In practice, not every manifestation of populism threatens liberal democracy. While the Brexit vote, as a policy decision made by referendum, raised some issues in terms of parliamentary sovereignty, its outcome ultimately pivoted on policy concerns. In systems where liberal-democratic institutions are strong, disputes about trade, immigration, and even national sovereignty can still take place. In the long run, the effort to place such issues beyond the pale of political contestation will do more to weaken liberal democracy than robust debate ever could.
But sometimes the populist challenge does directly threaten liberal democracy. Left unchecked, moves to undermine freedom of the press, weaken constitutional courts, concentrate power in the hands of the executive, and marginalize groups of citizens based on ethnicity, religion, or national origin will undermine liberal democracy from within. Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán is frank about his antipathy to liberalism. The country that gave birth to the Solidarity movement is following his lead. We dare not ignore these developments, which may well be harbingers of worse to come. As Abraham Lincoln once said as the clouds of crisis darkened, “If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it.”
What Is to Be Done?
In the space remaining, I can only gesture toward the elements of a liberal-democratic response to the populist challenge.
1) The defenders of liberal democracy must focus relentlessly on identifying and countering threats to liberal institutions. An independent judiciary, freedom of the press, the rule of law, and protected space for civil associations (secular and religious) represent the first line of defense against illiberalism, and they must be safeguarded. At the same time, political reforms are needed to restore the ability of liberal-democratic institutions to act effectively. Gridlock frustrates ordinary citizens and makes them more open to leaders who are willing to break the rules in order to get things done.
2) We should distinguish between policy disputes and regime-level threats. Populist parties often espouse measures, such as trade protectionism and withdrawal from international institutions, that challenge established arrangements but not liberal democracy itself. In a similar vein, it is essential to distinguish between the liberal element of liberal democracy and what is often called cultural liberalism. Liberal democrats can adopt diverse views on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, local traditions, and religion while remaining true to their political creed.
3) Liberal democrats must make their peace with national sovereignty. Political leaders can assert the right of their nations to put their interests first without threatening liberal-democratic institutions and norms. Again, this is a policy dispute within liberal democracy, not about liberal democracy. The defenders of liberal democracy should likewise acknowledge that control of borders is an attribute of national sovereignty, and that liberal democrats can have a wide range of views on the appropriate number and type of immigrants to admit. In recent decades, as public concerns about population flows across national borders have intensified throughout the West, this issue has done more than any other to weaken support for liberal-democratic norms and institutions.
To some extent this trend reflects anxiety about economic displacement; the “Polish plumber” became a trope in the Brexit debate. Worries about the increased demand for social services, too, have played a part. But darker fears are also at work. The threat of Islamist terrorism has made Western populations less willing to absorb new immigrants or even refugees from Muslim-majority countries. Citizens increasingly fear that Islam and liberal democracy are incompatible and that a clash of civilizations is inevitable. National identity is taking on increasing prominence in politics, and those who believe that liberal democracy draws strength from diversity have been thrown on the defensive.
Large population flows, finally, have triggered concerns about the loss of national sovereignty. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, the EU’s unwillingness to compromise on the question of movement across its member nations’ borders made it far more difficult for Britain’s “Remain” forces to prevail. In the United States, Donald Trump’s famous promise to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the Mexican border became a powerful symbol of sovereignty regained.
But the concern extends beyond illegal immigration. Since the passage in 1965 of reforms that liberalized U.S. immigration policy following four decades of restrictive legislation, the country’s demographics have been transformed. In 2015, first-generation immigrants made up 14 percent of the population, just shy of the peak slightly over a century earlier. It should not be surprising that this latest cycle of immigration, like its early twentieth-century precursor, has evoked support for more restrictive policies among many U.S. citizens—this time including descendants of the previous wave’s immigrants.
One may speculate that any country (even a self-styled nation of immigrants) has a finite capacity to absorb new arrivals, and that bumping up against this limit triggers a reaction that detractors condemn as nativist. But denouncing citizens concerned about immigration as ignorant and bigoted does nothing either to address the issue in substance or to lower the political temperature. As Jeff Colgan and Robert Keohane put it, “It is not bigotry to calibrate immigration levels to the ability of immigrants to assimilate and to society’s ability to adjust.” No issue has done more to spark the rise of contemporary populism, and finding a sustainable compromise would drain much of the bile from today’s liberal-democratic politics.
4) It is time to abandon a myopic focus on economic aggregates and work instead toward inclusive growth—that is, the kind of economic policies that improve well-being across all demographic lines, including those of class and geography. As recent decades have shown, no mechanism automatically translates economic growth into broadly shared prosperity. Allowing the well-off strata of society to commandeer the lion’s share of gains is a formula for endless conflict. So, too, is allowing the concentration of economic growth and dynamism in fewer and fewer places.
