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By Allison Archer and Thad Williamson

Democracy in theory is praised for several compelling reasons. Democracies are said to offer everyone a voice in shaping the laws that govern us, as well as the ability to participate in selecting our leadership. Democratic governance should, over the long term, respond to the interests, needs, and preferences of the majority of the population. And constitutional democracies set checks and balances on government power both to protect individual freedom (including our political freedoms) and to ensure no single political actor or interest can impose their will unchecked.

Democracy in practice, in the United States and elsewhere, is widely viewed as being in crisis. A comprehensive Pew Charitable Trusts survey of Americans’ attitudes toward democracy this spring found continued strong support for democratic ideals but also deep dissatisfaction with the current state of democratic politics in the U.S. Strong majorities stated that they do not have a favorable view of the federal government, that they do not trust the judgment of their fellow citizens, and that structural changes in the political system are needed.

These concerns run much deeper than today’s headlines or the issues raised by any single political figure. We might characterize concerns about democracy in 21st century America as falling into four principal categories:

  • Concerns about
  • inclusivity
  • . Political participation — including voting — is strongly skewed by educational level and income class. Many Americans simply do not participate in the process, and some are barred by archaic laws and practices ultimately rooted in the nation’s legacy of racism. Democracies are not supposed to leave people out, yet we do.
  • Concerns about
  • representation
  • . Textbook democratic theory holds that political parties and policymaking should be responsive to the preferences of the “median voter.” But enormous empirical evidence shows that policymakers are far more responsive to the interests and preferences of privileged, wealthy Americans than to “ordinary Americans.” That fact invites widespread skepticism and disdain toward the political system, leading (as we have seen) to unpredictable political consequences.
  • Concerns about
  • accountability
  • and
  • civic culture
  • . Textbook democratic theory also requires that citizens hold leaders accountable for their actions, but again enormous empirical evidence demonstrates that most citizens do not have detailed knowledge of the workings of government and many are ignorant of relatively basic political facts. The rise of social media has proven to be a double-edged sword in allowing more citizens to have a public voice but also in opening the door for organized efforts to manipulate voters’ opinions.
  • Concerns about the ability of democratic government to
  • solve problems
  • . While politicians and pundits bicker with one another, the world goes on, and major problems of consequence continue to go unaddressed. These range from a laundry list of persistent domestic problems — such as education, poverty, and income inequality — to global concerns such as climate change. Governance systems that don’t govern effectively jeopardize the long-term safety and security of all of us.

These are daunting challenges, beyond the scope of any single political figure or scholar to address. But we must at least face these questions squarely if we are to have any hope of finding meaningful ways forward.

An expanding academic literature tackles these issues in detail. The titles of recent books issued by top academic presses present a troubling narrative: “How Democracies Die,” “How Democracy Ends,” “Democracy in Chains,” “Democracy in America?” “Unequal Democracy,” and “Democracy for Realists” — among many others. These titles rehearse classic debates within political science but also speak to a deeper anxiety, fundamentally focused on a single question: Can democratic institutions and their promise of civic and political equality co-exist with unlimited economic inequality?

For the preponderance of political scientists, the answer to that question is self-evidently “no.” The truly interesting question — and the vital civic debate to be had — concerns what productive steps can be taken to preserve and strengthen democratic institutions and to redress gaping inequalities.

That is a discussion far too important to leave to political scientists alone; indeed, by definition, strengthening democracy begins and ends with the engagement of ordinary citizens, unafraid to tackle the big problems of their time.

Civic institutions such as universities can help facilitate that process by elevating the tone and substance of public debate and fostering thoughtful deliberation about fundamental civic questions. Building strong consensus around possible remedies for democracy’s crisis will require a public discussion closer in tone and substance to “The Federalist Papers” than to the relentless partisan warfare of Twitter and other platforms.

This does not mean we will not have sharp, even raucous disagreements about the way forward. It does mean that we need to be able to distinguish fundamental questions from mere noise and distraction. To revitalize democracy, our public debate needs to look less like a no-holds-barred wrestling match — and more like informed citizens wrestling together to address our shared problems.

Allison Archer is assistant professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. Thad Williamson is associate professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. For information on this year’s Jepson Forum, themed “Does Democracy Work?” visit Jepson.richmond.edu.

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(41) comments

ROBERT HARRISON

There is nothing wrong with democracy itself but plenty wrong with one that is corrupted with money... That is our nation's #1 problem, by far... Get the money out and everything will straighten itself out... Bob

TOM EATON

"Get the money out and everything will straighten itself out... Bob"
When you say "get the money out", you're speaking of taxpayers wallets... right Bob?

