Scholar who saw all this coming: Americans "do not really understand liberal democracy"

Shawn Rosenberg predicted the "inexorable decline" of democracy in 2019. But he still thinks it's not too late

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 12, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

 (Getty/David McNew)
(Getty/David McNew)

In his widely-praised speech two weeks ago in Philadelphia, Joe Biden (finally) issued a clear and direct public warning about the Republican-fascist movement as an existential threat to American democracy.

In an interview Sunday on "Meet the Press," Vice President Kamala Harris expanded on Biden's warning, connecting the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the much greater internal threat to America's future now represented by the Republicans and Donald Trump's MAGA movement.

Recent public opinion polls also show that a large percentage of Americans are beginning to accept that the MAGA forces pose an extreme threat to the country's democracy.

But why has it taken the country's leaders, and Americans in general, so long to accept this clear and obvious fact? The rise of the global right and its assault on democracy in America, Europe and around the world should not have been a surprise. This crisis was decades in the making. The end of the Cold War was not in fact the "end of history," and did not signify the permanent triumph of Western-style democracy and late-stage capitalism. Indeed, that moment of triumphalism helped set the stage for the rise of right-wing populism and other dark forces that began to systematically undermine the foundations and tenets of the liberal democratic order.

Those public voices and other experts who sounded the alarm about these existential dangers were largely ignored or marginalized by the mainstream news media, political and cultural elites, and other gatekeepers of approved public discourse.

Shawn Rosenberg, a professor of political science and psychology at UC Irvine, is one such voice. In 2019, he presented a paper where he warned that the liberal democratic order was imperiled by right-wing populism and other illiberal forces, and that overcoming this challenge would require drastic interventions across society. Rick Shenkman wrote a feature for Politico about the impact of that paper:

The academics who gathered in Lisbon this summer for the International Society of Political Psychologists' annual meeting had been politely listening for four days, nodding along as their peers took to the podium and delivered papers on everything from the explosion in conspiracy theories to the rise of authoritarianism.

Then, the mood changed. As one of the lions of the profession, 68-year-old Shawn Rosenberg, began delivering his paper, people in the crowd of about a hundred started shifting in their seats. They loudly whispered objections to their friends. Three women seated next to me near the back row grew so loud and heated I had difficulty hearing for a moment what Rosenberg was saying.

What caused the stir? Rosenberg, a professor at UC Irvine, was challenging a core assumption about America and the West. His theory? Democracy is devouring itself — his phrase — and it won't last.

As much as President Donald Trump's liberal critics might want to lay America's ills at his door, Rosenberg says the president is not the cause of democracy's fall — even if Trump's successful anti-immigrant populist campaign may have been a symptom of democracy's decline.

We're to blame, said Rosenberg. As in "we the people." ... [C]itizens have proved ill equipped cognitively and emotionally to run a well-functioning democracy. As a consequence, the center has collapsed and millions of frustrated and angst-filled voters have turned in desperation to right-wing populists.

His prediction? "In well-established democracies like the United States, democratic governance will continue its inexorable decline and will eventually fail."

In this conversation with Rosenberg, he reflects on how the American and global crisis of democracy has accelerated in ways even worse than he predicted three years ago. The factors that have empowered right-wing populism in the U.S. and across the West, he says, include a deep public yearning for authoritarian and "strongman" leaders and the simple solutions they offer for complex problems. Illiberal movements are also compelling for those who are attracted to violence and destruction, especially against groups they perceive as the Other.

Rosenberg warns that this crisis is rooted in a failed educational system, a broken civic culture and a widespread lack of the basic critical-thinking tools required to deal with complex questions of politics and policy. He argues that most Americans (and perhaps most people overall) do not understand the fundamental principle of liberal democracy and why it is preferable to autocratic and/or authoritarian systems. That problem is profound, he says, and resists any easy solutions.

At the end of this conversation, Rosenberg counsels that despite the grave condition of American democracy, it can still be saved through dramatic reforms in education and the introduction of more expansive and responsive forms of democratic participation and governance.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling about the state of the world and the global crisis of democracy? Several years ago, you predicted how bad things would get with the rise of global fascism and right-wing populism. You were largely ignored.

To me the world is somewhere between disconcerting and scary. Look at the world more broadly, Whatever my concerns may have been back in 2019, the world has continued to evolve in a direction that I was concerned it might. In fact, the world may have even become worse in terms of the prospects for democracy than I warned about in 2019.

I argued that liberal democratic politics is complicated, and populist alternatives offer a vision that is much simpler. All that populism demands is a simple story of cause and effect. All one needs to do is act: Authoritarian power is the solution.

This populist vision also has a very simple story about society and identity. In this story, social groups are natural. We think of them categorically. They don't have lots of overlap. In-groups and out-groups are distinct. Evaluative judgments are binary, a simple black-and-white story. There is good and bad. It's not a judgment in the sense of a subjective judgment. This way of thinking offers simple understandings of what is objectively true and what is not true, and is therefore deemed to be less valuable.

