Is Democracy Broken?

By | Mar 14, 2017
2017 March-April, Big Questions

by Marilyn Cooper

28 years ago political philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history,”

meaning that there would be “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” It was a heady time. The Berlin Wall was poised to fall, the Soviet Bloc was collapsing and the United States had become the world’s unrivaled superpower. Fast forward to 2017: Great Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union, the growing clout of authoritarian states such as Russia and China, the destabilizing exploits of ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups, and the ascendancy of a new American president dominate the headlines. The once-glowing promise of emerging democracies as diverse as Poland, Thailand and South Africa has given way to the challenges of globalization. War and chaos in the Middle East have contributed to a backlash of right-wing nationalism that is in full swing on both sides of the Atlantic and in Asia.

The state of democracy is of paramount importance to world Jewry: Historically, Jews have fared better in democracies than under any other form of government. This has been especially true in the U.S. because “the central documents of the American Republic assure Jews of liberty—the founding fathers, whatever they personally thought of Jews, gave them full equality,” says American historian Jonathan Sarna. “Anti-Semitism is foreign to American ideals.”

Is democracy broken, and if it is, what can we do about it? Moment asks an array of scholars, journalists and activists from the U.S. and abroad to weigh in. Their answers show that there is cause for both hope and concern.

Haitians waiting to vote in 2015 parliamentary elections in Port-au-Prince.

Trevor Potter

Trevor Potter is the former commissioner and chairman of the United States Federal Election Commission. He is the founder and president of the Campaign Legal Center.

Democracy is under pressure in many parts of the world, and in America, our democracy is threatened in an important but subtle way. The campaign finance system that our Supreme Court has created through its recent decisions (unrestricted corporate spending, super PACs or “dark money”—unlimited donations from undisclosed sources) has resulted in most citizens feeling disenfranchised and has shifted political power toward special interests and billionaires. Those who have the money can amplify their own speech ad nauseam and, in the process, make politicians dependent on their financial generosity. The policy preferences of average Americans might no longer make much of a difference when elected officials simply adopt drafts prepared by Washington lobbyists. One recent study found that when congressional staffers knew that a group had donated to their representative’s campaigns, the group was three times more likely to get a meeting with a senior staffer, and four times more likely to meet with the actual representative. The voice of the people at large is weaker than it used to be. And, if democracy is government by the people, for the people, that cannot be a good thing for democracy.

By definition, it is not possible to know the full extent of the role that “dark money” has played in recent elections, because it’s just that: dark. Donors aren’t disclosed, so we don’t know exactly how few people are funding dark-money groups or where all the money goes. But we do know that “dark money” grew—from $5 million in 2006 to $309 million in 2012. The numbers are 40 times higher than they were only a decade ago. These organizations can drop millions of dollars in ads into a race at the last minute, swamping any efforts the candidates themselves make to get their messages out. And they can do it while hiding behind innocuous names such as “Americans for a Better America” so that nobody knows who’s funding the ads. So people will see the messages with nothing to counter them and with no knowledge of who’s behind them—knowledge that could otherwise keep the people on their guard.

In the United States, there are a number of ways that the law and the courts can respond to our current situation. The best scenario would be for the Supreme Court to recognize that the First Amendment is not at war with campaign finance regulation. To the contrary, the First Amendment is all about securing self-government by ensuring a healthy exchange of ideas. Our current campaign finance system is like junk food: plentiful in quantity but lacking in nourishment. The First Amendment envisions better food for democracy, filled with views from a wider variety of sources that can all reach and interact with the broader public. Sensible regulations on campaign contributions and other aspects of campaign finance create a stronger democracy, not a worse one.

The Federal Election Commission must also do its part by enforcing the laws we already have—something it has failed to do for years, but which President Trump and Congress could enable by appointing true enforcers to the Commission. The legal system can also defend our democracy by protecting voting rights. Without an equal right and ability to vote, the voices of those who are already disadvantaged cannot be heard at the ballot box. By protecting the right to vote, making it easier to vote and eliminating the distortion of our electoral system caused by gerrymandering, the legal system can ensure that everyone is able to participate in the political process.

