The enemy within: How bad citizens threaten the future of our democracy

There is such a thing as being a bad citizen, even among people we might otherwise think of as good neighbors

Democracy, in its raw form, is about counting votes. Liberal democracy is about much more than that.

Choices made at the ballot box reflect the values and beliefs of the people casting those votes, which is why Election Day itself is often less important than what took place on all the other days before it. If citizens approach voting with a purely mercenary sense of self-interest and devoid of any sense of civic responsibility, liberal democracy cannot last long. There might still be elections, but they will be a collection of shams and illiberal plebiscites, and the history of such exercises in other nations shows that this kind of voting does not mean very much. No society can maintain a good democracy — one that respects human rights and puts the needs of the individual over the interests of the state — if it must rely on a population of bad citizens. 

Raúl Arias

What does it mean to think of our neighbors as bad citizens? Even to ask the question feels wrong. “Good citizenship” awards are for children; adults do the best they can while balancing busy lives.

To judge the civic behavior of our neighbors feels, well, judgmental. It certainly feels that way to me: I am an ordinary man with manifest personal and political failings, and I have done any number of things, including ballots I have cast, that I regret. (No, I’m not going to list them. I’m glad that the voting booth keeps our secrets.) Who are any of us to turn to the next person and blame them for the decline of our system of government?

Worse, such recriminations tend to result in platitudes that only sound like so much moral hectoring: “Be a conscientious voter. Show up for elections. Think about the future.” If any of us were that easily advised to become paragons of civic rectitude, we wouldn’t need democratic institutions, including the myriad social and political organizations whose aim is to encourage us to be better people in the first place. This is the kind of advice that ends up being something like a lesson with a golf pro who keeps telling you to keep your arm straight and your head down — if you could do that, you wouldn’t be paying a coach.

This discomfort is one reason why it comes more naturally to all of us to blame “the system.” When we feel like things are going wrong and our institutions seem to be failing us, the last thing anyone wants to hear about is their own part in it all and how they could have served those institutions better. 

But there is such a thing as being a bad citizen, even among people we might otherwise think of as good neighbors. When we disengage from society and ignore our civic obligations, we are bad citizens. When we listen only to those with whom we already agree and believe anyone else is wrong as a matter of first principles, we are bad citizens. When we insist on one standard of treatment from the government and the law for ourselves and for people whom we happen to like, and a different standard for others, we are bad citizens. When we continually blame the world around us for our nation’s troubles while refusing to consider whether we’ve had any part in them, we are bad citizens. And when we only do what’s best for ourselves, we are not citizens at all, but rather we become mercenaries, loose in the ship of state and plundering the hold, with no interest in our direction and no regard for our eventual survival.

Genuine civic spirit is not the same thing as mere sociability. It’s easy for most of us to be pleasant and sociable. We wave cheerfully at our neighbors from our driveways or nod politely to each other in our shared elevators and hallways. When we move into the public arena, however, we might find that we are only neighbors. Suddenly, we are aware that our disagreements are over more than taxes or potholes. We may find that we do not agree on things that are far more important to us. It might be immigration, or abortion, or minority rights, or civil liberties. It might be over how to defend ourselves against a foreign threat or measures to protect the health of the public. Our political differences, at that moment, become differences over basic values. The people with whom we thought we had so much in common turn out to be the nicest people we’ve ever disliked.

AP Photo/John Locher, File

The temptation at such moments is to withdraw into ourselves and to take part in the political process purely as a matter of self-interest or even self-defense. We seek our own good and then retreat to our sanctum with our families. But as Hannah Arendt long ago reminded us, the Greek root of the word “idiot” comes from the word “idion,” meaning things pertaining only to oneself as opposed to the common good. Even in the city-states of ancient Greece, those who cared only about themselves and were unwilling to contribute to the efforts of the community were judged to be bad citizens, insofar as one could think of them as “citizens” at all. The city was more than a collection of households, it was a living thing in itself, one that had to be tended by the public or lost. To be unable or unwilling to understand this was, literally, to be an idiot.

Readers who love their families (and who might not care very much about their neighbors) could well stop here and say: What’s wrong with that? After all, who puts the welfare of strangers over their own family? What would it even look like not to act this way?