TRACY PETERS

As we all get ready to enjoy an afternoon and evening of cheering for our favorite Pro Football team, with some taking a knee for their special cause during the National Anthem, and with many believing in Kaepernick’s right to take a knee during the National Anthem …. here is another opinion expressed in song …

Enjoy or fume ….
http://new-country-songs.com/neal-mccoy-new-song

Drake D Butler

"Strong majorities stated that they do not have a favorable view of the federal government, that they do not trust the judgment of their fellow citizens, and that structural changes in the political system are needed."

Yeah... structural changes like a voting system that doesn't allow a dumpster fire like Rump to take office when 3 million more citizens vote for his opponent. 3 Million is more than the entire population of Nevada or Mississippi or Kansas!

No wonder he's stymied at every turn! MOST Americans don't want him!

Dennis Hannick

“Yeah... structural changes like a voting system that doesn't allow a dumpster fire like Rump to take office when 3 million more citizens vote for his opponent. 3 Million is more than the entire population of Nevada or Mississippi or Kansas!

No wonder he's stymied at every turn! MOST Americans don't want him!”

Drake just gave the ultimate reason for the Electoral College: so that the tyranny of the majority is not in complete control. Of course, Drake is so much wiser than the founders of this nation. Just ask him, he'll tell you.

Drake D Butler

On August 28 Dennis maligned America and said “democracy is "mob rule and tyranny"." So we must consider the source. He doesn't even believe in democracy.

Dennis Hannick

"He doesn't even believe in democracy." Give Drake a cookie! He finally got something right. Just like the founders of America, I believe in republicanism, not democracy. It's what our form of government is: a republic, not a democracy. It says so right in the Constitution. "Democracy" is not in there, but "republic" is. The founders even guaranteed every state a republican form of government; not a democracy. Yep, it's in there. You know Drake, I'm still waiting for you to find the word "democracy" in the Constitution. Maybe you'll learn something while you are looking for it. Like, why we have a republic and not a democracy.

Drake D Butler

I'd say the one out there trying to deny a republic is a form of democracy when everyone else here is talking about the USA as a democracy is the low-education Rump voter. Just like the word "gun" is not in the constitution but Dennis seems to think he has a right to one.

Dennis Hannick

Drake, just as republic and democracy are forms of governments; guns are forms of arms. You know “arms” as in “…keep and bear arms.” in the Bill of Rights. Nice try at deflection, though. Still can't find "democracy" in the Constitution, eh Drake? Keep looking; I'm sure you'll find it.

Drake D Butler

Dennis.. just as gun is form of arms a republic is a form of democracy. Still can't find gun in the constitution? Keep looking. Everyone else seems to understand a republic is a democracy.

Dennis Hannick

"Dennis.. just as gun is form of arms a republic is a form of democracy. Still can't find gun in the constitution? Keep looking. Everyone else seems to understand a republic is a democracy." I'm sorry you are so confused and can't find "democracy" or "arms" in the Constitution and you are ignorant of the founders intents, but we will make due; your ignorance and contempt of the Constitution, notwithstanding.

Dennis Hannick

“The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…” Now, why would the founders denote a “Republican Form of Government” instead of a “Democratic Form of Government”? Were they imprecise in their wording? Were they ignorant of the two forms or perhaps, they were fully aware of the two and knew the strengths and faults of both? Which is more likely?

Drake D Butler

" Now, why would the founders denote a “Republican Form of Government” instead of a “Democratic Form of Government”? "

They didn't have to because a republic IS a form of democracy.

Even so-called president Rump thinks so....

"The American Dream is freedom, prosperity, peace-and liberty and justice for all. That's a big dream. It's not always easy to achieve, but that's the ideal. More than any country in history we've made gains toward a DEMOCRACY that is enviable throughout the world. Dreams require perseverance if they are to be realized, and fortunately we're a hard-working country and people. We are the luckiest people in history, just by the fact that we are Americans."

Dennis Hannick

"They didn't have to because a republic IS a form of democracy." Wrong again Drake. James Madison disagreed with you:

"Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths … A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking." — James Madison, Federalist Papers No. 10.

Drake D Butler

Then what is Rump talking about?

"The American Dream is freedom, prosperity, peace-and liberty and justice for all. That's a big dream. It's not always easy to achieve, but that's the ideal. More than any country in history we've made gains toward a DEMOCRACY that is enviable throughout the world. Dreams require perseverance if they are to be realized, and fortunately we're a hard-working country and people. We are the luckiest people in history, just by the fact that we are Americans."

