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
- . 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
- . 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
- 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.