We don’t have to imagine what a society plagued by daily mistrust and the absence of a commitment to liberal democratic values might look like. There are plenty of examples around the world, from Russia to Colombia to Nigeria. There are any number of permutations in which societies are run by informal arrangements, corruption, kinship, tribal loyalty or other arrangements that fill the vacuum left by the absence of shared norms, the rule of law and civic commitment.

But one example in particular provides a warning for the citizens of the democracies, including the United States. It is a small Italian village nestled in the hills just above the ankle of Italy’s boot, and in the 1950s it was full of warm and charming people who were wonderful company. But they did not care very much about democracy and could not for the life of them make their town work, economically or politically. They cared very deeply about their own children, but almost not at all about those of other people. They were more willing to rent a mule for farmwork than to hire their fellow townspeople for the same price.

Their experience was long ago and far away, and yet life in their village should sound familiar — and worrying — to Americans, as well as to the citizens of the other liberal democracies. 

In the late 1940s, a young man named Edward Banfield switched careers after a stint in government. Initially an optimist about the role of government and planning, his work with the Farm Security Administration during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal gave him second thoughts, and he headed for the University of Chicago, where he wrote a dissertation about farmers in a U.S. government program in Casa Grande, Arizona. More specifically, he wrote about how the inability of the farmers to cooperate with each other undermined the project. He then did a similar examination of farmers in Gunlock, Utah, but he still was puzzled not only by the question of why people who had every reason to work together refused to do so, but also why this problem seemed mostly impervious to government intervention.

Banfield decided to look abroad for more answers. In 1956, he and his family headed for Italy and settled for several months in the village of Chiaromonte — a place, as he described it, of such “extreme poverty and backwardness” that Banfield chose to protect the town’s identity with a pseudonym: “Montegrano.” Banfield arrived in Montegrano only a decade after the end of World War II, 11 years after Benito Mussolini had been hung by his heels and 10 years after Italy’s last king, Umberto, was told far more gently that his services were no longer needed. Montegrano was part of a republic, a nation stitched together from Italy’s fractious regions, and hardly a perfect democracy. But Italy was also a founding member of NATO and one of the first members of the European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union. It was a country in which the citizens had the right to express their views freely — as if anyone could prevent Italians from doing otherwise — along with the other basic guarantees of a democratic nation. There was even an active and sizable Communist Party, although during the early period of the Cold War, the Communists were kept from power by various coalitions led by the Christian Democrats — along with some secret infusions of cash to anti-communist politicians from the American intelligence agencies.

Both the United States and Italy in the 1950s were free nations, at least to judge from the constitutional guarantees of civil and human rights, and the noisy and active public spaces in both countries. Despite the formal similarities between two Western democracies, however, Banfield could see immediately that something was amiss in this little corner of Italy. “Democracy” in Italy did not mean what it did in America, a nation at that time full of active civic, religious and social organizations. All of these associations seemed to be missing in places like Montegrano. Banfield had seen the effects of the lack of trust and cooperation among the farmers of Arizona and Utah, but these problems were even worse in Italy. The townspeople were poor and mistrustful, and they were destined, it seemed, to stay that way. Things were so bad in Montegrano that when Banfield wrote a book about the village, he titled the work “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society.” (You can see why he was kind enough to change the name of the village.)

In effect, Banfield said that development was blocked in Montegrano and other backward places not because of the government, or capitalism or socialism or any other “ism,” but by the people who lived there. Democracy in such places was just a word; the townspeople were free, of course, but they lacked the fundamental moral qualities that make democracy work and allow citizens to cooperate, to respect each other’s rights and to regard each other as members of a community, rather than to act like brutish children playing a game of musical chairs. Scholars now refer to these horizontal relationships among people as “social capital,” the reservoir of trust and goodwill that allows citizens not only to advance together but also to endure the inevitable bad times without turning on each other, and towns like Banfield’s Montegrano had precious little of it.

When Americans think of a small commune in Italy, they probably think of a town much as Montegrano looked to Banfield at the time, with Mediterranean sunlight shining down on artisans and farmers, and the gentle southern Italian mountains holding lovely white stone homes in a reassuring embrace. The reality was far less appealing, as Banfield wrote: 

There are no organized voluntary charities in Montegrano. An order of nuns struggles to maintain an orphanage for little girls in the remains of an ancient monastery, but this is not a local undertaking. The people of Montegrano contribute nothing to the support of it, although the children come from local families.

