American faith in democracy is plummeting—and Donald Trump is the proof

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A few months ago, a newspaper published by the Chinese government ran a piece pointing at the rise of Donald Trump as an example of the pitfalls of democracy. After last month's Brexit referendum in Britain, it ran another piece about how the outcome shows the "consequences" of what happens when you let people vote.

China is, of course, an authoritarian state, run by the Communist Party and the military it controls. The Chinese found reason to point the finger and laugh at the stupidity that democracy can enable. What they might not have known is that an increasing amount of Americans don't think much of democracy either.


A paper titled "The Danger of Deconsolidation"  was recently published in the Journal of Democracy, and it illustrates a striking trend. People born in every consecutive decade since the 1930s say that "living in a democracy" is less "essential" than those before them. The success of Trump—whose status as one of the more openly authoritarian candidates in living memory is one of the main reasons Republicans are about to formally make him their presidential nominee in Cleveland this week—is just one reflection of this trend.

The trend is partly a generational one. When asked to rank the statement on a scale of 1 to 10, a full 72% of Americans born in the 1930s marked 10. For the latest generation polled—those born in the 1980s—only 30% marked 10.

This might have something to do with a drop in civic engagement, the paper's authors, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, hypothesize. "Since the 1960s, voter turnout has fallen and political party membership has plummeted in virtually all established democracies," they write.


But the study shows more than a lack of attention being paid to democratic institutions. People are actively showing more authoritarian tendencies. "In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a 'good' or 'very good' thing for the army to rule—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree," the paper notes.

What's more, the wealthier people are, the more support they tend to give authoritarianism, as the following image shows:


This surge in desire for authoritarianism has direct implications for the 2016 race. Researchers have found that people with an inclination to support authoritarian ideas were most likely to support Donald Trump. In fact, one Politico poll found that it was this tendency more than anything else—including race, class, education or gender—that was the best predictor for Trump support, .

That's not to suggest that this phenomenon is solely rooted in the political right. Liberals can be openly hostile to free speech, a prerequisite for democracy.


Still, Trump's candidacy lies at at the center of any modern discussion about existential threats to democracy. He has risen largely by rejecting political norms, and by promising to enact policies that would openly violate the rights of religious and ethnic minorities.


The paper's authors note that the seemingly rising disregard for democracy is taking root in American politics.

"Meanwhile, even mainstream political actors are increasingly willing to violate the informal rules for the sake of partisan advantage: To name but one example of the resulting gridlock and constitutional dysfunction, the U.S. Senate has refused even to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court," they write.


American democracy is probably not facing a mortal threat, but it is clear that people are increasingly unimpressed with its results. As a result, we are becoming more open to different systems of government.

The Chinese might be pointing at the rise of Trump as a "consequence" of democracy. But in reality, he might be moving us closer to something that they're familiar with.


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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