Democracy Has a Customer-Service Problem

How incompetent airlines, or hospital-billing errors, or a mix-up at the IRS can erode our trust in everything

Illustration showing a column holding a screen like those that show how many people are in line in government offices. "Now serving 853," it reads.
Matt Chase / The Atlantic. Source: Shutterstock.

In early December, I received an electricity bill for 1,400 British pounds ($1,700). It was an absurd overcharge for six months of energy I hadn’t used, in a house I moved out of two years ago, from a company that was no longer my supplier. “Oh well,” I said to myself, “it’s just an obvious clerical error.” I assumed the problem would be resolved in an hour, tops.

I was wrong. I called the company seven times. I contacted its WhatsApp support line six times. I sent emails. Each time, someone new responded, restarting the entire process. At one point, I got a text from a subsidiary debt-collection agency threatening my credit rating. Finally, I was notified last week that the mistaken bill had been withdrawn. I had spent more than 20 hours of my life across two months fixing the company’s mistake. The company faced no penalty.

Although my example is drawn from my life in the U.K., I’m from the U.S. originally and I know that virtually all Americans will experience a version of this story. And plenty of them won’t know their rights, or won’t be able to spare 20 hours on hold, and they’ll take on huge debts as a result. Many people won’t just waste time on hold with private companies but with the government as they try to navigate the maddening labyrinth of benefits programs.

We tend to simply accept such experiences as a feature of modern life. But we shouldn’t. Good governments should make fixing these everyday failures a priority—and they just might help bolster the case for democracy if they do.

For the past several years, I and other scholars have been observing the erosion of American democracy. As a political scientist, I’ve studied authoritarianism and interviewed dissidents and despots across the globe to understand how and why democracies collapse. In the United States, all of the warning signs are blinking red. According to a recent New York Times poll, 71 percent of Americans say that “democracy is currently under threat.”

However, when voters in the 2022 midterms were asked to identify their top concern, only 7 percent identified democracy as the motivating factor for their vote. What explains that disconnect?

Democracy requires two forms of legitimacy to survive: input legitimacy and output legitimacy. Input refers to processes and procedures. Was the rule of law upheld? Did the election get certified properly? Are democratic norms being followed? Output refers to government effectiveness.

Most of the “save democracy” discourse during the Donald Trump years rightly focused on the input side of the equation, because the president posed an existential threat to the systems that differentiate democracy from authoritarianism. But commentators sometimes overlooked why so many people were willing to accept Trump’s attacks against the inputs. One reason may be that they felt the output side had already deteriorated.

Democracy usually isn’t under threat where it delivers. Conversely, people are less likely to rally to defend democracy if they believe the system is failing them. An international survey by Pew Research has found that only 41 percent of Americans are “satisfied” that democracy is working well, compared with 65 percent in Germany, 66 percent in Canada, 76 percent in New Zealand, and 79 percent in Sweden. And American output legitimacy is falling. Twenty years ago, about 60 percent of Americans had faith in the U.S. government to solve domestic problems. Today, that’s down to an abysmal 39 percent.

Think income inequality, an extortionate health-care system, and rural decay. Think, too, about the senses many people have that the sources of power—both public and private—are far away and unresponsive, and that when something goes wrong, they’re on their own. Katherine Cramer, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has argued that this anger breeds a “politics of resentment.”

Democracy’s ideal is built on a foundation of accountability. In the past, many, if not most, of the decisions that mattered to our lives were taken by people and businesses that felt close to us. That’s not the case anymore. Now all roads seem to lead to bad hold music.

Whenever we encounter a problem we didn’t create—like my outrageous electricity charge, or vacations ruined by an incompetent airline, or hospital-billing errors, or a mix-up at the IRS—all we can really do is go online for a customer-service number and cross our fingers that, by some miracle, the call won’t consume the entire day, or worse. When a person coping with cancer treatment spends hours on the phone with her insurance company or Medicaid, she may wonder why her society is so cruel, or so incompetent, or both. And she may start to see the appeal of a demagogue who promises to deliver simple solutions: the “I alone can fix it” candidate.

Experiences with distant power centers may also lead to conspiratorial thinking—to paranoid notions about who’s “really” pulling the levers. Two in five Americans now agree that it is definitely or probably true that “regardless of who is officially in charge of the government and other organizations, there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.” Belief in that conspiracy theory is nine percentage points higher than it was last year.

Not for nothing, authoritarian populist messages usually take aim at a faraway, unresponsive, and faceless elite. For much of the population, that is the experience of power. Granted, authoritarian governments are objectively far worse at helping citizens deal with routine problems. Good luck trying to complain to the Chinese Communist Party or to the Kremlin. But for democracy to be saved from proto-authoritarian political movements, such as Trumpism, democracy can’t be viewed, as Winston Churchill put it, as only “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried.” People in power need to proactively make the case for democracy through good governance at the level of everyday life.

That’s why President Joe Biden’s recent focus in the State of the Union address on “junk fees” was wise. This kind of policy sends a much-needed message: You should have democracy’s back, because it has yours. Routine dysfunction matters. Companies that engage in predatory billing, like the power company that wrongly charged me 1,400 pounds, should face serious fines. Corporations that steal your time through their own mistakes should be forced to compensate you for that time. Similarly, regulators should ensure that it is as easy to cancel a service as it is to sign up for it.

In the European Union, if an airline causes a flight delay of more than three hours, it has to pay you 250 to 600 euros, depending on the length of the flight. In the U.K., when a train is more than 15 minutes late, I can go to a website and, in a few minutes, demand financial compensation.

For the most part in America, when you screw up, you pay, but when corporations or governments screw up, nobody pays. Even when protections do exist, they’re difficult to navigate, or are unknown to most citizens. Other democracies have made clear it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s not rocket science to solve such maddening everyday problems, and American democracy would be better off if the government devoted more effort to it.

Dangerous would-be autocrats across the globe have attacked democratic norms, procedures, and institutions. More people will join the fight for democracy when they feel that democracy delivers for them. But for many people right now, their lived experience of democracy feels a lot like being stuck on hold.