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Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices

Russell J. Dalton

Chapter 1: The Challenge to Democracy

The challenge to democracy today comes from within in the form of dissatisfied citizens who
question democratic institutions and mistrust politicians.
Public confidence in the government has been slowly declining since Vietnam.
Average Americans think the politicians are so corrupted by special interests and controlled by
the parties that their decisions are essentially undemocratic and are thus rejected.
People feel powerless and are cynical about the abilities of fellow citizens to make moral and
intelligent decisions.
This book suggests that simple solutions to the problem of declining public trust—like campaign
finance reform, a fairer media, or a period of very enlightened leadership—will not work.
Public mistrust in government is occurring even in democratic countries without scandal-plagued
Sliding public sentiments portend badly for the future.
Fundamental aspects of the citizen-government interaction in advanced democracies explain the
decline in public trust.
Public support for the government must be detached from its support of individual politicians or
Democratic countries have made tremendous strides in improving the quality of living for their
citizens and to provide effective government.
Decreasing citizen participation in government will undermine the legitimacy of democratic
governments and lead to further alienation.
Skepticism about existing parties will lead to the fragmenting of current parties, or the formation
of new ones, along with the swelling of the ranks of the Independents. This may create an even
worse political situation that lets voters down again.
More democracy in elections might lead to worse and more undemocratic leadership—or not.
Protests and political violence might rise.
Mistrusted government agencies might have to alter operations to satisfy the public.
Governments will waste more time reassuring and convincing citizens while citizens will waste
more time overseeing the operations of government.
Governance will rise as people seek alternatives to government to meet their needs.
The people may demand changes to electoral systems.
Changes to public opinion in democratic countries became detectable in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Chapter 2: Changing Citizen Orientations

Past social scientists jumped the gun in pronouncing democracy mortally wounded back in the
60’s and 70’s as discontent swept the Western world.
The author is careful to properly measure public attitudes with the right methodologies.
It is natural for the public to disfavor individual politicians as their political careers drag on, but
are attitudes towards politicians in general worsening?

Starting in the 1960’s, people began believing more and more that the government is dishonest,
doesn’t care about its citizens, and cannot be counted on to do the right thing. The decline has
been steady.
A series of major scandals in American politics since Nixon partly explains our mistrust of the
The author has brought together many different studies to show that public trust in government
has been declining in Canada and Western Europe over the same period.
Membership in political parties has also declined. This is bad since party membership generally
indicates a person’s interest in politics and support for the whole political system.
Party membership and self-identification have declined in countries with Presidential and
Parliamentary systems.
People are less trusting in political parties.
People are more cynical about the government as a whole and increasingly believe that it is run
for the benefit of a few big interests.
People remain satisfied with democracy itself and have become more tolerant of including
representation of new groups into government.
Westerners remain patriotic to their countries.
While different specific events may have precipitated the downfall of approval in different
Western countries during the last 40 years, all are responding to the same force.
While there may be temporary reversals, changing the overall trajectory of public attitudes may
require fundamental changes.
Westerners still strongly believe in the ideals of democracy and of their respective nationalities,
but they are very critical and mistrustful of the power institutions.
The patriotic upswing resulting from 9/11 was just temporary, and just shortly after the attack,
many people returned to being critical of the government on social issues even if expressing
favor on national security.

Chapter 3: The Correlates of Public Support

Are democracies facing a crisis of public support?

This chapter examines the reasons for the decline.
Average people distinguish between political systems and politicians when casting support.
There are four parts to support:
-Authority support: Members of government
-Institutions support: Branches of government as a whole
-Democratic values: The idea of democracy itself
-Community support: Patriotism/pride for one’s country/willingness to fight for it
Different Western countries have different profiles.
Reasons for diminished support
*Government provides services to citizens in exchange for support.
*National economic growth is not clearly linked to approval.
*Income disparities are unrelated to approval.
*Provision of other social services not purely economic is disconnected from approval.

*Populations tending to favor one political persuasion are happier when a representative party is
in charge, but given the alternations in political control over the years, this does not explain the
long-term decline in public support.
-Changing values
*People are becoming less materialistic and want the government to address environmental and
civil rights concerns. People are more libertarian and more resistant to authority and patriotism in
*Governments have been slow to adapt.
*This explains decreases in patriotism.
-Social Capital
*Social and geographic mobility have weakened the ties between individuals and groups.
*Group membership is needed to build skills necessary for participatory government.
*More group membership correlates with higher approval. But this does not indicate causality.
*Interpersonal trust facilitates government participation.
-Media effects
*The media focuses on scandals, failures and blunders, promoting a poor image of government.
*There is no empirical evidence that watching more news media hurts approval.
Levels of interpersonal trust and postmaterial values have the strongest correlations with
Government performance influences public trust and institutional confidence.
Membership in voluntary groups and high interpersonal trust increases social capital and
improves authority support.
The author thinks the rise of postmaterialism is the greatest factor.
There is no single explanation for the decline in public trust.