Populist ways of thinking about the world are ultimately just a lot simpler than the complexities of thinking about action as having multiple causes and consequences, thinking about groups being inherently diverse and overlapping, and thinking of judgment as a subjective, tentative thing. All of that is way too complicated for populists. Most people, not all, naturally incline toward that simpler vision if it is offered to them.

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We tend to think about groups in negative terms, and when you're making evaluative judgments about things, they tend to be dualistic, black-and-white and unequivocal. That type of populist thinking was marginalized for a long time. What were once unacceptable ways of talking about politics are now part of the global discourse, and people are attracted to them. Many people do not really understand what liberal democracy is and why it is important, so they ultimately end up choosing populist alternatives.

Ultimately, that outcome is an ironic result of the greater openness of the public sphere and the democratic arena of ideas, where more people are empowered to make choices on their own. The gatekeepers have lost control.

Your 2019 article about right-wing populism and the twilight of Western liberal democracy got some popular attention and then, as the news cycle kept churning, the mainstream media moved on. What happened?

The pandemic put a huge damper on everything. The level of activity in the academic world from 2020 to 2022 was probably half of what it normally is. Even as they watched Donald Trump in the United States or Boris Johnson in England or the right-wing populists taking power in Italy and Hungary, my fellow academics rejected the argument on two grounds.

Academics, by and large, are strong supporters of liberal democracy and therefore have a normative commitment to it. The idea that liberal democracy may not be working on a fundamental level is hard for them to accept. I was also suggesting that the Achilles heel of democracy is that the people, meaning the citizenry, do not understand the larger political and governmental system and its values. On a fundamental level, they do not understand democracy, which is why they are susceptible to a populist message.

Academics, by and large, are strong supporters of liberal democracy and have a normative commitment to it. The idea that it may not be working on a fundamental level is hard for them to accept.

Some of my peers rebutted my thesis. They said I was arguing that people are genetically incapable of democracy, I'm not saying that. My argument is that the educational system, in combination with the demands placed on citizens by the political system in Western democracies, have failed to educate the public to understand complex questions of society and politics.  

Many people do not understand the importance of the rule of law or why the division of powers in government matters or why open and respectful debate is so important to a healthy democracy and society.

But there's no escaping the fact that things are getting worse in terms of global democracy. For example, [Hungarian leader] Viktor Orbán can talk openly about how there shouldn't be mixing of the races, and then be invited as the keynote speaker at the CPAC meeting in Texas.

Europe has a long history of various kinds of fascist regimes coming to power. For many Europeans, my concerns and thesis are more realistic. The vast majority of American academics are still hanging onto the notion that this populist moment is just a bump in the road and there has to be some kind of correction back to democracy as we understand it. I think that's dead wrong.

Definitions are critical here. What is "liberal democracy"?

There is a fundamental notion of free and equal citizens. Government should reflect the will of the people, and the people have a way of asserting themselves over the government. A liberal democracy is also based on a recognition that in ensuring our freedom and equality, we have to protect ourselves both from each other and from government. Power should be constrained in a way that protects individual rights and liberties.

One way to accomplish these outcomes is through the rule of law. The law must also constrain everybody, those with power and those without power. There should also be institutions of government that force leaders to be responsive to the people. Elections are one of the ways that power is reined in and leaders are held accountable.

A liberal democracy should also be an arrangement where individuals work together, and that is best facilitated through communicating with one another in an open and respectful way. A democratic civil society and the public sphere depend upon a free flow of information and the possibility of expressing alternative visions and debating those visions.

Populism asserts that the people should have power — but they exercise that power by having a leader who crystallizes and reflects their will, mostly without restraint. The line between leadership and "the people" gets really blurred. The people entrust the leader to exercise power in whatever way he deems appropriate on their behalf. There is very little question about what those collective interests are. Everybody's supposed to just know it, because "we the people" are largely homogeneous. We share common characteristics, common beliefs and common values. Anybody who doesn't share those values or characteristics is not really a member of society and the polity. Such people are deemed to be complete outsiders to the political process, or even enemies of it.

Under populism, individuals or groups who disagree with the leader and "the people" are judged to be either stupid or evil, and there's no debating with them. You just have to control them or dominate them.

What is the difference between "good" populism and "bad" populism? Am I assuming a difference where one does not really exist?

Some people would argue that liberal democratic politics, properly understood, is actually populist because it does believe in "power to the people" and a broadly encompassing notion of who "the people" are.

Populism asserts that the people should have power — but they exercise that power by having a strong leader who crystallizes and reflects their will, mostly without restraint. The line between leadership and "the people" gets really blurred.