... There is not enough food for the children, but no peasant or landed proprietor has ever given a young pig to the orphanage.

There are two churches in town. ... The churches do not carry on charitable or welfare activities, and they play no part at all in the secular life of the community.

... The doctor, although he has called upon the government to provide a hospital, has not arranged an emergency room or even equipped his own office. The pharmacist, a government-licensed monopolist, gives an absolute minimum of service at extremely high prices. ...

Most people, however, say that no one in Montegrano is particularly public spirited, and some find the idea of public spiritedness unintelligible. 

The local teacher was even more blunt and despairing when asked about civic involvement. Many people positively want to prevent others from getting ahead, the young educator told Banfield. “Truly, I have found no one who interests himself in the general welfare. On the contrary, I know there is tremendous envy of either money or intelligence.”

Banfield created a term for this kind of civic disengagement, an academic mouthful that we will note in passing and then leave aside: “amoral familism.” Basically, it means a society in which people act in their own interest without regard to any moral code other than what they believe is best for them and their families. Civic involvement in such a society is a waste of time, a snare for suckers. In a place like Montegrano, Banfield observed, values greater than the self and the family are mostly irrelevant, because there is “no connection between abstract political principle,” on the one hand, and “concrete behavior in the ordinary relationships” among the townspeople, on the other. It is a society in which people think that what’s good for the family is the only real rule of politics, and ideas like “democracy” or “socialism” or “communism” are mostly just so much noise. 

In the 2016 election, some voters saw Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as different wings of the same establishment. | AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Montegrano was in southern Italy, and it is no accident that the most extreme version of this kind of thinking is at the root of the Italian Mafia mentality, in which the clan is more important than anything else. To see an excellent depiction of “amoral familism,” think of the final scene of the 1974 movie “The Godfather Part II,” written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, both Italian Americans from immigrant families.

Set in 1941, the youngest son of the Corleone crime family, Michael, is talking to his older brother Sonny about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sonny — who is no coward and often exhibits great physical bravery — nonetheless thinks the men now crowding the military recruitment stations are “saps.” Michael, born and raised in the United States, asks Sonny why he thinks this way. “They’re saps because they risk their lives for strangers,” Sonny answers. When Michael says they’re risking their lives for their country, Sonny says: “Your country ain’t your blood. You remember that.” When Michael reveals he has dropped out of Dartmouth and enlisted in the Marines, Sonny is so enraged that he attacks him.

In Montegrano, Banfield found that civic life reflected a basic rule expressed in one form or another by all of the villagers: “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.” These Italians lived by a purely transactional code, according to which every man used “his ballot to secure the greatest material gain in the short run.” Nothing else was remotely as important. “Although he may have decided views as to his long-run interest, his class interest, or the public interest,” Banfield wrote, “these will not affect his vote if the family’s short run, material advantage is in any way involved.”

It is difficult to govern a town like Montegrano, insofar as it can be “governed” at all. There are elected offices, but no one trusts anyone else to hold them. This is just as well, since being a local official was hardly an honor and certainly not a vehicle for improving the life of the town. Mostly, democratic politics produced misery for everyone involved. 

“In Montegrano and nearby towns an official is hardly elected before the voters turn violently against him,” Banfield wrote. “As soon as he gets into office, his supporters say — often with much justice — he becomes arrogant, self-serving and corrupt. At the next election, or sooner if possible, they will see that he gets what is coming to him. In Montegrano there is no better way to lose friends than to be elected to office.”

This is not an environment that encourages talented or virtuous people to engage in public service, even if there were people who understood such positions to be a matter of public service in the first place. The voters projected their own self-centeredness onto their elected officials, because the townspeople knew what they would do with political power, and they assumed that everyone else would do the same. 

The goal in every election was not to return political leaders to office for the public good, but to squeeze out whatever benefits could be gotten in the immediate circumstances.

