The anniversary of January 6th recentered concerns about U.S. democratic backsliding. Talk of election-related violence, insurrection, civil unrest, and irregular transitions has Americans asking where their democracy stands relative to those of other nations. Comparative political science has long seen U.S. trends as part of liberal democracy’s global problems. Pippa Norris joins the Science of Politics for a special wide-ranging conversation with Matt Grossmann about where America stands out from and reflects international trends. They discuss January 6th but move to consider the American party system, election integrity, populism, trust, and the possibility of electoral reforms.
Guest: Pippa Norris, Harvard University
Matt Grossmann: US democratic decline in comparative perspective, this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I Matt Grossman. The anniversary of January 6th is re-centering concerns about democratic backsliding in the United States. Talk of election related violence, insurrection, civil unrest, any irregular transitions has Americans asking where their democracy stands relative to those of other nations. Comparative political science has long been concerned with democratic decay and seen United States trends as part of liberal democracies problems elsewhere. But the American parties, especially the Republicans, do stand out internationally due to our electoral system. This week, I talked to Pippa Norris of Harvard University for a special wide-ranging conversational edition of the podcast.
We begin with a discussion of January 6th, but move to consider the American party system, election integrity, populism, trust, and the possibility of electoral reform. We discussed Norris’s book with Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Backlash and her forthcoming book, In Praise of Skepticism, as well as her work on the Electoral Integrity Project and the World Value Survey. Here’s our discussion.
So we’re speaking on the anniversary of January 6th to where should we place this in terms an outlier event versus an inevitable event and an event that was Trump-specific versus about broader trends in American politics.
Pippa Norris: So basically this is an issue which everybody’s interested in right now, and it’s a wake-up call. The events on January the sixth, brought to attention some of the long term problems, which are there in American democracy and indeed in democracy around the world, so I think it’s really important. For example, today, P resident Biden has come out with a very forceful speech in Congress talking about the challenges and very explicitly rejecting the violence of January the sixth and the big lie that was behind it. But you have to remember that the roots are much deeper. And again, it’s not just a problem in America, but democracy is under stress. Democracy is facing backsliding in many countries around the world. And what we’re doing is we’re entering essentially what Huntington talked about when he talked about reverse waves. He always said that there were advances and then there’s retreats.
We’ve had a long advance in the third wave, conventionally, that’s seen as from around 1973, 74, events in Portugal, in Greece, in Spain, and then triggering changes around the world. And you can see an expansion in Latin America, clearly of democracy. You can see an expansion of the 1990s in Africa, and of course, the fall of the Berlin Wall. But that basically is a wave that reached its climax around 2000, 2005. Since then around the world, you can see big indicators that many countries that had elections, but without institutions that were very strong have been falling back. And again, we’re not going back to where we were in the 1970s. We’re not going back to where we were even in earlier decades, it’s a slow, but a steady slide, which is very worrying.
Matt Grossmann: And what about the sort of Trump-specific nature of this? Obviously, he’s the instigator, but I assume that that is not uncommon for there to be sort of one figure that’s mostly associated with bringing back the decline. So where should we place Trump in sort of world historical terms?
Pippa Norris: So we’re always looking at the leader, particularly the media, that’s how they can focus. That’s how they can see a particular personification and somebody who’s willing to talk about pushing back on rule of law, pushing back on the constraints, the checks and balances, which are their own executive power. But clearly in fact, Trump, in some ways was a follower, as much as a leader worldwide. We’ve got many other examples, whether we’re talking about, for example, Victor Orban, very well known in Hungary who started to change things around 2010 in a country that had been moving forward towards democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But suddenly there was a very strong Fidesz party. We can talk about Modi in India. We can talk about [Bolsonaro 00:04:13] in Brazil. We can talk about countries in Europe. Again, think about the alternative for Germany, which again, is challenging the established parties, or the national rally in France, under Marine Le Pen, or strains which are there under Brexit in the United Kingdom.
And I could go on about the examples. The Philippines is others. And then again, classic authoritarian regimes such as the increasing power of the presidency in China or of Putin in Russia. So essentially, strong man politics is nothing new. It’s always been there. What we can see, however, is that it’s taking hold in America, I think, for really three reasons and the media underestimates what I would term the structural reasons for the challenges. It’s not just the individual. Firstly, it’s the electorate and the ways in which in many countries, parties were always divided on the left, right on the economy. And America is much the same. Do you want to have a strong welfare state? Do you want to have strong public services? Do you want to have public spending, which is moving in more egalitarian trajectory on taxation, or do you want to have a free market? Do you want to have open competition?
And those demands were always there and they divided the parties. What’s changed of course, is the cleavage over social and moral issues. And that’s increasingly become divisive, whether it’s issues about marriage and the family, about gender and sexuality, about issues of religion or sexualization, about America having a strong nationalism or being part of a cosmopolitan world. And immigration, of course, personifies that. Race personifies that, but every country has been going through these challenges. And you can see this new cultural cleavage, which is there across European societies. For example, even in egalitarian Sweden or Norway, you can see parties that represent this new cultural cleavage. In America, however, what you’ve also got is as well as the demand amongst the public for that voice to be represented, but that voice to be diminishing in terms of the overall liberal values in society, you’ve got the supply. In other words, what the parties do, what the leaders do to respond.
And in most countries, again, what you have is a multi-party system. So you might well have a strong party on the left and the right, conventionally. Christian Democrat versus social Democrat, socialist versus conservative and so on, but you have a multi-part system where you have four or five parties and therefore a new party that can represent those who feel they’re being left out on the traditional moral values can be reflected. They can establish themselves, they can get a voice and they can even enter coalition government, but they rarely enter as the only party in government. In America, we are constrained because the two party system, so the parties have sorted increasingly into more cohesive ideological groups and the parties have divided much more on these moral issues about which is very difficult to get compromised.