Margo T. Oge

Margo T. Oge is the former director of the Office of Transportation and Air Quality of the Environmental Protection Agency and led President Barack Obama’s climate initiative on greenhouse gas emissions. She is on the boards of the National Academies of Science on Energy and Environment and the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The current assault on truth and facts is a sign that our democracy is at risk. We’ve got a president who is in the habit of attacking the media, the court system and even facts themselves. He continually tweets erratic, bullying or false messages. This creates a climate of fear. Democracy depends on freedom of speech and freedom of expression; this is especially important for scientists. Many U.S. scientists are now afraid of being silenced, and environmental scientists face a White House that denies the factual reality of what’s happening to our planet. Fake news is creating a distorted reality for those who choose to believe it. The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, denies that climate change is an issue we need to do anything about, and he falsely claims that environmental protections slow economic growth. If he stays on this path, the consequences will be devastating for the whole planet. To have a healthy environment, you must have a healthy democracy.

We must remember that the history of suppressing science is a deeply troubling one. In Germany during the 1930s, for example, the government led an attack on modern science, and physicists were prohibited from even referring to certain works, including Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. We need to speak out when governments behave this way and voice our opinions, pressure lawmakers, protest and act. It is currently a bleak picture, but I have faith that the people, the states and the courts are going to push back really hard. That’s healthy democracy in action.

Early 18th-century French engraving of the Iroquois Confederacy meeting in 1570.

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem is an American feminist, journalist and activist. She is the founder of Ms. magazine. In 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I wish our study of history began when people began instead of when patriarchy, monotheism, nationalism and other current hierarchies began. Then we would know that when Europeans, who had known only monarchies and monotheism in their home countries, arrived in North America, they killed 90 percent of its inhabitants through warfare and disease, and yet it was those same inhabitants who had created the oldest continuous democracy in the world. Theirs was known to us as the Iroquois Confederacy, called by them the Haudenosaunee. The structure and the Great Law of Peace, an umbrella including six big nations on Turtle Island—what we now call North America—was the model for the U.S. Constitution. But unlike its model, our constitution allowed slavery and disenfranchised women, and we’ve been striving to correct those huge exclusions ever since. We might also still be behind ancient groups with an original self-government: the Dalits in India, the Kwei and the San in Africa as well as the traces of [Native American] governance here. We do, however, have more than two centuries of a partial democracy than most of, say, China and Russia.

While racism, sexism and economic polarization continue to undermine our democratic institutions, we have a belief in self-governance. The muscle of self-governance takes time to become strong. Pretty much everywhere, in differing degrees, democratic systems of governance are working against hierarchical forms of dominance and vice versa.

Women, in all of our diversity, are half the population, so if women don’t have freedom, there is no democracy. For both men and women, the power of government should stop at our skins, but this is much harder for women to gain because they are literally seizing control of the means of reproduction. Control of women’s bodies is the first step toward hierarchy; so women controlling their own bodies is the first step toward democracy.

When democracy declines, we must respond with everything we have, from truth-telling and outrage to leading by example and practicing radical kindness. We can spread democracy in our daily lives. For instance, if you are in a group where you have more power, listen as much as you talk. If you have less power, talk as much as you listen. At work, tell each other your salaries so you can see what’s unfair. Organize your block or neighborhood in a mutual interest, from cleaning up and planting flowers to voting and having parties. If there are people with a lot of unearned money, don’t kowtow to them—make nonviolent fun of them. After all, unless money is used in creative and communal ways, it is in and of itself boring. You can’t eat it or dance with it. Let the unjustly rich know they are boring! And don’t look up at false power. Look at each other, the source of shared power.

