The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The year of democratic decay

The Republican National Convention is just the latest disturbing data point suggesting an erosion of democratic values.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the second session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19. (John Locher/AP)

The failed coup attempt in Turkey has been disturbing to watch for a number of reasons. The most obvious is the loss of life that came with the attempt. The second is that the coup was even attempted at all; extralegal efforts at regime change are always disturbing to see in members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and NATO. The third and most long-lasting is the way in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded with a widespread government purge to consolidate his grip on power. Unless educators were moonlighting as coup-plotters, this seems to be an overreach.

Turkey bans all academics from travel in latest post-coup measure

A successful coup would have been bad for Turkish democracy, but Erdogan seems bound and determined to prove that the aftermath of a failed coup won’t turn out much better. Nominally a democracy, over the past decade Turkey has backslid into something … different. It’s unsurprising that one-third of Turks polled said Erdogan was responsible for the coup.

Which brings me to last night’s political theater at the Republican National Convention. Ostensibly the theme of last night’s festivities was restoring the American economy, but every time I flipped over the discussion was about Hillary Clinton and her myriad sins. Apparently, this wasn’t an aberration of when I was watching:

Gov. Chris Christie’s speech garnered particular attention. It triggered similar reactions from the Weekly Standard and Vox, two outlets not known to agree on all that much.

The climax of Christie’s speech was a call-and-response with the crowd listing Clinton’s various misdeeds. Vox’s Dylan Matthews was creeped out by the entire display:

There were two genuinely unusual and somewhat shocking dimensions to Christie’s speech. One was the sheer severity of the charges he leveled against Clinton. He didn’t merely accuse her of mishandling Boko Haram. He directly accused her of responsibility for Boko Haram’s schoolgirl kidnappings, calling her an “apologist” for one of the most brutal terrorist groups on the planet. He didn’t merely accuse her of mishandling Syria but also implied she was responsible for every death in the Syrian civil war.
These are truly grave charges for which there is no evidence, yet Christie leveled them casually, like they were any other campaign talking point. That’s a remarkable escalation of rhetoric — even for this bananas election.
The second shocking element of the speech was the ease with which Christie essentially called for the criminalization of political disagreement. You can like or dislike the Iranian nuclear deal. But helping negotiate it, and supporting it, is not a crime. Doing that is participating in statecraft. Christie suggested that bad policy should put you before a jury ready and eager to condemn you for anything they deem mistakes.

Lest one think that Matthews was overreacting, the Weekly Standard’s Jonathan Last had a similar reaction:

No, what stuck out about Christie’s speech was the strange conceit that he was launching a prosecution with the audience as the jury, issuing verdicts on Hillary Clinton. And with the close of each “charge,” the audience shouted “guilty!” or “lock her up!”
On the TV screen, the hall sounded dead during Christie’s remarks, but then erupted when it was time for them to respond. Maybe this all felt playful in the hall. On the screen it came across as angry. Really angry. Like, “Give us Barabbas”-levels of angry. …
one of the worries about Trump is that he’s an aspiring strongman with authoritarian impulses who’s leading a bizarre cult of personality led by unpleasant, angry people.

I suspect that anyone with those concerns about Donald Trump probably had them fed by Christie’s performance.

Indeed, political events in both Turkey and the United States makes one somewhat concerned about the future of democracy as a political institution. Francis Fukuyama has banged on in recent years about the problems of political decay in the advanced industrialized democracies. He’s a bit more sanguine about this election cycle than most, but the erosion of accepted norms of political behavior is an extremely disturbing trend. Trump (and his campaign manager) certainly epitomizes this contempt for such minor things as the Constitution and the rule of law.

As the cherry on the top of this worry sundae, the Journal of Democracy has just published an article by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk titled, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect.” Foa and Mounk have previewed their findings here and here over the past year, and their thesis is pretty damn sobering: 

Drawing on data from Waves 3 through 6 of the World Values Surveys (1995–2014), we look at four important types of measures that are clear indicators of regime legitimacy as opposed to government legitimacy: citizens’ express support for the system as a whole; the degree to which they support key institutions of liberal democracy, such as civil rights; their willingness to advance their political causes within the existing political system; and their openness to authoritarian alternatives such as military rule.
What we find is deeply concerning. Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives. The crisis of democratic legitimacy extends across a much wider set of indicators than previously appreciated. …
In theory, it is possible that, even in the seemingly consolidated democracies of North America and Western Europe, democracy may one day cease to be the “only game in town”: Citizens who once accepted democracy as the only legitimate form of government could become more open to authoritarian alternatives. Stable party systems in which all major forces were once united in support of democracy could enter into phases of extreme instability or witness the meteoric rise of anti-system parties. Finally, rules that were once respected by all important political players could suddenly come under attack by politicians jostling for partisan advantage.

By all means, read the whole thing. As an American, I find it particularly troubling that Ronald Inglehart’s rebuttal essay says that Foa and Mounk are exaggerating because this phenomenon is limited to the United States.

Foa and Mounk’s data ends in 2010. One could argue that things have only gotten worse since then, as Christie’s show trial speech suggests. But if I have a sliver of optimism, it is that the Trump campaign is America’s moment of staring into the anti-system abyss and seeing the ugliness that would await.

I will be curious if, after this election cycle, there is a greater appreciation for the democratic institutions that have made America great for more than a century. But I’m not getting my hopes up.