When you’re thinking about, for example, should we adjust tax or should we put a bit more money into things like infrastructure, you can get some consensus. When you think about issues like abortion, when you think about issues like race, and you think about issues of immigration and religion, then it’s very difficult to find any sort of compromise. And the last thing to emphasize is not just the public and changes in the electorate, which is the root of the cause nor how the parties respond, but also the rules of the game. And in America, what we have is a system where the checks and balances have increasingly weakened because we have a majoritarian system. What do I mean by that? The election is a winner take all. So you have a presidency and you either win or you lose. You have winner take all elections for Congress and for the Senate.
And again, that polarizes versus a more proportional system, whereby many parties [inaudible 00:07:59] win a small amount of the vote, they get a seat, but they don’t necessarily get complete power. So the rules of the game, along with the constraints on how far we can change the constitution in America, which is very slow to change, almost gridlocked in terms of any reforms, unlike many other countries that rigidifies and means that even reform which seem sensible, which seem, things where you might get some bipartisan agreement are almost impossible to achieve. And everything that goes through Congress is then challenged by the courts. And what we see is a back and forth. So we see Trump pushing forward some policies, and then of course they’re checked by the courts and then President Biden comes in and he reverses those policies and so on. So it’s a recipe for frustration where both sides are angry, mostly on the Republican side when you look at many of the polls and you look at their responses. For example, their willingness to use violence is really quite extreme right now. Four out of 10 Republicans in the most recent polls say, yes, sometimes it’s justified.
The polarization of the election. Was it legitimate or not? And again, a black and white issue for partisans where again, seven out of 10 Republicans consistently say that Biden’s election was not legitimate versus Democrats who are angered about the restrictions on the right to vote. And so it’s a recipe which we find ourself in and it’s very difficult to dig our way out from that structural situation. So it’s not just Trump. And ask yourself this, Matt, if Trump couldn’t stand in 2024, entirely possible for all sorts of reasons, his health, his age, or whatever it is, would there be other replacements? And what we can see increasingly in Congress is yes, there’s many more Trumpists or those who kind of emulate that because the Republicans have lost every single popular vote in presidential elections since the early 1990s. So they consistently lose their power at the White House, but they still have great control in state houses, which is where the election rules run. 30 out of 50 are controlled by the Republicans and therefore they can change the rules of the game, which is exactly where we find ourselves today.
Matt Grossmann: So most of this was visible immediately after January 6th. Indeed, you wrote an article the morning after with most of it. What have we learned since then? And what are the sort of prospects for learning via survey data about how the mass public is responding, looking at the particularities of how elites behave in response or did behave in the run up to it versus the kind of mostly media analysis of who was at the rally, why were they there? What are their backgrounds in terms of learning about this event?
Pippa Norris: I think we can look back in the last year and indeed for the last decade to talk about what do we learn from all of these things? Firstly, I think there has been a failure of imagination whereby America has been asleep at the wheel about liberal democracy. It’s amazing, if you look back at the polls that you really won’t find that many questions about American support for democracy. Over the years, Gallup, Harris, and all the other pollsters haven’t bothered to ask about that. It’s always been assumed that America has been a leading democracy, there’s a long established democracy and therefore there should not be, and there would not be any serious challenges. So it wasn’t simply the security people in charge of the Congress and the police who couldn’t imagine that a demonstration could turn into a riot, it was much bigger than that and it’s still going on.
And indeed what I find when one reads the commentary right now is that the elites, in other words, liberal journalists, politicians, and so on are still seeing the crisis in a very partial and narrow way. For example, we’re focusing very much on voter suppression because that’s the history of America. So we understand that every citizen who’s eligible should be able to vote. And we push back and the Democrats are pushing back through things like the John Lewis proposal to try to change voting rights and to try and make sure that every citizen has a right across the country. But that isn’t even the fundamental problem. Of course, it’s a problem, but there are so many other structural problems both in American democracy and in American elections and most of those still aren’t being addressed. And part of the reason is that even though people are waking up to the problem, almost nobody is really talking about effective solutions.
Nobody even has the ideas of what could be done and what is done in other countries, for example, when they’ve encountered similar problems of a polarized electorate, of limits on how far parties can reflect the broad spectrum of public opinion and how constitutional reforms can be brought about. So we’re still learning, I think. But again, I think, Matt, the other lesson since January the sixth in particular, is we always thought that the election would, in the sense be the end of Trumpism, that after November, that there would be a legitimate winner and that therefore Biden would bring the country together and would go back to “politics as usual”. In other words, the Mitt Romney’s of the Republican party. What we’ve increasingly seen is the problem’s deepened and got a lot worse that everything’s become rigidified and fixed. And that, again, the big lie has taken hold.
If you look at the proportion, for example, who felt that there was electoral integrity in November and the proportion who now believe that the elector was not legitimate, it’s deepened, it hasn’t got better. So more and more Republicans have become entrenched. It’s a bit like World War I. We’re both sitting in two deep trenches. As a result of the rejection of the election and the state houses and a variety of other developments, Democrats have also been, become more polarized. They’ve also become more polarized because their own progressive faction and Biden hasn’t pushed back on that. He’s in fact exemplified and given them a platform. And so both sides are now deeply entrenched and unable to see past the areas which are in common.
I’ll give you a quick example, think about elections and electoral reform. What are they both arguing about? So Democrats are above all, focusing on voting rights to make sure that voters are not suppressed, particularly black voters and the communities of color. On the other hand, the Republicans are talking very much about voting security and strengthening the integrity of elections. There’s a lot of middle ground there. Nobody wants to have an election where people don’t have confidence in the vote. Nobody wants to have fraudulent votes. Nobody wants to have any sort of feeling, even, that we shouldn’t have confidence in how the process works. So the Democrats could in fact move somewhat towards some of the measures which could improve security. Similarly, there’s a number of different Republicans who could again come forward and say that things like voting rights are so basic to America. And still basic to the Republican party, that they should move somewhat in that direction as well.
