Are Americans losing faith in democracy as our norms erode? Lee Drutman finds that support for democracy remains high, but Democrats and Republicans are increasingly polarized around authoritarian impulses, as Republicans follow Donald Trump’s lead. David Adler finds that people who place themselves in the middle of the ideological spectrum are the most skeptical of democracy, in Europe and the United States. Find out if support for strong man leadership is growing on the American Right and if our politics are becoming more like those in Europe.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, who’s afraid of democracy? The center, or the right? From Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Donald Trump’s low regard for democratic norms in his victorious presidential campaign brought concerns that Americans, especially on the political right, may be losing faith in democracy. New research finds that support for democracy is still high, and support for authoritarianism is still low, but both are shorting along political lines.
I talked to Lee Drutman of New America about his new voter study group paper with Larry Diamond and Joe Goldman, “Follow the Leader: Exploring American Support for Democracy and Authoritarianism.” He finds that Americans are increasingly polarized around basic democratic principles. But perhaps the threat is from the apathetic center, rather than the right. I also talked to David Adler about his new working paper recently highlighted in the New York Times, called the “Centrist Paradox: Political Correlates of the Democratic Disconnect.” He finds that people that people who place themselves in the middle of the ideological spectrum are the most skeptical of democracy, both in Europe and the United States.
Fear of democratic decline has hit America, and some fear our public’s commitment to its political system. Lee Drutman says the data gives us both and bad news.
Drutman: There’s good news, and there’s not great news. The good news is that, when given a direct choice, the overwhelming majority of Americans are supportive of democracy and particularly the American version of democracy: checks and balances.
The not-so-great news is that it seems to be more and more of a partisan issue in that it’s Democrats who are much more supportive of liberal democracy, and Republicans who are less so.
Grossmann: Until recently, support for democracy has long been assumed. But the recent alarm does not mean that Americans overall are losing faith.
Drutman: The big headline finding was Yashi Monk and Roberto Phoa finding that there had been rising levels in the U.S. for support for alternatives for democracy, a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with congress and elections. Military rule. People were saying, “Democracy doesn’t really matter to somebody like me,” and those numbers had been rising in the U.S.
Prior to that, this had sort of been a very fertile area for a lot of social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s in the wake of Nazi Germany.
Grossmann: Drutman, Diamond and Goldman look at lots of indicators from a recent survey, which all tell a similar story.
Drutman: The main questions in this space that have been asked in the World Values survey are, you know, “Ask people to rate a system very good to very bad: having a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with congress and elections; having army rule and having a democratic political system.” And then also asking people how important it is to live in a democracy and giving people a question of whether democracy is preferable to any form of governments, or whether in some circumstances it might not be.
Those measures, depending on how you ask those questions, those measures vary, but across all measures on any given question, you get about 75 to 80 percent of people giving the pro-democracy answer.
Grossmann: These are real attitudes towards the political system, which are only somewhat associated with the parenting value scale you sometimes hear called, “The Personality Trait of Authoritarianism.”
Drutman: In the study that we produced, we asked people those questions. There is a clear correlation between people who score high on that authoritarian scale and are sort of a strong leader, which is not surprising, but the correlation is not super strong, so there’s clearly something else that needs to explain why people scored a strong leader. It’s not just having an authoritarian personality as measured by parenting style.
Grossmann: The typical anti-democratic constituent matches the stereotype of a new Trump voter.
Drutman: They tend to be less educated. They tend to be broadly disengaged from the political system. They also tend to hold more negative views of racial minorities. They think having European heritage is very important to being an American, for example. Those are pretty strong … describe people who are supportive of authoritarian leadership as not super well-educated, not super engaged in politics, not very tolerant of minorities, distrustful of elites. Sort of, in many ways, it describes what a lot of people think of as a core Trump supporter.
Grossmann: That could mean either that Republican voters are following Trump’s views, or that some were attracted to Trump because of them. Probably a bit of both.
Drutman: There are probably two explanations. One is that there is some effect of Trump’s rhetoric and of Trump being in power that has increased support for a strong leader for those people who would support Trump generally. Those types of voters who sort of low education, disaffected … may have been more likely to have been in the Democratic camp in the past, and are precisely those Obama/Trump voters who went from being Democrats to being Republicans. There’s some movement among Republicans, I think, and then there’s some movement of voters going from Democrat to Republican.
Grossmann: There’s an unfortunate potential for a negative feedback loop that continues to move Trump supporters away from democratic support.
Drutman: It does certainly point towards a reinforcing, negative feedback loop of more cynicism and more distrust, and it creates an opening for politicians who play on that distrust. Donald Trump didn’t emerge out of nowhere. He appealed to a large swath of Republican voters who had been led by decades of Republican messaging into an increasingly nihilistic place about government. I mean, you have 40 years of rhetoric from Republicans who are basically saying, “Tear it all down. Tear it all down. Tear it all down. Washington is a corrupt swamp, Washington is a corrupt swamp.”
Drutman: That creates an opening for a candidate like Donald Trump to finally emerge.
