The Question of Democracy or Identity

When it comes to the big picture, one of the headlines we’ve seen quite regularly over the last couple of years has been that democracy is on the decline all over the globe, including in the United States.

The annual Democracy Index report by the Economist Intelligence Unit shows that democratic governments are in trouble everywhere. Of the 167 countries ranked this year [2017], 89 of them received lower scores than last year.

Max Fisher notes that, while Israel’s circumstances are unique, it might have been a precursor of what was to come.

Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories sharpened questions over how to democratically incorporate the non-Jews within this avowedly Jewish nation — an identity that early Israeli leaders, remembering the Holocaust, felt bound to protect — just as countries around the world faced their own challenges over balancing identity and democracy…

Old ideas of nationhood can have a powerful pull. The way that human beings think about group identity — as an extension of ourselves, particularly in moments of crisis — can make us see safety in conformity, and danger in diversity or tolerance.

Nothing triggers those feelings like terrorism or demographic change.

Jewish Israelis experienced both in the early and mid-2000s — about a decade before similar fears would provoke nationalist backlashes in much of the Western world.

That is how he explains a law that was recently passed in Israel which “has formally declared the right of national self-determination, once envisioned to include all within its borders, as ‘unique to the Jewish people.'” In the contest between identity and democracy, Israelis have chosen identity.

Fisher goes on to document the expansion of democracy in the wake of World War II.

Civil rights movements challenged countries to broaden national identities long associated with whiteness…The democratic world arrived, in the 1960s, at an informal consensus: If the requirements of democracy and national identity clash, the first should prevail. That didn’t mean abandoning national identity, but it did mean softening how it was understood and maintained.

More recently, many of the countries that chose democracy over national identity have been facing the twin triggers of terrorism and demographic change.

When people believe they may be attacked merely for who they are, they hold more closely to their identity. Their sense of community narrows: only those who look like them are to be tolerated. They grow more supportive of policies to restrict or control minorities, the research found, and less supportive of pluralism or democracy.

At the same time, when a majority demographic group believes it could become a minority, members of that group often become less supportive of democracy, preferring a strong ruler and harsh social controls, according to scholarly research on democratic decline.

For some further insight into the scholarly research on how demographic change makes the dominant groups less supportive of democracy, Ezra Klein recently interviewed social psychology professor Jennifer Richeson about what he calls, “the most important idea for understanding American politics in 2018.”

America is changing. A majority of infants are, for the first time in US history, nonwhite — and the rest of the population is expected to follow suit in the coming decades. The number of religiously affiliated Americans is at a record low, and the share of foreign-born residents is at a historically high level.

What happens to a country amid this kind of demographic change and strain? What does it do to our politics, to our identities, to our worldview?

I’ve come to believe that you can’t understand politics in America right now without understanding these changes and how they act on us psychologically.

Klein begins the interview by noting that Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign was all about “change” and his successor’s about “nostalgia.” That pretty much captures why this is the most important idea for understanding American politics in 2018.

Richeson’s research found that the following happened when the U.S. racial/demographic shift was made more salient to white Americans:

  • Racial bias increased
  • The expression of negative attitudes about and towards other racial groups increased
  • Opposition to diversity increased
  • Group status threat increased
  • The perceived group status threat was associated with a greater endorsement of conservatism

Derrick Jensen put it more bluntly in his book, “The Culture of Make Believe.”

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement…

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

Three years ago, white nationalist Richard Spencer noted that this is exactly what Trump was tapping into.

“Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have – that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon.”

While Trump was in Europe recently, he put down the dog whistle about this and picked up the fog horn in order to exploit the option of identity over democracy.

I think [immigration] has been very bad, for Europe. … I think what has happened is very tough. It’s a very tough situation — you see the same terror attacks that I do.

I just think it is changing the culture, I think it is a very negative thing for Europe.

America is at a crossroads (as are democracies around the globe). Over the next few years, we will be deciding whether our ideals about democracy are expansive enough to reject the idea that America is defined by white christian male identity. As Barack Obama said so presciently, democracy will be on the ballot.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.