Democracy is dying. At least, that’s the stark warning from lettered political scholar and University of California, Irvine Professor Shawn Rosenberg. What’s more, there’s not much that can be done to save it.

Rosenberg delivered this dire prediction during a speech before the annual meeting of the International Society of Political Psychologists in Lisbon and, according to chronicler Rick Shenkman, his fatalism was forcefully criticized. Nevertheless, Rosenberg was adamant. Democracy (defined as Western-style representative government in its various iterations) is at war with human nature, he insisted, and human nature will one day win out.

That warning comes as no shock to the classically educated or those with a proper appreciation for the Founding generation’s anxieties. “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates,” James Madison wrote, “every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” But it isn’t just any sort of heedless populism that is condemning representative government to the ash heap, according to Rosenberg. The threat is exclusively coming from the right and its mesmeric hold over the West’s increasingly reactionary voters.

Rosenberg’s thesis, in Shenkman’s telling, is that the West fails to channel the public’s destructive instincts through properly managed moderating institutions. The decline of elites and expert classes has democratized social and governing institutions, and so “millions of frustrated and angst-filled voters have turned in desperation to right-wing populists.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to separate Rosenberg’s justified apprehension over institutional rot from his hostility toward the politics of the people currently managing those institutions. He says,“Right-wing populist politicians” have taken power or are amassing it all over the Western world. Representative democracy cannot compete with “right-wing populist governments that offer voters simple answers to complicated questions.” “Right-wing populists” enjoy a set of unfair advantages, including the fact that their pitch strikes an emotional chord so “they don’t have to make much sense.” But their most potent source of leverage is derived from the fact that the public is unfit and disinclined to govern itself. “When people are left to make political decisions on their own they drift toward the simple solutions right-wing populists worldwide offer,” Shenkman wrote, “a deadly mix of xenophobia, racism, and authoritarianism.”

It doesn’t take a discerning reader to detect a note of embittered condescension in this message—a fuel that fires the engines of grievance animating many populist movements. That is not unusual; no self-respecting republican is without a healthy mistrust of the demos. In that sense, though, Rosenberg might be engaging in a category error. What he appears to lament isn’t just populism but the implosion of the consensus around classical liberalism among the very elites whose absence from the political stage he mourns.

If Rosenberg’s complaint was a consistent one, he’d spare some regret for the unhealthy democratization that has until recently been a project of the left. The populist politicians who have risen to the fore in the United States got there as a result of Democrat-initiated reforms designed to weaken institutionalized political parties and empower voters. The one-party state that is California is all but governed by plebiscite—conscripting citizens to litigate complex issues ranging from ammunition regulation to prescription drug pricing. The presidential primary season is culminating in an ill-conceived bidding war among progressive aspirants who propose to expand the ranks of those enrolled in America’s underfunded liabilities, cancel a mountain of privately held debt, and reorient the productive economy away from economic productivity and toward subsistence. These are the same “simple answers to complicated questions” Rosenberg resents when they are proffered by the right.

The ascension of far-right political factions in Europe is mirrored by the advance of radical left populist parties like Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza. Left-wing defenders of the Bolivarian revolution have abandoned good governance in favor of raw power politics. And nothing screams populism like the British Labour Party’s cognitive devolution, the symptoms of which include its total embrace of Clement Attlee’s anachronistic industrial policies. If Rosenberg regrets how the enlightened international center-left is disempowered to debunk the “conspiracy theories” that haunt the populist mind, he must be deeply troubled by the revitalization of the oldest conspiracy theory in Labour’s ranks: anti-Semitism.

Rosenberg believes that the wave of classically liberal sentiment that crested in the late 1980s and began to recede in this decade will leave the world with fewer and fewer genuinely republican democracies. That may be so, but the political psychology professor places all the blame on the shoulders of voters and not on the political systems those voters no longer trust. Would the European Union be coming apart today if the institution hadn’t been captured by an imperious few who summarily dismissed concerns about waning national sovereignty among its member states? Can Donald Trump’s unlikely assumption of the American presidency be decoupled from the pronounced recession that followed the collapse of the economy amid a spree of unsound lending? Shenkman acknowledges, though perhaps unwittingly, the contradiction when noting that the rise of illiberal elements around the world includes a spike in “racist crimes” following Germany’s decision to allow one million Middle Eastern migrants to settle in the Federal Republic. It may offend the pieties within the academy, but the reckless subversion of familiar and conventional sources of social cohesion will produce a backlash.

Republican political structures expanded into societies that had never known them over the course of the last century. And yet, democracy’s expansion was not measured in one unwavering arc but a series of fits and starts. The Enlightenment’s preferred political structures yielded a monarchist backlash in the mid-18th century fueled, in part, by the excesses of the French Enlightenment’s year-zero mentality. The early 20th century’s European democracies collapsed amid the wreckage of the First World War and the Great Depression. Even today, as comfortable Westerners complain about the classical-liberal consensus, the citizens of Hong Kong fly the American flag as they demand the codification of rights their Western counterparts take for granted.

Perhaps Rosenberg’s argument is done no service by Shenkman’s recapitulation, but the professor’s uneasiness with modern political trends, while justified, is self-serving. If there is to be a reversal of these trends, it will come as a result of a collective crisis of confidence among responsible institutional stewards. Rosenberg’s fatalism about the irreversible nature of this trend is a comforting conceit. If you’re already resolved to avoid introspection, it helps to convince yourself that reflection is a pointless exercise.

Shifting Blame for Democracy’s Downfall via @commentarymagazine
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