Dennis Hannick

Drake is always with the deflection, never answering the questions.
“Then what is Rump talking about?” The better question is, why are you not asking that question of yourself, when the people who conceived the Constitution are documented in their rejection of democracy. • John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, championed the new Constitution in his state precisely because it would not create a democracy. "Democracy never lasts long," he noted. "It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself." He insisted, "There was never a democracy that ‘did not commit suicide.’"

Drake D Butler

So Dennis is not only wrong.. he's admitting Rump is wrong too!

TRACY PETERS

Drakey …… Thank God most voting American are not like you and others who not want their own cake, but want it prepared and served by someone who says, “I love you and if you vote for me, I will get those who work for a living pay for it" …… and the lie has to be carried out very Presidentially with a smile bigger than the face. Hallilu0iujah ….. and priod.

ROBERT HARRISON

Notice that one party, in particular, has lived at the government bashing trough going back to the 1980s... Take a wild guess which party that is... Duhhhhh... Bob

Dennis Hannick

Not surprisingly, "republic" is not used once in this entire article. The authors of this leftist drivel know exactly what they are pushing and it stinks of "democratic" socialism.

Drake D Butler

On August 28 Dennis maligned America and said “democracy is "mob rule and tyranny"." So we must consider the source.

TOM EATON

"concerns what productive steps can be taken to preserve and strengthen democratic institutions and to redress gaping inequalities."
A lot to unpack - a couple of takeaways:
Democracies should be invested in / charged with creating equal opportunities - not equal outcomes.
Democracies are fundamentally flawed - as majority rule invariably stifles dissent and quashes constructive criticism.
Hence our representative republic...

Melissa Peters

Except a rule by a minority of people is tyranny and that's what we're experiencing now: a President that did not get elected by a majority of the people, a Senate that does not reflect the views of the majority of the people, and quite possibly a Supreme Court that will not reflect the views of the majority of the people. "..of the people, by the people and for the people" is fast turning into a joke.

Dennis Hannick

The founders of this nation saw you and your cohorts coming. It's why they founded a constitutional republic, not a democracy. It's also why they setup the Electoral College: to keep tyranny by the majority in check.

Steve Corneliussen

The ol' Hannity-Limbaugh democracy-vs.-republic distinction has merit and often merits noting. But some Trump cultists celebrate it like a home run when it's actually only a single, or maybe just a base on balls. The distinction is valid, but so is the following assertion: Our republic is a democratic one.

Drake D Butler

On August 28 Dennis maligned America and said “democracy is "mob rule and tyranny"." So we must consider the source.

Dennis Hannick

"The distinction is valid, but so is the following assertion: Our republic is a democratic one." No it is not. If you go back to the meanings of "democracy" and "republic" when our nation was founded, you will see that they are separate and different forms of government. A republic is no more a democracy, than a democracy is a republic. That the two words have been conflated by politicians and people who want to obfuscate the differences, is simply too obvious.

Drake D Butler

On August 28 Dennis maligned America and said “democracy is "mob rule and tyranny"." So we must consider the source.

Melissa Peters

One person, one vote. What do you call that, Dennis?

Dennis Hannick

"One person, one vote. What do you call that, Dennis?" Like most people, I call it "voting". Your confusion (and most people's, like Drake) is understandable, You haven't learned that a republic uses representatives, delegated authority by the people, to enact legislation. A democracy enacts legislation by the direct vote of the people. That is why America is not a democracy.

Drake D Butler

Dennis is the voice crying in the wilderness... trying to deny a republic is a type of democracy.

"Common definitions of the terms democracy and republic often feature overlapping concerns, suggesting that many democracies function as republics, and many republics operate on democratic principles, as shown by these definitions from the Oxford dictionary online:
Republic: "A state in which supreme power is held by the people and their elected representatives..."
Democracy: "A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives."[2]
Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law notes that the United States exemplifies the varied nature of a democratic republic—a country where some decisions (often local) are made by direct democratic processes, while others (often federal) are made by democratically elected representatives.[3] As with many large systems, US governance is incompletely described by any single term. It also employs the concept, for instance, of a constitutional democracy in which a court system is involved in matters of jurisprudence.[3]
As with other democracies, not all persons in a democratic republic are necessarily citizens, and not all citizens are necessarily entitled to vote.[4] Suffrage is commonly restricted by criteria such as voting age."

