BERKELEY, Calif. (CN) – Mark Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said Friday that Donald Trump’s presidency could foreshadow the decline of democracy in the United States.
Trump’s electoral victory “may square better with some of the recent scholarship we’ve seen with how democracies are declining,” Hetherington said in a conference at UC Berkeley on populism and the erosion of political trust in the Trump era.
“The wrong people are elected and certain things happen; motivational reasoning takes over; things start going downhill in a hurry,” he said. “We’ve reached a very difficult point in American politics.”
The day-long conference featured top scholars of political science from around the country and both political parties. But regardless of party affiliation, many of the speakers said Trump’s populist campaign rhetoric – insulting minorities, promises to “drain the swamp” – had accelerated distrust of the government, battering America’s democratic institutions.
Populism is defined as a blend of anti-elitism, mistrust in national experts, and nationalism.
“This, in my view, is a very dangerous time in American politics,” said Thomas Mann, a political scientist at UC Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Liberal democracy is not guaranteed, but we all act like it.”
In his talk, Hetherington set up the question: If negative rhetoric is aired openly, how do people maintain respect for politicians and institutions, and how does it affect trust and attitudes toward democratic processes?
According to Hetherington, trust in the government has declined precipitously since the late 1950s, when it was at about 70 percent, due in part to an increase in negative rhetoric. By the end of President Barack Obama’s last term in office in 2016, it was just 13 percent.
Except for a one-year high following the September 11 terrorist attacks, trust levels for both Democrats and Republicans never recovered, he said. The result is an intensification of partisanship and polarization.
“We don’t feel any difference about our own side, but what we have is the development of real hatred for the other party,” Hetherington said.
University of Minnesota political scientist Wendy Rahn said polarization drives down approval of Congress and of government generally. But policymaking that is either too conservative or too liberal also drives down approval, because most of the electorate is moderate, Rahn said.
Members of Congress are increasingly more extreme than the median voter in their constituencies and their own party, according to Rahn. California’s two Democratic senators, Sen. Diane Feinstein and Sen. Kamala Harris, for example, are “far outside the median” of California voters, she said.
The disconnect sometimes drives voters to vote their representatives out of office. But they are usually replaced by an extremist of the opposite party, rather than a moderate, Rahn said, leading to a loss of moderates in Congress.
That political discontent helped Trump win the presidency, according to Rahn. “The Republican Party is the party of racial resentment, it’s the party of moral traditionalism, recently it’s the party of [opposition to] immigration. If the Republicans are going to win, they have to put together a coalition broader than that. What did it for Trump is that was the extra piece that brought in the base of his support beyond what the Republicans could normally expect.”
University of Illinois political scientist Thomas Rudolph also posited that populist anger helped Trump clinch the presidency.
Rudolph’s research found that populist anger, stoked by Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra, and the belief that immigrants are a burden on the country were associated with large increases in voter support for Trump, and decreases in support for the other Republican candidates and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Rudolph, however, noted that neither Trump nor the acrimonious campaign engendered that anger. A study by the Pew Research Center found that between 1997 and about 2007, anger toward the government fluctuated between 10 and 20 percent. Since then, it has fluctuated between 20 and 30 percent.
“Trump tried to exploit anti-establishment sentiment for political advantage,” he said. “The more angry with government you are, the less likely you’re going to support candidates perceived to be part of the establishment.”
But not all of the speakers agreed that the rise in voter anger was attributable to politics.
David Brady, a Stanford political scientist and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, attributed the increase to a failing economy in some parts of the country, especially the Midwest, where middle-class factory jobs have been declining for decades.
“That is the background we need to think about, the overall economic change occurring, and that change isn’t over yet,” Brady said. “I don’t think Trump is going to solve those problems, but this phenomenon is not going away until this gets solved.”
Whatever the cause, anger is destabilizing America’s political institutions, according to Friday’s speakers.
“Distrust of government has metastasized to such a degree that the U.S. political community itself is now fragile,” Rahn said. “It’s not clear what is going to allow us to get out of a very vicious cycle.”