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Is Democracy Unraveling?

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Is Democracy Unraveling?


WASHINGTON — The world’s democracies, perhaps especially our own, face a peculiar set of contradictions that are undermining faith in public endeavor and unraveling old loyalties.

There is a decline of trust in traditional political parties but also a rise in partisanship. A broad desire for governments to reduce the levels of economic insecurity and expand opportunity is constrained by a loss of confidence in the capacity of government to succeed. Intense demands for change are accompanied by fears that much of the change that is occurring will make life worse for individuals and families.

These crosscurrents are undercutting political leaders and decimating political parties with long histories. In Europe, movements on the far right and left (along with new regional parties) gain traction with disaffected citizens. Concerns about immigration reflect uneasiness among some over the social and cultural tremors in their nations. At the same time, discontent about the economic decline that afflicts regions not sharing in the global economy’s bounty calls forth protest against the privileged and the well-connected. In both cases, anger is the dominant emotion.

The convergence of these forces is especially powerful in Britain, which holds a national election on May 7 and where neither of the long-dominant Conservative and Labour Parties is likely to win a parliamentary majority. In 1951, the two parties together secured 96.8 percent of all the votes cast. This year, they are struggling to reach a combined 70 percent.

In Scotland, long a Labour stronghold, the pro-independence Scottish National Party could take as many as 50 of the region’s 59 seats, which would block British Labour leader Ed Miliband from securing a majority. But Miliband, who has run a better campaign than his foes expected, could still end up in power, partly because Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives are hemorrhaging votes to the UK Independence Party, which is critical of both immigration and the European Union.

In Greece, the traditional social democratic Pasok party was nearly destroyed after the country’s economic collapse. The left-wing Syriza party took power this year because of deep frustration with economic austerity and anger over the terms being set by the European Union for a financial rescue. Far-right parties have gained ground in France and even in usually moderate Scandinavia.

In the United States, partisan splits have rarely been so deep and acrimony across party lines so intense. But these feelings don’t come from wildly positive views about the parties voters embrace. In a widely discussed paper released earlier this month, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, Emory University political scientists, noted that “one of the most important trends in American politics over the past several decades has been the rise of negative partisanship in the electorate.”

It occurs, they write, when “supporters of each party perceive supporters of the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics and fundamental values.” Yes, our current form of partisanship leads us to dislike not only the other side’s politicians but even each other.

And the frustrations voters feel provide each camp with ideological rocks to throw at their adversaries. In a PRRI/Brookings survey I was involved with in 2013, two findings locked horns: 63 percent of Americans said government should be doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but 59 percent also believed government had grown bigger because it had become involved in things people should do for themselves. We want government to do more about injustice, but we also seem to want it smaller.

Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, argues in the current issue of The American Prospect that this tension is partly explained by a widespread view that “special interests” have too much of a hold on government. He argues that voters “are ready for government to help — if the stables are cleaned.”

This makes good sense, but in the United States, as elsewhere, little of what’s happening in politics is reweaving frayed social bonds. The title of Princeton University historian Daniel T. Rodgers’ revelatory 2011 book, Age of Fracture, captured what’s happening to us. In our era, he wrote, “Identities become fluid and elective,” and if the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were a time of political and social “consolidation,” the dominant tendency now is toward “disaggregation.”

This is a big problem for self-government, since aggregating sustainable majorities is the first task of politicians in democratic countries. They are not doing a very good job, and the unfolding 2016 campaign doesn’t inspire much confidence that they’ll do better.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne@washpost.com. Twitter: @EJDionne. 

Photo: Keith Ivey via Flickr

E. J. Dionne

Besides contributing to The National Memo, E.J. Dionne, Jr. is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, and a university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University.

His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (2013).

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  1. Dominick Vila April 27, 2015

    I would not go as far as saying that democracy is unraveling in the USA, but there is no question that it is under attack and losing ground. The greatest danger to our democracy involves the pervasive influence of money in electioneering and policy making, a fact condoned by the not so Supreme Court. The only way to change this, while we still have a democracy, is to vote and replace those whose idea of democracy is closer to dictatorial powers by the elite and religious zealots, with people who understand the spirit of the Constitution, and the value of freedom for all.