For example, simple things that were recommended actually under a commission under Obama, like uniform hours that the polls open, these are technical matters. These are things which we should be able to agree upon as Americans, in which most countries do have. So you say the polls could be open for example, from eight in the morning until say eight at night. This is not rocket science. And yet even basic issues of trying to have standard across the whole country are [inaudible 00:15:34] because it’s become wrapped up in partisan politics and the rules of the game haven’t given us umpire. They haven’t given us a national independent commission who can put forward these sorts of reforms, nor any ways in Congress to actually get them through. So we are basically stuck in trench warfare right now.
Matt Grossmann: And how much democratic backsliding has there already been in the US? Where do we stand relative to other examples internationally and what will determine how much further we fall?
Pippa Norris: So there’s the amount that each country has fallen back, and then there’s where you start from as well. So America started from a relatively strong-ish position. I say strong-ish because it always has had weaknesses. I started the Electoral Integrity Project, which is an independent academic scholarly project looking at global standards of elections around the world, I started this in 2012 because I was very concerned about the number of authoritarian regimes that were adopting elections, but was very, very seriously flawed. At the time when I ranked all countries according to experts on how well American elections were ranked, it was ranked 65th out of all of the countries in the world, and we had 160 in our overall global comparison. The large countries, not the small countries, et cetera.
So American elections have always been somewhat problematic. We can think back to the civil rights era, where clearly large proportions of the were excluded. But also other things; think about the role of money in politics, think about the role of misinformation; think about the role of problems of voter registration; think about the restrictions on party registration for minor parties and difficulties of third parties breaking through; think about the problems of representation and the number of women in Congress, which again, lags by behind the rest of the world; think about the number of minorities and the minority voices that you hear in Congress, across both parties, particularly in the Senate.
And you can see that there are structural issues, along with, for example, very low historic turnout, even though turnout has gone up. Worldwide, it’s only India as a long established democracy which has had a consistently lower turnout, along with Switzerland. Every other country is around 60% to 80%, certainly not where America is. So there are structural problems in elections, and we’ve seen increasingly under the period from 2016 when Trump came to office, weaknesses particularly in the media and information, the information environment, which again has always had some public service broadcasting, but that’s always been very much a minority, it’s relied on commercial broadcasting, and that’s had all sorts of challenges.
And then we also have problems in terms of basic civil liberties, because they’re become so contentious, and a pushback on society and civil society in particular, and many countries have found that as well. So you still have effective courts. Think about the role of the courts in checking the power of the presidency. And indeed you could argue to some extent they’re too strong, because essentially we’re running nowadays with public policy run by the courts rather than by elected and accountable bodies. So the courts have some weaknesses, particularly with the partisan bias, which is now skewed distribution; the media have problems with misinformation; and we have elections which have some fundamental structural flaws as well. So all of that adds up to a recipe which says that American democracy has been strong in the democratic norms in the past. When those soft norms deteriorate; in other words, one party says, “We can’t win by these rules,” and they start to act as a minority which seeks majoritarian power, that’s when you get the real risks to democracy in America.
Matt Grossmann: So help us place the two American parties internationally. Is the Republican party more comparable to populous or authoritarian parties elsewhere than center right parties? Is the Democratic party like any other international parties? What is the current state, and is that a long term feature of the two unique American parties or has there been a recent change?
Pippa Norris: So we’ve got two or three sources now which have tried to classify this. Again, in the past, political science was also asleep at the wheel. We didn’t ask that many questions about how parties reacted towards democracy or towards freedoms because we kind of assumed that in democracies, everybody was committed to these norms. And so we asked about issues. We asked in the Manifesto Project about where did parties stand on the economy, where did they stand on foreign policy, welfare spending. Increasingly, however, we’ve got two or three sources which all point in the same direction. So I’ve been running something called the Global Party Survey, which is with experts, and we have over 1000 parties worldwide and we can compare all parties across the world, but also particularly within postindustrial societies, OECD countries, the rich countries of the world.
And what you do when you compare where the Republican party and the Democratic party is, is that the Democrats are largely within most other labor, social democracies, and socialist parties. And so they’re very similar to the Labor party in the United Kingdom or Social Democrats in Germany or the socialists in France. So there are many parties which are part of that group, along with for example green parties, who are slightly more towards the left and towards the more liberal side of things. When you look at the Republican party, on the other hand, what you find is that they’ve now moved increasingly towards the extreme.
And my map which illustrates this, essentially you can place the parties on the left-right economic spectrum, and where do they stand towards markets versus the state, and then you can also place them on the social-liberalism or social-conservatism spectrum, and that’s whether or not they support highly conservative moral values or more liberal values. And the Republican party is now up there along with many other authoritarian populace in Europe. And so you see them as close to Vox in Spain, or even close to Golden Dawn in Greece, which is a very extreme neo-fascist party, which indeed has been banned now in Greece, it has such a violent past. Or other parties like the National Rally for Marine Le Pen in France, or Fidesz in Hungary, or Erdoğan in Turkey.
So you can see that the Republican party has moved increasingly away from the moderate middle, and away from the median voter. And so a big puzzle we have to ask ourselves is, why would they do that? Median voter theory says; and it’s a classic model that’s been there for years; it’s an economics model and it says basically, if a party loses office and it loses it not just in one election but it loses it over a series of elections, and it loses badly, so that they know that they have to adjust, most parties, the theory says, goes back towards the middle of the spectrum, because that’s where the voters are. You go back towards the suburban mums in America. You go back towards the independent voters who are such a large group in America. And of course you still hold your base. So the Democrats are still going to hold onto their progressive base, and the Republicans are still going to hold onto their Republican core base, but you’d expect them both to move back towards where most voters are, because that’s how they win elections.
