Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Opinion | What Republicans and Democrats are missing about threats to democracy

Opinion | What Republicans and Democrats are missing about threats to democracy

Political scientists are finally getting a better handle on how modern democratic systems can break down. But the best research doesn’t support the self-serving account the Western establishment has been offering since the Brexit and Donald Trump shocks of 2016.

Populations can’t be divided into camps of voters who favor democracy and voters who favor autocracy, as convenient and clarifying as that would be. Liberal democracy is a system of government that can work when there is a certain degree of trust between political factions. When that trust erodes, some nondemocratic form of government is the default alternative, even if the overwhelming majority of citizens would prefer democracy in the abstract.

A high-quality study published recently in the journal Nature Human Behaviour helps illustrate this paradox. The authors — academics from the University of California at Berkeley and MIT — presented Republicans and Democrats with seven scenarios to measure their commitment to democratic norms. The scenarios included “banning rallies, ignoring controversial court rulings” and “freezing the social media accounts of journalists” to favor their party.

Republican respondents said they were willing to subvert democratic norms in an average of 1.2 scenarios out of seven; for Democrats, that figure was 1.5.

But when partisans were asked how the other party would behave in each scenario, they gave much higher figures. Republicans thought most Democrats would subvert democracy in 5.0 of seven scenarios, while Democrats thought Republicans would do the same, on average, in 5.2 scenarios.

The authors identify “a strong linear relationship between perceptions of the other side’s willingness to subvert democracy and partisans’ own willingness to do so.” In other words, Republicans might countenance authoritarian behavior because they expect such behavior from Democrats, and vice versa.

In another experiment, the researchers told people how members of the other party actually responded to the scenarios. That is, they showed Democrats and Republicans that self-reported intentions to subvert democracy by members of the opposing party were relatively low. That informational “intervention” reduced Democrats’ and Republicans’ own self-reported willingness to subvert democratic norms by 29 percent. The average number of scenarios in which respondents said they would “never” subvert democratic norms rose to 4.7 out of seven from 3.5.

For the authors, this is cause for optimism. It suggests that the threat to American democracy arises, at least in part, from bad information: People overestimate the threat to democracy from the other tribe and are more willing to defensively subvert democratic norms as a result. Think of a run on a bank: Investors who think others are about to withdraw deposits will also be more likely to withdraw their own.

How could these insights play out in real politics? The authors give an example: “The rhetoric from Democrats and third-party observers has understandably focused on the risk posed to democracy by illiberal components of the Republican Party, especially with Trump formally running in the 2024 election. Our work suggests an additional and counterintuitive strategy: focus on convincing everyday Republicans of Democrats’ unwavering commitment to democracy. Doing so would probably require a concerted messaging campaign and credible demonstrations of this commitment, such as third-party guarantees or costly signals of good faith.”

That would be a massive undertaking, especially because the parties’ definitions of democracy are so wildly at odds. Democrats might think that racially gerrymandered congressional districts are necessary to ensure representation for minorities, while some Republicans think such classifications are anathema to democratic principles. Many Democrats believe that blocking “misinformation” makes democratic choice possible, while Republicans believe Democrats want to censor ideas for political advantage.

Moreover, democracy is fueled by hyperbole. Exaggerated accounts of the other side’s propensity to abuse its power mobilize voters and help win elections. Free political competition can reward just the type of rhetoric that distorts voter perceptions about the opposing party — and reduces support for the guardrails needed to sustain free political competition in the first place.

All this helps show why the “democracy vs. autocracy” framing that has become popular among American elites doesn’t reflect the actual challenge to self-government in the 21st century. People who champion democracy can easily persuade themselves to undermine it if they think the other side is prepared to do the same. To the extent that there is a risk of authoritarianism in the United States, it doesn’t come from hostility to democracy. It comes from Americans’ deepening attachment to democracy, and their growing fear that it will be taken away.

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