  2. Theodora30 April 27, 2015

    You wonder why our democracy is unraveling? Your own profession bears a large part of the blame. For years conservatives have been selling snake oil economic policies, claiming that tax cuts, especially for the rich, do not add debt, tax increases will crash the economy – at least tax cuts on the rich will, though sales taxes which affect lower income folks are apparently hunky-dory. The evidence is clear that they are dead wrong on this yet our “liberal” mainstream media cannot be bothered telling that to the public, so wedded are they to faux balance, a sin you commit here with your complaining about polarization instead of addressing the real problem – conservative intellectual and political leaders have shifter far to the right.
    This is also the case in Europe.Right wing free market ideology is dominating there, too. Their insistence on austerity for the masses in Ireland, Spain, Italy and Greece is at the heart of the problem. Yes Greece had far too much debt in large part because their wealthy citizens were not paying taxes, but Ireland and Spain had balanced budgets going into the crisis. The big European banks (Germany and Britain) poured money into these countries creating a huge housing bubble but when things went south they refused to pay the price of their reckless investing preferring instead to push austerity onto average citizens. The result was extremely high unemployment.( Some point to the fact that Ireland’s unemployment rate has come way down as evidence that austerity works, conveniently ignoring the fact that so many young people have left the country.)

    Yet the media here and in Germany (not sure about the other countries) are not willing to inform the public that austerity when demand is down has never worked or that tax cuts have never paid for themselves. Corporate ownership of the media, faux balance, ignorance, fear on the part of journalists? Maybe all of the above. But whatever the reason no democracy can survive without a well informed citizenry. The media is failing at its job.

    1. browninghipower April 27, 2015

      Well said!

    2. johninPCFL April 27, 2015

      As recently as 1978 in America austerity during a strong recession was tried (for those who don’t believe the austerity in 1930 was enough) and failed miserably. Austerity continued through the first two years of Reagan’s presidency and the recession continued until he began borrowing and spending like crazy, exceeding his budgets by hundreds of $billions and the economy slowly recovered. It was the era of B1 bombers and $700 hammers and $1200 toilet seats and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and IranContra and “Star Wars”, but the economy recovered sufficiently for GHWB to be elected. Reagan added $4T to Carter’s $400B national debt total, mostly in military (over)spending, but he kept it invisible by never showing military costs in his budgets.

      GHWB wisely raised taxes to begin to cover Reagan’s spending binge, and was defeated for doing so. He added $1T to the national debt during his four years, mostly by continuing Reagan’s military buildup. Clinton raised taxes again to cover Reagan’s spending binge, and the economy was doing well enough that he paid no penalty for it. Since he also kept military spending out of his budgets (a practice started by “Borrow and Spend Reagan”) he showed a budget surplus (but he still added $1T to the national debt.)

      Austerity was eliminated by Reagan (who famously stated “deficits don’t matter”). Those who today claim to be “Reagan Republicans” remember the stand against gays and totally forget the “borrow and spend” freewheeling drunken orgies of money flow to the military industrial complex from that time.

      1. hicusdicus April 27, 2015

        Okay you have said it. Now what?

        1. johninPCFL April 28, 2015

          Be responsible. GHWB did it. Either raise taxes to pay for what Congress has bought, or cut spending in the military until the taxes we submit today pay for we need.

          Since SS and Medicare are paid-in services, and since the entire Federal expense is about 12% of the budget (Congress, the FBI, all of the court system, the marshals, etc.), the only reasonable place to cut is the military. Start by eliminating planes that cost $3B each, then move to aircraft carriers that aren’t needed, the next class of ballistic missile subs (who will we shoot out nukes at from a sub now?) then on to the nukes themselves. When we get out military costs “down” to “only” $400B per year we can decide what comes next.

          1. hicusdicus April 28, 2015

            I take it you don’t like the military. As long as those subs are on patrol other hostile countries will think twice before shooting at us. You are right about too much money is going for military hardware that is obsolete. With out a military that is feared the colors on our flag will change. Have you been keeping up with all the medicare, welfare and subsidy fraud it is in the billions. Why don’t we work on that first. At least the military spending furnishes some pay checks for families. What irritates me is that a 150,000 dollar missile will take out a 3 billion dollar airplane. What is the point of the airplane?