Also, laugh. Laughter is the most democratic of emotions because it’s the only one that can’t be compelled. We can be made to fear. We can even be made to believe we’re in love, because if we’re kept isolated and dependent for long enough, we enmesh in order to survive. But laughter erupts when two thoughts come together and suddenly make a third, when we understand or learn something, when we recognize a truth. It is said that laughter breaks the boundary between the known and the unknown, so if you can’t laugh, you can’t pray. One good measure of democracy is whether it’s okay to laugh. If a workplace or person or religion or form of politics doesn’t allow you to laugh, get out. Find a place of laughter, democracy and freedom.

Nicholas Cheeseman

Nicholas Cheeseman is a professor of African politics at Oxford University and a columnist for Sunday Nation, a popular East African newspaper. He is the author of Democracy in Africa: Successes, Failures, and the Struggle for Political Reform.

Many people have started to speak of a global democratic recession, in part because some right-wing leaders who are unpopular with democracy promoters have won power. That on its own is not an indication that democracy is in decline—after all, we can’t predetermine who should win elections. A more worrying and significant trend is that many governments have eroded the quality of political space in their countries by clamping down on civil society organizations, opposition parties and the media. It is these developments that demonstrate that there has been a decline in democracy.

In Africa, we have seen a gradual deterioration in the quality of civil liberties over the past ten years. This has been particularly pronounced in the category of “semi-democratic” or “competitive electoral authoritarian” states such as Botswana and Ghana that allow multiparty politics but retain many of the features of authoritarian regimes. However, there also have been some very positive stories during this same period. Nigeria experienced its first transfer of power since the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 2015, and we have just witnessed an unpopular leader forced from power in Gambia. It is therefore important not to speak of one “Africa,” but of two or three different “Africas” that are moving in different directions.

In many African states, authoritarian abuse has increased. Attacks on opposition parties and the arrest of civil society leaders and critical journalists have been ordered by vulnerable ruling parties worried about their hold on power. The use of more authoritarian strategies is not a sign of strength but of weakness: It is a signal that the ruling party cannot rely on the advantages of incumbency to retain control and instead must rely on repression. In these countries, there might be opportunities for members of the international community to try to  limit abuses of human rights and civil liberties. Protecting the space within which opposition parties can operate is important.

A photograph of suffragettes on parade in New York in 1912.

Clarence Page

Clarence Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist and a senior member of The Chicago Tribune editorial board. He is on the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

I’m surprised by how fragile democracies are. The current period shows that the freedoms we’ve gained can come undone, largely through our own doing. With the last election, we saw that we as Americans—myself included—had lost track of our fellow Americans and where we are as a country.

I come from a blue-collar family in Middletown, Ohio, a town full of Trump voters. My dad was a janitor and my mother was a cook. I worked at the steel mill in the summertime—that’s how I paid my tuition to Ohio University, a commanding sum of $770. It was not hard for a working-class kid to move up to the middle class. You just had to study hard, pay your tuition and get a degree. But now the paper mills, like the one my father worked at, are all gone. The steel mill is a shell of its former self. There is no need to hire summer workers. That’s true across the state; we’re in a post-industrial America. Middletown now leads the state in opiate overdoses; my community has crumbled to the point where people are doping themselves to death. Those left behind feel left behind. For people in places like Middletown, Donald Trump came along and addressed the right issues, even if he had no answers. He has made a pure emotional appeal without prescriptions.

Trump is an anti-intellectual. His election shows that ideas are not as important as they once were. This is a more brutal kind of politics where only the strong survive and we have a president who is leading a war on facts. In particular, he has a running war with the media. He calls the press names and has said that the media are scum and liars. He becomes enraged when the press publishes or broadcasts news that is not favorable to him. Other people get caught up in this and, like him, view the press as the enemy. This is the worst outgrowth of anti-intellectualism: an attack on the main purveyors of facts and information.

The media provide accountability; that’s a critical part of democracy. Democracy works best when it affords a voice for everybody. It is supposed to be the “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln said in the Gettysburg Address—that’s a definition of democracy. Whether it is the liberal press, the conservative press or middle-of-the-road perspectives, the media is a megaphone for different people and different viewpoints. Democracy requires independent voices that aren’t under anyone’s control.