If this sounds suspiciously like the modern United States or some of the wobblier democracies in Europe, it should. In his time, however, Banfield saw far fewer similarities with the United States. Instead, he contrasted Montegrano with St. George, a community he saw while living in Utah where civic interaction was the order of the day, from the Red Cross to the local farm bureau. Banfield was being a bit too clever here, since St. George was a Latter-day Saint community and was, for religious and cultural reasons, likely to exhibit more civic engagement than most places even by the standards of the United States in the 1950s. The contrast was nonetheless striking, and most of the associations and their goings-on in St. George would be familiar to anyone today who grew up in almost any American community of the mid-to-late 20th century, including fraternal organizations, trade associations, school committees and chambers of commerce.

Banfield contrasted Montegrano with St. George, Utah, where civic engagement was the order of the day. | Utah State Historical Society

Montegrano, by comparison, had none of these. Even the church and its services in this nominally Catholic town were mostly ignored, except for a small group of village women and some of the men who “remain standing near the door as if to signify that they are not unduly devout.” There were no local newspapers; the major dailies from Rome and elsewhere in the region were delivered by bus to the commune, but there was nothing in them of local affairs, and they were thus read by few villagers. And as for civic engagement, Banfield found about 25 “upper class men” in a town of over 3,000 who “maintain a clubroom where members play cards and chat. Theirs is the only association.”

Again, this sounds terrible and yet familiar. The collapse of trust in institutions and politics is a well-known story in the United States. The American public, whose generally low participation in elections is itself a departure from most other democracies, not only has ceased to trust government institutions, but many Americans have come to believe that these institutions and the elites who inhabit them are actively hostile to ordinary citizens. America’s many civic and fraternal associations, the intermediate institutions that provide the social foundations for democratic government, are declining in numbers and activity. Levels of trust in everything and everybody but the military (which should be a warning sign in a democracy) have fallen to historic lows. To run for office in America in the 2020s is to invite the same kind of instant disrepute it garnered in Italy in the 1950s.

Raúl Arias

Americans always have plenty of excuses for their cynicism. It’s too hard to vote; the rich just get richer; nothing matters anyway. The Italians had all of the same excuses, as did observers who objected to Banfield’s account and who applied what they saw as obvious answers of their own to the village’s political and economic dysfunction. Of course poor people loathed the authorities; those are the elites who kept them poor. Of course the village distrusted the Catholic Church; those clerics and bureaucrats concentrated land and wealth and power in their own hands for centuries. And of course the commune wanted nothing to do with politics; those Fascist pretenders joined an insane war and devastated their country within recent memory.

Banfield thought of those explanations, too, and found that they did not explain very much. Perhaps the villagers were selfish and disengaged because they were poor. That’s a popular excuse, but, as it turned out, not one that held much water. When it came to attending church services in this small Catholic town, for example, Banfield wryly noted that the typical villager “uses his poverty as an excuse for not doing what he would not do anyway: He does not go to Mass on Sunday, he explains sadly, because he must be off to his field at dawn. But his field is a tiny patch of wheat on which, except for three weeks a year, he can do almost nothing.” More to the point, that same villager does nothing else for the town, even for the orphanage whose walls were falling down around the ears of the little girls housed there. “None of the many half-employed stone masons has ever given a day’s work to its repair,” Banfield observed, despite the fact that “there is hardly a man in Montegrano who could not contribute a third of his time to some community project without a loss of income.”

Banfield plowed through several other explanations, including ignorance, class hatred and the attachment of peasants only to their own plot of land. None of them seemed to capture the problem. The best Banfield could do was to note that many of the villagers themselves had been orphans or desperately poor children — not that this increased their empathy toward others in the same situation — and so they feared the kind of poverty and pre- mature deaths that would relegate their own children to a life of similar misery. Rather than cooperate and endure any longer-term risk to their families, Banfield surmised, the villagers took what they could get in the near term and let the future be someone else’s problem.

In the end, Banfield found no solution. His remedies, as sensible as they were, amounted to little more than recommendations that encouraged people to be better citizens. “The individual must define self or family interest less narrowly than material, short-run advantage,” he wrote. “He need not cease to be family minded or even selfish, but — some of the time, at least — he must pursue a ‘larger’ self-interest.”

And who will do this? Well, Banfield hoped (for that is all he could do) that “a few persons, at least, must have the moral capacity to act as leaders. These need not act altruistically either; they may lead because they are paid to do so. But whether they give leadership or sell it, they must be able to act responsibly in organizational roles and to create and inspire morale in organization.”

