Fear that democracy was losing its hold on the citizens of the great democracies of North America and Western Europe was the focus of a startling article produced by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk: The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect. The authors used data from World Values Surveys over the period 1995-2014 to demonstrate that support for democratic institutions has fallen in the United States and in Europe. In particular, they find that those born in the period when democracy was most challenged, before and during World War II, have the highest respect for democracy, but the subsequent generations lose enthusiasm for it as they are further removed from this period. This also means that younger people view living in a democracy as being less important than do older people. This change in attitude is strongest in the United States. A general discussion of their article is available here.
What is of greatest interest at this point in time is the conclusion that citizens have grown increasingly willing to accept non-democratic forms of government such as one led by the military or by a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections.” Consider this conclusion by the authors.
“In the past three decades, the share of U.S. citizens who think that it would be a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ thing for the ‘army to rule’—a patently undemocratic stance—has steadily risen. In 1995, just one in sixteen respondents agreed with that position; today, one in six agree. While those who hold this view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there have been similar increases in the number of those who favor a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections’ and those who want experts rather than the government to ‘take decisions’ for the country. Nor is the United States the only country to exhibit this trend. The proportion agreeing that it would be better to have the army rule has risen in most mature democracies, including Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.”
The authors focus on army rule as an indicator of acceptance of nondemocratic governance, but a related question on the surveys addressed the acceptance of nondemocratic rule by a “strong leader.” The answer to that question is much more relevant with Donald Trump now installed as president of the United States and acting like one who would bypass the conventions and institutions of governance to attain his goals.
The authors plot the percent of US responders to the surveys who thought it would be a good thing to have a “strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections.” The samples are divided into the top 30 percent by income and the bottom 70 percent.
The number satisfied with rule by army was stated to be one in six or about 17 percent. The number who would be satisfied with rule by a strong leader, one who doesn’t have to bother with parliament (Congress) or elections, is around 33 percent, or twice as high. According to these surveys, roughly one-in three US citizens would be willing to trade our current representative system of democracy for rule by an autocrat. Combine those people with the voters who will vote for any Republican candidate, no matter who it might be, and is it any wonder that Trump performed as well as he did in the recent election?
What is it about the state of our nation that would provoke a third of its citizens to be willing to trash its constitution and over two centuries of tradition? The authors provide simple explanations for why the rich and the non-rich might be so inclined. The poorer people will be dissatisfied with their economic status and hope that the strong leader would provide greater distribution of wealth than has been available by democratic means. The wealthy have always had a primal fear that the masses of lower income voters would create legislation that would “confiscate” more of their wealth than they were willing to part with. Consequently, they might hope for a strong leader who would protect their assets. Interestingly, Trump managed to promise each group what they wanted with neither noticing the inconsistency.
The authors provide this comment on their chart.
“If we widen the historical lens, we see that, with the exception of a brief period in the late twentieth century, democracy has usually been associated with redistributive demands by the poor and therefore regarded with skepticism by elites. The newfound aversion to democratic institutions among rich citizens in the West may be no more than a return to the historical norm.”
The rate of increase in the acceptance of autocratic rule by the upper-income groups is rather remarkable. It is unlikely that their concern about having their wealth confiscated by taxation ever really abated; one cannot return to a norm that was never discarded. Consequently, it is worth pondering other explanations for why the acceptance of autocracy has increased within the ranks of the wealthy. For example, have the wealthy progressed over the last century from being merely an outraged elite to being a powerful political force whose quest for political domination inevitably leads to autocracy? Donald Trump would provide an example of such an elite.
Isaac William Martin provided an interesting book profiling the activities of the wealthy over the past century as they attempted to influence governmental actions in such a way as to protect their assets from democratic plunder: Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent. The passage of the sixteenth amendment allowing the federal government to levy an income tax—and a progressive one at that—was viewed as a “revolutionary” development that required some sort of response. Martin tells us that this “response” has been continually under development over the years, taking different forms and applying different tactics. In particular, the emergence of the Tea Party after the 2008 election can be viewed as another phase in this strategy.