M. Zuhdi Jasser

M. Zuhdi Jasser served on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. He founded the Center for Islamic Pluralism and is the president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.

There is no doubt that democracy is in decline in the Middle East. A corrupt and despotic wave has stifled much of the region. The Muslim world is stuck in a binary choice between Arab secular fascism and a kind of militant political Islam. There has been a disastrous rise of Islamism, a political ideology that wants to establish a caliphate—a theocracy in the entire Arab world. There is a growing front in the war of ideas within the house of Islam, a conflict between liberals and Islamists over blasphemy laws and control of speech.

Some think that democracy and Islam are not compatible, but that’s not true. As a proud and devout Muslim American, I believe that we need a liberty-based interpretation of Islam. Islam can achieve liberty and freedom through the separation of mosque and state. We need a Muslim solution to a Muslim problem; Muslims need our own movement. It won’t work to transplant American ideas into the Middle East or into Muslim consciousness. I believe there should be an evolution by imams of our interpretation of Sharia. Islamic countries need to have a reason-based secular legal system. That would not mean they were not religious, but that they would operate on universal ideas. Muslims need to have our faith community for education and worship, but our nation-states need a separate identity. We have to stop mixing national identity with faith identity.

There is bigotry today in America against Muslims. And Donald Trump’s campaign proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the U.S. sparked distrust in the Muslim community on both sides of the equation. We have to move past that, and we have to fight bigotry. I feel the best way to do that is to work for the reform of the ideas that have been creating cauldrons of radicalism in the Middle East. We need to fuel and jet-propel revolutions of democracy in that region. We need to transform the Middle East to be freer, more individualistic, less tribal and less oppressive.

Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, as painted by Fletcher C. Ransom.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth

Diana Furchtgott-Roth was chief of staff of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors and chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. She was on the Department of Labor’s transition team for President Donald Trump and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Our democracy is very healthy; we serve as a model for other countries. We had a very vibrant election. People felt strongly about Hillary Clinton and they felt strongly about Donald Trump. Donald Trump won and there was a peaceful transition of power. New cabinet secretaries are being named and a new Supreme Court justice has been nominated.

President Trump is doing a great job. He has started rolling back regulations, his team is working on tax reform and he is enforcing immigration laws. He is doing what he said he would do during the campaign.

Our democracy has shown itself to be very strong. We regularly have fairly close elections. When the election is over and the results have been decided, the wheels of state run on as they did before. When one side goes overboard, the pendulum swings the other way. For instance, after President Obama wanted to push through unpopular policies, he lost the 60-seat Senate majority with the election of Scott Brown; then he lost the House and we were back to gridlock, which is what the American people like. This is a sign that, in general, American democracy works very well.

President Trump was elected and he has not broken any laws. He is entitled to roll back regulations and to enforce existing laws, which is what he has been doing with immigration. President Trump is making legal use of the powers the presidency has given him. President Obama was not enforcing existing laws, so you could say it was a dictatorship under President Obama. The Congress sets immigration policy, and it is up to the executive branch to enforce those laws. President Obama said that, because Congress had not passed another immigration bill, he would take matters into his own hands and stop deporting people who were here without documentation. That is not the way checks and balances work. He did not have the right just not to enforce the law; presidents swear to uphold the laws of the United States.

Trump is not exceeding his authority. A case cannot be made that American democracy is declining. The American people have chosen a different kind of person for president, and traditional elites who wanted someone else are saying that democracy has broken down. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Paul Burstein

Paul Burstein is a professor emeritus of sociology, political science and Jewish studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of American Public Opinion, Advocacy, and Policy in Congress: What the Public Wants and What It Gets.

The best evidence from the beginning of the 21st century shows that, on average, democracy is not in decline. The Economist Intelligence Unit has been grading democracy in 167 countries for decades. It takes many factors into account, including civil liberties and electoral competitiveness. It has found no overall change in the strength of democracy.

