One Big Thing: Do you think public trust in institutions is important to democracy?
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Last week insurgents forced themselves onto the floor of the U.S. Capitol and American democratic institutions faced unprecedented pressure as fraud claims were manifested into violent insurrection. Over the past four years, the institutions that normally sustain public trust and institutional legitimacy have been systematically under attack. This scenario is not unique to American politics. Modern authoritarianism is rarely the result of coups but a consequence of a gradual process of institutional erosion.
In the 21st century, authoritarian leaders in Venezuela and Hungary have used their power and popular support to delegitimize checks and balances and gradually tighten their grip on power, despite being initially democratically elected. If left unchecked, attacks on political institutions can consolidate a president’s authoritarian leadership:
- In 1999, Venezuelans democratically chose Hugo Chavez, an anti-establishment candidate, to the country’s highest office. However, during his presidency, he destroyed the Venezuelan democratic liberties that allowed his rise to power. As soon as he faced intense opposition from the population, he began to attack the media outlets, abusing his power to close TV and radio stations that posed a challenge to his increasingly undemocratic government. Chavez then used government resources to fund parallel media outlets that could serve his interests. The church, NGOs, and Academia came under scrutiny under his government, delegitimizing the civil institutions that maintained Venezuelan civil society. The South American caudillo attacked student protesters and ordered repression while supporting paramilitary attacks on media outlets and student protesters. Chavez used his popular support to build patronage networks while using both his rhetoric and state power to destroy civil society. His undemocratic practices (and a weakened civil society) paved the way for Maduro’s repressive authoritarian regime.
- Similarly, in Hungary, Viktor Orban challenged the 2002 election results that removed him from power and blamed the media for his electoral loss. Since he regained the premier position in 2010, Orban has used executive power to undermine the confidence in the media and portray media outlets as subjects foreign control. Hungary’s prime minister has closed academic departments, attacked NGOs through politically-motivated tax investigations, and posed strong challenges to his country’s civil organizations. Although Hungary is not a dictatorship, the country’s democracy has declined into a “hybrid regime” in the past few years according to Freedom House.
Both Hungary and Venezuela’s authoritarianism relies on a gradual crackdown on civil society and the leadership’s use of rhetoric to undermine trust in the country’s institutions and democratic processes. In the U.S., media outlets, NGOs, democratic elections, and academia have all fallen victim to President Trump’s continuous attacks, effectively undermining public trust in the American institutions. If steps are not taken to restore the public’s confidence, the U.S. could be in danger of facing a similar and dangerous path.
The damages from the recent attacks on this country’s fabric can be amended with joint bipartisan efforts to restore the confidence in American democracy, its constitution, our electoral system, and the importance of check and balances. Americans should be weary of undemocratic populism and violent rhetoric that can lead to greater polarization and gradually chip away America’s government system. Although it will be easier to replace the broken glasses from last Wednesday’s attacks, we must bring back rationality, restore bipartisanship, and reject populism to preserve American democracy.
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