          2. johninPCFL April 28, 2015

            George Washington was vehemently opposed to a standing army and “foreign entanglements”, and the Constitution calls for no army appropriations bills of duration longer than two years. I see the need for a standing army, but ours currently costs about $1MM for each man in it, nearly $1T per year. In my lifetime of paying taxes, I’ve probably paid for one soldier. Responsible citizenship says we pay for what we get, which means my tax rate is far too low. What do you think?

            Six-sigma quality programs teach businesses to work on the most resource-intensive programs first to achieve the best return-on-investment. The largest programs in Federal spending are: Social Security, Medicare, Military. Social Security should certainly be examined, but it is not paid from income taxes. Medicare should certainly be examined but it is not paid from income taxes. Military spending is nearly as expensive as Social Security, and it IS paid for from income taxes. If you want to cut the income tax rate (or other general revenue tax rate) for the wealthy and want to reduce government expenditures to pay for it, the military is the six-sigma target for examination. That’s the business explanation for why we don’t “work on that first”: it is less efficient to do so; it produces less “bang-for-the-buck”.

            As to the other points you make: since “those subs” launch missiles with multiply-targeted thermonuclear payloads, how many countries in the world do you think are targeted with a MIRV payload? My guess, two. We currently have 10 Ohios, each with 24 Trident missiles, each missile carrying 10 to 16 thermonuclear warheads, plus another 4 Ohios carrying 24 land-attack missiles. How many thermonuclear warheads does it take to make Russia and China NOT start a war somewhere? Each of those subs cost about $4B, plus another $10B worth of warheads (each.)

            All of the medicare, etc. waste is estimated to have cost less than $20B over the last DECADE. We currently have 10 Nimitz-class carriers that cost over $5B each. Next year is the first delivery of the Ford-class carrier ($8.5B estimated cost), and we have two of those on order. Now add in the air wings at about $300MM each. Plus, each carrier costs close to $2B per year to operate. Do we really need to put a nuclear carrier in every puddle around the world? We spend more PER YEAR operating carriers than the estimated waste in the programs you mentioned generated in a decade.

            Finally, when did the military become the favorite GOP “stimulus”? It’s OK to take my tax money and send it to General Dynamics, Boeing, or Lockheed to buy planes or ships we’ll never need, but completely Satanic to send it back to my state to subsidize the insurance that keeps a poor person from having a $250,000 hospital bill for kidney or heart failure? Are we in fact the world’s policeman?

          3. Independent1 April 29, 2015

            For those who don’t really have an idea of what one of the subs you mentioned can do, here’s the link to a video of the Pennsylvania doing its thing:


          4. johninPCFL April 29, 2015

            Many thanks. My brother served on an LA-class attack sub for a decade. The sub-service motto: there are two kinds of ships: submarines and targets.

            Most people think that the weapons on the boomers are missiles with Hiroshima-sized payloads. The thermonuclear weapons on the Ohio-class subs are each megaton or better, about 50 times the power of Little Boy or Fat Man, and each target normally get two devices to assure destruction.

      2. Theodora30 April 28, 2015

        But the question is why people are able to forget that Reagan blew up our debt and my answer is that the so-called liberal media never tells them even though it was his tax cutting that was largely to blame and Republicans are still allowed to get away with saying tax cuts pay for themselves. The media is more than willing to report on our debt/deficits, Simpson Bowles, SS supposedly going bankrupts, etc. but they let the tax cut lie stand. They parrot the corporate line. (BTW I think it was Cheney who said they Reagan proves deficits don’t matter. Reagan never acknowledged his budget busting as I recall.)

        The public needs to understand these basic kinds of facts to make informed choices and our media does not give us that information. Ignorance, faux balance, fear of push back from conservatives, all of the above? Whatever it is it is destroying our democracy.