But the problem is that under the rules of the game, what you can see is that Republicans can win, for example, in state houses because of the way that seats are gerrymandered and because of the way in which they can be concentrated in particular states. They can gain power, which is considerable through that system in a federal system of government. And they can win Congress, because again of gerrymandering and because of the concentration of voters within particular districts. And they can win the Senate, because of systematic rules which have overrepresented rural areas versus urban areas through the Senate. So essentially the Republicans see no incentive to change, because they can win at all those levels. What they can’t win, and they haven’t been winning since the early 1990s, is the popular vote for the White House. The only exception in that long series of presidential elections was Bush, and he won of course partly because of Florida in 2000, which we can all argue about, but then of course the events of 9/11, which brought him back.
But again, even when the Republicans have done well, they find tremendous difficulties in getting over that 50% because their support is concentrated amongst in particular the less educated, that’s a shrinking proportion of the electorate; the rural voters, who are a smaller group and who are steadily shrinking compared with urban growth; amongst white voters, who of course are steadily shrinking, as we know from the census information, particularly in states like California and New York, and even in states like Texas; and of course, they’re also shrinking because they’re based on older voters. One of the big cleavages in the last elections has been the gap between the young, who are voting for progressive forces, and the old who are voting for socially conservative forces.
So the GOP has its base, it can get power, can get power to change the rules, it can’t win the White House. And it hasn’t just been one election, just to emphasize, out of the last nine elections, it’s eight elections where they haven’t won the popular vote. They haven’t won the majority of the popular vote. And again, even with Trump, as we know, he lost by three million votes in 2016, he lost by a decisive seven million votes in 2020. And so there’s no way in which the Republicans on their current strategy can win the White House, hence they have the power to change the rules at state level, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. It’s a structural weakness in the way that we’ve designed the system and our inability to reform it in the way that other countries have managed to reform it.
Matt Grossmann: So you talk mostly about the positions of the parties on issues or underlying spectrums, but you also mentioned that we have these two big parties, so they kind of have to be coalitions or compositions. So do we have sort of two parties that are each like a family of parties elsewhere, or permanent coalitions on the left and right, or is the Republican party also kind of structurally or organizationally more like these smaller authoritarian or populous parties than center right parties elsewhere?
Pippa Norris: So what you can see is that the parties were big tent coalitions classically of course, in the 1950s and ’60s, and everybody at the time in political science said, “Hey, wouldn’t it be nice if we had a stronger party discipline and stronger party ideologies.” Well, so much for those predictions, it has come to pass for a variety of reasons.
One is of course the primaries, because the primaries empower the core in the party; the most faithful, the most ideologically committed; to select the candidates, and therefore increasingly they’ve been using tests of ideological purity. And those who’ve sought to be more independent of those and who’ve sought to appeal to the general electorate rather than the party base find themselves primaried out. The role of money has also increased that. And again, the role of donors who’ve funded groups and made representatives less accountable to the electorate as a whole. And then gerrymandering, even though the effects of gerrymandering in the current round haven’t been as bad as was feared for the Democrats, nevertheless on both sides what they do is they basically say that we’re going to appeal to the base rather than appealing across the base to the independents who are more moderate, who are less connected with politics.
And then, as I said, we have other rules which also kind of reinforce these tendencies. So the parties have increasingly selected at the electoral level to become more ideologically cohesive. And again, let’s not forget if we go back to the 1950s and ’60s, there was always, for example, the yellow dog Democrats in the south who were very conservative, very religious, very racist, it has to be said. But nevertheless, they were within the Democratic party because the history of the civil war, the Republicans were divided. In the north, they were very liberal, remember? Nixon for example was one of the main proponents of reproductive rights and of childcare policies. But increasingly the Republicans have sorted, taking out the southern seats, and therefore they’ve become more ideologically homogeneous. And as Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann have shown, both parties therefore have become less moderate. There’s fewer moderates in the middle to provide those brokerage and compromise in the Senate and in the House.
But also it’s asymmetrical. The Republicans have moved much further than the Democrats, and the reason again is to do with these demographic shifts in the base. The Democratic base has been expanding. It’s been expanding through long-term population changes in the composition of America, as America has become less white, as it’s become more urban, as it’s become more socially diverse, as women have changed their roles. All of those have been things which benefit social liberals and the Democratic party. So Democrats, particularly in the Obama era, always felt that they were on the winning path, that remember, the long arm of history bends towards liberalism. That was kind of Obama’s view, and it was the view of many in the Democratic party. But those who were lost out from these long-term changes; and that means especially the Republican base in rural areas who are Christian, who are conservative, who are morally believing in the family in strong patriotism in America and who are nativists towards other groups; those groups in the population have been shrinking, but they still are empowered through the structural biases that we have in the rules of the game.
Matt Grossmann: So in Cultural Backlash, you outlined many of these global trends and also longer term changes in generational change and changes in the issue spectrum. The US was in there, but I guess, how different was the US story than the international story, the more common international story? And has anything changed since you wrote it about how well the US fits the international pattern?
Pippa Norris: So I’ve just updated it with a new paper looking at more recent data. The book that we wrote with my great colleague, sadly missed of course, Ronald Inglehart, was based on data that was basically 2002 to 2014 in Europe. That was the European Social Survey that was available. And to certain sources in the 2016 election, like the [inaudible 00:30:24] and the BES. Since then, of course, we’ve had new data sets. And so it’s always worth testing these ideas as we get new evidence. The latest wave, for example, of the World Values Survey covers 80 countries around the world, and that’s a tremendous resource to be able to look at voting behavior all the way from Sweden and Norway and the most affluent countries like Austria and Australia and the United States through to some of the very poor countries. And increasingly, by the way, interesting surveys in authoritarian regimes, where we have to take the results with the pinch of salt, but nevertheless, we ask about a variety of different political attitudes in many countries there which have never been properly surveyed before.