Chapter 4: Social Change and the Accumulation of Incremental Effects

Political trust has declined across all races, genders, and age cohorts.
Americans with more education have become more mistrustful while the less educated still like
government. This reversed the relationship that existed before the 1960’s.
This effect is more pronounced since higher education has become more accessible over the
same period.
This has occurred across nationalities.
This could lead to a long-term decline in trust into the future. It is problematic since the well-
educated youth will someday have to take over and run the system.
The radical student movements of the 1960’s and 70’s began the trend. Those students wanted
more social change faster than the government could deliver it. Today, the old hippies remain
Older, more trusting citizens died out and were replaced with younger, more critical ones,
explaining the overall drop.
The groups that have benefited the most from democratic government are now its worst critics.
There are expectations for new changes and greater government openness to citizens. Younger
people thus dislike the focus and slow nature of democracy.
Loss of support is not coming from marginalized groups.

Chapter 5: Value Change and Political Support

Post WWII, the West experienced an unprecedented growth in prosperity and civil rights. For the
first time in human history, basic and intermediate human needs were universally met.
The new generations have become accustomed to economic and military security and hence take
it for granted and want politics to focus on postmaterial values like civil rights,
environmentalism, and improved participation.
The current system has yet to adjust to these demands.
The Green Party, which recently formed and which emphasizes grassroots participation, is
symptomatic of the change.
Postmaterialists dislike the current closed nature of government, are more individualistic, and
want to directly participate in government.
Postmaterialists favor Democrats over Republicans.
Postmaterialists are skeptical about institutions themselves, like the police, the military, big
business, and the church. All are traditional, conservative, hierarchal, and nondemocratic.
Ecological and minority/women’s rights groups score high.
Legitimacy based on inclusion and participation is replacing legitimacy based on hierarchic
Postmaterialists are measurably more tolerant than conservatives.
The author thinks that the strong belief in democracy is vital to the continuance of democracy.
He also believes that the postmaterialists’ demands can be accommodated with reforms.

Chapter 6: Economic Performance and Political Support

Economic health and political support are weakly correlated.

But the two trends have been in opposition for years.
Peoples’ perceptions of the economy are different from the actual state as such. If people believe
things are bad even if they aren’t, trust in government declines.
If people believe the government is going to make bad economic decisions, trust declines.
But analyses show that, over time, there is no connection between peoples’ perceptions of the
economy and their support for the government. People have continued to feel increased optimism
about the economy while they disapprove more and more of government.
The author mostly rejects the performance hypothesis.

Chapter 7: Policy Preferences and Political Support

It may be the case that people are displeased with government because its policies are farther and
farther from what the people want. Either the government is centrist while people are becoming
polarized, or the people are centrist and the government alternates between poles.
Has policy distance increased between citizens and governments?
Political party platforms have become increasingly similar as old points of contention are
resolved through experience, but peoples’ perceptions of party polarity are trending in the
opposite direction. [Hyperindividualism leads to public focus on “push-button” issues like
abortion and gun control that cannot be easily compromised. Party similarities take a backseat to
differences over these issues.]
Peoples’ evaluations of government are tied to the events of the recent past, not to the promises
of challengers or incumbents.

Peoples’ impressions of their leaders always starts high and ends low as promises fail to
Successive Presidents are viewed as being more and more distant from voters. This has trended
upwards over time.
Peoples’ expectations of government are always increasing. New candidates are elected to
deliver change, but they always fail and leave office with the voters feeling more detached and
more desirous of change.
People have placed more demands on government and want a broader range of issues addressed.
The parties have responded by becoming incongruous amalgams of policy stances. So, even
when a person’s favored party is in power, it will probably fail to fulfill all of their wants.
New parties have been born as a result to keep each party specific, and the political spectrum has
developed orthogonal branches.
Too many people have become single-issue voters.
Politicians cannot maximize voter satisfaction.
People blame politicians and special interests for perceived government failures when in fact
their own impossible expectations are to blame.
Studies show that Westerners are becoming less and less satisfied with their political parties.
Special interests have risen in importance as people abandon parties and seek new means to get
their desired changes. This is a worrisome trend because it indicates a splintering of unity.

Chapter 8: The Consequences of Political Support

If people mistrust government, there are real consequences.

People increasingly believe that the government wastes money, and tax evasion has thus
increased in frequency.
Fewer people want to work for government because they dislike the organization, reducing the
talent pool.
If people mistrust government, they will support challengers over incumbents, regardless of real
Changes to electoral rules (as happened in Japan, New Zealand and Italy), impositions of term
limits, and restrictions on special interests can result from voter dissatisfaction.
Different U.S. states have different levels of social capital and government trust.
Voluntary willingness to obey laws declines as people feel alienated from government
People will be less willing to service government by providing federal election donations and by
sitting through jury duty.
Protests and boycotts will become more frequent as people give up on the ability of politicians to
deliver change. Election turnouts will also decrease.
Referendums will become more common and will be supported by special interests trying to
push an agenda. More general strengthening of direct democracy will also occur.
Demands for changes to constitutions to make government more open and democratic will also
be seen.

Chapter 9: Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices

Politicians are aware of declining public trust, and may be able to temporarily reverse it at
different points.
Causes of public mistrust of government
-The media is not a cause, but its negative portrayal is a symptom.
-The high classes and the young have higher expectations of government and want more direct
-People are switching from parties to NGO’s and special interests to express their will. These
organizations are unrelenting critics of government.
-Citizens are less and less willing to accept policy outcomes that are not 100% to their liking.
-The economy is not a cause, since it has been improving.
-The gap between expectations and actual performance is widening.
-Democracy will not disappear, but will change.
-People will behave more antisocially
-People will become less patriotic

…is a valuable resource to address this question.