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When It Comes to Eating Away at Democracy, Trump Is a Winner

Donald Trump’s drive to undermine American democracy has proved strikingly successful.

Take the most recent analysis by Varieties of Democracy, better known as V-Dem, an international organization founded in 2014 to track trends in democratization:

Of 179 countries surveyed, V-Dem found that the United States was one of 33 to have moved substantially toward “autocratization.” From 2016, when Trump won the presidency, to 2021, when he involuntarily left office, the United States fell from 17th to 29th in the global V-Dem democracy rankings:

Daron Acemoglu, a professor of economics at M.I.T., contends that the decline in popular support for democracy is greater in the United States than elsewhere, especially among the young:

“In our data younger people are less supportive of democracy,” Acemoglu wrote in an email. “In the U.S., this age gradient is particularly visible. Moreover, in the U.S., you see a large, across-the-board decline in support for democracy between 2011 and 2017. Is that the financial crisis? The beginning of Trumpism? Not sure.”

In other respects, the adverse trends in the United States, Acemoglu points out, “are not unique to Trump. Look at it from an international perspective, Trumpism is no exception. You see similar dynamics in Brazil, Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Russia and somewhat less successfully in the U.K., France, Chile and Colombia. Trump is a particularly mendacious and noxious version, but he is not unique.”

The United States does stand out, however, among developed countries with established democracies. Acemoglu added that “Other developed economies show some weakness, but the U.S., is distinctive in the degree to which its democracy has become weaker.”

Why the United States?

In his email Acemoglu suggested that

The widespread acceptance among Republican voters of Trump’s claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen is, in Acemoglu’s view,

Acemoglu acknowledged that this

Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke, noted in an email that the United States stands apart from most other developed nations in ways that may make this country especially vulnerable in the universe of democratic states to authoritarian appeals and democratic backsliding:

In this context, Kitschelt wrote,

Underlying the racial motivations, in Kitschelt’s view, are

Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., takes a different, but not necessarily contradictory approach. She is co-author of the forthcoming book, “The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy,” with John Sides and Chris Tausanovitch, political scientists at Vanderbilt and U.C.L.A.

In an email, Vavreck wrote that in their book,

From a different vantage point, Vavreck observes, another “part of democracy — the representational part, so to speak — seems quite healthy at the moment.” The parties

For all of its faults, contemporary American democracy does perform the essential function of offering voters a choice, Vavreck continued:

But the cost can be high, in Vavreck’s view, perhaps higher than the benefits:

If polarization is a crucial aspect of democratic atrophy, all indications are that partisan hostility is entrenched in the social order.

In their May 2022 paper, “Learning to Dislike Your Opponents: Political Socialization in the Era of Polarization,” Matthew Tyler and Shanto Iyengar, political scientists at Stanford, find that polarization, including a strong dislike of members of the opposition party, has been growing rapidly among adolescents, a constituency previously more neutral in its political views:

Today, Tyler and Iyengar write,

What are the consequences of this shift among the young?

“Fifty years ago,” Tyler and Iyengar report, “political socialization was thought to play a stabilizing role important to the perpetuation of democratic norms and institutions. In particular, children’s adoption of uncritical attitudes toward political leaders helped to legitimize the entire democratic regime.”

“In the current era, the two authors note pointedly,

In fact, there has been a steady falloff in key measures of the vitality and strength of American democracy.

Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan and a principal investigator on the American National Election Studies 2024 project, wrote by email that

This development includes an increase from 48 percent in 2002 to 64 percent in 2020 of people who say government operates “for the benefit of a few big interests” and a decline over the same period from 51 to 16 percent of people who say government operates “for the benefit of all.” Over the same 18-year period, a “trust in government” measure fell from 43 to 17 percent.

Such downward trendlines are particularly worrisome, according to Valentino, because “the cornerstone of democratic stability lies in strong institutional legitimacy among the governed, regardless of which party is in charge.”

Two types of events in upcoming elections, Valentino writes, “indicate that the U.S. has broken from mainstream democratic systems”:

In their 2021 paper, “The Majoritarian Threat to Liberal Democracy,” Guy Grossman, Dorothy Kronick, Matthew Levendusky and Marc Meredith, political scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, argue that “many voters are majoritarian, in that they view popularly elected leaders’ actions as inherently democratic — even when those actions undermine liberal democracy.”

The willingness of majoritarians “to give wide latitude to elected officials is an important but understudied threat to liberal democracy in the United States,” Grossman and his co-authors write.

What liberal democrats see as backsliding, the four authors continue, “majoritarians see as consistent with democracy, which mutes the public backlash against power grabs.”

Why?

Jack Goldstone, a professor of public policy at George Mason University, stresses economic forces in his analysis of declining support for democracy.

“The rise of authoritarian parties is rooted in rising inequality and even more in the loss of social mobility,” he wrote by email, adding that

In an essay last month, “Trump Was a Symptom, Not the Disease — and It’s Become a Global Pandemic,” Goldstone was sharply critical of economic and political elites, especially liberal elites:

Along similar lines, but with a different emphasis, Elizabeth Suhay, a political scientist at American University, wrote by email that “the rise in authoritarian parties is primarily driven by discontent among the masses.” Scholars have demonstrated this, she continued, “at the individual level (e.g., whether a person is unemployed) and the national level (e.g., the national unemployment rate).”

Suhay added a crucial caveat:

Trump, Suhay argues,

Acemoglu, the M.I.T. economist, argues that one way to address the discontent with contemporary democracy among so many voters on the right would be to implement traditional center-left economic policies, including many supported by the Biden administration. Acemoglu makes the case that the activist wing of the Democratic Party has undermined the effectiveness of this approach:

There is a strong argument, Acemoglu continued,

Given the intransigent, anti-democratic posture of the Republican Party and its leaders, only the Democratic Party, its shortcomings notwithstanding, is equipped to lead a drive to restore democratic norms. To become an effective force for reform, the party must first cease alienating key swing voters.

While many voters disagree with the progressive movement, especially in its more cultural and identitarian forms, many more agree with its redistributive agenda: the reduction of inequality through the transfer of income, wealth and opportunity to middle and working class America. The stakes in this struggle could not be higher.

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