2019-09-11 23:50:03 UTC
The Shocking Paper Predicting the End of Democracy
Human brains aren’t built for self-rule, says Shawn Rosenberg. That’s
more evident than ever.
By RICK SHENKMAN September 08, 2019
Rick Shenkman, founder of George Washington University’s History News
Network, is the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain
Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books).
Everything was unfolding as it usually does. The academics who gathered
in Lisbon this summer for the International Society of Political
Psychologists’ annual meeting had been politely listening for four days,
nodding along as their peers took to the podium and delivered papers on
everything from the explosion in conspiracy theories to the rise of
Then, the mood changed. As one of the lions of the profession,
68-year-old Shawn Rosenberg, began delivering his paper, people in the
crowd of about a hundred started shifting in their seats. They loudly
whispered objections to their friends. Three women seated next to me
near the back row grew so loud and heated I had difficulty hearing for a
moment what Rosenberg was saying.
What caused the stir? Rosenberg, a professor at UC Irvine, was
challenging a core assumption about America and the West. His theory?
Democracy is devouring itself—his phrase — and it won’t last.
As much as President Donald Trump’s liberal critics might want to lay
America’s ills at his door, Rosenberg says the president is not the
cause of democracy’s fall—even if Trump’s successful anti-immigrant
populist campaign may have been a symptom of democracy’s decline.
We’re to blame, said Rosenberg. As in “we the people.”
Democracy is hard work. And as society’s “elites”—experts and public
figures who help those around them navigate the heavy responsibilities
that come with self-rule—have increasingly been sidelined, citizens have
proved ill equipped cognitively and emotionally to run a
well-functioning democracy. As a consequence, the center has collapsed
and millions of frustrated and angst-filled voters have turned in
desperation to right-wing populists.
His prediction? “In well-established democracies like the United States,
democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will
The last half of the 20th century was the golden age of democracy. In
1945, according to one survey, there were just 12 democracies in the
entire world. By the end of the century there were 87. But then came the
great reversal: In the second decade of the 21st century, the shift to
democracy rather suddenly and ominously stopped—and reversed.
Right-wing populist politicians have taken power or threatened to in
Poland, Hungary, France, Britain, Italy, Brazil and the United States.
As Rosenberg notes, “by some metrics, the right wing populist share of
the popular vote in Europe overall has more than tripled from 4% in 1998
to approximately 13% in 2018.” In Germany, the right-wing populist vote
increased even after the end of the Great Recession and after an influx
of immigrants entering the country subsided.
A brief three decades after some had heralded the “end of history” it’s
possible that it’s democracy that’s nearing the end. And it’s not just
populist rabble-rousers who are saying this. So is one of the
establishment’s pioneer social scientists, who’s daring to actually
predict the end of democracy as we know it.
Rosenberg, who earned degrees at Yale, Oxford and Harvard, may be the
social scientist for our time if events play out as he suggests they
will. His theory is that over the next few decades, the number of large
Western-style democracies around the globe will continue to shrink, and
those that remain will become shells of themselves. Taking democracy’s
place, Rosenberg says, will be right-wing populist governments that
offer voters simple answers to complicated questions.
And therein lies the core of his argument: Democracy is hard work and
requires a lot from those who participate in it. It requires people to
respect those with different views from theirs and people who don’t look
like them. It asks citizens to be able to sift through large amounts of
information and process the good from the bad, the true from the false.
It requires thoughtfulness, discipline and logic.
Unfortunately, evolution did not favor the exercise of these qualities
in the context of a modern mass democracy. Citing reams of psychological
research, findings that by now have become more or less familiar,
Rosenberg makes his case that human beings don’t think straight. Biases
of various kinds skew our brains at the most fundamental level. For
example, racism is easily triggered unconsciously in whites by a picture
of a black man wearing a hoodie. We discount evidence when it doesn’t
square up with our goals while we embrace information that confirms our
biases. Sometimes hearing we’re wrong makes us double down. And so on
and so forth.
Our brains, says Rosenberg, are proving fatal to modern democracy.
Humans just aren’t built for it.
People have been saying for two millennia that democracy is unworkable,
going back to Plato. The Founding Fathers were sufficiently worried that
they left only one half of one branch of the federal government in the
hands of the people. And yet for two centuries democracy in America more
or less proceeded apace without blowing itself up.
So why is Rosenberg, who made his name back in the 1980s with a study
that disturbingly showed that many voters select candidates on the basis
of their looks, predicting the end of democracy now?
He has concluded that the reason for right-wing populists’ recent
success is that “elites” are losing control of the institutions that
have traditionally saved people from their most undemocratic impulses.
When people are left to make political decisions on their own they drift
toward the simple solutions right-wing populists worldwide offer: a
deadly mix of xenophobia, racism and authoritarianism.
The elites, as Rosenberg defines them, are the people holding power at
the top of the economic, political and intellectual pyramid who have
“the motivation to support democratic culture and institutions and the
power to do so effectively.” In their roles as senators, journalists,
professors, judges and government administrators, to name a few, the
elites have traditionally held sway over public discourse and U.S.
institutions—and have in that role helped the populace understand the
importance democratic values. But today that is changing. Thanks to
social media and new technologies, anyone with access to the Internet
can publish a blog and garner attention for their cause—even if it’s
rooted in conspiracy and is based on a false claim, like the lie that
Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring from the basement of a
Washington D.C. pizza parlor, which ended in a shooting.