What's really distinctive about right-wing populism is that it has a very narrow, nativist notion of who the people are. They're homogeneous, and that's it. Whereas left-wing populism is much more inclusive. It allows for diversity. The problem, and this is what emerged, for example, with [former president] Hugo Chávez and [current president] Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, is that some forms of left-wing populism are also anti-liberal democratic. That almost doesn't exist in the United States.

In the United States, most left-wing movements try to operate within the system and believe, "The system itself is sort of OK. It clearly is being distorted in a variety of ways, but we can marshal popular support to make sure that the system operates ideally, in the way that it was intended to, so that it is inclusive, it does provide for equality, etc."

One could reasonably argue that left-wing movements in the United States are always trying to expand the terrain of liberal democracy. They believe in the freedom of the individual. They believe in diversity. They believe in trying to make a government responsive to the diversity of who the people really are. Left-wing movements in America believe that freedom needs to be protected and that equality under the law to maximize freedom and democracy must be safeguarded.

What did you see on Jan. 6, with Trump's coup attempt and the lethal terrorist attack on the Capitol?

Jan. 6 was an extraordinary violation of American democracy. From the rejection of the election results through the Big Lie and other machinations through to Jan. 6 itself was essentially an attempt to usurp the rule of law and democracy.

Donald Trump and other Republican leaders have weaponized the idea that the rule of law, democracy and democratic norms and institutions do not matter, because all that matters is the end result. Winning at any cost. You go for what you believe is right, and you get it in whatever way you can.

It's one thing to have that percolating in the underbelly of America's political culture. It's another thing to have a president of the United States legitimating it, as we saw with Donald Trump on Jan. 6 and beyond.

How do we explain to the American people that Trump and the Republicans and other neofascists are not playing — that this is deadly serious and not just a game or a performance? Today's Republican Party and the larger right wing really want a tyrant or king, and reject democracy.

Trump's followers would not call him a tyrant. They would just say that he is a strong leader. That distinction is very important. I have done research which shows that almost 60% of Americans support a strong leader, and believe that you should be quiet and support him even if you disagree with what he is doing.

It's not that large parts of the American public are inherently evil or bad. It's just that when they look around at the world, they don't understand what's going on. They don't understand why it's so hard to solve some of these problems we're facing, why it's so hard to govern and why they're supposed to respect people who they believe are obviously wrong. There is also a great anxiety about diversity, in its many forms. They truly believe that if you want a country and society that functions properly, it should be homogeneous. Diversity doesn't work. Diversity is a disaster.

Right-wing populism offers simple answers and simple solutions and simple characterizations of what the world is like. Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and other such Republican leaders are offering that vision and those answers.

How did the type of political violence that we saw on Jan. 6 and throughout the Age of Trump, and that is continuing to escalate in this country, become normalized so quickly?

For many in this country, the idea of getting violent with people who are "bad" and "wrong," or are not "good Americans," is acceptable.

There is a long-standing belief among some that violence is acceptable if it is done for the right reasons. For example, too many people believe that if you are a "good Christian" and the other guy isn't, then you take away his rights. If he persists, then you burn down his house or you beat him up. Ultimately, you kill him. That is certainly an extreme position, yet it still exists even in the liberal democratic tradition.

Unfortunately, for many in this country, the idea of getting violent with people who are "bad" and "wrong," or are not "good Americans," is acceptable. These prohibitions against political violence are very much a post-World War II phenomenon. At present, there is now a right-wing element in the United States who say, "No, that's just weakness."

Right-wing populism is fun. Fascism is destruction, and destruction is exciting. Trumpism and its violence is fun and often entertaining for participants. Responsible citizenship in mature democracy requires hard work. Talking about policy is not fun, and often boring. Understanding current events in a serious and honest way is work. Fascism, right-wing populism and other forms of authoritarianism reflect a deep cultural problem that goes beyond normative debates about ideology and governance.

Yes, it is fun for them, partly because it's simple and it is based on action. People want to do something.

How do we create a healthier democracy in the United States? What can the average American do on a day-to-day basis?

I am optimistic. I believe that there are solutions to the problem. We need to fix a broken educational system. The average American has trouble having productive discussions with people they disagree with and who are different from them. They're also not very good at reflecting on their own values and beliefs. The average American is also not very good in terms of critical thinking and understanding general principles.

We need to create an educational system that prepares adults to effectively negotiate the complexities of democratic life. We also need to broaden our understanding of what democracy is, beyond just voting. For the most part, you vote for candidates, and most people end up voting for their candidate either on the basis of a single issue, or they really have no idea at all and they're just voting for the party or their group identity.

America needs more deliberative democracy, and institutions and structures from the local level on up that will empower citizens to become more active. In the end, the American people need to be more involved in their own self-government.

Imagine you are the doctor of democracy and America is your patient. What is your assessment?

The patient is not terminal, but the patient is not stable either. They are moving toward critical condition.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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