What you find is that there are similar broad trends. It’s not exceptional. There’s what you might term a trajectory of cultural shifts, which go along with education, which go along with a more affluent population, which go along with economic development. And America always likes to think of itself as exceptional, and many Americanists always make those claims. And of course it is different to many other countries, but what one finds is that the trajectory is actually quite similar. And the prediction factors that we emphasized in the book, when we update the data; again, the World Values Survey is 2017 to 2021, it’s still ongoing because we’re still finishing a few countries where field work was delayed by COVID; we find essentially the same pattern. In other words, who supports authoritarian populace? Overwhelmingly of course in every country is the less educated. And so college educated populations are more progressive, more liberal, and those who are less educated tend to be less secure economically, but also less tolerant of other groups and out-groups and more nativists and more nationalist. We also find that the age pattern divides, nevertheless, broadly speaking in … When I recently ran this again, in two-thirds of the countries, it was the older populations who were supporting authoritarian populous parties, and the younger population tended to be more in favor of progressive liberal parties. Not in every case. There are some interesting exceptions.
Again, parties can appeal to different groups. They’re not fixed in terms. They can make campaign appeals, like [Lappin 00:32:41] has. She’s tried to make her party much more liberal than her father’s party on things like homosexuality and gay rights and women’s rights. In the Netherlands, you can find Geert Wilder, who again leads the equivalent authoritarian populist party there, Party For Freedom. He also had made some socially liberal appeals, as well as some socially conservative ones. So he’s liberal on gay rights, he’s conservative on issues like Muslim migrants and so on.
So not every party is in lockstep, not every country is in lockstep, but the basic structural changes that we found are a long-term cultural shift, and that has been one which is pretty predictable in countries around the world.
Now, does that mean that things are changing with less secure circumstances? This is a question often asked. Obviously the pandemic has created tremendous economic insecurities and physical insecurities because of the threats to life. And that has had a major effect, particularly in Latin America, which has been increasingly backsliding. Countries like Peru has had one of the worst death traits in the world. Brazil has had a dreadful experience and many others.
In other countries, you can find again that there’s threats to the economy as tourism has slumped. So the bottom has fall out of many developing countries in terms of their levels of growth, and we see high levels of poverty.
So the trajectory that we’re talking about, the cultural changes aren’t just always in one direction, they’re not just about demography. You can have an event, just like you’ve had in the past. For example, an economic recession in Europe, under the Eurozone in 2018 and the big housing crisis in America. Or you can see other recessions in earlier eras where, again, attitudes become slightly more conservative as a result of economic insecurity. But the long-term demographic changes, growing education, for example, growing urbanization and the demographic changes of age and generation. Those are, again, moving in a more liberal direction.
So it’s a fascinating pattern and it’s not deterministic. It’s not saying that everything is going to go in lockstep, but it’s certainly saying they’re real predictable things. And then underneath that as well, you have to say, are there parties, are there leaders willing to campaign to appeal to socially conservative values and to put that at the heart of their project. And then how do other mainstream center-right parties and center-left parties respond? And that is another very interesting question about party competition.
Matt Grossmann: So since Trump and Brexit, there’s been a lot of use of the term populism to explain that response. So to what extent have we reached a verdict on what populism is, either in power or in the electorate, and how well do Donald Trump supporters in the United States fit that mold?
Pippa Norris: So I think we have reached something of an agreement. There’s still a lot of scholarly skirmishes going on. But nevertheless, most people disagree somewhat about some aspects, but they agree about the two core components. Populism is essentially something which challenges the establishment. Meaning established elites, established parties, elites who are there in science, elites in education, elites in the media like journalists or papers like The New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as the major networks. As well as challenging to some extent corporate elites, think about Bernie Sanders’s claims, for example, or the progressive side, challenging the power of corporates America, and also challenging other sources of power.
At the same time, what populism says is that you can’t trust the established elites. What you can trust is the people, power to the people. And so it’s a basic claim that the will of the public, meaning the majority of the public, is what should be governing and everything else is illegitimate. And so that to the core.
Then the question arises, what’s the state of those ideas? Are they things which are ideologies? In other words, can you say that populism is rather like conservatism or socialism or liberalism? And here, I think the argument is pretty weak.
There are no clear populous writers. There are no clear populous theorists. You can’t actual tradition and say, “Oh yes, these are the seminal writers who’ve developed this.” You can go back to [Luso 00:37:07] and you can go back to certain writers on populous democracy, but you can’t find classics as you can with liberalism or communism or environmentalism or other, or feminism, for example. Nor does it have that much of a cohesive body of thought, nor is it clear that the leaders themselves even see themselves as populous. It’s not something they talk about. Certainly Trump never labels himself that way when he comes before a crowd.
So populism is less of an ideology, even a thin ideology, and it’s much more of what I would term a rhetoric. In other words, it’s a way of talking, and it’s very powerful because what it says to democrats with a small D is yes, democracy is flawed. Yes, democracy doesn’t work too well, but in fact, power should go back to the people. And this disarms those who are criticizing it. But behind that, what you have to say is what are the values that color it?
And here you’ve got varieties of populism, and it goes all the way from progressive forms of populism, which I would argue that Bernie Sanders is exemplifying, and left-wing populists are right the way through to right-wing populism, which we term the book, authoritarian populism. And that’s where you basically disarm through the populous appeals, power should go back to the people. You don’t trust Congress. You don’t trust the media. So who stands for that group? Who’s going to articulate those views? An authoritarian leader.
Matt Grossmann: If you have a rhetoric that is concerned with the popular will being right, it is going to not take losing an election very well. And there has been a big rise in concerns, especially on the right, using a term that you’ve used for a long-time, election integrity.
Pippa Norris: Election integrity. Yeah.
Matt Grossmann: So is it fair for citizens to be concerned about election integrity? Do they have reasonable things to complain about, about US elections? How do American elections stand up to other democracies? And how do we separate what are legitimate concerns from just being against any election that you lose and finding things to complain about?
