By Katie Ziegler
Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, opened a session of the NCSL Legislative Effectiveness Committee by posing a chilling question: Just how stable is the U.S. system of democracy, and is it, in fact, on a pathway to unraveling?
The session, “Representative Democracy after Campaign 2016: Assessing the Impacts,” featured Mounk’s political science research and a discussion with North Carolina state Senator Dan Blue (D) and Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos (R).
State legislators, Mounk cautioned, would do well to pay close attention to the strength of the political system in the coming years, and put aside partisan differences when necessary to protect the system as a whole.
Mounk explained three indicators of whether a democracy may be on the way to deconsolidating, or breaking down.
- First, overall support for democracy as a regime form.
- Second, openness to authoritarian alternatives to democracy.
- Third, the existence of and rise in anti-system movements.
His research shows troubling findings in the U.S. and around the world. Less than one-third of people born since 1980 describe living in a democracy as “important” or “very important.” Additionally, support for “army rule” is growing.
As for anti-system movements, Vos said the dissatisfaction among voters during the most recent campaign was higher than he’d ever experienced. “People feel like they don’t have a voice in how decisions are being made, and that leads to anger with the system.”
Liberalism and democracy have been intertwined in the U.S. and elsewhere, and it is seen as unacceptable to sacrifice either one, Mounk says. (Liberalism being broadly defined as institutional protections for civil liberties and the rights of the minority, and democracy being the system in which popular views are translated into public policy.)
But there are increasing examples of other countries sliding into illiberal democracy, in which a democratic system of lawmaking turns against protecting the rights of minorities, or into undemocratic liberalism, in which policymaking is done by the courts or the bureaucracy. There are many lessons to be teased out from the experiences of other countries in recent years.
So, is the U.S. and its democratic systems and institutions on the verge of a major shift? Mounk argued we should not take for granted that the stabilizing forces in the system are stronger than the destabilizing forces. This uncertainty, then, may be an opportunity for state legislatures and those who serve in them to restore some faith in the system.
Blue pointed to some outcomes of the election in North Carolina as signs that the populace understood and worked within the system to make the change they wanted. He and Vos agreed that NCSL provides an opportunity for legislators to have their views challenged, to foster dialogue with the other side, and to encourage pride in public service and the work of democracy.
Katie Ziegler is the program manager for the Women’s Legislative Network of NCSL.