And if all that can be done, somehow, then the citizens must be sure not to throw it all away: “Voters and others must not destroy organizations gratuitously or out of spite or envy.” Banfield, even after his disillusionment with the New Deal, still had the instincts of a social planner, and he wanted to be able to translate his findings into some kind of policy. All the more desolating, then, that he admits at the end that planners who want to defeat these cultural land mines would have to identify the “key elements” that created them in the first place, “something which may be impossible.”

Banfield died in 1999. His book, for a time, became an academic classic and for years was part of the education of future social scientists, back when such books were readable both by scholars and the general public. Eventually Banfield ran afoul of the prevailing views of the academy in his day, which returned to a faith in government solutions and rejected his emphasis on culture and human agency when trying to explain persistent poverty. He is also somewhat less read these days because his case study has been overtaken by newer and better works, not only on Italy, but on democracy in general. A landmark study in 1993 by Harvard professor Robert Putnam, for example, found — as Banfield might have expected — that when Italy attempted to impose similar institutional reforms in the north and south of the country in the 1970s, the same set of arrangements performed differently depending on where they were, an outcome explained primarily by social context and history rather than by institutional design. 

Comparisons between Italy in the 1950s and America in the 2020s are naturally limited, especially when Banfield loaded the dice by comparing impoverished villagers who had just survived a war to relatively prosperous Latter-day Saints in Utah. There are fundamental economic and political differences that matter as much now as they did then, including the important differences in voter behavior when faced with the Italian proportional representation system and the American system of separated powers and fixed terms. And an agrarian society in an underdeveloped region of a defeated nation is not a good comparison to a thriving town in an emerging superpower.

But even within Italy itself, the flaw at the heart of the villages like Montegrano has bedeviled Italian politics over the many years since Banfield lived among its residents. Italian democracy has survived and Italy has become a major political and economic power, and yet the attitude of the self-centered villager is still a part of the political culture. As the Italian scholar Maurizio Viroli notes, Italy is still a free country, if “free” means that “neither other individuals nor the state can prevent us from doing as we choose.” But Viroli calls this the “liberty of servants,” rather than the liberty of citizens. It is the liberty of human beings who are subjects in a new kind of democracy that is really just the “court of a signore surrounded by a plethora of courtiers, who are in turn admired and envied by a multitude of individuals with servile souls.”

The signore to whom Viroli refers was Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul and gleeful sybarite who led Italy for nearly a decade. Berlusconi was like one of Banfield’s villagers — if those villagers were plutocratically rich and given control of an entire country. He entered politics to protect himself and his interests, he methodically enriched himself and his friends, and he had no real attachment to any governing concept other than what was best for Silvio Berlusconi. Like all demagogues, his antics and promises finally exhausted the public, and he resigned in 2011. Viroli, for his part, rejects the idea that Berlusconi and the regime he produced was some kind of accident. When he reflected in 2010 on how his country had come to such an unfortunate state, Viroli did not hesitate to speak of what he describes as “Italy’s longtime moral weakness,” and despite the “examples of greatness that have honored our past and our present,” he did not spare the voters from their own responsibility: 

By moral weakness I mean the quality that so many political writers have explicated, that is to say, a lack of self-esteem that in some cases masks itself with arrogance, and which makes men willing to become dependent on other men. If I believe that I am not worth much, why should I not serve the powerful, if I profit considerably thereby? 

“To put it concisely,” Viroli adds, “if we are subjected to the arbitrary and enormous power of a man, we may well be free to do more or less what we want, but we are still servants.” 

But maybe this was all just a story about Italy. Maybe this kind of selfishness and delusion, as Viroli wrote, is just a recessive gene in Italy’s political DNA, reasserting itself every few generations as a reminder of some sort of flaw or original sin that dates from the first time Romulus and Remus set their eyes on the Seven Hills. Maybe Americans and others can re- assure themselves that this is “just how Italians are.” Unfortunately, the story of Montegrano matters today because the democracies — and even the United States, which once seemed so much healthier than Italy — are looking more and more like that long-ago village. The story of Montegrano is a cautionary tale precisely because it could be the American future.