There are two main reasons many people incorrectly believe democracy is in decline. First, in some places, democracy actually is in decline—in Turkey and Russia, for example. People carefully analyze those places and then, in a vast overgeneralization, extrapolate that the same problems are also happening in the rest of the world. Second, when someone is elected whom journalists and researchers personally don’t like and feel to be antidemocratic, they tend to project that democracy itself is in decline. In the future, some of these very right-wing political parties may pose a real danger to democracy. They are gaining strength, so that’s entirely possible. But that hasn’t happened yet.

John Trumbull’s painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence to Congress.

Tracy Kidder

Tracy Kidder is a journalist and the author of 12 books. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his book The Soul of a New Machine.

It is not just a question of whether democracies are in decline or the ways in which American democracy seems to be in crisis. We need to recognize that Western-style democracy is not always a good export. This is not a one-size-fits-all world. American-style democracy demands a certain amount of stability and prosperity. It doesn’t easily transfer to countries that are so poor you can buy a political assassin for $7 and a bottle of rum. In African countries that have been ravaged by civil war for decades, democratic elections can simply become occasions for violence. The struggle for power in very poor countries is much more serious than in a country like the United States, where if you lose an election, you get a job at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In poor countries, power struggles can turn into ethnic violence and genocide.

It is shameful how few people vote in the United States. We must stop taking the essential peacefulness and electoral process of the U.S. for granted. When Haiti first had elections in 1987, people turned out in enormous numbers. Many walked for miles on rough mountain paths and then waited in line for hours in the hot sun to vote. About 80 percent of Haitians live in poverty; about 70 percent have never gone to school. But the Haitian poor have repeatedly demanded the right to cast their ballots. They risked their lives to vote. Even when thugs gunned down voters at polling places, impoverished Haitians turned out to vote in large numbers. But here in America, many of us can’t be bothered.

I think the only real solution to all of this is education. I realize that this sounds boring and that it will take a long time to show results. But in the long term, that is the only way out of the current devolution of our political life. We need civics education and we need mandatory public service for the young. We must learn about and understand our history and government processes. We must make enormous investments in public educational facilities and teachers. This is essential to the health and prosperity of our democracy.

Daniel A. Bell

Daniel A. Bell is the author of The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy. He is the chair of the Schwarzman Scholars Program at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the director of the Berggruen Institute’s Philosophy and Culture Center in Los Angeles.

Democracies are facing serious difficulties, but there is still a widespread commitment to the idea that leaders need to be selected by one person, one vote. I think that democracy has four key weaknesses, all of which have become far worse of late. One, voters are often ill-informed. Two, it is easy for the whole process to be captured by a tiny economic elite, especially in large countries. Three, even when democracies work well, they work only in the interest of voters and not in the interest of nonvoters who are also affected by the policies of the government, like future generations and people living outside the country. That makes it hard to deal with issues such as global warming. Four, democracy exacerbates a kind of disharmony in society. This is now particularly evident in the U.S.

I am not saying that the countries that currently have implemented electoral democracy should suddenly scrap it. The alternatives, like fascism, are usually far worse. My point is that we should allow for the fact that political meritocracy such as in China is a legitimate alternative to electoral democracy. We should not act as though electoral democracy is the only game in town. People tend to think that there are just two systems: good electoral democracy and bad autocratic machines—non-meritocratic systems like the family dictatorship in North Korea or the military dictatorship in Egypt. But there are models like China that, while highly imperfect, have successfully implemented a system whereby leaders are selected and promoted based on meritocratic mechanisms such as examinations or performance evaluations at lower levels of government.

It’s dogmatic to say that there should be only one way of selecting leaders. Democracy might be appropriate at lower levels of government where people have knowledge of leaders and issues are not so complex. The advantage of meritocracy at higher levels is that all the leaders have political experience. Leaders are not subject to the vicissitudes of the electoral cycle. They can have a long-term vision and consider the impact of policies on other countries. They don’t have to waste so much time giving speeches, campaigning and raising money. They can focus on what they are supposed to do: making appropriate policies to benefit the people.

