Are Americans Facing an Undemocratic Future?

April 6, 2021

United States Capitol. CREDIT: John Brighenti (CC)

Faith in democracy is waning, and the events of the past year have done little to inspire confidence. Today, the presumption of democracy as an ethical standard has faltered.

In 2016, only 30 percent of American Millennials polled said it is "essential" to live in a democracy. In 2020, a Reuters poll reported that 68 percent of Republicans believed the presidential election was "rigged." And just weeks after the Capitol riot, an AP-NORC poll found that only 16 percent of Americans believe democracy is working "very well."

Common ground is increasingly elusive. In place of a once civil public square, we've embraced the echo chamber of social media and cable news. A choice that only reinforces our own beliefs and further accelerates the cancer of polarization. Alternative facts are the new reality of public debate.

While the current moment may look grim, these are not uncharted waters. Little faith and low trust are not new challenges. In fact, the United States was founded amidst deep division and conflicting visions of the common good.

But the genius of the founding was the willingness to come to agreement on minimal basic principles. There would be a union of the states for the purpose of securing basic rights. There would be no king and no mob. Instead, the new republican government would check and balance power. By design, the system was imperfect and unfinished.

The American answer to democracy has always been structural. Alexander Hamilton warned against the "deceitful dream"—the fallacy that wisdom and virtue would prevail in politics. Better to assume the worst: that egoism, greed, fear, and factionalism drive politics. The idea was to establish strong institutions based on a realistic assessment of human nature.

During a conversation at Carnegie Council, historian Niall Ferguson sought to shed light on the Founding Fathers' thinking regarding the limits of virtue in government: "They take men and women as they found them—flawed, prone to sin, and the rest of it—and they ask the question, how can we design institutions for these real human beings with all their frailties? How can we incentivize them to behave in a responsible way even though they will probably go out drinking on a Friday night and misbehave?"

Many compromises were made to get the new system of self-rule up and running. Individual rights would be guaranteed by due process. While agreement on social values was difficult and at times impossible, it was at least feasible to find mechanisms to manage disagreement.

Pluralism became the cardinal virtue of American democracy precisely because it respects differences while simultaneously recognizing the need to unify the states and the people. Pluralism empowers individuals to pursue their hopes and dreams. And it requires only one thing—the recognition that others will do the same for themselves.

Today, the aspirational aspects of democracy remain strong. At one level, we see expanding possibilities for inclusion and equal justice for all. Yet, at another level, we see blatant corruption, willful exclusion, and self-dealing. For this reason, democracies must have the means and elected officials with the will to distribute power and ensure accountability.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr captured this ongoing struggle when he wrote: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible. Man's capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary." His words have never been more essential.

The deep skepticism of the state of democracy in 2021 is also well deserved. The last 12 months brought over 500,000 pandemic-related deaths, worsening economic inequality, the murder of George Floyd, and the insurrection of January 6. And now, we're facing a fresh wave of attacks on the voting rights of millions. Meanwhile, high emotion and strongly held views—exacerbated by the absence of a civil public square—continue to shape heated and sometimes violent debates about class, race, gender, and the role of government.

Despite the current state, I am optimistic not because I naively expect virtue to prevail. Rather, I believe the American system has the capacity to evolve. We've just seen a would-be king and a real-life mob. We would be foolish to dismiss these tests as an aberration. But we have been here before and we know what to do.

Success will require a generational commitment to a process that is messy and whose victories are often compromises. It may be hard to rally around such an abstract goal. But that is the work of leaders and followers alike. And that is the work of the moment.

Pluralism, and democracy itself, depend on winning some and losing some. But the strength and beauty of the American system is that the loser always has the opportunity to come back and try again.

The system is open. It self-corrects. And hopefully, we are starting that correction right now.

Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

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