The Good Fight

The Strongman Gap

The good news: Trump is curing Americans of their desire for a strongman leader. The bad news: It’s becoming a partisan issue.

U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Mark Wilson/Getty Images and Thinkstock.

Wakanda, the fictional and harmonious African country portrayed in the new movie Black Panther, has served as an escape fantasy for many Americans who are dismayed by the bigotry and rank incompetence of Donald Trump’s America. So it’s worth noting one of Wakanda’s most basic but rarely discussed features: It is a kingdom, not a democracy. The film’s hero, T’Challa, is a hereditary ruler, not an elected statesman. Even progressive writers who conjure up a better political world seem to find the idea of making it a democracy a little too far-fetched to be believable. When America dreams of a better future, it turns to that age-old fantasy of a benevolent dictator.

It is with this depressing realization on my mind that I turned to reading what is perhaps the most comprehensive study to date of public perceptions of democracy in the Trump era. Written by Lee Drutman, Larry Diamond, and Joe Goldman, it tries to answer a question first raised in work by Roberto Foa and me: Are citizens now so angry at the failings of their political institutions that they are growing increasingly disenchanted with democracy itself? Is this problem especially pronounced among the young? And what implications does that have for the future stability of our political system? (I present a lot of this work in my new book, The People vs. Democracy.)

Building on a new representative survey, the authors find both some moderately good and thoroughly bad news.

The good news is that Donald Trump seems to be healing some Americans of their long-standing desire for a strongman. As we showed in our original article, the share of respondents who wish for a “strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections” has been rising for the better parts of two decades. And while this increase was marked among all age groups, it was especially prevalent among the young. That trend has now broken. Perhaps in response to the authoritarian leanings of the president, the number of Americans who wish for a strongman leader has now receded back to the levels recorded in 1995. And this fall was especially marked among younger voters, who are also likely to hold the most negative views of Donald Trump.

Unfortunately, there are also two important pieces of bad news.

The first of these is that Americans’ attitudes about democracy are rapidly polarizing along partisan lines. Whereas liberals and conservatives held anti-democratic views at roughly equal levels in previous surveys, self-described conservatives are now much more likely to favor a strongman leader than their more liberal peers.

Figure 10: Percentages Favoring a Strong Leader and Open to Democratic Alternatives by Ideology
Democracy Fund Voter Study Group

The report by Diamond, Drutman, and Goldman also suggests that the rise of Donald Trump is one of the big reasons for that. Thirty-two percent of Americans who supported Trump in the primaries favor a strongman leader, for example; among those who voted for Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, less than 20 percent did.

Interestingly, the preference for a strong leader was especially pronounced among voters who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but switched their allegiance to Donald Trump in 2016. Clearly, the appeal for a strongman was a significant part of the reason why Trump was able to clinch the presidency.

Figure 18: Percentages Favoring a Strong Leader and Open to Democratic Alternatives by 2012-2016 Voting Pattern
Democracy Fund Voter Study Group

The second piece of bad news is that young people are continuing to grow frustrated with the current system at alarming rates. Indeed, though they are less tempted by a strongman leader than their elders, they are also far more likely to say that democracy may not be preferable to other political systems. While only 15 percent of Americans over the age of 65 held this view, for example, about twice as many people below the age of 30 were open to non-democratic alternatives. (One caveat: Because of survey methodology, data for people below the age of 23 was not available.)

Democracy Fund Voter Study Group
Democracy Fund Voter Study Group

What emerges, then, is a subtle picture. On the one hand, many Americans may be starting to take warnings about the imminent dangers to democracy to heart. They are more likely now than a few years ago to recognize the danger posed by a strongman leader, and seem to be recommitting to the importance of living in a democracy as a result.

On the other hand, a commitment to the basic rules, norms, and institutions of our democratic system had once been a nonpartisan value; now, it is increasingly becoming a distinguishing characteristic of Trump’s opponents. Meanwhile, a lot of young people reject Trump out of hand—but are also growing so frustrated with the evident failings of democracy that they are more and more open to authoritarian alternatives.

It is tempting to look at young Americans’ rejection of Donald Trump and conclude that the kids are all right. But a look at both the data in this important survey, and the recent election results across Europe, should disabuse us of that notion. Last year, French youngsters voted for both the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the far-right Marine Le Pen in record numbers. Last week, Italian youngsters voted for both the ideologically amorphous Five Star Movement and the far-right League in even greater numbers.

In short, young Americans’ rejection of the particular populist who currently holds the office of president is pretty thorough. But their rejection of populism, or indeed their hankering for a political system that dispenses with all the evident frustrations and inefficiencies of liberal democracy, is not.