I sincerely hope that the struggling democracies improve, because there is a risk of fascism if they don’t. But the good news if they don’t is that we will no longer have to worry about attempts to export electoral democracy to China. And, if the performance of leaders in China is good, if not better, than the performance of leaders in electoral democracies, it will be easier to eventually relax some of the repression and constraints that are currently in place in China. The Chinese government won’t have to worry so much about the people being enraptured by alternatives.

Cicero near the end of the Roman Republic in 1st century BCE

Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and was formerly on the faculty at the University of Tehran. She is currently the director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

I have witnessed that freedom and democracy are very fragile; you cannot take them for granted. Our democracies are in crisis. It is not simply an economic or political crisis; it is a crisis of vision, values, principles and faith. That is what I saw happen in Iran. At the beginning of the 20th century, Iran was the first country in the Middle East to have a constitutional revolution against its absolutist monarchy, and it became a secular state. At the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran had very progressive laws regarding women, and women participated in all walks of life. In 1963, my own mother was among a small number of women to sit in the Iranian parliament. But by the end of the 20th century, the Ayatollah Khomeini brought back the clerical edicts and laws that had been rejected a century before. Like all authoritarian regimes, the first thing it did was target women, minorities and culture. How these three are treated is a measure of the degree to which authoritarianism is practiced; their persecution and oppression are signs that democracy and freedom are in decline.

A group of extremists took over my country and, in the name of Iran and the Islamic religion, claimed that thousands of people like me were irrelevant. They regarded us as alien because of what we believed, what we felt, how we expressed ourselves and the way we looked. Suddenly, the religion into which I had been born and the traditions I had always cherished also became alien.

Iranian women, especially the poets and writers, led the resistance. We participated in mass demonstrations, but our experiences were very different from that of American women during the recent march on Washington. The way women look in Iran has become a semiotic sign of their position on the state. Women resisted the fatwas and went to the streets not properly wearing the hijab, with colorful makeup on and publicly holding hands with their boyfriends. They shouted, “Freedom is neither Eastern nor Western; freedom is global.” They were jailed, humiliated, tortured and even killed as a result. I hear the echoes of their shouts here now in Washington, DC. The repression did not work on them. They came back to the streets and did it all again.

Freedom of expression and individual rights are something that cannot be taken for granted. Great American writers and thinkers have long warned that in a democracy, people become too complacent, too selfish and greedy. The West is now threatened with atrophy of feeling and a culture of sleeping consciousness, in which religion and core American values are discussed through sound bites. I am concerned that Americans have become blind to the fragility of their freedoms.

Joshua Kurlantzick

Joshua Kurlantzick is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. His most recent book is A Great Place to Have a War: The Secret War in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.

Democracy globally is in a weaker state than it was a decade ago, and there are indicators that younger generations in longer-standing democracies doubt the value of democratic systems. This growing public indifference to democratic norms and values suggests one of the reasons why populist, anti-system parties are gaining ground in many states. In Asia there is less of this movement of populist parties, but that’s mostly because political parties are relatively weak. Instead, populist, semi-authoritarian leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte or former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have won elections on populist platforms. Their political parties were mostly just vehicles for their personalities.

Democracy is as threatened in Asia as anywhere else. There are some bright spots, like Taiwan and to some extent South Korea and Indonesia, but democracy has regressed over the past decade in the Philippines and Thailand, while semi-free nations such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Pakistan and Bangladesh have seen their progress halted and reversed. As a result, military coups have become feasible again; one happened in Thailand in 2014. There is a possibility of coups in the future in Pakistan, where armed forces remain extremely powerful, or even in the Philippines.

This withering of democracy could lead to reduced freedoms of all kinds. Over the long run, democracy is generally the best system for ensuring accountability and transparency in government and for promoting broad-based economic development. You can have economic growth without democracy—the two are not necessarily linked. And you can fight corruption without democracy, as happened in the 1960s and 1970s in Singapore. But it’s rare and hard to do. Democracy is usually the best way to foster broad-based development. Citizens in these countries must do their utmost to exercise all of their democratic rights—most importantly, voting. Antidemocratic populists succeed most in places where voters become apathetic.

