Last year was a bad year for democracy—and not just in the United States.
That’s the conclusion of a comprehensive analysis published Tuesday by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the political and economic research arm of its eponymous magazine. The EIU’s 2016 Democracy Index, which evaluated the democratic norms of 167 nations in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory and Britain’s Brexit, found that, while half of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, only 4.5 percent live in a “full democracy.” Seventy-two countries experienced a decline in their relative scores, and the global average declined from 5.55 out of 10 in 2015, to 5.52 in 2016. The declines were concentrated in the usual hotspots: Latin America, the Middle East, and North Africa, among others, but Eastern Europe also experienced a significant decline in part due to Russia’s expanding reach in the region.
And then there’s the U.S. The EIU has downgraded the U.S. from a full democracy to a “flawed democracy” (falling from a score of 8.05 in 2015 to 7.98) due to a staggering decline in “popular confidence in the functioning of public institutions.” According to the EIU report, only 19 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing, while 74 percent think most elected officials “put their own interests ahead of the country’s.” Fifty-seven percent are frustrated with government, and 22 percent are outright angry. Previously among the EIU’s top 20 democracies, the U.S. was the only one to experience a downgrade.
Though this downward trend helped fuel the rise of Trump’s fiery brand of populism, it also preceded him. As of 2015, confidence in American public institutions was well below historical norms for every organization outside of the military and small business, per Gallup. Trump “became a beneficiary of the low esteem in which U.S. voters hold their government, elected representatives and political parties, but he was not responsible for a problem that has had a long gestation.” the authors write. “The U.S. has been teetering on the brink of becoming a ‘flawed democracy’ for several years, and even if there had been no presidential election in 2016, its score would have slipped below 8.00.”
America’s trust in its institutions has declined because the central nodes of civil society no longer work in the public’s best interests. A groundbreaking 2014 Princeton University analysis of American governmental behavior suggested that public institutions have slowly shifted from democratic to oligarchical. Examining 1,800 policy initiatives between 1981 and 2002, political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page found that economic elites and organized groups “representing business interests” have a disproportionate impact on federal policymaking compared to both “mass-based interest groups” and the average American taxpayer.
This trend also preceded the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that unleashed a flood of third-party spending, nearly half a billion in just five years (although, to be fair, Trump won the presidency at half the cost of the Hillary Clinton campaign thanks to his free media ingenuity). Forget the cries of socialism and paranoid fever dreams that pervaded the Barack Obama era — this loathing for civil institutions runs deeper than a mere racist backlash.
Only 19 percent of Americans trust government to do the right thing.
That America’s decline from obsessively exceptional to depressingly average culminated with Trump is unsurprising. The EIU report shows that record low trust in public institutions made Americans primed to rebuke even the most basic norms of modern political society. Trump “appealed to the angry, anti-political mood of large swathes of the electorate who feel that the two mainstream parties no longer speak for them,” the EIU observed. “A desire for change, for a break with the political status quo, was a major factor in determining voting choices.”
It’s the “deplorables” vs. the political class, as the EIU report puts it: It didn’t matter if he was a billionaire — he was their billionaire, for once, and not a stooge at the whims of shady back-room dealing. The report homes in on the one tenet that could restore American civil society: trust. It’s a “trust deficit” against elites that has culminated in the ultimate rebuke of Establishment norms in Trump. In a society where nobody trusts anyone, Americans still trust Trump despite his many dishonesties.
Of course, that trust is also in a precarious place in light of the ongoing revelations around Russia’s attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election in favor of a Trump administration (not to mention the Trump administration’s many ties to Moscow).
You might expect any other president to try to mend that trust and bridge the divide between Washington and taxpayers. But Trump hasn’t done that. Trump’s first few days in office have shown his intent to govern without worry of controversy (the staffing choices for his executive branch) or appearing overly hostile (his battles with the press).
Trump is gaslighting America, and the idea of restoring trust in anything runs counter to everything he staked his persona on.
The result is a nation of Americans in a full-blown epistemic meltdown. Ironically, the Trump campaign has taken the core elements of academic postmodernism — the dissolution and fragmentation of grand social narratives, the rejection of an objective, absolute “truth,” and end of coherent ideologies, among others — and unleashed them on the American public sphere. Political paranoia is nothing new in America, but America’s healthy skepticism of centralized regimes in the U.S. has been appropriated from a grassroots tactic to a White House agenda.
Reversing decades of declining trust following a hugely contentious and controversial election would be no small task for any president, let alone Trump — but it’s one his administration should deign to take seriously. According to World Value Survey data cited by the EIU report, Western countries have experienced “a sharp decline in the level of support for democracy as a system of government, especially among younger generations.” While the Trump campaign certainly exposed a strain of authoritarianism among the white, working-class voters rebelling against government corruption and malfeasance, that impulse isn’t just reserved for older voters: It’s young generations who will undertake a coming wave of “democratic deconsolidation,” as Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk put it in the Journal of Democracy. It’s no wonder the World Economic Forum is, if hyperbolically, treating “fake news” as a global human rights issue.
It looks like Trump has been entrusted with a pivotal moment in American civic culture — and only a steady hand and non-alternative facts will help him restore the American people’s covenant with the government.