Americans Are Losing Faith in Each Other. Are We Losing Our Democracy, Too?

Dictators and demagogues often step forward when democracies wear themselves out. Can America find a way to keep going?

It’s no laughing matter, is it Charlie?

So, America, are you ready for a dictator yet?

That seems like a crazy question to ask, doesn’t it? After all, we Americans practically invented democratic self-governance. We spend a day every year celebrating democracy’s virtues, and let’s be honest—that’s just the day we set off fireworks. We’re pretty proud and evangelistic (in multiple meanings of the term) about the way we govern ourselves. Surely we’re not ready to simply let government of the people, by the people, for the people to simply perish from this land, are we?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Here’s the good news: A majority of Americans still believe in self-governance—a new Gallup poll shows that 61 percent of us trust “the American people” to make the right political decisions regarding our country and its future.

Here’s the bad news: That’s the lowest the number has ever been—it’s plunged 17 points since 2005, and is still on the way down. Even during the Watergate-Vietnam-Church Committee paranoia days of the 1970s, Americans still trusted each other to do the right thing; the number routinely stood around 85 percent even during that dark era.

Now 61 percent is a majority. But it’s not a super-majority. And it’s a declining majority, which means it’s easy to see how we might all wake up a few years from now and discover that, no, most of us don’t trust each other. What happens to our republic then? Doesn’t self-governance require a minimal level of  trust in our fellow citizens?

Certainly , this week’s government shutdown is revealing a fraying of that trust. Take Julia Ioffe at The New Republic. She spent Tuesday fantasizing about the days when then-President Boris Yeltsin dealt with a recalcitrant Parliament—by using tanks to blow a hole in the parliament’s headquarters. “What,” she asked, “is a president in a presidential constitutional republic to do when faced with an intransigent, bull-headed faction among his people’s representatives?”

Um …how about not attack them with tanks?

What happened to bring us to this point of falling trust and incendiary rhetoric? Three guesses:

• We stopped trusting each other: The last 20 years of elections have revealed the electorate to be split roughly evenly. If you’re a Democrat, it means that half the country disagrees with you. Same for Republicans. And since the people who disagree with you are by definition wrong, well….

We stopped trusting the election results: George W. Bush didn’t win the popular vote in 2000, yet he still managed to spend eight years in the White House invading countries, running up the national debt and responding badly to disasters. Many Republicans, meanwhile, seem convinced that Philly’s New Black Panthers won the presidency for Barack Obama in 2008 by scaring two or three old white people.  Simply put, everybody now believes that when the other guy wins, it’s probably because of fraud—if not actual monkeying with the votes (though that’s often believed) then by wholesale lying to the American public.

We stopped listening to each other. You know the drill: Liberals have MSNBC, conservatives have Fox and everything everybody hears constantly reinforces their own biases.  Very few of us even try to make the good-faith effort to see politics from somebody else’s point of view. We don’t bother with empathy anymore, because it doesn’t sell.

The problem is: All of this makes Americans ripe for the plucking.

Dictators often use weak and divided governments, or governments that are ineffective during hard times, to step up and take the reins of power—usually in the name of the people he is plotting to dominate, often practically begged by them to do so. Hitler won an election. Napoleon was named emperor after a plebiscite in his favor. It’s not difficult to see conditions in America being ripe for a single-minded person of ambition.

Then again, this is America, and we’ve survived tough times without falling prey to un-democratic forces in the past. But we usually relied on each other during those times; the ties that bind democracy together now appear to be fraying. Is it too late to strengthen them one more time?