Are American Democratic Institutions Breaking Down?

I was recording a podcast today with Roifield Brown, talking political conventions (it'll be up soon). One thing he asked me: "is America in its winter, or are its best days ahead?"

I thought about it, and have thought about this for a while. I of course don't have an answer -- nobody does. But I do have some concerns. 

Machiavelli's Cycles of Governments

Machiavelli, in The Prince, describes that he believes governments go through cycles. They start as monarchies, move to aristocracies, then to republics... then back to monarchies. He believes this happens as each system loses its virtue, because it forgets why it was put in place and becomes selfish. This happens in republics when citizens vote their own self-interest, become factionalized, and then lose trust in the government because sometimes the scary other faction takes over... then they ask a powerful white-knight type person to take over and make sweeping change, and consent when that person collects full executive power.

(For more on Machiavelli, Xander and I rant about this while pretty tipsy during our 14th podcast episode.)

So in his mind the decline of republics is somewhat inevitable, and it's heralded by factionalism and thus growing mistrust of elections themselves. I'll let you draw your own conclusions from that.

Declining Trust in American Institutions

So of course we know (Nat and I go into a lot of detail in Wedged) that American party members increasingly view the other party unfavorably. You can read about that and all the other ways party members hate each other in Pew here.

But what's that mean? Well, of course, it means that when the other party is in power, one party is afraid, angry, and frustrated. They don't trust that the country will be led well.

The Presidency and Congress

One gets the impression that during the administrations of Eisenhower and Kennedy, one may have voted for someone else, but the person who won was still "our president." I'm a youngster, so I am more accustomed to the "not my president" feeling that we have heard a lot under Bush and Obama. In short, Americans are starting to mistrust the institution of the Presidency -- the office of it. 

Congress, of course, has historically low approval ratings. The sense of gridlock that Americans get (which is totally justified; the number of laws passed in Congress each year keeps declining) means they're losing trust in Congress to do... anything at all. It's becoming dead weight in voters' eyes. It's perhaps not surprising that Americans seem to be turning more and more to the thought of a very powerful executive to save them. 

Other Institutions

Americans are also losing trust in the police, the security apparatus (the NSA, etc), and the IRS, as they believe that these groups pose more of a threat to them personally than a help.

Even the Supreme Court is not immune -- once thought of as a somewhat non-partisan council of elders (of a sort), it's now a policy battleground that seems to be based on one's left-right preferences. I have met very few people that look to an upcoming Supreme Court decision with thoughts about what happens to be the most Constitutional argument.

So What's it Mean?

Democracies work well when people are bought in. I think there's a good argument that if enough trust is lost in these institutions--if the government and its governors become enemies entirely--that citizens will do two things:

1) Start to passively or actively resist what the government does, seeing it as illegitimate.

2) Turn to increasingly desperate measures to change it -- like bestowing one person with a slim election majority incredible power to enact broad change on their own, since it can't be done through the system.

Then what? Constitutional crisis and a new convention? That might be a decent opportunity for "spring cleaning" and a reset. But if that trust can't be restored... well, perhaps Winter is Coming (sorry, couldn't help myself).


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.