On Nov. 29, three weeks after Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, the following chart, showing a precipitous decline in support for democracy around the world, went viral after appearing in the New York Times:
Plenty of public argument ensued about the validity of the underlying data. But there was hardly any comprehension among experts about why moral support for democracy might be eroding — in part, because there’s good reason to think that experts are themselves to blame.This is most obvious in the case of Trump, who devoted a large share of his presidential campaign not just to attacking democratic norms but also to attacking the technocratic experts who have come to symbolize democracy in the United States.
I have no sympathy for Trump’s repulsive disregard for facts, truth, and legitimate expertise. Yet he was canny in identifying how both parties’ technocratic mindset — their approaching every problem with a five-point plan designed to produce evidence-based deliverables — had left democracy vulnerable. Trump knew that if he waged a war on democratic values, the technocrats who now monopolize the country’s political elite would be incapable of fighting back.
Technocrats have always shown little interest in fights over fundamental values. Their work proceeds from the assumption that everyone — or at least all the people who truly matter — already share the same enlightened commitment to democratic values. The only debate they are concerned about is over evidence on “what works” among policy inputs to produce the desired measurable outputs, like higher wages and GDP, less poverty, less crime and terrorism, or less war.
The problem occurs when some people turn out not to share those enlightened values and insist on challenging them. Technocrats, in these situations, don’t know what to say because they can’t rely on evidence to make their case. So when technocrats are all we have to defend democracy, fights over fundamental values become embarrassingly one-sided.
Hillary Clinton was the perfect case in point, a politician so technocratic that she even embarrassed other technocrats. Her campaign website listed bullet-point plans to solve 41 different measurable problems, each one containing multiple sub-plans to solve multiple sub-problems. There was even a plan to protect the interests of dogs, cats, and horses. She almost reached the level of that reductio ad absurdum of global technocracy, the widely ridiculed United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with their 17 goals and 169 targets.
How Stable Are Democracies? ‘Warning Signs Are Flashing Red’
Amanda Taub, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2016
Yascha Mounk is used to being the most pessimistic person in the room. Mr. Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, has spent the past few years challenging one of the bedrock assumptions of Western politics: that once a country becomes a liberal democracy, it will stay that way.
His research suggests something quite different: that liberal democracies around the world may be at serious risk of decline.
Mr. Mounk’s interest in the topic began rather unusually. In 2014, he published a book, “Stranger in My Own Country.” It started as a memoir of his experiences growing up as a Jew in Germany, but became a broader investigation of how contemporary European nations were struggling to construct new, multicultural national identities.
He concluded that the effort was not going very well. A populist backlash was rising. But was that just a new kind of politics, or a symptom of something deeper?
To answer that question, Mr. Mounk teamed up with Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. They have since gathered and crunched data on the strength of liberal democracies.
Their conclusion, to be published in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, is that democracies are not as secure as people may think. Right now, Mr. Mounk said in an interview, “the warning signs are flashing red.”
Early signs of decline
Political scientists have a theory called “democratic consolidation,” which holds that once countries develop democratic institutions, a robust civil society and a certain level of wealth, their democracy is secure.
For decades, global events seemed to support that idea. Data from Freedom House, a watchdog organization that measures democracy and freedom around the world, shows that the number of countries classified as “free” rose steadily from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s. Many Latin American countries transitioned from military rule to democracy; after the end of the Cold War, much of Eastern Europe followed suit. And longstanding liberal democracies in North America, Western Europe and Australia seemed more secure than ever.
But since 2005, Freedom House’s index has shown a decline in global freedom each year. Is that a statistical anomaly, a result of a few random events in a relatively short period of time? Or does it indicate a meaningful pattern?
Mr. Mounk and Mr. Foa developed a three-factor formula to answer that question. Mr. Mounk thinks of it as an early-warning system, and it works something like a medical test: a way to detect that a democracy is ill before it develops full-blown symptoms.