  3. Eleanore Whitaker April 27, 2015

    It isn’t unraveling. It’s evolving. The reality is that world history proves that no minority of 1% in government ever lasts forever. That kind of financial dictatorship imposes the kind of mindless austerity on the masses who get so fed up they are willing to take down those who imposed it on them.

    In the US, the most self-destructive are also the most greedy. They literally have come to believe in the limitlessness of their wealth. Now, seriously. We know that wealth is not now nor ever will be limitless since few things in this life ever are.

    So while the greedy keep their beaks to the ground sniffing for the last dimes, they are also chipping away at the foundation of why they became wealthy in the first place: a democracy that was based on a united motivation for prosperity for all.

    The day Bush took office, the door to hell opened wide. It was viewed by the most money hungry as the opportunity they’d been looking for since their greedy grandpappies were making under the table Robber Baron deals.

    1. hicusdicus April 27, 2015

      So! Whats new? What are your plans? Do you really think there is a difference between the rich liberals and the rich conservatives? The rich have bought the best brains in the world to tell them how to best squeeze us peasants and make us smile about it. They have worked you real good but I am sure you are starting to figure that out. What ever you are you are not stupid.

      1. Eleanore Whitaker April 28, 2015

        I have more than 3 decades of experience working with CEOs from small business to 2 Fortune 50 CEOs, one a Senator, and the other an International CEO on the Bd. of Dirs.

        I know how they think. When you work with these guys (all but one was a guy), five days a week for years, you are told as their executive assistant, you must anticipate their needs. This means out-thinking them and what they are about to do or think.

        Staying ahead of them is the rule. You learn to adapt to a mentality that plays a bizarre kind of game wherein, you the assistant, and they, the honchos, are actually in competition. It is never out of the realm of possibility that the assistant is the mastermind of many CEOs ideas. Although, you never ever get credit for it.

        I think that something very wrong has happened in the US that ironically began during the Clinton years of prosperity when money flowed all too easily. Those who already had a jump start on wealth via inheritances, were quickly catapulted into obscene wealth and all they had to do was play the Stock Market like gamblers in the decades to follow.

        In order to support a gambling addiction, money has to be freely accessible. Where it comes from matters little in the mind of a gambling addict. Now you know why every possible source of money that’s piling up in SS, Medicare and Medicaid is making the rich salivate like thirsty pigs to get at it.

        If my years working with rich CEOs and their minions is an example, it’s always short lived. For one reason, they are not immortals nor gods. They are just men who make as many life mistakes as all humans do. I’m recalling here one very arrogant CEO I worked with who thought pointing and delegating was “work” until someone else wanted his fat salary. Zip zip zip …he was gone the minute the back room door to the executive board room meeting closed.

        If I am anything, I’m a sadder but wiser and far more cynical woman when it comes to men in business and their silly machinations of grandeur. It only took 68 years to reach this plateau. And, if I had it to do over, I’d live on a remote island rather than have to stand by and watch super egotists on power drunks topple all that is good and right.

        The reality is that when you squeeze the heart once too often, all the blood is gone and you create a massive blockage you shouldn’t have but for foolish judgment.

        This is what the GOP is doing right now. They call elections “business” and think government is a corporation. Is it? Or, are they still really at the mercy of the masses, whom they are certain are not going to endure millenniums of mindless poverty so 1% can live out their lives in endless wealth.

        1. hicusdicus April 28, 2015

          Okay I agree. Except the rich think government is just a big game, what party their affiliated with does not matter. We of the masses are all on our own. One of the problems is the masses are getting to big and they are getting unruly . I do believe it will eventually collapse world wide and if their is any body left the whole structure of society will change. I am uneducated and have no real skills except for acquiring money. Its called blind luck. I don’t have much longer to live and I don’t believe in an after life so I really don’t care. There are only two things in this life that will get me to Throw the bolt into battery and that is child and animal abuse. I can’t personally do anything for the children but I can personally rescue animals so that is what I do. My estate will dispense over a million dollars to animal sanctuaries. That will be my contribution to this battered planet. One of the things that has been a bright spot in my end of days is giving you a hard time. I hope you harbor no ill will, you are a fine and accomplished person. .One more thing, thank god for spell check.