The second half of the 1990s was the last time that the incomes of all economic groups from top to bottom progressed together at roughly the same rate. It is no coincidence that during this period the labor market reached and then sustained full employment, improving workers’ bargaining power and bringing previously neglected individuals back into the workforce. That history suggests that full employment should be a focus of economic policy. This is a moral as well as an economic imperative. In modern societies, work provides more than a livelihood; it gives our lives structure and purpose, and is a key source of self-confidence and social respect. It promotes stable families and healthy communities and strengthens the bonds of trust between individuals and their governing institutions. Conversely, we know all too well the consequences of long-term unemployment: diminished self-respect, increased strife within families, epidemics of substance abuse, blighted neighborhoods, and a corrosive sense of helplessness.
The challenge is not only work for all, but also reasonable compensation. In the long run, workers cannot spend more than they are paid. As wage growth slowed in recent decades, middle-class families kept up their living standards via women’s entry into the workforce and by taking on additional debt, in part drawn from the equity they had accumulated from rising home prices. When the housing bubble burst, these families suffered an economic shock that drove many into bankruptcy. The recovery since the end of the Great Recession has been the weakest of the entire postwar period largely because household and family incomes have remained flat. Only wage increases can generate more vigorous growth, and if market mechanisms fail to produce higher wages, public policy should step in.
The principle of inclusive growth applies across lines of geography as well as class. Throughout the market democracies of the West, remote and less densely populated regions are losing ground to metropolitan centers. Agricultural areas can still do well when prices are high, but the light industries that once thrived in smaller communities have weakened in the face of competitive pressure. More than that, it appears that the modern knowledge-based economy thrives on the density and diversity found in larger cities, where concentrated professional networks spur innovation. For this reason, public policy cannot fully eliminate the rural-urban gap. But by investing in transportation infrastructure that enables people who work in cities to live further from their places of employment, governments can help small towns participate in the fruits of metropolitan growth. Information technology can also be an asset: Expanding internet access today, like rural electrification during the New Deal, could help to bring isolated communities into the national economy and society.
Agency Within History
Liberals are anti-tribal, cherishing particular identities while subordinating them to broader conceptions of civic and even human solidarity. But citizens often crave more unity and solidarity than liberal life typically offers, and community can be a satisfying alternative to the burdens of individual responsibility. Preferring those who are most like us goes with the grain of our sentiments more than does a wider, more abstract concept of equal citizenship or humanity. So does the tendency to impute good motives to our friends and malign intent to our foes. Antipathy has its satisfactions, and conflict, like love, can make us feel more fully alive.
The appeal of populism—with its embrace of tribalism, its Manichean outlook, and the constant conflict it entails—is deeply rooted in the enduring incompleteness of life in liberal societies. This vulnerability helps explain why, in just twenty-five years, the partisans of liberal democracy have moved from triumphalism to near despair. But neither sentiment is warranted. Liberal democracy is not the end of history; nothing is. Everything human beings make is subject to erosion and contingency. Liberal democracy is fragile, constantly threatened, always in need of repair.
But liberal democracy is also strong, because, to a greater extent than any other political form, it harbors the power of self-correction. Not only do liberal-democratic institutions protect citizens against tyrannical concentrations of power, they also provide mechanisms for channelling the public’s grievances and unmet needs into effective reforms. To be sure, the power of self-correction is not always enough to prevent liberal democracies from crumbling. As we learned in the 1920s and 1930s, the combination of public stress and strong undemocratic movements can be irresistible, especially in newer democracies. But the oft-heard analogy between those decades and our current situation obscures more than it reveals. Today’s economic ills pale in comparison to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and today’s autocratic regimes lack the ideological attraction that fascism and communism held at their peak.
Still, there is no cause—and no excuse—for complacency. The current ills of liberal democracy are deep and pervasive. Surmounting them will require intellectual clarity and political leaders who are willing to take risks to serve the long-term interests of their countries. Human choice, not historical inevitability, will determine liberal democracy’s fate.
