Brown University

The Evolution of Trust in American Democracy by Alexis Viera @ Brown University

In 2016, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index demoted the U.S. from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy,” citing a declining trend with regard to confidence in political institutions within the American public. It reasons that growing apathy in a representative government facilitates the ascension of anti-mainstream politics.

This thought process is in line with Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepans’ views on democratic legitimacy. In their article, “The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes,” Linz and Stepans claim that democratic legitimacy requires a trust in government’s commitment to uphold the mandates of democracy. They maintain that even a majority of the electorate believing in the government’s legitimacy does not guarantee the stability of that style of governance in a nation. By the end of the campaign period, both presidential candidates in the most recent U.S. election had historically low favorability ratings. Linz and Stepans assert that loss in support for all political actors in a democracy preempts the erosion of democratic legitimacy.

Indeed, the data that The Economist’s research and analysis division collected on the United States seems to support this. Only 19 percent of Americans have trust in their government to “do the right thing” always or even most of the time. To compare, 73 percent responded in such a way when the question was first asked in 1958. If “doing the right thing” is any indicator of trust in government to follow the democratic norms that Americans value, the U.S. falls astonishingly short of the levels of legitimacy that would suggest democratic stability.

Linz and Stepans presumed that citizens would be mobilized by what they perceived to be a lack of democratic efficacy. The researchers felt that the polity would throw its legitimacy and support behind a different form of governance. In what may be accordance with this notion, the number of Americans that consider it essential to live in a democracy declines across generations. Nearly 75 percent of surveyed citizens born in the 1930s believe that democracy is essential. The number drops consistently with every subsequent decade, concluding with the respondents born in the 1980s down at around 30 percent. While there has been no mobilization behind a different form of governance, that may be said to be a result of the lack of a popular politician promoting one so far.

But as a representative system, growing apathy towards democracy spells trouble. Imperative to democracy is participation in its processes. Turnout in the 2016 general election was at a near 20-year low and is facing a downward trend. At only slightly more than half of voting age citizens, our government is quite an inaccurate representation. And this horrible statistic only paints half the picture.

Midterm elections determine who sits in all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and a third of seats in the Senate, composing a striking majority of Congress. Midterm elections provide an opportunity for the electorate to deeply influence the structure of our governing bodies, and yet turnout is far less than half—significantly worse than for the already abysmal general elections.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Bernie Sanders suggests that American apathy with regard to political outcomes has resulted from voter frustration. “The anger is there,” Sanders says, but “it’s an anger that turns into saying, ‘Go to hell, I’m not going to participate in your charade. I’m not voting.’ So it’s a weird kind of anger. It’s not people getting out in the streets… We’re at the stage of demoralization.”

Americans are thereby caught in a vicious cycle. If disillusionment with government is driving voters away from polls, a government is to be trusted even less on representing the issues that its constituency cares about, since the input it has been given is skewed. Only those who are sufficiently passionate and believe in their political efficacy will have a voice in the government of the whole people, in addition to the (probably contradictory) voice of the rich, whose money can have an even more direct influence.

Worsening trust in governing officials and institutions is where political crisis can emerge. Whether or not the preservation of democracy is a desirable anymore, political crisis is different from and more dangerous than the transference of legitimacy from one type of regime to another. Apathy in the American public must thereby be challenged.

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