Democracy is on Life Support

Meet the Professor Who is Pulling the Plug

Liberal democracy has a doomsday prophet and his name is Shawn Rosenberg.

The professor of political science and psychological science at the University of California Irvine says all we need to do is look around for evidence that well-established democracies are on a downward trajectory to inevitable ruin.

From the election of Donald Trump to Brexit to Marine LePen and Poland’s Freedom and Justice Party, populist politicians who promote national unity defined by legal status — and underscored by xenophobia — have seemingly magnetic appeal.

Right wing populism, Rosenberg says, increasingly offers citizens a simple framework with which to view their nation and their place in it. In contrast, participating in a liberal democracy is hard work. And most people aren’t up to the task.

“Being a participant in liberal democracy requires … a considerable amount of cognitive sophistication and emotional maturity,” Rosenberg said in a recent telephone interview.

“Cognitive sophistication in the sense of recognizing some of the complexity of problems and being able to negotiate the differences of perspective that different citizens have. And emotional maturity to be able to deal with both of those things and just the uncertainties inherent in that.”

Forget the notion that democracy corrects itself. Forget that democracy lifted the U.S. out of the Great Depression and allowed workers to unionize. Forget that democracy champions a free press that holds the powerful accountable.

Rise of Populism

The Canadian-born Rosenberg — who describes his political leanings as liberal progressive — argues the rise of populism is a response to the inability of citizens to meet the demands of a system where power is supposed to be vested in the people.

He outlines his argument in “Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism,” a paper to be published in the forthcoming book “Psychology of Political and Everyday Extremisms.”

Rosenberg made a splash when he delivered the paper last summer at the annual meeting of the International Society of Political Psychologists in Lisbon.

Identity and gender politics aided by social media have diminished the elites who once controlled access to the halls of power, he argues. “So Democracy succeeded in my view because it was largely undemocratic,” Rosenberg said.

“Those cigar smoking white men in back rooms no longer control the parties and the most dramatic example of that was the election of Donald Trump, who was basically a pariah for all of the Republican elite and still managed to capture the nomination,” he said.

The Role of Authority Figures

People naturally rely on authority figures to help them make sense of the world and their place in it, according to Rosenberg.

“Alone the individual lacks meaning, value, direction and strength needed to confront a dangerous world fraught with confusion and uncertainty,” he wrote in his paper. “The nation gives them their knowledge of what is true and right, It thus supplies certainty and direction. It endows them with a social position and thus imbues them with meaning and worth.”

Fear and anxiety characterize this deeply emotional connection between individual and nation, creating a symbiotic relationship where “the individual remains submissive,” Rosenberg wrote.

But the result is a “coherent social and psychological system” that people will prefer over one where they must constantly negotiate conflicting relationships among citizens of different demographic categories.

Rosenberg predicted the collapse of liberal democracy will happen in his own lifetime.

For the record, Rosenberg is 68. His father lived to 97 and his mother was alive and well and still working at age 92.

“The direction which all this is going, if we’re talking about the U.S. in particular, maybe 15, 20 years,” Rosenberg says. “Central European countries a lot less.”

Rosenberg made a name for himself with a study published in the American Journal of Political Science in 1986 that found better looking political candidates received significantly more votes in a series of mock elections.

But the attention his paper received after Rosenberg’s Lisbon lecture was covered in POLITICO Magazine caught him off guard. He hadn’t realized a journalist was in the audience.

Response Has Been Divided

“As to the response, unsurprisingly it’s been extraordinarily divided,” he says.

Some people suggested the concerns he raised were valid. Others voiced strong objections, including those who called Rosenberg an elitist.

Is he?

“No, definitely not,” Rosenberg replied.

“I think Hillary Clinton’s comment about deplorables in America was deplorable. I mean this notion of retaining respect for individuals not only independent of their beliefs but also independent of their capacities as realized to date is absolutely critical.”

How does Rosenberg rate his own intellectual capacities?

“Relatively high. Absolutely,” he said. “If Yale, Harvard, Oxford as an education, (living in) multiple countries … ,dealing with diverse publics most of my life, if that doesn’t do it, nothing will.”

There is plenty of news fodder depicting the general public as largely clueless about American civics. A quarter of adults can name only one of the three branches of government and more than a fifth can’t name any, according to a 2019 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The 2019 American Bar Association Survey of Civic Literacy found one third of respondents age 18-44 couldn’t identify the president as commander in chief.

The college-educated are unlikely to have been exposed to the cornerstones of basic civics. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s last survey of college general education curricula found that 82 percent of colleges do not require a foundational course in U.S. government or history. The American educational system needs a fundamental overhaul, Rosenberg said.

He says his students don’t think adequately about the kinds of questions and issues presented in the classes he teaches in political ideology and political psychology.

“What I am trying to do is help them to get to the point where they do and I do that as an act of deep respect,” he says.

“They have this potential and that potential is only realized in relationship to others and I can play hopefully some role in that.”



Democracy is on Life Support

Janine Weisman

Janine Weisman is a journalist based in Newport, Rhode Island who frequently writes about mental health. Find her on twitter @J9Weisman.


APA Reference
Weisman, J. (2020). Democracy is on Life Support. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 7 Feb 2020
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 7 Feb 2020
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