Dennis Hannick

""Common definitions of the terms democracy and republic often feature overlapping concerns, suggesting that many democracies function as republics, and many republics operate on democratic principles, as shown by these definitions from the Oxford dictionary online: " And so, Drake has yet to show that a republic is a form of democracy. Rather, he has shown that the two have been occasionally combined and that those who would bastardize the meanings have been somewhat successful. Drake has certainly bought into it. I look at the definitions of democracy and republic that were used by the founders to write the Constitution.

Drake D Butler

And so Denis has shown yet again that he cannot read a dictionary.

Dennis Hannick

“And so Denis has shown yet again that he cannot read a dictionary. “ You really are that ignorant of legal definitions, aren’t you? It must be embarrassing to be so lacking, in even knowing the difference between two forms of government. Speaking of reading; how about that quote from The Federalist 10? You would be taken a little more seriously, if you could show where your arguments are supported by actual documentation from the Founders, like the Constitution.

TOM EATON

"Except a rule by a minority of people is tyranny"
IF you / yours represent the majority of the people of the US why do the Democrats have to resort to activist judges / unelected regulatory groups and unconstitutional executive orders to advance their agenda?
What IS your party's platform - other than impeachment / free stuff and open borders? IF Obama's "new normal" resonated with the American people - why was the minority party in such a shambles at the end of his 2 terms. #Resistance just delineates the stark divide between normal Americans and your party... which, lets be honest, was always a joke.

Steve Corneliussen

"Why was the minority party in such a shambles at the end of his 2 terms?"

Shambles? That'd be the minority party that yes, nominated a candidate with exploitable weaknesses and that yes, lost in the Electoral College, but that also won the presidential popular vote by nearly 3 million. (Of course, to respect that quantification, you have to think of brown-skinned coastal dwellers as fellow Americans, which is hard for some people to do.)

The Democrats blunder extensively, bless their hearts, but some Trump cultists--who consider themselves the only "normal Americans," just as some dead Baptists assume themselves to be heaven's only inhabitants--blunder, often comically and often bitterly, by overstating Democrats' blundering.

In any case, see you in November--when decent Americans of all parties and no party will be voting Democrat, even in cases when they would normally hate the idea of voting Democrat.

Make America Decent Again
Make Orwell Fiction Again

Drake D Butler

Mueller Ain't Going Away!

TOM EATON

Yes - a shambles... look around. Obama took a super-majority and made good on his promise to fundamentally change America. Which resulted in an obsequious foreign policy that emboldened (and enriched) our enemies / more racial polarization at home / historic losses in Congress for his party and a GDP of 1.6 in 2016. Like I said, "the new normal".
I know it gives you some comfort that the popular vote went for HRC - but 2 states out of 50 cannot / should not deliver the electoral votes necessary to win presidential elections. The founders in their prescience gave every state a role to play in the election of the leader of the free world. The World Series doesn't go to the team that scores the most aggregate runs - it goes to the first one to win 4 games.
Obama's feckless / ramshackle 8 years in office is the reason we have an outsider in the WH. An outsider that's getting things done and keeping his promises to his constituents. It just so happens that current policies are working, as opposed to the Hope / Dreams of the previous administration. This will make you / yours jobs that much tougher in the mid-terms and beyond. I repeat - besides impeachment / rolling back tax cuts / open borders / gun confiscations and free stuff, what IS your parties platform? #Resistance may get you / yours all aquiver - but it's devilishly short on specifics RE growing the economy or national security.
Lastly, I hope for your (and your sanities) sake that the Blue Wave manifests better than the Blue Wall did in 2016. One thing I'm certain of, we will have the government we deserve...
what a country!!!

AUGUST KELLER

Delusion as since obama''s reign of terror the GOP has made historic gains at every level of gov'ment - state legislatures, governorships, house, senate, president and now Supreme court. The voter has clearly spoken so wake up out of bizzaro land.

Melissa Peters

The voters who put Republicans in the majority in many state legislatures and governor's mansions were, sadly, misled. They did not realize that what they've been supporting is a slow coup that will make the U.S. more like Chile under Pinochet: elimination of public programs (education including colleges & universities, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, disability compensation, unemployment compensation etc); elimination of environmental regulations that keep our air clean and our water drinkable; fragmentation of collective power by destroying unions which eliminates workers' ability to bargain for better wages and conditions. They want us back in 1900 when there were no child labor laws, women couldn't vote, workers were little more than exploitable pieces of meat and all but the upper c;lasses lived in horrendous conditions exposed to diseases like TB. Yeah, the supposed "Grand Ole Party" is going to take us back 100 years.

Drake D Butler

Well, AugASS.. except for that whoppin' republicans took in the house of delegates in VA... and New Jersey.. Hold your breath.. the Blue Wave Is going to really wash out the swamp.

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