While the elites formerly might have successfully squashed conspiracy
theories and called out populists for their inconsistencies, today fewer
and fewer citizens take the elites seriously. Now that people get their
news from social media rather than from established newspapers or the
old three TV news networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), fake news proliferates.
It’s surmised that 10 million people saw on Facebook the false claim
that Pope Francis came out in favor of Trump’s election in 2016. Living
in a news bubble of their own making many undoubtedly believed it. (This
was the most-shared news story on Facebook in the three months leading
up to the 2016 election, researchers report.)
The irony is that more democracy—ushered in by social media and the
Internet, where information flows more freely than ever before—is what
has unmoored our politics, and is leading us towards authoritarianism.
Rosenberg argues that the elites have traditionally prevented society
from becoming a totally unfettered democracy; their “oligarchic
‘democratic’ authority” or “democratic control” has until now kept the
authoritarian impulses of the populace in check.
Compared with the harsh demands made by democracy, which requires a
tolerance for compromise and diversity, right-wing populism is like
cotton candy. Whereas democracy requires us to accept the fact that we
have to share our country with people who think and look differently
than we do, right-wing populism offers a quick sugar high. Forget
political correctness. You can feel exactly the way you really want
about people who belong to other tribes.
Right-wing populists don’t have to make much sense. They can
simultaneously blame immigrants for taking jobs away from Americans
while claiming that these same people are lazy layabouts sponging off
welfare. All the populist followers care is that they now have an enemy
to blame for their feelings of ennui.
And unlike democracy, which makes many demands, the populists make just
one. They insist that people be loyal. Loyalty entails surrendering to
the populist nationalist vision. But this is less a burden than an
advantage. It’s easier to pledge allegiance to an authoritarian leader
than to do the hard work of thinking for yourself demanded by democracy.
“In sum, the majority of Americans are generally unable to understand or
value democratic culture, institutions, practices or citizenship in the
manner required,” Rosenberg has concluded. “To the degree to which they
are required to do so, they will interpret what is demanded of them in
distorting and inadequate ways. As a result they will interact and
communicate in ways that undermine the functioning of democratic
institutions and the meaning of democratic practices and values.”
I should clarify that the loud whispers in the crowd in Lisbon weren’t a
response to Rosenberg’s pessimism. This was after all a meeting of
political psychologists—a group who focus on flaws in voters’ thinking
and the violation of democratic norms. At the conference Ariel Malka
reported evidence that conservatives are increasingly open to
authoritarianism. Brian Shaffer related statistics showing that since
Trump’s election teachers have noted a rise in bullying. Andreas Zick
observed that racist crimes shot up dramatically in Germany after a
million immigrants were allowed in.
What stirred the crowd was that Rosenberg has gone beyond pessimism into
outright defeatism. What riled the crowd was that he’s seemingly
embraced a kind of reverence for elitism no longer fashionable in the
academy. When challenged on this front, he quickly insisted he didn’t
mean to exempt himself from the claim that people suffer from cognitive
and emotional limitations. He conceded that the psychological research
shows everybody’s irrational, professors included! But it was unclear
that he convinced the members of the audience he really meant it. And
they apparently found this discomforting.
There were less discomforting moments in Lisbon. The convention gave an
award to George Marcus, one of the founders of the discipline, who has
dedicated his career to the optimistic theory that human beings by
nature readjust their ideas to match the world as it is and not as
they’d like it to be—just as democracy requires.
But this isn’t a moment for optimism, is it? What is happening around
the world shows that the far-right is on the march. And when it comes to
the U.S., the problem might be larger than one man. Liberals have been
praying for the end of the Trump presidency, but if Rosenberg is right,
democracy will remain under threat no matter who is in power.
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This article tagged under:
Democracy Donald Trump Voting
If in a democracy the people elect populists, right or left, does it
cease to be a democracy?
The Roosevelts: Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor were all populists.
Populist: a person, especially a politician, who strives to appeal to
ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by
established elite groups.
Like · Reply · 14 · 3d
Slick, but no Monica-flavored cigar for you, DemoKKKrat. No "mob" rule
for a free country!
Like · Reply · 4 · 3d
Gene Campbell have you been drinking all day?
Like · Reply · 26 · 3d
The noteworthy difference, of course, is that the ttwo presidents
Charles Kinsella names came to the role of Presodent with experience in
government and with a fund of intelligence gained from it. The present
crop promise the mob bread, circuses, and instant solutions, often to
largely non-existent problems at the expense of real ones, and often are
therefore elected. WItness the Congress of the United States.
Intelligence and experience are regarded by H. L. Mencken's Great
American Booboisie as disqualifications characterizing the detested
Rick Shenkman you don't get to create your own definitions. Populism is
a rejection by the people of a country of those who would be their
leaders when the people believe that those leaders are no longer working
for the good of the people.
Those of society’s “elites”—experts and public figures who should help
those around them navigate the heavy responsibilities that come with
self-rule have instead worked to enrich themselves at the expense of
those around them.
In 2016 both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were described as
populists. Both rejected the political norms as not working for many
people in the country and both found large groups that supported them
from the left and the right.
We live in a very wealthy country with very poor wealth distribution.
Why would the public continue to support a system where ten percent of
the people, the elite, control seventy percent if the wealth? That at
the same time that we see increasing homelessness and fewer
opportunities for upward mobility through education or employment.
In France and Russia such a concentration of wealth and power led to
revolutions. In a democracy that kind of disparity leads to populism if