Part 3: Is Democracy Under Threat?

Part 3 – An Introductory Essay Series (Click here to start at the beginning!!)

Many are not content with the current state of affairs in American government.

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According to a 2016 study completed by Brookings Institute and PRRI, 72% of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track. That same study articulates that 60% of Americans have a moderately authoritarian or highly authoritarian preference.[1]

Freedom House has documented that, globally speaking, democracy as a form of government has been in a steady recession over the last 8 years – the total number of democracies is on the decline.

In the United States, public trust in government is at its lowest rate in 50 years. More troublingly, the number of Americans who believe that democracy is not the best form of governance has been steadily rising, especially among younger generations. By 2011, 24% of those ages 16-24 believe that democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” form of government.[2] Openness to alternatives has also been on the rise. In 1995, the number of Americans who believe that it would be “good” or “very good” for the army to rule was only 1 in 16. Today the number is 1 in 6.[3]

How much of this growing dissatisfaction with American-style liberal democracy can be attributed to the lack of public knowledge about how it administers resources to deliver public goods?

It seems a reasonable leap to think that those who prefer more hierarchical forms of government may be responding in a rational way to the seemingly unresolvable information gaps and service delivery chaos in our civic landscape. According to Francis Fukuyama, a Stanford political science professor, the single biggest problem for democracy is its, “…inability to deliver upon the things people want out of government – which is basic issues like security, services, education, health care.”[4]  If the public cannot understand how the government is currently working to deliver these services, any efforts to reform or improve the system, so that it can deliver these public goods and services in a better way, will remain frustratingly out of our grasp. As a result, the democratic form itself may be under increasing threat.

And yet, at every stage in history, humans have evolved social rules and created institutions to deal with the sharing of resources. Ever since we were living in tribal groups, eking out an existence in harsh environments all over the globe, humans had to make decisions about how to share surplus resources.  Since the beginning of time, we have been coming back from the hunt or coming back from the bush with a basket of berries and making decisions about how to share the excess before spoilage. We evolved social rules and norms in order to govern resource sharing, often with a mandate to do so since a community’s survival could depend on it.

Humans eventually found new ways to govern the sharing of resources – ways that widened circles of trust beyond that of family, tribal or religious group to a more diverse population, with whom we shared little in common by way of identity or blood. Humans evolved the three fundamental institutions of politics, as articulated by Fukuyama in his book The Origins of Political Order: the formal bureaucratic state, rule of law and accountability, to facilitate this much broader sharing of resources.  As a result, civilizations developed and thrived through the interaction of diverse people, perspectives and goods.  Across continents and eras, various forms of government evolved and deployed shared resources to generate tremendous public goods, such as public safety, educated populations, physical infrastructure and beyond.  Through these political institutions, people could rely on grain stockpiles, irrigated lands and tribunals to address disputes and facilitate commerce. Humanity began to thrive.

Now we share and are shared with in ways that would stagger our ancestors, but that are opaque to most members of our society.  We separate the provision of public goods, like schools, parks and police, into multiple layers of government. One household may be governed by separate city, county, state governments, and various special units of government, the federal government, and also a local school board. In America, we have also developed a uniquely vast and sophisticated charitable sector that has a significant role in the delivery of services that might be provided by the state in other countries.

Whether it is the governmental distribution of resources, or private, philanthropic distribution of resources, we have become disconnected from the process and its outcomes, which interrupts our population’s ability to effectively manage the third fundamental political institution – governmental accountability.  We see problems; we see those without resources. We create theories and stories around who is deserving of resources and who is merely freeloading.  Family identity, defined by blood-relations, is the first way in which humans decided who it was “safe” to share with. In The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama notes that even squirrels have the ability to distinguish between full siblings and half siblings – they resist sharing food with half siblings. Contemporary anxieties ranging from the concern over illegal immigration to outcries about “welfare queens” are rooted in this ancient fear. A government’s ability to manage shared resources in a way that is accountable to those governed quells these anxieties and feeds directly into the public perception of that government’s legitimacy. How much of the growing, contemporary anxiety about American government can be ascribed to the complexity of our system of resource sharing and the recalcitrance of our current way of governing to be made understandable to the actors within it – politicians and voters alike? The population cannot demand accountability if it cannot even grasp the current functioning of the system. This gnarly thicket of complexity in American liberal democracy as it relates to the governance and administration of shared resources deserves greater treatment as a contributor to the growing apathy towards our treasured form of governance, right up against other potential causes like political corruption, party polarization and the concentration of power among interest groups.

Even the resurgence of white nationalism in America and Europe, evidenced by the rise of events like Charlottesville and the rise of far-right parties such as Alternative for Germany, can at least in part be attributable to the anxieties brought on by a system that is not managing the distribution of resources well, or at least conveying its principles and methods clearly to the general public. I would not say that it is wholly, nor even mostly caused by this (racism plays a significant part); but anxieties are certainly stoked by a lack of clear, understandable information. The earliest political institutions evolved in order to effectively govern the sharing of resources with those who were not in one’s own family, tribe or religion. Without effective governance and administration of resources, and strong enough mechanisms for accountability, our very civilization begins to unravel. Tribal identity gains power as a more attractive form of political organization.  It is simply easier to understand.

It is now time to reexamine some of our fundamental principles and the functional aspects of our political and civic institutions as they relate to the governance of shared resources. Several deeply held American principles and policies have directly contributed to the unintended consequences of civic complexity and fractionation.  It is worth closely examining these principals and policies. If we do not find ways to evolve our political system to address their consequences, we may not be able to preserve the principals that we do wish to uphold into the future.

But first, I will delve into the conditions of civic fractionation we are currently experiencing.

[1] https://www.prri.org/research/prri-brookings-poll-immigration-economy-trade-terrorism-presidential-race

[2] http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Foa%26Mounk-27-3.pdf (at 9).

[3] http://www.journalofdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/Foa%26Mounk-27-3.pdf (at 12)

[4] Francis Fukuyama in conversation with David Runciman – Democracy: Even the Best Ideas Can Fail, lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55LNwkH61AM

One response

  1. Pingback: Big Government vs. Small Government: Is That Really the Right Question? « How America Works

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