Skip to content Skip to footer

Democracy and Its Discontents

Globalization and rising inequality are contributing to the growing lack of confidence in democratic institutions.

US Capitol, Senate Wing. (Photo: Phil Roeder)

Americans increasingly question the viability of institutions they have traditionally relied upon for economic support, security in their local communities and information to explain the world around them. This skepticism is most apparent with respect to political institutions; the US public is losing confidence in the political decision-making process and how government exercises its power.

According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data from 2013, only 35 percent of Americans have confidence in their government. A November 25, 2014, Rasmussen poll suggests only 8 percent of likely voters rate the performance of Congress as good or excellent, while 64 percent rate its performance as poor. A September 2014 Gallup poll found a 44 percent approval rating for the Supreme Court, while 48 percent disapprove. President Obama doesn’t fare any better. A December 21, 2014, Rasmussen poll reported an approval rating of 48 percent, while 51 percent disapproved of his job performance.

There are several explanations for why this lack of confidence exists. Over the past two decades, hyper-individualism has become a cultural value and is now increasingly apparent in public policy debates. Market-oriented policies advocate personal satisfaction over the common good. Voters are behaving more like consumers than citizens and, as a result, corporate influence on public policy has become a more dynamic aspect of the electoral and decision-making process. The Supreme Court exacerbated this influence in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. Super PACs can now raise unlimited amounts of money during campaigns essentially without disclosing the source of the money.

Income inequality also promotes declining confidence in many of the institutions that comprise civil society in the United States. A December 17, 2014, study by the Pew Research Center found the wealth gap (as measured by family assets) between high-income groups and everyone else has reached record high levels. Trust in governmental and private sector institutions is at an all-time low. Gallup has been trending public attitudes toward a variety of societal institutions since 1973. From 1973 to 2014, organized religion, the Supreme Court, the banking system, public schools, newspapers, Congress, organized labor and big business have seen declines in public confidence.

The relative decline of the middle class in economic terms has had a commensurate impact on the accumulation of social capital that is critical to functioning democratic processes. As avenues of social capital disappear and anxiety about the future increases, people’s basic instinct is to withdraw from community and collective pursuits. People hunker down into a “survival bubble” in the attempt to ride out economic hardships they face. Research by political scientist Robert Putnam has found the disruption of economic networks weakens social bonds that are essential to civic engagement in democratic societies.

As significant numbers of Americans abandon their role as citizens, they are more susceptible to simplistic ideological slogans and political messages based on falsehoods. In this vacuous political environment, framing issues in the simplest manner possible becomes a political strategy in which avoidance of complexity drives campaigns. Challenges like reforming health care, tackling global warming or creating policies to confront growing inequities in society are placed at the bottom of the political agenda.

The hallmark of a citizen is to grapple with complexity, make sense of it and weigh dichotomous outcomes before choosing a solution best suited to advance the common welfare. Consumers on the other hand, ignore complexity and seek instant gratification from sound bites that will enhance their personal well-being. Under these circumstances, democracy is not defined as “we” but “me.” The result is the erosion of citizens’ sense of agency and the weakening of democratic practices.

This general mistrust in government is not unique to the United States. It afflicts many democracies around the world. In a 2013 poll undertaken by Gallup, 18 of 34 members of the OECD saw confidence in government fall by at least 6 percentage points. Ireland, India, Greece, Portugal and Slovenia led the way with confidence declining over 20 percentage points since 2007. The OECD report found, on average, only 40 percent of people living in OECD nations had confidence in their national government.

Lack of trust has evolved into a crisis for democracy in several East European countries as right-wing extremist movements threaten the fragile democracies in the region. In Hungary, for example, the neo-fascist party Jobbik, which has espoused anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiments, made impressive gains in 2014 European Union and local elections. (Jobbik came second.)

Conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, leader of the majority party Fidesz, has recognized growing dissatisfaction throughout Europe, arguing that liberal democracy has failed to deliver economic security. His alternative vision, “illiberal” democracy, (which Hungarians know all too well) is characterized by extreme nationalism, free-market capitalism designed to promote the interests of the state, government control of the media and concentrated power in the executive branch of government. Orban sees Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Chinese President Xi Jinping as exemplars of this new-style executive with old-style authoritarian powers.

Globalization also contributes to lack of confidence in government, and has been extremely effective in integrating national economies and generating tremendous wealth through the mobility of capital around the world. However, capital mobility has created imbalanced integration; political and economic elites are best positioned to benefit from capital flows consolidating and expanding their wealth and political influence. Since the 1970s, a precipitous increase in inequality has emerged in democratic societies. Wealth has been concentrated in the hands of a powerful plutocracy that has been able to profit from neoliberal economic policies that privatize public sectors of the economy. For example, Wall Street financial firms use their financial clout as a means of political access. Through rent seeking they control what economist Robert Reich calls “the rules of the game.” In other words, they are able to influence policy-making so it benefits their privileged economic position. At the same time, cuts in social welfare systems in the United States and European Union have led to the economic marginalization of the poor and a survival of the fittest mentality among blue-collar workers, the middle class and young people entering the job market.

Econometric policy has dominated policy debates and decision-making in many Western democracies. Pressing problems that transcend borders such as global warming, humane immigration procedures and mobility rights for workers have been deemphasized. Members of the middle and lower class feel increasingly marginalized. Increasing inequality has led to a lack of trust on the part of many people who are bereft of civic agency and who perceive their political leaders as concerned only with issues that will benefit the wealthy.

The next decade will prove to be a pivotal one for democracy around the world. Freedom House has documented a disturbing eight-year trend in the decline of freedom around the world. Perhaps it’s time to confront the inertia of democratic institutions. There is a pressing need to reconceptualize outdated and ineffective political systems that cannot effectively respond to complex domestic and global issues. Finding alternative frameworks that reinvigorate “democracy for all” will be the biggest challenge facing Western democracies in the coming decades.