By Marc Fleurbaey –

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville praised America’s egalitarian society, but warned against the tyranny of an ignorant majority and the possibility of its democracy degenerating into soft authoritarianism. Sound familiar?

In April 2017, the International Panel on Social Progress conducted a survey on an Internet sample, provided by Qualtrics, of 1,041 individuals representative of the age and race composition of the adult population in the United States.

In a 2016 article in the Journal of Democracy, authors Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk find evidence of democratic “deconsolidation” in the United States (and some European countries) in recent decades, in particular in the declining attachment to democratic institutions among younger Americans. Is democracy really dying in the American mind?

The meaning of democracy 

The survey first asked about the meaning of democracy. Is it simply about choosing leaders in free elections as Joseph Schumpeter argued or, more ambitiously, about everyone participating in decisions, an idea closer to the polyarchy concept of Yale political scientist Robert Dahl?

Almost half of respondents choose the latter option, and among them, those 30 and younger are more likely to choose it, while high-income individuals (earning more than $100,000 a year) are less likely to do so.

A further question is about how to share power among the citizens. Democracy is generally understood in terms of an arithmetic equality among voters, but it is sometimes practiced in a way that gives more influence to those who are more affected by the decision – for example, only local inhabitants vote in local elections, and shareholders vote in proportion to their stock holdings.

Marc Fleurbaey and Harry Brighouse advocate this alternative approach as being more conducive to good decisions.

This approach is endorsed by a small fraction of the US population, and here again young respondents are more likely to support it, as well as the politically moderate and the highly religious. Thus, on the meaning of democracy, the young do not appear cynical and despondent, and favor approaches that are more participatory.

How democracy works 

Going to more concrete questions about at how democracy works in the United States, respondents consider that ordinary citizens hold much less power than politicians, lobbies and special-interest groups. Note that the latter include a range of civil-society organizations, including businesses, labor, and NGOs.

On average, survey respondents favor massively redistributing power away from politicians and especially lobbies toward citizens, but there is substantial variety in their responses. The young are the least worried about lobbies and special interests, the middle-aged are the most in favor of citizen power, while those above 60 are the most favorable to politicians’ power.

Non-whites are less in favor of citizen power and less opposed to lobbies and special interests than those who are white. Education is clearly associated with being more in favor of transferring power to the citizens. Political moderates and progressives, as well as the moderately and highly religious respondents, are less wary of politicians and special interests than the conservatives and the less religious.

When asked about local politics, the respondents provide similar answers about the power distribution between politicians, lobbies and citizens.

About redistributing power

Those polled were also asked if they felt that the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans as a group had more or less power in politics than the rest of the population. On average, they responded that on a scale between 0 (the top 1 percent have full control) and 100 (the population has full control), the current situation is at 40, and should ideally be moved to 58 (more citizen control). This is substantial, but nevertheless may seem a relatively moderate view about the power shift that is needed in favor of the bottom 99 percent of society in terms of wealth.

The educated and the least religious respondents see the top 1 percent as more powerful than other respondents. The most in favor of redistributing power away from the 1 percent are the progressives and the least religious respondents.

Confining democracy to just politics is much too narrow, as the democratic mindset concerns other types of groups and organizations. The respondents were asked if one should seek to have democracy in various institutions: families, schools, companies… The greatest support is for democracy in government, and secondarily in companies and families. The greatest opposition is met regarding the army and the church, yet stays below reaching 50%. Overall, there is considerable support for, or at least openness to, democracy in all these institutions. In light of these data, talking about a general disaffection with democracy seems exaggerated.

Among respondents, political moderates and progressives are consistently favor of greater democracy in these institutions than conservatives. The middle-aged are less likely to support more democracy within families, but no difference appears with gender or household size. Similarly, the middle-aged are less supportive of greater democracy in firms and armies, while religious respondents are more supportive. Women are less in favor of more democracy in schools than men, while support for democracy in government rises with the level of respondents’ education. Younger and more religious respondents (including the very religious) support greater levels of democracy in religious institutions, while lower-income repondents are less supportive.

The support for democracy expressed by religious respondents is noteworthy.

Gender and parental power

The survey also included more specific questions about the family and the business company. Let us start with the family and the distribution of power between parents and children. On a scale between 0 (parents have full control) and 100 (children have full control), the average response is 42 for the actual situation in American families, and 39 for the ideal level. This is less than 50 (equal power), but nevertheless close, and no signficant change is seen as needed by the respondents on average.

As compared to men, women feel that children hold more power. The ideal level of child power is higher for the young, lower for the very conservative, but higher for the moderately and very religious.

What about gender? On a scale between 0 (male in full control) and 100 (female in full control), the actual situation is characterized on average as 49 and the ideal as 53 (women having slightly more control). There is no significant difference in responses by gender, but the high income, the very religious and the large households have a significantly higher ideal (i.e., greater female power), whereas the less educated and the very conservative have a lower ideal value. All in all, the picture of a quite democratic family emerges from this survey. Only 18% of the respondents (the proportion is the same among men and women) have an ideal value lower than 50, and the main reasons they provide primarily invoke the tradition and the belief that children need a strong father.

Power at work

The business company is another place where power issues are important. Dividing power between owners, managers and workers, the respondents express the view that owners enjoy the lion’s share (more than 60 out of 100), and that redistribution of part of that share to workers (and secondarily to managers) would improve the situation. The young, the non-white as well as the moderately and very religious are the most in favor of this redistribution to workers. Female respondents and those with higher education are more in favor of giving power to the managers. The owners find their greatest supporters among older white respondents.

The explanations for why workers should have more power involve primarily their competence but also the observed abuses by the more powerful actors in the company. The respondents who would transfer more power to the managers also highlight their competence whereas those who would increase the owners’ power invoke the risks.

Democracy remains an ideal

Overall, this survey paints a picture of an American population that is firmly in favor of democracy, somewhat worried about insufficient power for ordinary citizens in the country and in local politics, and for workers in business companies.

The young, far from being despondent about democracy in general, are not more worried about politicians and special interests than the rest of the population, and are more in favor of extending democracy to companies and even the army and the church. They have a more participatory view of democracy, and are less attached to the traditional restrictive view of democracy in terms of political competition and equal voting rights. So, yes, the young may not be very firm supporters of classical political institutions, but this fact may hide a promise for the outlook of advancing the general ideal of democracy in society more broadly.

The absence of gender differences in opinions, even regarding male-female power in the family, is quite surprising and suggests an impressive convergence, in the #Me Too era, toward a very egalitarian conception of gender control.

Overall, democracy appears more strongly and consistently supported by the progressives than the conservatives, except as far as ordinary citizens’ power is concerned. Interestingly, those who are more religious hold a participatory view of democracy and are often in favor of redistributing power and extending democracy, even in the family and in the church. If you want to promote democracy and participation, think of a coalition gathering the young, the progressives and the religious people.


Marc Fleurbaey is a Professor in Economics and Humanistic Sciences at Princeton University. 

This article was originally published on the Conversation has been republished under creative commons. For the original click here.

See Also:

What next for American politics?

Will the events of 2018 change the US forever?

Can democracy function if societies don’t understand politics?