          1. Eleanore Whitaker April 29, 2015

            It’s my belief that all forms of government eventually evolve. Ours is the product of the British governmental template which has been in existence for centuries. Yet, even the Brits had to face the reality that a monarchy was passe. Today, they are far more in line with the style of democracy of the US government than their original style.

            All of us contribute to this life in some small (or large) way as is our ability to do so.

            I came from a poor immigrant farm family who scratched for a living. I often believe that before we are born, our fates are already before. Just my opinion.

          2. hicusdicus April 29, 2015

            There is a possibility that Islam’s design on world domination, the rich and super rich’s greed , lack of empathy for us commoners and the average person’s lack of knowledge the world may see an upheaval that could take more than a century to recover from, if ever.Just my opinion.

          3. Eleanore Whitaker April 30, 2015

            I don’t worry about Islam. I believe their backward ways isn’t a natural force of progress for any civilized nation. The super rich and rich don’t stay that way. They are never infallible. In fact, when you have it “all,” you have the most to lose. Think about this. Is Wall Street today the Wall Street it was intended to be? The only product Wall Street really trades today is bulling and selling businesses. The elephant in the room is that no economy survives when no one is investing IN businesses and their products. This strikes at the very heart of why Wall Street was established…to allow Americans to invest in businesses they believed in and in their products. How is a “For Sale” sign on every US business remotely a “product?”

            When the US government began to privatize, they opened the door to the vulture venture capitalists whose only business is buying and selling businesses. You can see why Wall Street has evolved to a huge out of control gambling arena where small and start up businesses are always prey for these voracious gamblers.

          4. hicusdicus April 30, 2015

            I agree with you about wall street and the super rich. Islam I don’t, The havoc and chaos they could inflict on the world could bring down the global financial system. They don’t care about money and life is not precious to them except for the Emans and their bomb makers. The super rich will screw over every body on their descent to oblivion. The politicians will do or say whatever is necessary to keep their jobs. There is not a dem or repb who would not switch sides if the money was right. If you are 69 and I am 79 what do we care? Just sit back and watch the fireworks. I will bring the popcorn.

          5. Eleanore Whitaker May 1, 2015

            I hadn’t considered the aspect of Islam and their bringing down the global financial system. Actually, before that happens, the IMF is more likely to do just that. I had an article to write some years back about the Ottoman Empire. The historical research was quite interesting. For many centuries, the Ottomans were the ruling civilization in the Middle East, obliterating everything in their paths, according to several of the historical references I’ve read. Then, suddenly at the end of the 1800s, the Ottomans disappeared from view and are today extinct. These were some of the most powerful and richest rulers in the world in their eras. Yet, once other countries began to supply the goods the Ottomans had been, their power dwindled. I’m not sure what this is a representation of in terms of reduction of power related to Islam. But, the Ottomans were Moslems with a vengeance and sought to destroy Christianity from their earliest days. Maybe I have a conspirator’s mentality. But, I do believe that Islam has less to do with the agression of ISIS than it does religion. Like you, I won’t be here to see how this ends.

          6. Buzzi Butt May 3, 2015

            The Ottoman empire actually ended with WW1. Turkey the the vestige remains of the empire. It’s decline started in the 1500’s primarily due to bad leadership and concurrent strengthening of it’s neighbors.

          7. Eleanore Whitaker May 3, 2015

            Wasn’t it Attaturk who was the leader from the late 1880s up to WWI? I discovered this when I was writing a historical fiction novel about the Gypsies of the 1600s, which included the enslavement of same under the Ottoman Rule.

            But, thank you for pointing this out. It just goes to show that even a multi-millennial empire falls when leadership is bad.

          8. Buzzi Butt May 5, 2015

            When you are the top the only option left is to go down. While at the top, one is fair game for all to criticize, attack and destroy. This applies across the board to governments, religions, or corporations.

          9. Eleanore Whitaker May 5, 2015

            I so agree. What I’ve never understood about the men in power I’ve worked with was why, when they reach their goals, was it necessary to go all neurotic with those who were their chief allies? Chris Christie is a prime example of this. First, he was a Bush appointed US Attorney with the Justice Dept. Then, he becomes governor of NJ and it all goes down hill from there.