Millions of supposed Bernie Sanders voters voted for Donald Trump in 2016. | AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Consider, for example, how many Americans think that the major defect in the U.S. political system is a combination of both their own incompetence as voters and the moral failings of the group of politicians for whom they themselves have voted. A national study done some 20 years ago by two University of Nebraska professors found that nearly half the respondents from national focus groups “believed that the country would be better off if politicians and not the American people decided political issues.” 

Banfield wrote, “We were taken aback by the extent to which focus group participants believe that the American people generally do not have the time, motivation, orientation, knowledge and even intelligence it takes to get up to speed on the political issues of the day, unless those issues might be of vital interest to the person. ... And it was an extremely rare voice that said the American people were willing to shoulder the responsibility of deciding tough political issues.”

And yet among that same group, anywhere from a quarter to some 40% of Americans believe that “obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking,” and that the main reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that “politicians are corrupt, or self-interested or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding.”

No Italian peasant could have set up this no-win situation more elegantly. The voters hold out hopes that somehow better decisions could be made by “leaders who will step forward, cast aside cowardly politicians and venal special interests, and implement long overdue solutions,” but why these citizens never manage to find such unicorns is left unexamined. Worse, as the writer Jonathan Rauch noted later, it is deeply worrisome to realize that for the voters in this study, “whether the process is democratic is not particularly important.”

Generations of Americans were raised with Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting of a man speaking his mind at a New Hampshire town meeting, one of the representations of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” Rockwell produced during World War II. They will bristle at reimagining this sturdy and civic man, whose face Rockwell lovingly depicted as having weathered a lot of tough New England winters, as just another lazy Mediterranean farmer lolling about in a half-tended grain field, complaining about others. Americans are doers, volunteers, self-made and motivated. Americans don’t begrudge success, we emulate it. We believe in merit and talent and we encourage everyone to be their best. We are not Italian villagers, scheming and nursing grudges against each other.

And yet it is important to remember that Rockwell’s image of the common man having his say, politely and with the obvious attention of his fellow citizens, was both an idealized reality and an aspiration. Even as a romantic memory, it is a portrait from a bygone era. For decades, television-addled voters in the United States have been looking for celebrity gladiators, not governors.

Most voters, especially in the United States, would resent the implication that their beliefs are flexible or that their political leanings are not based on some sort of principle. As party identification has grown more rigid over the years, they would reject the idea that they are capable of careening about between political ideologies, embracing socialism one moment and royalism the next, like the villagers of Montegrano. And yet political scientists for decades have noted the political incoherence of the American voter. As far back as the early 1960s, the political scientist Phillip Converse showed that most voters do not have particularly stable ideological views. The voters lack the information — or the interest — to develop a coherent view of politics beyond a general party identification, and this reality plays itself out regularly in U.S. elections.

In the 2016 presidential election, for example, there were stark differences between the major party nominees. More consistent but nonetheless jaundiced and bitter voters could look at Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — historically, two of the most unpopular people ever to face off against each other for the presidency — and see nothing but two New York-based plutocrats, aging baby boomers who hated each other but traveled for decades in the same circles. (A famous picture of the Clintons at one of Trump’s weddings encapsulated the cozy similarities between people who claimed to be representing different groups.) If Clinton was the avatar of the Establishment, Trump was merely a different wing of the same oligarchy, another narcissist trying to buy himself an office.

Many of these voters were attracted to the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. An oddball figure in U.S. politics for decades, Sanders was an unlikely presidential prospect — a tough-talking old man with a Brooklyn honk despite years of representing a rural New England state, and a self-proclaimed socialist in a country where “socialism” is mostly an epithet. Sanders presented himself as the real deal, a man who could turn the system on its head, and his campaign briefly caught fire when he won some important Democratic Party primary contests in 2016 and gave Clinton a run for her money. And then millions of supposed Sanders voters went ahead and voted for Trump anyway. This was not a handful of disaffected campus socialists. A significant number of Democratic primary voters — more than one in 10, as it turned out — crossed over and gave their vote to a man who, in theory, stood for everything they hated: nativism, hypercapitalism, sexism, authoritarianism. They ended up contributing to the margin of victory in the states Trump needed to pick the lock to an Electoral College win that both Democrats and Republicans until that moment had thought was out of reach. This outcome is only puzzling if we believe the voters have consistent — and civic — views.

