A reply to Foa and Mounk (2017)

Note: I wrote this several months ago. It might as well live here.

Rejecting democracy or calling for change?

To the Editor:

In the January 2017 issue of the Journal of Democracy, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk gave “warning signs” of democracy’s collapse (“The Signs of Deconsolidation,” pp. 5-15). They noted how one quarter of young Americans think democracy is a “bad” way to run a country, one quarter of all Americans want “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections,” and 46 percent “either ‘never had’ or had ‘lost’ faith in U.S. democracy.” To be sure, these data points are alarming.

What is less clear, however, is why support for democracy has waned. This may have to do with how the authors have conceived of democracy. Foa and Mounk take what political scientists call the “procedural view,” which casts democracy in terms of rights and elections. Another tradition takes a “substantive view,” which shifts the emphasis to participation. In substantive democracy, the idea is that government should respond to demands as they arise.

Consider another recent data point. According to an 8,000-person YouGov survey taken in August 2016, more than 80 percent agreed with the following statement: “Elites in this country don’t understand the problems I am facing.” This proportion was remarkably stable across ages, genders, racial and ethnic categories, levels of educational attainment, party identification, vote choice in November 2016, and barely less so, vote choice in the primaries that came before.

Foa and Mounk are right to show that support for procedural democracy is weak. Procedural democracy has two subtypes, and the data point to dissatisfaction with each. On one view, democracy is no more than choice between parties, whose policy agendas have been set by elites. For thinkers in that camp, see the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter or, in this country, Elmer E. Schattschnieider. On another view, best associated with Robert A. Dahl, democracy also needs constitutional rights. Without these, there is no space for opposition to form — no way for organized groups to say “no!”

Now consider the data once more. According to Foa and Mounk, one quarter want a leader who can act without Congress’ consent. That sounds like rejection of groups who block policy, of Robert Dahl’s rights-based view of procedure. And 80 percent think “elites” are out-of-touch with them. Might “elites” be those who set the agenda, per Schattschneider’s take on choice between parties?

The lingering question is what young people meant in 2011, when one quarter said that democracy was “bad.” Had they been thinking in procedural terms? Or had they been making a point about policy?

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