Democracy (Re)Imagined

Chapter by Oldrich Bubak and Henry Jacek in Trivialization and Public Opinion: “Democracy (Re)Imagined begins with a brief review of opinion surveys, which, over the recent decades, indicate steady increases in the levels of mistrust of the media, skepticism of the government’s effectiveness, and the public’s antipathy toward politics. It thus continues to explore the realities and the logic behind these perspectives. What can be done to institute good governance and renew the faith in the democratic system? It is becoming evident that rather than relying on the idea of more democracy, governance for the new age is smart, bringing in people where they are most capable and engaged. Here, the focus is primarily on the United States providing an extreme case in the evolution of democratic systems and a rationale for revisiting the tenets of governance.

Earlier, we have identified some deep lapses in public discourse and alluded to a number of negative political and policy outcomes across the globe. It may thus not be a revelation that the past several decades have seen a disturbing trend apparent in the views and choices of people throughout the democratic world—a declining political confidence and trust in government. These have been observed in European nations, Canada as well as the United States, countries different in their political and social histories (Dalton 2017). Consider some numbers from a recent US poll, the 2016 Survey of American Political Culture. The survey found, for example, that 64% of the American public had little or no confidence in the federal government’s capacity to solve problems (up from 60% in 1996), while 56% believed “the government in Washington threatens the freedom of ordinary Americans.” About 88% of respondents thought “political events these days seem more like theater or entertainment than like something to be taken seriously” (up from 79% in 1996). As well, 75% of surveyed individuals thought that one cannot “believe much” the mainstream media content (Hunter and Bowman 2016). As in other countries, such numbers, consistent across polls, tell a story much different than responses collected half a century ago.

Some, unsurprised, argue citizens have always had a level of skepticism and mistrust toward their government but appreciated their regime legitimacy, a democratic capacity to exercise their will and choose a new government. However, other scholars are arriving at a more pessimistic conclusion: People have begun questioning the very foundations of their systems of government—the legitimacy of liberal democratic regimes. Foa and Mounk, for example, examined responses from three waves of cross-national surveys (1995–2014) focusing on indicators of regime legitimacy: “citizens’ express support for the system as a whole; the degree to which they support key institutions of liberal democracy, such as civil rights; their willingness to advance their political causes within the existing political system; and their openness to authoritarian alternatives such as military rule” (2016, 6). They find citizens to be not only progressively critical of their government but also “cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives” (2016, 7). The authors point out that in 2011, 24% of those born in the 1980s thought democracy 1 was a “bad” system for the US, while 26% of the same cohort believed it is unimportant 2 for people to “choose their leaders in free elections.” Also in 2011, 32% of respondents of all ages reported a preference for a “strong leader” who need not “bother with parliament and elections” (up from 24% in 1995). As well, Foa and Mounk (2016) observe a decrease in interest and participation in conventional (including voting and political party membership) and non-conventional political activities (such as participation in protests or social movement).

These responses only beckon more questions, particularly as some scholars believe that “[t]he changing values and skills of Western publics encourage a new type of assertive or engaged citizen who is skeptical about political elites and the institutions of representative democracy” (Dalton 2017, 391). In this and the next chapter, we explore the realities and the logic behind these perspectives. Is the current system working as intended? What can be done to renew the faith in government and citizenship? What can we learn from how public comes to their opinions? We focus primarily on the developments in the United States, providing an extreme case in an evolution of a democratic system and a rationale for revisiting the tenets of governance. We will begin to discern the roots of many of the above stances and see that regaining effectiveness and legitimacy in modern governance demands more than just “more democracy.” Governance for the new age is smart, bringing in citizens where they are most capable and engaged. But change will demand a proper understanding of the underlying problems and a collective awareness of the solutions. And getting there requires us to cope with trivialization….(More)”