Insofar as policy does matter, the voters often create policy dilemmas that politicians cannot resolve other than by short-circuiting such debates and running on personality and fame. For years, the standard trope among observers of American politics has been that voters are consistent and moderate while politicians are opportunistic and extreme. Politicians might well be opportunists, but Americans are neither consistent nor moderate. Voters love to describe themselves as moderate and independent, but they are, to use President Joe Biden’s catchphrase, full of malarkey. As the scholar David Broockman and his colleagues showed in work from the early 2010s, voters are not all that moderate. Rather, “surveys mistake people with diverse political opinions for people with moderate political opinions.”

Put another way, voters who have strong views on a few issues look like “moderates” if their views are averaged together. Such people — who might, say, want both universal health care because it is in their interest but also favor discrimination against gays and lesbians because of their personal or religious beliefs — are actually difficult to categorize and are often more extreme on any one issue than the politicians who represent them. These voters want their hot-button issues served, even if these issues are almost impossible to accommodate within a coherent worldview. As the political analyst Lee Drutman noted in 2019, “if you’re a campaign trying to appeal to independents, moderates or undecided voters — or a concerned citizen trying to make sense of these groups in the context of an election — policy and ideology aren’t good frames of reference. There just isn’t much in terms of policy or ideology that unites these groups.”

This becomes all the more disheartening when the politics of narrow self-interest are blended into a general cynicism and an emotional suspicion of politics. As Rauch argued at the time of the 2016 election, “Like Trump, Bernie Sanders appealed to the antipolitical idea that the mere act of voting for him would prompt a “revolution” that would somehow clear up such knotty problems as health-care coverage, financial reform and money in politics. Like Trump, he was a self-sufficient outsider without customary political debts or party loyalty. Like Trump, he neither acknowledged nor cared — because his supporters neither acknowledged nor cared — that his plans for governing were delusional.

For voters in an advanced postindustrial democracy, this might seem like just another harsh rebuke from yet another intellectual. For the villagers of Montegrano, however, this would hardly be a rebuke; rather, they would see it as merely a description of the natural order of things. To the transactional and self-interested mindset, politicians are largely indistinguishable other than on the basis on their personalities, and the platforms they espouse are usually irrelevant. All that matters is getting the candidate to do things you want — or to prevent them from doing things other people might want.

Consider two voters from Iowa, the emblematic American heartland state, in the run-up to the state 2020 Democratic caucus. A caucus is a far more personal involvement in choosing a nominee than merely casting a vote in a primary; caucusgoers must engage in bargaining with other party members to gain support for their candidates. One might expect greater levels of general consistency in such an environment, but one would be wrong to be so hopeful. Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce, for example, spoke to a woman who caucused for Sanders in 2016 and then voted for Trump. In 2020, she initially settled on Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as her choice. If Buttigieg didn’t win the nomination, however, she would move from the young, progressive, gay Buttigieg back to the elderly, right-wing, serially adulterous, thrice-married bigot Trump — a kaleidoscopic change in preferences that only makes sense as a search for a tailored set of narrow promises that would meet her personal satisfaction, rather than the selection of a candidate who must govern across a range of issues.

Another Iowan told the media that she had voted both for Barack Obama and for Donald Trump, “just to shake up Washington, to be honest.” (This is sometimes called the “OOT” voter, the person who voted Obama-Obama-Trump in 2008, 2012 and 2016, respectively.) Had Trump not been available in 2016, she said, she might have gone for — of course — Bernie Sanders. “We’ve just been in a rut so long,” she sighed. This voter had for years run her own beauty salon in a county in Iowa that in 2016 had a 2.5% unemployment rate, had almost no immigrants (the county is 98% white) and boasted a crime rate far below the U.S. average. And yet, like many voters over the years, her perception was that American politics had become too static and needed some sort of disruption to make it more receptive to people like her. If that meant going from Barack Obama to a candidate who had originated the viciously racist “birther” campaign against Obama, so be it.

One of my closest friends from high school came of political age when I did. Like me, 1980 was his first national election. Over the years, he cast two votes for Ronald Reagan, one for George H.W. Bush, two for Bill Clinton, two for George W. Bush, two for Barack Obama and then turned to Donald Trump. When I asked him in 2016 how this lifetime of voting made any sense, he said that he tended to prefer Republicans because he believed that they were generally better for the economy. Why, then, did he vote for the last two Democratic presidents? Because, he said, those Republicans, at the time, were just out to protect the rich. But what about Donald Trump, whose entire goal in life is being rich? My friend shook his head and gave up trying to explain it. “Nothing’s been good since Reagan,” he said, a statement we both knew was not true and might well have been more a reflection of the gloom of middle age than of any political preference.

