There is often much screaming among conservatives that big government programs — new ones like universal healthcare, universal college education, or guaranteed work, and long-established ones like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare — somehow lead to dictatorship. There is, naturally, no actual evidence for this. The imagined correlation is justified with nothing beyond “that’s socialism, which always becomes totalitarianism,” ignorance already addressed. The experience of advanced democracies around the world, and indeed the U.S. itself, suggests big government programs, run by big departments with big budgets and big staffs helping tens of millions of citizens, can happily coexist alongside elected governing bodies and presidents, constitutions, and human rights, as one would expect.
Threats to democracy come from elsewhere — but what’s interesting to consider is how conservatives have things completely backward. Big government programs — the demonstration that one’s democracy is a government “for the people,” existing to meet citizen needs and desires — are key to beating back the real threats to a republic.
In a recent interview with The Nation, Bernie Sanders touched on this:
“Why it is imperative that we address these issues today is not only because of the issues themselves—because families should not have to spend a huge proportion of their income on child care or sending their kid to college—but because we have got to address the reality that a very significant and growing number of Americans no longer have faith that their government is concerned about their needs,” says the senator. “This takes us to the whole threat of Trumpism and the attacks on democracy. If you are a worker who is working for lower wages today than you did 20 years ago, if you can’t afford to send your kid to college, etc., and if you see the very, very richest people in this country becoming phenomenally rich, you are asking yourself, ‘Who controls the government, and does the government care about my suffering and the problems of my family?’”
Sanders argues that restoring faith in government as a force for good is the most effective way to counter threats to democracy.
And he’s right. Empirical evidence suggests economic crises erode the rule of law and faith in representative democracy. Depressions are not the only force that pushes in this direction, but they are significant and at times a killing blow to democratic systems. Unemployment, low wages, a rising cost of living — hardship and poverty, in other words — drive citizens toward extreme parties and voices, including authoritarians. Such leaders are then elected to office, and begin to dismantle democracy with support of much of the population. Europe in the 1930s is the oft-cited example, but the same has been seen after the global recession beginning in 2008, with disturbing outgrowths of recent declining trust in democracy: the success of politicians with demagogic and anti-democratic bents like Trump, hysteria over fictional stolen elections that threatens to keep unelected people in office, and dangerous far-right parties making gains in Europe. The Eurozone and austerity crisis, the COVID-induced economic turmoil, and more have produced similar concerns.
What about the reverse? If economic disaster harms devotion to real democracy and politicians who believe in it, does the welfare state increase support for and faith in democracy? Studies also suggest this is so. Government tackling poverty through social programs increases satisfaction with democratic systems! The perception that inequality is rising and welfare isn’t doing enough to address it does the exact opposite. A helping hand increases happiness, and is expected from democracies, inherently linking favorability views on republics and redistribution. If we wish to inoculate the citizenry against authoritarian candidates and anti-democratic practices within established government, shoring up loyalty to democracy through big government programs is crucial.
It is as Sanders said: the most important thing for the government to do to strengthen our democracy and even heal polarization (“Maybe the Democrats putting $300 per child per month in my bank account aren’t so evil”), is simply to help people. To work for and serve all. Healthcare, education, income support, jobs…such services help those on the Right, Left, and everyone in between. This should be done whether there is economic bust or boom. People hold fast to democracy, a government of and by the people, when it is clearly a government for the people. If we lose the latter, so too the former.