A professor of history reveals how continued support for 'would-be autocrats' like Trump exposes a weakness inherent in modern democracy itself

A professor of history reveals how continued support for 'would-be autocrats' like Trump exposes a weakness inherent in modern democracy itself
Putin and Trump/Screengrab
Putin and Trump/Screengrab

Donald Trump is the most dishonest and most ignorant president in living memory, perhaps in American history. With his disdain for fundamental elements of democratic practice, such as freedom of the press and separation of powers, he is a danger to our American democracy.


But his election and the continued support he receives from a significant minority of voters are themselves symptoms of weaknesses which seem to be inherent in modern democracy itself. When we extend our gaze beyond the US, we can more easily perceive that democracy often works badly. I am not talking about fake democracies, where there is voting but no choice, as in the Soviet Union and the states it controlled. Even in countries where there is real opposition and secret ballots, voting can produce terrible results.

Venezuela, currently suffering a constitutional and humanitarian crisis, appears to have a functioning democracy, but the system has been rigged in favor of Nicolás Maduro, the successor of Hugo Chavez. Physical attacks on and arrests of opposition leaders, banning of opposition parties, sudden changes in the date of the election, and vote buying helped produce a victory for Maduro in 2018.

Algeria is currently experiencing a popular revolt against the elected president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was first elected in 1999, when the five other candidates withdrew just before the vote. He has been re-elected in 2004, 2009, and 2014, and announced he would run again this year, until massive protests forced him to withdraw as a candidate. He is very ill and has not said a word in public since 2013. His power has been based on military control, corruption, voting manipulation, and extensive use of bribery to create supporters and discourage opposition. The rebels are calling for an overthrow of the whole system.

These two cases are exceptional: the illusion of democracy hid authoritarian reality where democracy had never achieved a foothold. Much more common over the past two decades has been a gradual decline of existing democracies across the world, a process which could be called autocratization. A recent study shows that gradual autocratization has weakened democracies, in places as diverse as Hungary, Turkey and India. By extending government control of media, restricting free association, and weakening official bodies which oversee elections, modern autocrats can undermine democracy without a sudden coup. The authors argue with extensive data that the world has been undergoing a third wave of autocratization covering 47 countries over the last 25 years, after the first two waves in the 1930s and in the 1960s and 1970s.

The efforts of would-be autocrats to maintain their power by restricting democracy discourage trust in democracy itself. Nearly three-quarters of voters in Latin America are dissatisfied with democracy, according to a survey in 18 countries by Latinobarómetro, the highest number since 1995.

This is the context for the current failures of democracy in the United States (Trump) and Great Britain (Brexit). What can explain these failures? Physical coercion of political opponents is nearly non-existent. Corruption and voter suppression certainly play a role, at least in the US, but probably not a decisive one. Voters were overwhelmingly free to choose. Why did so many make such bad choices? I believe that conservative politicians in both countries used carefully chosen political tactics to appeal to widespread voter dissatisfaction. Those tactics are fundamentally dishonest, in that they promised outcomes that were impossible (Brexit) or were not actually going to be pursued (better health care than Obamacare). White voters made uncomfortable by the increasingly equal treatment of women and minorities were persuaded that it was possible and desirable to return to white male supremacy.

Voters made poor choices, even by their own professed desires. There is a dangerous disconnect between the voting preferences of many Americans and their evaluations of American political realities. A survey by the Pew Research Center at the end of 2018 offers some insight into the fundamental weakness of American democracy. A wide bipartisan majority of 73% think the gap between rich and poor will grow over the next 30 years. Two-thirds think the partisan political divide will get wider and 59% believe the environment will be worse. Only 16% believe that Social Security will continue to provide benefits at current levels when they retire, and 42% think there will be no benefits at all. Nearly half say that the average family’s standard of living will decline, and only 20% believe it will improve. These are not just the views of liberals. 68% of Republicans say that no cuts should be made to Social Security in the future. 40% say that the government should be mostly responsible for paying for long-term health care for older Americans in the future.

Yet when asked about their top political priorities, Republicans offer ideas which don’t match their worries about the future. Their three top priorities for improving the quality of life for future generations are reducing the number of undocumented immigrants; reducing the national debt; and avoiding tax increases. The richer that a Republican voter is, the less likely they are to want to spend any money to deal with America’s problems. Republicans with family incomes under $30,000 have a top priority of more spending on affordable health care for all (62%) and on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (50%), while those with family incomes over $75,000 are give these a much lower priority. 39% of poorer Republicans say a top priority is reducing the income gap, but that is true for only 13% of richer Republicans. Republican politicians follow the preferences of the richest Republican voters, but that doesn’t seem to affect the voting patterns of the rest.

Nostalgia for the “whites only” society of the past also pushes Americans into the Republican Party. About three-quarters of those who think that having a non-white majority in 2050 will be “bad for the country” are Republicans.

A significant problem appears to be ignorance, not just of Trump, but also of his voters. Many are ignorant about the news which swirls around us every day. A poll taken last week by USA Today and Suffolk University shows that 8% of Americans don’t know who Robert Mueller is.

But much of the ignorance on the right is self-willed. Only 19% of self-identified Republicans say the news media will have a positive impact in solving America’s problems. Only 15% are “very worried” about climate change and 22% are not worried at all. Despite the multiple decisions that juries have made about the guilt of Trump’s closest advisors, one-third of Americans have little or no trust in Mueller’s investigation and half agree that the investigation is a “witch hunt”. Despite the avalanche of news about Trump’s lies, frauds, tax evasions, and more lies, 27% “strongly approve” of the job he is doing as President, and another 21% “approve”. 39% would vote for him again in 2020.

Peter Baker of the NY Times reports that “the sheer volume of allegations lodged against Mr. Trump and his circle defies historical parallel.” Yet the percentage of Americans who approve of Trump is nearly exactly the same as it was two years ago.

Ignorance and illogic afflict more than just conservatives. The patriotic halo around the military leads Americans of both parties to political illusions. 72% of adults think the military will have a positive impact on solving our biggest problems, and that rises to 80% of those over 50.

The British writer Sam Byers bemoans his fellow citizens’ retreat into national pride as their political system gives ample demonstration that pride is unwarranted. His wordsapply to our situation as well. He sees around him a “whitewash of poisonous nostalgia”, “a haunted dreamscape of collective dementia”. He believes that “nostalgia, exceptionalism and a xenophobic failure of the collective imagination have undone us”, leading to “a moment of deep and lasting national shame”.

One well-known definition of democracy involves a set of basic characteristics: universal suffrage, officials elected in free and fair elections, freedom of speech, access to sources of information outside of the government, and freedom of association.

We have seen some of these attributes be violated recently in the United States. Republican state governments have tried to reverse electoral losses by reducing the powers of newly elected Democratic governors. Trump, following the lead of many others, has urged Americans to ignore the free press and to substitute information that comes from him. Many states have tried to restrict the suffrage through a variety of tactics.

Across the world, democracy is under attack from within. Winston Churchill wrote, “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried”. Unless we want to try one of those other forms, we need to fight against autocratization, at home and abroad.

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