Raphael’s depiction of Athenian democracy in 5th century BCE.

Timothy Snyder

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author, most recently, of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Few observers would deny that democracies are in decline, but we need to remember that democracy is always difficult. From the very beginning, the classical Greek philosophers worried about the tendency of wealth inequality to transform democracy into oligarchy, and about the risk that demagogues would use the freedoms afforded by democracy to install tyranny.

It’s important to understand that when we talk about democracy, we have to mean something more than a ritual wherein people go out and vote. One way that democracies are now undone is by preserving the formal appearance and procedures of democracy—the voting—while removing the checks and balances, rule of law and other essential elements of free polities. Voting at that point has no substance, but the ritual of voting remains a source of legitimacy.

It’s also important to remember that democratic outcomes do not automatically preserve democratic systems. It can happen, and does happen from time to time, that governments are legally formed by leaders who were democratically elected—and who intend to destroy democracy. Hitler’s National Socialist party did very well in the elections of November 1932, which meant that he could be chosen to form a government. Nazi Germany is an extreme variant of how things can go wrong, but it happens fairly regularly that people come to power by legal means and then start to destroy the rule of law.

It’s hard for Americans to grasp that our democracy could fail and what would happen if it did. We take certain things for granted as if they were the air that we breathe. Everything could change very quickly, and it is changing very quickly. And with change will come a kind of pain that we also do not know. The end of democracy will mean the total ruination of what we regard as a free and private life. If our democracy failed, you would suddenly find that nothing would work the way you want it to. You would worry about everything you say and whether someone will report you. You would think and overthink every word you say in every conversation. All your relationships, except for the very closest ones, would go away. You would constantly wonder if you should stay in your country or move somewhere else. This would be miserable for a while, but sadly, people would get used to it. Children and grandchildren would grow up in the United States without any idea of what it means to be free. That’s why you have to fight back at the very beginning.

People who want to destroy democracies try to make the situation seem vast, imponderable and overwhelming in order to win emotionally, so it’s important not to feel depressed or dismayed. You need to find something you understand and care about, a spot where you believe you can make a difference. Find other people and groups who also know and care about that thing, and then work on it together. We cannot all do everything, but we can all do something. If you really believe in freedom, you have to stop yourself from automatically adjusting to the new situation. You must not obey in advance. Freedom means pausing, getting your bearings and thinking for yourself.

Larry Diamond

Larry Diamond is the director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Hoover Institute. He is the author of The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies throughout the World and the coeditor of Democracy in Decline?

There is a much more vigorous and clear trend toward decline than there was even two years ago. Not only is democracy now in recession in developing and post-communist countries, but liberal democracies—Europe and the United States, countries that are at the core of the global democratic system—are now in defensive positions. For the first time since the end of World War II, we see serious challenges to basic liberal democratic values such as freedom of the press, freedom of movement and tolerance for minorities. These are very worrisome trends. Simultaneously, there has been a common phenomenon of the rise of right-wing, illiberal parties with clear nativist anti-immigrant and anti-pluralist agendas.

According to studies done by groups such as Freedom House, for the past ten years more countries have been declining in freedom in a given year than have been gaining. This reverses the pattern in the post-Cold War period between 1991 and 2005, when more countries were gaining in freedom than declining. In recent years, many more countries have had their democracies fail than have been transitioning to become democracies. We are seeing an acceleration of that decline in places such as Turkey, Thailand, Nicaragua, Bangladesh and other developing and post-communist countries.

I’m concerned about the trend in the United States toward political polarization and legislative gridlock; this speaks to the functionality of American democracy and ultimately to citizens’ views about the desirability of democracy. If we have a long period of time when democracy seems unable to produce viable solutions to our problems, then citizens’ assessments of government will suffer.