Martin begins with a description of the Tea Party demonstrations that took place on tax day, April 15, 2010. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to issue demands that were designed to assist the wealthy in becoming wealthier.
“….they united in expressing hostility toward the taxation of income and wealth. Spokespeople for the demonstrators demanded, among many other things, an end to progressive income tax rates, a permanent repeal of the estate tax, an extension of temporary income tax cuts for the richest Americans, and a constitutional amendment that would require a supermajority vote in Congress to increase any tax on anyone, for any purpose, ever. Protesters held up picket signs denouncing taxes and the redistribution of wealth. Many asserted that the government was redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, and objected that this was unfair to the rich.”
Martin informs us that earlier there was something called the “T Party.”
“In September 4, 1962, hundreds of conservative activists crowded into the Wilshire Ebell Theater in Los Angeles for a protest meeting that they called the California T Party. These protestors were unusually well-heeled and unusually radical. They were there to support a constitutional amendment that would outlaw all federal taxation of income and inherited wealth, and would further require the federal government to sell off virtually all of its assets in order to pay for a massive, one-time transfer of wealth to the richest Americans.”
This was not just a one-off event. It was hoped to be the kickoff to a powerful national movement.
“There were two more California T Parties that week, followed by a national gathering in Chicago two weeks later, at which activists from around the country met, sang protest songs, and attended workshops on grass roots organizing for income tax repeal.”
Wealthy people gathering to sing protest songs is a bit difficult to imagine today, but Martin indicates that this was not too surprising in the 1960s. The wealthy quickly learned that they could not get their way just by demanding what they wanted. Looking around for a better strategy would likely lead them to consider the success of the civil rights movement and the techniques applied there. The movements of the wealthy had to take on the tone of ones that would be of benefit to all of society rather than just to themselves.
Over time they would become more sophisticated and more politically astute in campaigning for their objectives. Eliminating the hated estate became a campaign to avoid the “death tax,” an approach that would find sympathetic response from all income levels. Lowering levels of taxation morphed into campaigns for a constitutionally imposed balanced budget amendment. Having a balanced budget requirement would seem reasonable to a large number of people with varied economic backgrounds. Nevertheless, the government budget would have to be cut when hard times hit and tax revenue fell. When better times returned, it would be easy to argue against increased spending and use any increase in revenue to retire debt or lower taxes. Who could argue against that? The net result would be that government—and its need for tax revenue— would grow progressively smaller.
One might look at these movement goals and think that the efforts were failures, but the net result was that much of their economic philosophy has been absorbed as gospel by the current version of the Republican Party. In fact, Martin claims, the lesson learned from these campaigns was that the most effective strategy for them was to take over a political party—which they did.
“Rich people’s movements have been thoroughly institutionalized and thereby tamed. Many former activists are now well entrenched in the Republican Party and its allied think tanks, and their tactics are now correspondingly oriented toward inside lobbying. Some movement goals remain unrealized only because they are nigh unachievable.”
He then leaves the reader with this warning.
“Rich people’s movements have a permanent place in the American political bestiary. As long as one of our great political parties is allied with the radical rich, it is safe to predict that rich people’s movements will continue to influence public policy in ways that preserve—and perhaps even increase—the extremes of inequality in America.”
Martin wrote before the arrival of Donald Trump on the scene. One suspects that he might recognize that the acceptance by the Republican elite of the autocratic tone of Trump’s campaign and his first weeks in office was a natural extension of the Party’s long term political evolution. Controlling a party is not an assurance of success. Having a “strong leader” willing to destroy political norms and undermine political institutions in order to get his way can appear to be much more efficient than the messiness of politics in a democracy.
The rise in acceptance of autocratic rule by the wealthy—from this perspective—is driven by the growing disappointment with the gains obtained from merely having control of one of the political parties in a democratic form of government. When Donald Trump came along, there were a lot of people willing to buy what he was selling.
We are indeed living in interesting times.
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