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  • Oren Levin-Waldman

The Greatest Threat to Democracy is Growing Public Distrust

We hear much about how “our” democracy is under attack. Trump’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election and the “insurrection” of January 6th are an attack on our democracy. Recently, Hillary Clinton claimed that if the Republicans win the midterms, it will be because they stole the election. There is no evidence that the 2020 election was stolen, but the sad thing is that so many people believe that it was. At the same time, many Democrats refused to accept the results of the 2016 election. Trump, after all, was the illegitimate president because he only won because he colluded with the Russians.


If large swaths of the population believe elections effectively to be stolen because their candidate did not win, then the threat to democracy is much greater than anybody could have imagined. Even if there was Russian collusion, there was no threat to democracy because people could still vote. Even if the 2020 election was rigged because social media along with mainstream media blocked information that might have affected voters’ choices, the voters still were able to vote. Are we supposed to believe an election was stolen because more turned out to vote than before?


Still, the question remains: why do so many people believe that elections are stolen? In other words, why is there so much distrust? Which is to say, that the greatest threat to democracy is the absence of trust. In order for democracy to succeed there needs to be trust in the political system, the integrity of our institutions, and most importantly that elections will result in the peaceful transfer of power.


For all of the talk of January 6th and insurrection amidst claims that the election was stolen, there was nonetheless a peaceful transfer of power. Calling protestors who enter the Capital insurrectionists does not make it so. Surely if Trump encouraged people to storm the Capital and was demanding that his vice President Mike Pence exceed his authority and not certify the election, then he should be held to account. And yet, at the end of the day, there was the expected peaceful transfer of power.


Thomas Jefferson was of the opinion that in a democratic society each generation should ratify a new constitution. Needless to say, this would be a cumbersome process. John Locke talked about consent of the governed as the basis for legitimate authority. He, of course, was talking about social contracts whereby people enter into contracts with a sovereign and give their consent to be governed. But he was also clear that when the sovereign violated the contract — not protecting property as an example — the people would be within their rights to rise up and overthrow the sovereign. This was the justification for the American revolution as detailed in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.


How, then, do we renew our consent to be governed? This is no trivial question because it goes to the heart of trust in the system and political institutions. Arguably, through the electoral process, the public gives its tacit consent to be governed by the arrangements it has been governed by. By participating in elections, we reaffirm our faith in the very constitution that created these institutions. And by participating in elections, we reaffirm our trust in the system, without which there can be no democracy. But in order for the public to trust, elections must result in peaceful transfers of power.


Never in American history has an election been cancelled or the will of the people defied by government officials refusing to leave office when voted out. Why, then, is there such distrust? Democrats claim that it is only MAGA Republicans who cling to this belief that 2020 was stolen. They accuse Trump of refusing to concede. But in the last Georgia gubernatorial election, Democrat Stacy Abrams refused to concede defeat. Democrats accuse Republican members of Congress who challenged certification of the 2020 election of being anti-Democratic. But Democratic members of Congress too voted against certification in both 2000 and 2004 when George W. Bush was elected and reelected.


There appears to be no shortage of those in either party sowing the seeds of distrust. That we have large segments of the electorate that is distrustful means that whoever wins an election lacks full legitimacy. Democracy cannot survive without trust. But there is more to this. Democracy requires independent and autonomous individuals to have agency and be able to make decisions for themselves and act on those decisions unencumbered by others. If we really believe that much of the population believes the last election was stolen because Trump told them it was, then we are rejecting the concept of human agency.


Without human agency, there cannot be democracy. Moreover, when Hilary Clinton says that the next election will be stolen, she as a member of the elite is effectively saying that some people, i.e., the deplorables, are not worthy of human agency, let alone the right to vote. When the current president, Joe Biden, says that those who vote for Republicans in the midterms are also anti-Democratic, he is saying the same thing.


When our public officials attack the public that disagrees with their positions on policy and ideology, they are undermining the trust essential for the democratic system to thrive. Perhaps it is no wonder that most of those who scream about “our democracy” the loudest really have no use for democracy. They appear to want a malleable public that they can easily manipulate.


What is becoming clear is that the public sees through the rhetoric coming out of the mouths of public officials and the response typically is distrust. Studies of voting behavior have for years shown that the poor are least likely to vote and participation rates for the poor to be low because they feel that the political system is unresponsive to them. This, of course, is buttressed by other studies showing that members of Congress are most responsive to those who are affluent and not at all responsive to the poor.


With the disappearance of the middle class, there appears to be growing belief among the masses, especially ordinary workers, that the public officials beholden to elites, don’t really care about them. This too adds to the general level of distrust. A government responsive to the will of only some, and not all, is not democratic by any standards. As governments become less responsive to most, distrust rises. Is it any wonder, then, why large swaths of the population would conclude that the election was stolen?

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