Comparing Democratic Distress in the United States and Europe

Civis Mundi Digitaal #61

door Saskia Brechenmacher

Liberal democracy is in crisis where it was long thought most securely established. In both Western Europe and the United States, polls suggest voters are losing faith in democratic institutions; polarization and illiberalism appear to be on the rise. A striking feature of this crisis moment is the perception that many of the most pressing political issues are shared conditions of the United States and Europe—a significant change from earlier decades. This perceived convergence raises critical questions: To what extent are current democratic weaknesses in Europe in fact similar to or different from those facing the United States? And what are the most fertile areas for mutual learning and cooperation?

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Shared Challenges

  • Following recent governance crises, popular confidence in political institutions has plummeted to historically low levels on both sides of the Atlantic—particularly among the less educated and less well-off.
  • Many U.S. and European voters are disenchanted with mainstream political parties, which they see as ineffective and out of touch. This groundswell of antiestablishment sentiment has benefited more extremist outsider movements and candidates, triggering greater political polarization and fragmentation.
  • Citizens are finding it harder to determine which news sources are trustworthy and which are not. Deliberate efforts to spread disinformation create new challenges for democratic discourse.
  • Government responses to terrorist threats have triggered new concerns over creeping extensions of executive power. Finding the right balance between security and individual liberty has become increasingly complex, partly due to unsettled questions about citizens’ right to privacy.

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About the Author

Saskia Brechenmacher is an associate fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program, where her research focuses on gender, democracy, and governance, as well as trends in civic activism and civil society repression.