A lot of Americans are viscerally angry at the political system. They hate Washington, they don’t trust politicians, and they are increasingly willing to vote for populist outsiders—like Donald Trump. But we usually assume that for all of their disgust with political reality, they remain as loyal to the ideal of democracy as previous generations of Americans. According to recent polling data, that is simply not the case.Jan-Werner Mueller writes at Al Jazeera:
In our research we have found that citizens give less and less importance to living in a democracy. They have increasingly negative views about key democratic institutions. Most worryingly of all, they are more and more open to illiberal alternatives. Americans aren’t just souring on particular institutions or particular politicians. To a surprising degree, they have begun to sour on liberal democracy itself.
Political scientists have long known that "government legitimacy," or the popularity of particular administrations, is going down. But many of them have argued that "regime legitimacy," or citizens’ attachment to democracy as a political system, is as strong as ever. Our research shows that this is just not true: Attachment to democracy has fallen over time, and from one generation to the next. Take this worrying graph, which shows how much less important it is to young Americans to live in a democracy. For Americans born in the 1930s, living in a democracy holds virtually sacred importance. Asked on a scale of 1 to 10 how important it is to them to live in a democracy, more than 70 percent give the highest answer. But many of their children and grandchildren are lukewarm. Among millennials — those born since the 1980s — fewer than 30 percent say that living in a democracy is essential.
Populists are politicians who claim that only they represent the true people and that all those who criticize them — or just fail to vote for them — are not properly part of the people. Populists always polarize; it’s us, the real and righteous people, against them, the people’s enemies, who can be found inside and outside the country’s borders. Trump, with his xenophobic attacks on Muslims and Mexicans at home and abroad, fits this pattern perfectly.
When in opposition, populists criticize the elite and always tell a story of why they aren’t in power, which, given that they and only they represent the people, would seem impossible in a democracy. This accounts for the populist obsession with conspiracy theories. Think of Trump’s ominous comment about President Barack Obama that “there is something going on with him that we don’t know about” or Trump’s past false insinuations that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.
Populists, then, are not just anti-elitist; they are anti-pluralist. And there’s no such thing as democracy without pluralism. Hence, rather than throw around the F-word or conjure up fantasies of America going the way of the Weimar Republic, it is enough to say that Trump is simply not a democrat.