Pippa Norris: So, election integrity is a word that we chose in 2012 because the international community was using it and there were commissions which looked at the standards that elections should meet in many countries around the world that were moving from long-term dictatorships or autocracies through to electoral authoritarian regimes, places like Libya and so on.
Since then, of course, the word has been adopted in very partisan fashion, which I reject. I think we need to keep the initial word. Just like we’re anti-corruption, so we’re in favor of integrity in public life and we’re in favor of electoral integrity. It doesn’t just mean fraud and it doesn’t just mean problems in the last stages, however, of the election and the count. It’s much broader than that.
So again, I always get my ideas from the international community, which has talked about the electoral cycle. And it goes right the way through, from the initial stages of planning. For example, who is the electoral managers? What’s the electoral administration process? Is there an independent electoral commission or are there partisan officials in charge? Through to how do you register as a voter? How do you register as a candidate? How do you raise money and spend money? What’s the campaign coverage? Through to the actual voting day and the facilities to vote, through then to the vote count, vote tabulation, vote audit, and then back to the electoral authorities.
So it’s a long cycle, and the reason why the cycle is useful is that, again, we often think and we focus on election day, but the problems can be there four or five years earlier. In, for example, the electoral system, the ways in which votes are translated into seats or how you get representation, is there a threshold for parties and so on? So we need a much more holistic view of elector integrity and should democrats, with a small D, should all citizens be concerned about it?
Absolutely. If people don’t have confidence in the elections, then there’s good evidence to show they’re less likely to vote, so participation go down. They’re more willing to protest and sometimes to use violent mechanisms to protest as well, and the process becomes much more difficult to adjudicate after any sort of electoral controversy. So the more people have confidence in the election and the more that the election itself is free and fair and meets internet standards, then it’s kind of a win-win situation. So electro integrity is a problem which is there in many different stages.
Again, when I go back to my experts and we ask them, “What’s the problems in America?” It wasn’t the vote count. Most people, very happy and they felt that in fact America did really well. Most of the vote counting is done at state level and local level, and there are problems there because, again, it’s a much more partisan process than in many other countries. Nevertheless, it was given a clean bill of health by our experts.
Is it about voter fraud? Absolutely not. Again, there are some problems, but they’re very sporadic and they’re not sufficient in order to distort the outcome of any election. And they’re bipartisan, by the way, because sometimes they’re Republican voters who’ve got confused about the rules and sometimes it’s democratic voters. But again, it’s very, very occasional. And Lori Minnite has studied this and others who have looked at it very carefully, and of course the courts that verified the results at the end of the 2020 have ruled out electoral fraud.
Are there, however, other problems in elections? And you can’t just say because there’s no electoral fraud, the election was perfect, as many Democrats seek to do, or that it was the, quote, “The clearest election there’s ever been or the best election we’ve ever been.” No, no, no. Again, I’m an equal opportunities’ critic and I think that there are many issues which we need to address. And when you look put some of the democratic attempts to reform elections, you’ll find that they also pay attention to many different stages.
So the John Lewis Act is concerned about voting rights, which should be uniform for every citizen across the country. They should not vary from one place to another. And therefore voting facilities, things like the hours of voting, as I’ve mentioned, but also things like how far you can cast a postal or mail ballot. How far you can have access to an absentee ballot. How far voter registration is an easy, efficient, and flawless process, which doesn’t mean that you have to go back every single election to get registered, and so on. All of those processes have to be in place.
But we also have to pay attention to dark money and the Freedom to Vote Act, which is the latest proposal. It’s come through various iterations, certainly talks about dark money in politics and how that’s been a major problem and an increasing problem because of the role of the courts. We also have to attend to voting security, remember all the issues about foreign interference in elections, which was a great concern in a number of countries, including Germany and France and Britain, as well as in America. So we need to pay attention to making sure that there’s cyber security.
We also need to pay attention to the role of misinformation and disinformation, whether it’s from abroad or whether it’s at home, and that’s an incredibly complex problem. And then we also need to make sure that the most recent developments at state level, which is to allow state houses to determine some of the results and to play an outside role in the appointment of partisan officials, that also needs to be strictly limited.
But we’re hampered in that in America because we don’t have an independent federal election commission. We have the FEC, which is fine, but it’s really an information sharing initiative. It doesn’t have many powers. And our control of money has become increasingly weak over the years. So unless we can get these broader issues addressed, then elections are going to be problematic for years to come.
Matt Grossmann: But what is the relationship between the actual problems in elections and citizen concerns about elections? So one story is that this is just elite following. Trump was going to say something, and so he said some complaints and voters repeated him and Democrats get concerned when Republican senators say, “Well, we have to address these citizen concerns.” And they say, “Well that you created those citizen concerns.”
On the other hand, we had a very difficult to understand process surrounding the election and aftermath. We had a whole bunch of changes to the rules. We had new voting procedures. We had boxes that might have been less trustworthy than people’s previous voting experiences. And we had a long vote counting process that was longer in some states than elsewhere. So was it partially about the actual election or is this just sort of following the elite concerns?
Pippa Norris: Well, essentially if the public loses faith in its elections, that’s a problem. I mean, it doesn’t really matter in a sense whether or not it’s due to technical issues or political issues or rhetoric or anything like that. There’s a problem and we need to address that. It’s a little bit like security issues. If the public feels that it’s unsafe to travel on an airplane, you need to have both formal measures of security, but then you also need to have what you might term security theater, in which we go through checkpoints and we do a variety of things that we didn’t used to do before 9/11.
So with elections, we need to restore public confidence, and again, it’s much easier to lose public confidence than it is to rebuild it. But I think, again, there are things that can be learnt from other countries. And even though there’s problems in America, remember there’s far more problems in countries which are more deeply divided which have had a history of bloodshed, which have emerged from civil war, which have emerged with very little experience of elections. And some of those countries have established very good procedures because the international community is pretty good at doing these sorts of things, which have really instilled confidence in a fairly short time.
