This recent New York Times headline offers the perfect prospective epitaph for America’s struggling democracy and its potential impending demise: “Voters See Democracy in Peril, But Saving It Is Not a Priority.”
The details are grim. Voters “overwhelmingly believe that American democracy is under threat, but seem remarkably apathetic about that danger”, and relatively few call it “the nation’s most pressing problem”, according to a new poll conducted for The Times by Siena College. . More than a third of independent voters in the poll “said they were open to supporting candidates who reject the legitimacy of the 2020 election” because economic concerns were more pressing. While 71% of voters agreed that “democracy was in danger”, only 7% said it was the country’s most important problem.
The Times’ analysis conformed to a depressing stream of conventional wisdom, concluding that “for many Americans, this year’s midterm elections will be largely defined by rising inflation and other economic problems. ‘, reflecting a deep-rooted ‘cynicism’ about the government. This particular portrait reinforces what political scientists and other experts have long known about voting and other political behavior in this country.
Most Americans are relatively unsophisticated in their understanding of politics and public policy, and tend to be disengaged on issues beyond the few issues that seem to immediately concern them, their families, or their communities, unless a national emergency or crisis that requires collective attention. . But even this kind of increased visibility does not necessarily translate into an accurate or factual understanding of the policies in question. For example, the COVID pandemic has certainly become a major national issue, but has also fueled widespread misinformation about vaccines and public health measures. The 2020 election riddled the nation for weeks, but the tale of Donald Trump’s big lie about that election has not faded.
There are exceptions. Due to their experience of navigating the color line, the contradictions of American democracy, and the country’s long history of white supremacy and racism, black Americans, as a group, often tend to be more sophisticated than white Americans in terms of political decision-making.
Most Americans are not ideological, which means they lack a cohesive, cohesive worldview that drives voting and other political behavior. Overall, the American people tend to look to trusted elites for how they should think about politics and what they should do about it. Partisanship and voting are substitutes for other social identities, not independent of them.
It is often said that the American people are increasingly polarized in politics. True enough, but it fundamentally reflects how political elites, opinion leaders, and a small percentage of highly politically engaged individuals drive mass behavior.
Many Americans don’t consistently think about politics and are disengaged or uninformed about important issues. Moreover, the political and economic elites like it that way.
As confirmed by the New York Times/Siena College poll and accompanying analysis, immediate financial concerns and judgments about the economy (i.e. “portfolio issues”) seem to influence the political behavior of many Americans. But even this banal observation is more complicated than it seems. “The economy”, as a tool for political decision-making, is strewn with pitfalls and inconsistencies. Overall, it may not even matter as much in determining political decision-making as many pundits and other observers have long assumed. Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels make this intervention in their book “Democracy for Realists”:
[I]It is not at all clear that voters can gauge the performance of incumbents simply by assessing changes in their own well-being. If jobs were lost during a recession, something is wrong, but is it the president’s fault? If not, then voting based on good or bad economic conditions may not be more effective than killing the pharaoh when the Nile fails to flood or voting against Woodrow Wilson when the sharks attack. the Jersey Shore…. Or, as Theodore Roosevelt said as he faced the Panic of 1907, “When the average man loses his money, he’s just like a wounded serpent and strikes right or left at anything, innocent or vice versa, presents itself as visible in his mind.”
An even more fundamental problem is that voters can have great difficulty in accurately assessing changes in their well-being – even with regard to national economic conditions, which are very salient and carefully monitored by professional economists within and outside of government.
Many Americans do not systematically think about politics, society or the economy and are not likely to make connections between a seemingly abstract concept like “democracy” and the specific issues that concern them. But it is also true that political elites, media commentators and other opinion leaders who claim to believe in democracy have failed to explain to a wide audience how and why democracy has a substantial impact on daily life. of the average individual.
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There’s an even more cynical explanation: as a group, America’s elites don’t particularly want a well-informed and highly engaged public. Such a public could pose an effective challenge to the outsized power of these elites and, in doing so, show how much they have imposed their narrow interests on public policy. Here is Chris Hedges, in a recent essay republished at the Salon:
The step from dysfunctional democracy to full fledged fascism was, and still will be, a small step. Hatred of the ruling class, embodied in the establishment Republican and Democratic parties, which have merged into a single ruling party, is nearly universal. The public, battling inflation which is at its highest level in 40 years and costing the average American household an additional $717 a month in July alone, will increasingly see any political figure or political party ready to attack traditional ruling elites as an ally. The more crude, irrational, or vulgar the attack, the happier the outcasts. Those sentiments are true here and in Europe, where energy costs are set to rise 80% this winter and a 10% inflation rate is eating away at incomes.
The reconfiguration of society under neoliberalism to exclusively benefit the billionaire class, the reduction and privatization of public services, including schools, hospitals and public services, as well as deindustrialization, the excessive payment of funds and State resources in the war industry, at the expense of the country’s infrastructure and social services, as well as the construction of the largest prison system in the world and the militarization of the police, have predictable results.
At the heart of the problem is a loss of faith in traditional forms of government and democratic solutions.
In a recent interview with me for Salon, social psychologist Shawn Rosenberg made similar observations, saying that “the Achilles’ heel of democracy is that the people, that is, the citizens, don’t understand the broader political and governmental system and its values”, and are therefore “susceptible to a populist message”. He attributes this primarily to America’s dysfunctional education system, which “has failed to educate the public to understand the complex issues of society and politics”:
It’s not that much of the American public is inherently bad or evil. It’s just that when they look at the world, they don’t understand what’s going on. They don’t understand why it’s so hard to solve some of these problems that we face, why it’s so hard to govern, and why they’re supposed to respect people who they think are obviously wrong. … Right-wing populism offers simple answers, simple solutions, and simple descriptions of what the world is like. Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and other such Republican leaders offer that vision and those answers.
Meanwhile, members of the media and political classes often make the mistake of generalizing from their own experience and knowledge to the public at large, leading to a whole host of incorrect assumptions, wrong conclusions and general misunderstandings. Thus, we get the perpetual or simulated shock and surprise of pundits, commentators, and mainstream political leaders at the Republican Party’s fascist campaign against American democracy. Political scientist Jonathan Renshon discussed this in an interview with Politico last June:
Absolutely nothing prevents elites from using the same public opinion data that academics or the public have access to, and yet we still see compelling evidence that elites misinterpret public opinion, either because of the stereotypes that they nurture on the public, either by overweighting their own preferences, or unequal exposure to particular constituencies or special interests. As we saw during the 2020 presidential election campaign, it’s also not uncommon for politicians to ignore or dismiss public opinion polls when they don’t like the results. In a broader sense, this is not surprising: there are many areas in which access to more or more accurate information does not necessarily reduce the tendency for bias to creep into our judgments.
Altogether, the recent New York Times poll simply offers further evidence that the American people can claim to be concerned about “democracy”, but are fundamentally uncertain about the cause of the crisis and have no idea what to do about it. It’s actually worse than that, in that many Americans don’t even pretend to care about democracy and are more concerned about falling gas and grocery prices – and have no problem to trade their rights and freedoms for the promise of ending inflation.
In an equally grim vein, a new CBS News poll finds that 63% of likely Democratic voters think a functioning democracy is more important than a strong economy, but those numbers are more than reversed among Republicans, 70% of which ranks “a strong economy” (whatever that means) above a functioning democracy.
It is not hyperbolic or metaphorical to describe these figures as a classic example of how democracy, gradually, then more rapidly, rots and succumbs to fascism. The naive belief that “it can’t happen here” is seriously misplaced: it’s happening here right now.
on the midterms and the rise of fascism