Grossmann: Drutman says American politics may be turning out more like European politics.
Drutman: What we’re seeing, and Europe has been ahead of us, is a sort of shifting of the main axis of political conflict onto the cultural dimension. You have a sort of cosmopolitan, urban and wealthy elite versus a traditionalist, rural … folks who are not doing so well economically, and are sort of on the wrong side of a lot of broader economic trends and developments. What you see throughout Europe is a conflict over what does it mean to be a … [insert country here].
A lot of it is a backlash to immigration and cultural change. I think that’s become the defining in American politics as well.
Grossmann: David Adler looked at earlier European and American data, asking where democratic skepticism fell on the ideological spectrum from left to right.
Adler: In this working paper, I set out to look at a question that I was quite surprised hadn’t really been examined empirically, which is, “Where in the political spectrum do we see this threat to democracy coming from?” We see a lot of literature recently in political science about this “emergent threat.” There’s a big debate going on in political science about where that threat comes from … whether it has its origins in economic anxieties, in cultural backlash or in generational differences. Your proximity to the second World War and how much democracy meant to you and your generational cohort.
There’s this other variable that seemed quite intuitive, I suppose, that of course this sort of democracy would be coming from the political extremes.
When I looked at the data, this is exactly what I thought I would find, so I set out to basically just test that hypothesis. Looking at that left/right spectrum and seeing where exactly we find highest levels of hostility across a battery of questions about democratic support.
Grossmann: Looking at many of the same survey questions used by Drutman, Adler found the least support for democracy among people who placed themselves in the ideological center.
Adler: I looked at response left/right placement … where do you consider yourself on the political spectrum, with some validation of how the left/right spectrum works, and I looked at a battery of questions about support for democracy.
So, that ranged from democracy as an overall political system to views of civil rights as essential or inessential to democracy, views of free and fair elections, and then finally, rating evaluations of authoritarian governance.
Across that battery, I found to my surprise, that it was self-identified centrists … people who put themselves in the center of the political spectrum who were far more hostile to democracy and far more accepting of authoritarian governance than those at the political extremes.
Grossmann: He says many anti-democratic movements in developing nations have come from the center.
Adler: Theories of developing democracies are not actually so different than theories of developed democracies. I think in this case, we have a similar question. If you look to the modernization literature, you find that in many cases in developing worlds, strong men have found a real base of support among middle-class, moderate centrists who trust authoritarians far more than radical movements to deliver growth, maintain stability in the face of changing and development.
I think we’re finding something similar today, which is that while we tend to think that democracies were stable, it turns out there were a lot of sources of instability, and one of those is that moderates … self-identifying moderates who don’t have much of a taste or much of a flavor for so-called “radical” politics are inviting of a more authoritarian kind of governance as a way of maintaining more stability, more efficiency and having to do less with this kind of messy business of democracy.
Grossmann: Centrist voters also don’t like experts, but Adler says we don’t know how much democratic skepticism is a product of anti-elitism.
Adler: On the question of whether it’s authoritarianism or rule of experts, I think it’s a very good question about what exactly is happening, whether we’re seeing a response that is anti-elitist … or where exactly this authoritarian response sits on that second dimension. I think it’s not entirely clear, but what is striking is that across this pretty wide range of indicators, we are seeing that dip in the middle.
Grossmann: Survey respondents who picked the center of one scale may just be likely to pick the center of others, making it look like they are less enthusiastic about democracy. Adler says his findings are consistent across all types of questions.
Adler: The results become certainly less severe when you allow for people to have the full range of agreement with a statement, but what is surprising about these is that it is across that battery. For example, with the authoritarianism question, there is no midpoint. It’s just “very good,” “somewhat good,” “fairly bad,” and “very bad,” right? When we do look at this broad range of democratic and authoritarian indicators, we find that this phenomenon seems to hold up.
Grossmann: Adler says the European right has traditionally had less support for democracy than the American right, and that does show up in his data.
Adler: In thinking about the European far-right, for example, and thinking about the American far-right, those are very different styles of politics. I think that we can understand the “centrist paradox” … which is what I call it in the working paper … much more clearly in the United States, where the far-right has a richer tradition of libertarianism. Where people who identify with the far-right tend not to be thinking about fascism, intend not to be burdened by sort of the longer history of fascist politics as they are in Europe.
Grossmann: He draws a distinction between satisfaction with democracy, where the left has often scored low, and support for democratic institutions, where they remain supportive even when out of power.
Adler: It’s a rise in resentment towards establishment politics. There’s a temptation to lump these two phenomena together. But when we look at this data, we see that in fact it looks like people on the left are extremely dissatisfied and expressing a real dissatisfaction with the establishment, but underneath that satisfaction is a more substantive commitment to democratic ideals. Whereas on the far-right, they’re quite satisfied with the way that things are going for them, so it looks like in the data, but they’re far less committed to the principals that underlie the democratic system.
Grossmann: According to Drutman’s data, the people that Adler finds that self-identify as centrists actually mix liberal economic views and conservative social and racial views. Drutman wonders whether they should be thought of as centrists.
