Contemporary democracies suffers from an, as yet, incurable disease that is spreading worldwide, according to political science professor Russell Dalton, director of the UCI Center for the Study of Democracy.
“People’s confidence in politicians and their government continues to decline,” says Dalton. “It’s not just an American phenomenon. It’s happening across all Western democratic countries. And no one has figured out how to turn it around. We know this is going to change democracy, but we don’t know just how.”
Dalton has spent years conducting and analyzing public opinion information from United States and other Western democracies. While trust in government has recently surged higher in the United States in the wake of September 11, Dalton expects that this is a temporary reaction while the nation is engaged in conflict. And this increase in political trust is not occurring in other Western democracies.
“Russ mixes a passion for the virtues of democratic governance with a strong proclivity for empirical data in his scholarly research,” says Mark Petracca, chair of the Department of Political Science. “He is not only interested in furthering important academic debates about the nature of democratization, but in making these debates relevant to the challenges faced by the real world of democratic practice.”
As head of the Center for the Study of Democracy, Dalton also works with other social scientists to research how democracy works and ways to improve it.
“We’re like a center that wants to cure cancer. You have to know what causes cancer before you can cure it. We study how to strengthen the democratic process at home and abroad.”
It comes as little surprise that American democracy is ailing. Political commentators can spew a cascade of causes, from the Vietnam War and Watergate, to the Iran-Contra scandal and political sexual exploits.
While those arguments could hold up for America, Dalton says, they fail to explain why extensive polling shows dissatisfaction in democratic governments from Finland to Italy.
“Look at Sweden. It didn’t have Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon or racial conflicts, yet its trends are the same as here. There’s no single answer. It’s like Murder on the Orient Express, lots of factors and people contribute.
“And it’s not that government is doing worse. The objective reality of politicians is that they are more honest, less corrupt and harder working than 30 years ago. The bigger change is that people expect more of government, which is a common attitude across all the nations we’ve looked at. Democracy may be actually getting better, but people’s expectations are rising even faster.”
Dalton attributes part of this rise to the public’s improved education and sophistication levels, which has lead to “an individualization of politics.” People are more willing to think politically for themselves and to question authority.
Dalton also has found that, even as people have become more cynical of politicians, they have become more committed to democratic principles. As people value democracy more and believe more in the democratic creed, they wonder why politicians aren’t living up to these higher ideals.
“Their ideals of democracy are going up while their satisfaction with democracy is going down,” Dalton says.
The public demands more from government. Until about three decades ago, people expected government only to supply national security and support the economy, he adds.
“Now we want government to protect the environment, take care of women’s rights, worry about the family and promote science. You know you can’t please all the people all the time anymore. It’s the nature of expectations. Look at environmental groups that want to protect everything. If they only get half as much, they are dissatisfied.”
Now that Dalton and his colleagues feel confident about what ails democracy, they are seeking more ways to cure it.
“We’re trying to assemble evidence on how other political systems have responded and what success they’ve found. Do they empower people and make them more confident, or do they just feed the cynicism and make it more difficult?
“This is a time of experimentation and trying to adjust. The old system is passing away, but we don’t know what the new system will look like.”