            Et tu? Brutus?

          10. Buzzi Butt May 9, 2015

            Women at the top don’t behave any better.

  4. FT66 April 27, 2015

    To me the word “democracy” is no longer a good thing as it has been over-used or misused by some. Here is examples: Too much democracy: whereas people are nowadays talking like crazy and with no limit in the name of free speech or rather using their democracy. Too little democracy, whereas everyone has to exercise their right to vote, but there are some who are working so hard to put heavy blocks so that they can’t vote. Or where one has to decide who they love or what to do to their own body and some are against them. In order democracy to function well, there must be a limit of it where:no one can go above or below it.

  5. charleo1 April 27, 2015

    I don’t believe there’s any doubts about democracy being under assault across the Globe. And it’s actually not all that complicated, when one considers a chilling fact that was reveled in Davos Switzerland, just a couple of years ago. That 79 individuals now control more of the Planet’s wealth, than the bottom 3.5 billion people combined. And if wealth is power, and who doubts that equation? Is it any surprise the unprecedented vast majority of it, being held in the hands of such an infinitesimally small group, makes them relative Gods, dictators, kingmakers, tyrants, benevolent rulers, or whatever they choose to be? And we should also realize, most are not big fans of Jeffersonian types of democracies. Nor are democracies doing all that especially well in this emerging global economy. Where giant multi-national conglomerates are Kings. And may shop the World pitting Nation against Nation, for the cheapest labor, the lowest taxes. and the most accommodating governments. From a World starved, some truly starving, and all literally begging for their favor. Add to this frightening turn of events, the rapid advances in technology, automation, an under skilled labor force, and the comparative sluggishness of democracies that require consensus, and plurality. As opposed to the advantages of smaller, more easily managed, nimble dictatorial regimes, with their malleable workforces, and huge emerging economies. And you see at least part of the terrifying problem confronting our World, as we’ve come to know it. And the power of the titanic forces set to reshape it in the just the next few decades, simply cannot be overstated. If strategies aren’t found to mitigate some of these coming horrendous cost to American labor, American democracy, and indeed, democracy itself, Worldwide. The possibility of wiping out 200 years of civic progress, human Rights, and individual freedoms, is a slam dunk, certainty.

  6. Xenophon April 27, 2015

    The economist had a very good article last year about what’s happening with democracies in the western world. http://www.economist.com/news/essays/21596796-democracy-was-most-successful-political-idea-20th-century-why-has-it-run-trouble-and-what-can-be-do

  7. howa4x April 27, 2015

    The major issue is the rise of information technology where what took days to find out now takes and instant, so a shooting by police travels around the world in seconds. Also there are more blogs today that are written by partisans, one issue people, and cynical groups. The public is overwhelmed by information from all sides, of all issues.
    we are seeing the old order collapsing because of this. The Green movement in Iran was made possible by Facebook and other social media as well as the Arab spring. ISIS uses social media to recruit on a worldwide basis, not just from the area of conflict. People have the ability to influence movement that arte halfway around the world.
    Technology is basically neuter but has one characteristic which is to breakdown existing institutions. The printing press enabled people to start a whole new religion, and today televangelists get the message out to millions. No longer can governments hide since some blogger will get the information. Look at WikiLeaks and how it got out reams of secret documents. All this does is erode confidence in public officials who operate in an older universe of set precepts. People see government as elongated silos that don’t communicate. We live in a country with 4 levels of government so problems seem more and more unsolvable. All this creates a mistrust of anyone in power since nothing ever changes. Those who influence now do it brazenly since we all accept this corruption as a way of life. Democracy ended a while ago. We are just noticing now.

  8. Frank KIng April 28, 2015

    America is having convulsions–politically, a dysfunctional government, economically, a system that is failing the middle class, socially, a nation in turmoil. Our history is replete with upheaval, recessions/depressions, war, and discontent that makes any period in our past look like the end of Democracy or representative government. Are the elements of our discontent and divisiveness today enough to lead to our ultimate decline as a functioning and productive,efficient nation. It appears that America may be on a path to accomplish just that.


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