Drutman: Adler’s study is quite interesting. The way he does it, right, is he looks at people who choose a “5” on the left/right scale. So, the question is, do you call those people centrists … or do you call those people just people who don’t really know how to place themselves on a left/right scale and then think, “Well, I’ll just put myself in the middle.” If so, is what he’s describing as “centrist” really just kind of people who are low information, not really super-engaged … maybe feel that both parties have gotten too far to the extremes, and so don’t think that the system is working too well?
Drutman: If you feel that neither party represents you well, then not surprisingly, you might think, “Well, maybe this ain’t such a good system.”
Grossmann: Adler agrees that public centrist identifiers do not match the vision of elite, technocratic centrist politicians and activists.
Adler: I think that we can distinguish here between two kinds of centrists … I’ll be honest, calling them centrists was a bit tongue-in-cheek, as a way of highlighting the counterintuitive nature of the findings. We can distinguish between an elite centrism, which certainly at many times has been hostile to democracy, but at least in survey data has the decency to express rhetorical support for the principles and values of democracy, and a mass centrism … a mass moderation, where we find a much more toxic stew of anti-democratic attitudes.
Adler: I think that’s really the crucial take away from this, the elite centrists often speak on behalf of a constituency that doesn’t really resemble them.
Grossmann: But he does test whether apathy explains centrists lower respect for democracy, and finds that even highly-attentive centrists fit the same pattern.
Adler: Two very different interpretations of this centrist paradox. The first is really about apathy. We know from this data that people who identify in the center tend to be more disengaged, less interested in politics and less identified with a political party. That plays a huge role in motivating this kind of discontent and disregard for democratic politics. That’s a huge story that’s going on here.
It does nothing to undermine the importance or to … we still need to be attentive to the fact that there are these apathetic, self-identifying moderates who are still quite hostile to democracy, but it’s true that when you look at the sort of demographic variance, they tend to be more politically disengaged. However, in the paper, I also analyze the subsample of respondents who are interested, who claim to be as I asked them, “Somewhat or very interested in politics,” and I find the same results.
This is a piece, in the criticism that the working paper has received, I’ve seen less engagement with. I try to address the problem of whether or not these are just people who don’t care and are putting themselves in the center because they don’t bother to take a stand left or right, and we find that especially in the U.S. and the UK cases, self-identifying centrists who are politically-engaged still have much higher ranking of hostility towards democracy.
Grossmann: But Adler’s data comes from before 2016, when he thinks Trump brought these previous centrists into the coalition of the American right.
Adler: I think Trump is definitely making the American right resemble the European right more. I’ll explain how. I think that the data that I capture here, which in the U.S. case comes at a latest wave for the World Value survey, so that’s 2010-2014 … it’s a bit earlier than the Trump phenomenon. I think what we’re finding here is that the people who are most ignited by Trump and who are most supportive of Trump’s brand of authoritarian populism, thought of themselves as being at the center.
With Trump, what we’re finding is that this phenomenon is taking people out of the center, but radicalizing them and creating greater hostility towards democratic politics in the process, which is of course very similar to what we see in Europe, with that long tradition of sitting on the far-right and sort of stewing in a hostility for democratic politics that has taken shape there.
Grossmann: Most research shows that public opinion changes are not responsible for democratic decline, because the public follows elites. But Drutman thinks in this case, that might not be good news.
Drutman: I agree with Levitsky and Ziblatt’s analysis that it’s elite to make democracy. That’s the big difference between now and 40, 50 years ago is that 40, 50 years ago in the U.S., there was similar levels of support for alternatives to democracy, but you had elites who really were bought into the system and were the preachers and the teachers of democracy. Now you have a president who’s leader of the Republican party who is just bashing the institutions of American democracy. So I absolutely agree that elites matter.
Drutman: Now, I would say with public opinion, it’s a measure of how effective Trump is in turning folks against democracy.
Grossmann: Adler agrees that we will not be able to rely on citizens to rein in anti-democratic elites.
Adler: Citizen responsiveness, citizen attention and for lack of a better word, resistance to encroachments on democratic institutions and democratic procedures in general … the maintenance of a kind of vigilance over society is extremely important. Now, if you look at the size of the centrist coalition in this sample across Europe and North America, people who think of themselves as being in the center, and if we thought that that group before was going to be the bulwark against authoritarian transition … and now we’re finding out that this group is broadly apathetic, fairly hostile to democracy, fairly acceptant of an authoritarian alternative, that should raise some alarm.
Not because they’re going to be at the vanguard destroying our democracy, but because they are authoritarian bystanders.
Grossmann: Drutman even say we are already seeing signs of a slow but real American democratic decay.
Drutman: Brightline survey, Freedom House, the Economist Intelligence Unit…by all of these measurements of democratic quality, the U.S. is declining. Now each of these studies uses different ways to measure that. They’re methodologies that have been developed over time and I think are all pretty good…and all of them show decline.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Lee Drutman and David Adler for joining me. Join us next time to find out whether Facebook polarizes Americans with “fake news,” or expands their exposure to different views.