So if you look, for example, at countries that were under the rule of the Soviets until the 1990s and you look at the quality elections in some countries, you’ll find there are still problems. In Ukraine, in countries which are on the border, like Belarus, and many other of the countries like Turkmenistan and so on. But you can also find some really good elections being run in places like Estonia, in Latvia, in Lithuania, and in countries which have gone through the same period, but in a very short time have managed to introduce electoral commissions where people have in … It’s basically at arm’s length from the government or from political parties. They’ve introduced very good reforms in terms of their legal structure, their electoral systems. So that, again, they have multi-party systems and they’ve established considerable public confidence and reasonable levels of turnout as well.
So it can be done. But one question is whether the United States and other established liberal democracies are slightly too sclerotic. They’re slightly too fixed. They’re kind of, again, thinking that the way that they do things are the only way to do things. Sometimes new democracies have an advantage because they know that they’re starting off, in a sense, with a blank slate. And they’ve got to establish an effective electoral system. And so the international community in conjunction with local electoral law experts, electoral political scientists, and others who have been brought in, have managed to actually create some very effective elections in countries. Not just, of course, in central and Eastern Europe, but also in Latin America. There’ve been some very good examples as well. And in Asia and in Africa. So countries can do this. And we don’t even need to go all that far away from us. We can look at Canada.
If you want to look at a good example of how to run an election, do they haves controversies? Yes. Do they have some of the same challenges as America has? Yes. But by and large high level of trust, high level of confidence, high levels of efficiency and effectiveness. And international observers and parties themselves agree that, even though there are reforms that can be done to Canada, debates about using, for example, a proportional representation. Nevertheless, Canadian elections are very effectively run by Elections Canada, the major electoral commission. And we could do something similar if we had the willpower and the imagination to deal with the problems which we’re being faced with right now.
Matt Grossmann: So you have a new book coming out praising skepticism, and I’m sure you’ll have lots of government and scientific and public health officials saying, “What? The problem is too much trust?”
Pippa Norris: That’s right.
Matt Grossmann: So tell us about that argument. And is it really lack of trust that’s a problem? And is it even true in the United States?
Pippa Norris: So thanks, Matt. This is a new book, which is somewhat counterintuitive because for years now, for decades, we’ve had many theorists who’ve said, “Of course, you’ve got to have political trust. You’ve got to have social trust.” Whether it’s work by Bob Putnam talking about the trust between people in order to build communities, whether it’s Francis Fukuyama saying trust within the markets in order to get markets to work effectively. Or trust in political institutions and the gridlock that we have in DC. So that’s the conventional story, right? But as we know from thinking about conspiracy theories and the way they’ve taken off and the way in which people believe them very much, and how we know also about the challenges in many other countries. In fact, there can be a problem not just of cynicism, but of too much trust. In particular, of those who lack trustworthiness.
So if you believe, for example, in hucksters in the market and you fall for Ponzi schemes by Bernie Madoff, or you fall for schemes to give you a million in dollars if you give your money to Nigeria, et cetera. All of those are problems which we’re very familiar with of confidence tricksters and so on, and demagogues who are willing to promise the earth but won’t actually deliver on it. So we can think of this, again, in terms of a principal agent relationship. So in this, what we’re really saying is the principal is the person who’s asking a particular agent to carry out certain acts on their behalf. So you go to a lawyer if you want to have a defense. You go to a doctor if you want to have medical help. You go to a politician in order to get some sort of communal reforms in the legislature.
And if you have an accurate assessment of their capacities, of their integrity, and their competence and their impartiality, then that trust is essentially based on a good informed decision. So for example, I trust a heart surgeon because I know they’ve done that performance are lost in the past. They’ve got a good record. Their hospital has a good record. And there are guardrails. If they don’t act in a particular way, then they can be struck off the medical profession or there are other sanctions, which means that any agent that does not act as they’ve promised can be otherwise held to account. If you don’t like the politicians, then the next election you should be able to kick them out. If you don’t like the way the police are running, then you should be able to hold them to account and essentially fire them from their position of power and authority.
So trustworthiness is important. And skeptical trustworthiness is a judgment that their performance is actually effective. I’ve looked into their past competencies. I’ve looked into their integrity. And they have done a good job and there are good guardrails against anything against them. But equally, if the performance is bad, I should be mistrusting. And that’s skeptical mistrust. And that’s also fine. If the government is failing, think about a government, for example, in Haiti. And a lack of capacity, decimated by the earthquake, decimated by corruption, decimated by a coup d’état. No capacity to provide public services. Of course, I should be cynical out government in that kind of context, and in many others where the government is not performing. Now, the problem is the non-congruent cases, right? So as well as having those cases, you’ve got cases where the performance is pretty good, but the public doesn’t trust them. And that’s particularly common in a country like Peru or many other Latin American countries.
And the reason is partly a past cultural legacy, but it’s also lack of education, lack of awareness, and the information environment. So people can be unduly cynical. And that’s clearly a problem, for example, among anti-vaxxers who think that, of course, that the medicine, the vaccination is not going to help their family. Whereas, in fact, we know from scientific authority that it does. But we also have the other problem with credulity. And this is people who believe, for example, in ivermectin in America who think that’s a solution, which is a horse medicine. Or they believe in lies from demagogues about certain promises. Or they believe in QAnon. Or they believe in many of the other conspiracies, which are so common in America right now. And what we find when we look at this worldwide is that there’s many credulous citizens, particularly in closed societies, places like China, Tajikistan. Cases where, in the most extreme like North Korea, there’s state control of the media.