For now, democratic publics want policy changes that give them hope for a better future. Left unmet, their demands could evolve into pressure for regime change. The partisans of liberal democracy must do all they can to prevent this from happening.
dailywire.com, “‘Nobody Is Coming’: How A Dangerous Afghan Rescue Mission Became A 21st Century Underground Railroad.” By Scott Mann; brookings.edu, “Is democracy failing and putting our economic system at risk?” By William A. Galston and Elaine Kamarck; democracy.psu.edu, “Americans not only divided, but baffled by what motivates their opponents.” By Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman; egfound.org, “Democracy in Disarray: How the World Sees the U.S. and Its Example.” By Mark Hannah and Caroline Gray; policyoptions.irpp.org, “Why are the Democrats such losers?” By Robin V. Sears; civicway.org, “OUR VIEW OF DEMOCRACY & PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY: ACHIEVING AMERICA, ONE COMMUNITY AT A TIME.” ; journalofdemocracy.org, “The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy.” By William A. Galston;
‘Nobody Is Coming’: How A Dangerous Afghan Rescue Mission Became A 21st Century Underground Railroad
For two decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military fought for the freedom of a nation, created bonds of brotherhood between two countries, and made promises on the ground to our soldiers. But last August, with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, 20 years of relationships were squandered in the blink of an eye.
The stark reality we learned a year ago is that, when it comes to Afghanistan, we can no longer look to our current leaders for help. Nobody’s coming. We’re on our own.
Veterans of the long War on Terror know this better than anyone. A recent survey conducted by the Veterans and Citizens Initiative found that 76% of American military veterans are angry about the withdrawal from Afghanistan; 73% feel betrayed; and 71% are having a hard time processing the end of the war. Our troops risked their lives and suffered immeasurable physical and moral injuries. What was it all for?
My fellow veterans and I felt this acutely last year when we launched a rescue mission to save our friend Sergeant First Class Nezammudin “Nezam” Nezami. An Afghan special forces soldier, Nezam trained at Fort Bragg, fought alongside us, and was wounded defending American freedom. And yet, when the time came for his paperwork to be processed, none of us could get the U.S. government to help.
We took it upon ourselves to work directly with the NATO military heroes in Kabul to get Nezam out, utilizing a Signal group chat populated by veterans, State Department officials, and a few media figures. Once we got Nezam safely through the wall in the Kabul airport, we realized we had created an “underground railroad” for more Afghans and their families to find safe passage. It required a treacherous journey through Taliban checkpoints, seething crowds, and rank open sewers where those seeking refuge would look for a chem-light or orange flag signal. Once located, they had to use the password or show an image of a “Pineapple,” to the Marine or soldier standing guard at the hidden entry point.
The Signal group chat supporting these efforts, now known as “Operation Pineapple Express,” grew to 150 individuals from all parts of the country. Together, we worked diligently to get as many people as we could to safety, but we knew we were on borrowed time, as everyone expected an IED to detonate somewhere amidst the chaos of Kabul airport. It did, killing 13 Americans and over 100 innocent Afghans. The bomb ended our official operations, but we continued to work the underground — and we do to this day.
While veterans and volunteers stepped up, the silence from American politicians, diplomats, and senior military leaders has been deafening. Not one senior leader resigned in protest over the embarrassment and human costs of what happened. Instead, these leaders passed off the risk to more junior active-duty members of their organizations and to the combat-fatigued Special Operations Forces veteran population. Operation Pineapple Express was just one of dozens of privately run operations where individuals stepped in to do the work that our military higher-ups and our government refused to do.
Today, more than a year later, the Kabul we left behind looks very different. The Taliban appears stronger than ever, and human rights have once again been ripped away from the Afghan people. The Taliban have reinstituted their draconian measures to keep girls out of school and women out of public professions. Mass graves of Tajik Men and targeted killings of former Afghan Commandos are the front-page headlines of human rights organizations. And as we saw with the recent drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, American enemies once again have a place of safety to plan future attacks.
Coming back from this failure will be immensely difficult, and we don’t seem to have the leadership in Washington to make a difference.
As we learned all too painfully in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Ukraine, we cannot kill our way to security. We cannot turn military decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of troops into political tools. America’s broken international promises represent a national security risk that cannot be understated. But perhaps an even greater consequence of those broken promises is the sense of betrayal and futility felt among our men and women in the service. Why did we fight? What did we fight for? These questions became a recurring callback with so many of my friends who risked their lives and sacrificed so much.
That’s why Operation Pineapple Express – like Dunkirk, Save Our Allies, and the many other volunteer efforts undertaken – was a huge uplift. It showed what people can do in spite of the mismanagement and political blundering of our leaders. The fortitude and loyalty our team members demonstrated to save our Afghan brothers and sisters – many of us not sleeping for days straight so we could save as many people as possible – embodies what makes America great. It’s not the
politicians. It’s not the military brass, either. It’s the everyday men and women who honored a promise and tried to save their fellow men and women when they needed help.
As we rue the anniversary of our tragic exit from Afghanistan, we must push past the partisan hackery and look beyond the egregious missteps of past administrations. We’re in the foxhole now, and help may not come. With veterans as our moral compass, we citizens must recognize that, at least for now, we only have each other to rely on.
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