I do not know how he voted in 2020.

There are plenty of people like my friend, and at first blush that might even seem reassuring. People should change their minds if they think they’re being offered a better candidate or a better deal. But at some point, such voting goes beyond people merely changing their minds. To vote both for Barack Obama and for Donald Trump is beyond “flexibility.” Better candidates and better deals require an electorate capable of comprehending the contenders and what they offer, but such reflection becomes impossible when emotion, cynicism and self-interest congeal into tribal loyalty and “negative partisanship” — the idea that all parties are bad, but that yours is far worse than mine and so I therefore must vote against yours. This is the worst of all political worlds, in which the voters believe they are being true to a set of political ideas but are really acting out of contradictory emotions and conflicting rationalizations.

It is not news that American voters often do not understand the ideologies they claim to support. As Rauch noted in 2019, people are sorting themselves into parties that are them- selves mashups of contradictory ideas. “We are not seeing a hardening of coherent ideological difference. We are seeing a hardening of incoherent ideological difference.” Insofar as people are loyal to parties, much of it is the result of traditional attachments or reflexive partisanship. Unaffiliated voters, meanwhile, often go shopping for deals and then retroactively apply partisan rationalizations to their choices.

Self-interest is the normal engine of normal human day-to-day behavior, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Only the saintliest of us do things all day long purely out of the goodness of our hearts; the rest of us have bills to pay. Politics, in political scientist Harold Lasswell’s classic 1936 formulation, is always about “who gets what, when, and how,” but different cultures and societies solve that problem in different ways. And whenever someone gets something in that distribution, someone else will think it is unfair. When there is nothing else but raw self-interest, however, liberal democracy is impossible — especially if we define our “interest” as including the psychic gratification of defeating enemy tribes and dividing the spoils.

Without some basic belief that the good of the family and the good of society are intertwined and mutually reinforcing, democratic institutions become little more than temporary conveniences, and democratic values become annoyances. And when we need those institutions and values — especially when our rights are threatened — we will find ourselves alone when facing whatever jackal pack has assembled against us. We will have no recourse through the law or the ballot box, and we might end up relying on criminals, buccaneers or foreign powers to protect us in the ensuing scrum. In 2020, the onset of a pandemic forced Americans to confront the question of whether ordinary self-interest had curdled into dangerous selfishness. The answer, at least in the United States, was not pretty. 

When democracy first arrives in a place like Montegrano, where people are poor and life is arduous, the odds are already stacked against success. Democracy, a system that relies on sustained cooperation, will always have a harder time gaining a foothold against the immediate imperatives of survival. In difficult circumstances, people will do what’s best for themselves, with little interest in high-minded abstractions about politics, even if doing so produces the paradoxical outcome that they remain poor. So it was in the Italian village. Banfield, it should be remembered, really wasn’t trying to explain democracy, he was trying to explain poverty. The revelations about how the lack of trust and cooperation undermines development came later.

It’s one thing, however, for democracy to face trouble getting off the ground in a place like Montegrano, it’s another for it to wither once it is already established and has flourished for centuries among a prosperous and educated people. Americans are turning in- ward not because they are poor or worried that their children will end up in orphanages as wards of the state. Rather, Americans are devolving back toward the mentality of the village not because they are poor but be- cause they are comfortable, materialistic and self-obsessed. They are inspired, at least in the public sphere, not by examples of virtue but by celebrity. They are motivated to compete with each other not because they are fighting over scraps but because they are entitled. They insist on their own rights not as a matter of principle but as a means of crowding out the rights of others. America is becoming Montegrano — but with better cars, cheap air conditioning, the internet and 200 cable channels.

Maybe Montegrano never had a chance. But what excuses the rest of us? 

This article is excerpted from “Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within on Modern Democracy” (Oxford University Press). Tom Nichols is a U.S. Naval War College professor and a contributing writer for The Atlantic magazine.

This story appears in the February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.