And so the public doesn’t get two sides of the story. They don’t get to hear about the failures of the government as well as the successes. Essentially, through control of the media and the information flows, they get one-sided information. So they to trust the government, even when it’s not performing well. And performance can be measured by both good governance by, for example, the World Bank, as well as policy performance, have they actually produces things like economic growth, stability, longevity, human development, and things like that. So where you get credulity, you get a problem because the public only gets one-sided information. And then also, if the public is not particularly highly educated, that’s also a problem because they don’t necessarily have the literacy to get access to information or to process the information. And then you also get cultural biases which are legacy biases.
So people trust the government partly based on things in the past. Or they mistrust the government based on the legacy cultural values. They don’t look at the contemporary performance. So again, in countries like Latin America, they’ve had a pretty good economic record, but the government doesn’t trust them. And in some other countries, they’ve had a poor economic record and they’ve had a poor level of economic development, but the public still says they trust them because they only get one-sided information. So I think we haven’t paid enough attention to the idea of credulous citizens or gullible citizens. We can call them lots of different things, but we’ve always assumed that trust is what we are looking for as opposed to trustworthiness, which is the relationship between the principal and the agent. And course, the agents, in other words, the authorities, they all want everybody to trust them because, of course, that gets compliance.
Why would they not? Doctors want everybody to trust them. Scholars want everybody to trust the experts because we’re experts, right? But from the point of view of the citizens, which is essentially the principal perspective, no, I’m sorry. You should not trust the untrustworthy because that’s against your interests. They’ll promise you one thing, but they won’t deliver because they don’t have the capacity to do so, or they’re simply lining their own pockets. They’re not going to work in the public interest. Or they’re partial, they’re not impartial. They’re not serving your interest, they’re serving their own interests. And if you’re not critical, then essentially we get back to much more differential attitudes towards the authorities.
Matt Grossmann: So we’ve been talking mostly generally about problems facing liberal democracies globally. And to the extent that we’ve pointed to American-specific stories, it’s mostly about our institutions and where they differ. But there is another story of January six that says, “No, that’s not what this is about. This is about American racial history. This is about white supremacy reasserting itself.” And obviously, the increasing diversification is certainly part of your international story. But to what extent should we buy this alternative view that there is something specific about the United States, and it is about our racial history and the role of contemporary events in undermining white supremacy?
Pippa Norris: Yes. If it was primarily about race, then clearly that resonates within the American history. And we often go back because we think about the familiar patterns and we think about the real tragedy of race in America as the big divider. However, what you can find is that there are similar issues about ethnicity in many European countries as well. So in Hungary, for example, when they aggressively refused to take in refugees and they build a wall against migrants from Syria and from Afghanistan and from Africa who are seeking security in Europe, you have exactly the same sentiments, but expressed against different groups. Similarly, issues about the border wall aren’t about race per se. It’s about Hispanics. Those who are coming across seeking sometimes economic as well as physical security from drug lords and so on. And that can’t be attributed primarily to the classic issues of race in earlier centuries.
It’s a contemporary phenomena that we’re talking about, building on a long tradition of immigration in America. And we can see similar anti-immigrant sentiments in Brexit. And the reasons for Brexit were partly based on resentment about Europe, Europeans coming to the United Kingdom, as well as migrants, but not necessarily about classical issues about race. In Britain, for example, Brexit was not about the waves of migrants who had arrived in the sixties and seventies. It wasn’t about Indians and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. It was much more about groups like Polish workers and Polish middle-class shopkeepers who’ve come across seeking economic opportunities in the more recent decades, and other groups who have come across into Britain. So Brexit was fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment. So the shape of authoritarianism, authoritarianism is really about us, them. It’s a way of framing us, the group, and it has basically three different components.
And the first thing is that there is a certain identifiable group within that society. Secondly, that group is under threat. And so those who see themselves as socially conservative, who see themselves as in favor of marriage and traditional forms of the family versus fluid forms of gender and sexuality. Those who see themselves as in favor of patriotism and the flag and make America great again, quote unquote, versus those who see that our role is within an international community. An international corporation is essential. Those who, again, disagree on issues which are wide ranging on moral issues from abortion through to issues of prayer, through to issues of race relations in schools, et cetera, et cetera. So those cleavages take on the coloring of the country, of course, because that’s what resonates in that country. But it’s not necessarily always, therefore, it’s not exceptional. Instead, the us, them can be defined because it’s an imaginary us, them.
It’s not a real us, them. It’s a social construction if you like, right? And so even to talk about racial differences in America was it means a lot to Americans in other countries. Primarily, they talk about ethnicity. Talk about national identities. Talk about religious identities. Think about the divisions, for example, in Northern Ireland, between Protestants and Catholics. Or in Lebanon, between Christians and Sunni. Think about the differences in Iraq. They’re all about differences and the boundaries of who is us and who is them differs. So basically, you say there is an us, them. We need protect us against them. We ourselves are under threat to our core identities, to our core beliefs, to our core values. And that’s not a myth amongst social conservatives. That’s partially based on reality. And then lastly, you need a strong leader to protect the group.
And so if the group is under threat, it’s logical that you look for somebody who’s going to stand there and say, “I speak for you. I will reflect your values. I will be the only one who will protect you.” And this is very much, I think, a very familiar appeal of Trump. He doesn’t seek to empower his supporters. He doesn’t seek to give them a voice. He seeks to speak for them. And this is the classic authoritarian populous strategy, which has been there in Latin America, in the thirties and forties, and which is there today in the appeals of many strong [inaudible 01:01:23] leaders against outside threats. And Trump is one of many.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The science of politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center, and part of the Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, you should check out our previous episodes. Why do Americans accept democratic backsliding? Who’s more afraid of democracy, the center or the right? How much did Trump undermine US democracy? Right wing extremism in the capital insurrection. And when partisans endorse violence. Thanks to Pippa Norris for joining me. Please check out Cultural Backlash and In Praise of Skepticism, and then listen in next time.
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