Are citizens in the world’s advanced democracies still committed to democratic government? In the latest issue of The Journal of Democracy, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk consider whether there are good grounds for confidence in the durability of the world’s affluent, consolidated democracies:
At first sight, there would seem to be some reason for concern. Over the last three decades, trust in political institutions such as parliaments or the courts has precipitously declined across the established democracies of North America and Western Europe. So has voter turnout. As party identification has weakened and party membership has declined, citizens have become less willing to stick with establishment parties. Instead, voters increasingly endorse single-issue movements, vote for populist candidates, or support “antisystem” parties that define themselves in opposition to the status quo. Even in some of the richest and most politically stable regions of the world, it seems as though democracy is in a state of serious disrepair.
Even if subsequent research should show that democratic deconsolidation really is underway, this would not mean that any particular democracy would soon collapse. Nor is it obvious that the democracy that had deconsolidated
Regime change is always a matter of accident as well as intention, of historical circumstances as well as structural preconditions. But if democratic deconsolidation were proven to be in progress, it would mean that what was once unthinkable should no longer be considered outside the realm of possibility. As democracies deconsolidate, the prospect of democratic breakdown becomes increasingly likely—even in parts of the world that have long been spared such instability. If political scientists are to avoid being blindsided by the demise of established democracies in the coming decades, as they were by the fall of communism a few decades ago, they need to find out whether democratic deconsolidation is happening; to explain the possible causes of this development; to delineate its likely consequences (present and future); and to ponder the potential remedies.
Roberto Stefan Foa is a principal investigator of the World Values Survey and fellow of the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research. His writing has appeared in a wide range of journals, books, and publications by the UN, OECD, and World Bank. Yascha Mounk is a lecturer on political theory in Harvard University’s Government Department and a Carnegie Fellow at New America, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank.