Mellman: The Democratic deficits
American leaders often speak as if our country is the world’s prime exemplar, and prime proponent, of democracy. The public differs.
Today, in the minds of our citizens (ignoring, for the moment, our government’s actions), America suffers from a democratic deficit.
We can see and measure that deficit in multiple ways:
• The number of Americans who think the country is being governed democratically shrunk in recent years.
• Citizens of other countries are more likely than we are to believe they are being governed democratically.
• We voice lower levels of commitment to democracy than some other nations.
• Political arrangements other than democracy enjoy significant support from the American public.
In a survey our firm conducted this summer, we asked respondents how democratically the county was being governed on a 10-point scale, with 10 signifying it was “completely democratic” and 1 “not at all democratic.”
Adding together the higher end of the scale (7s, 8s, 9s and 10s), just 38 percent of Americans were convinced that the U.S. is behaving as a democracy.
When the same question was posed in 2011 by the World Values Survey, 51 percent gave us those same, higher marks for democratic governance — a 13-point decline in less than a decade and a 7-point decline in just the three years since the question was last put.
Compare our current 38 percent to 55 percent of those in the United Kingdom who believe that country is being governed democratically, or to the 90 percent of Danes, 83 percent of Swedes, 76 percent of Germans, 68 percent of Dutch, and 63 percent of Japanese who believe their countries are operating democracies.
Americans are far less convinced of our country’s democratic credentials than the citizens of many of our fellow democracies.
We do rank 5 points above Russia, where 33 percent think Trump ally and authoritarian, Vladimir Putin, sits astride a democracy.
The good news is that we seem to value democracy more highly than in the recent past. In our survey, 58 percent rated the importance of living in a democracy a 10 (“absolutely important”) compared to 49 percent three years ago in the World Values Surveys.
Nonetheless, non-democratic tendencies also enjoy considerable support.
In response to a different question we posed, 51 percent (just 51 percent) of Americans said it would be “very good” to have a democratic system governing the U.S. Compare that to 83 percent of Swedes, 82 percent of Greeks, 76 percent of Danes, 71 percent of Germans, and 60 percent of U.K. citizens who see democracy as highly desirable.
Here, some division emerges between the supporters of the two presidential campaigns, with 59 percent of Joe Biden’s voters, but a lesser 43 percent of President Trump’s supporters, fully committed to a democratic system.
Moreover, 68 percent of Americans thought having a “strong leader” would be a very good “political system … for governing this country.” Here a 20-point difference emerged between Trump and Biden voters, with the president’s backers more likely to support a strong leader.
A strong leader is not inherently inconsistent with democracy. But the fact that more Americans endorse governance by a strong leader than by democracy should be troubling.
Only 36 percent identified another non-democratic system — rule by experts — as a very good system for running the country. Not surprisingly, given Trump’s denigration of expert opinion, here Biden voters were 30 points more likely to endorse the non-democratic alternative.
Of course, there is everything right about listening to experts, but an oligarchic technocracy is not a democracy. Experts advise; the people, or their elected representatives, decide.
In short, America is feeling less and less like a democracy to its own citizens, who themselves are willing to countenance, and even endorse, less than democratic forms of government. We see ourselves as less democratic than citizens elsewhere see their governments and we profess less commitment to the cause of democracy than those in some other countries.
Election Day will provide more evidence about just how willing we are to live with our democratic deficits.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.