The problem of polarization is not just a matter of the amount of legislation passed but of respect for established norms of conduct. An uncooperative spirit has come to characterize relations between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. This is also happening at the state level. There has been an erosion of the notion that there are rules and norms that transcend partisan politics and should not be violated. The most stunning example is the laws that were passed in the North Carolina Republican-controlled legislature this past November, stripping the incoming Democratic governor of much of his power. The courts will settle whether this is unconstitutional in the state of North Carolina. Regardless, it’s an example of great incivility and a zero-sum, winner-take-all attitude toward politics in which you are not going to let the opposition exercise or share power.

We need to reform our political and electoral system to induce and reward moderation. Centrists, independents and third-party candidates have to have more of a chance to run for office. We should consider a system of proportional representation in which voters rank their preferences. We need to address the problems caused by gerrymandering. And we should get rid of the “sore-loser rule.” In 45 states in the U.S., there is a rule that forbids a candidate who loses a primary from running as an independent in the general election. Voters need more options and more choices.

Deborah Dash Moore

Deborah Dash Moore is the former director of the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies and a professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation.

Democracies are not in decline, but they are under serious threat because there are vocal minorities who are eager to assume the position of majority and legislate against other minorities. This should concern Jews because democracy in general has been good for Jews. Representative democracy, the form we have in the United States, creates opportunities for something besides pure majority rule; this allows minorities to gain protections. American democracy has always included a variety of minorities. Even in the colonial period, Jews were one of many minority religious groups; they came to be accepted as legitimate along with other groups. Jews figured in the imagination of the early founders as a touchstone of what a free society might look like. When New York became a state, John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, declared that Jews should be held up as an example because they had always fought for liberty.

In the United States, democracy is not just a political system but also a cultural package that includes separation of church and state, universal suffrage, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. All of these are critical for Jews. This is a society in which Jews have had political and religious freedoms as well as economic opportunities. In Europe, you had to be Christian to join most guilds, and therefore there were whole professional areas in which Jews couldn’t work. Those kinds of legislative discriminations have simply never existed.

In the U.S., there is currently an attempt to run roughshod over certain minorities. Jews are vulnerable when immigrants or any religious or national minorities are being attacked. Jews should recognize the dangers and do their best to resist those dangers. They must speak up against, and resist, persecution of other religious groups, especially Muslims and attacks on immigrants. Historically, Jews have fought to create a more just society. Now, more than ever, Jews must continue that fight.

Bernard Avishai

Bernard Avishai is a professor of government at Dartmouth College and a professor of business at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books include The Tragedy of Zionism and The Hebrew Republic.

America’s founders implicitly understood that the health of democracy depends on its DNA—the norms, laws and replicable structures that allow for growth and change. They knew that flaws in, or persistent violations of, the organizing code would make the political organism vulnerable—mostly to the vanity, banality and stupidity of human beings. The Constitution, correspondingly, was an effort to sequence an imagined democracy’s genome: to anticipate, among other things, how power should be exercised, contained and distributed. You toy with the small stuff and can quickly injure the larger; a teeny flaw in the code and you get muscular dystrophy.

Today, given the residual strength of its institutions and the diffusion of power, it is hard to imagine a tyranny in the United States—hard, though hardly impossible, given Donald Trump’s brazen violations of democratic norms such as respect for others’ dignity, respect for rules of evidence and humility about the use of force. When you compare America with Israel, however, you see how much quicker the decline of democracy can be when you lack the institutional foundations. Forget the occupation for a moment. Consider America’s separation of church and state, which has engendered a common-sense understanding of personal conscience and intellectual freedom. In Israel, the rabbinic courts are formally recognized as part of the state apparatus. Important aspects of people’s lives are now in the hands of theocrats and zealots. The Ministry of Education has imposed a settler “university” on the Council of Higher Education and distorted the curriculum of secular schools with halachic norms. The Ministry of Communication has prostituted the media. The Ministry of Justice is remaking the Supreme Court. The Israel Land Authority discriminates in favor of people with J-positive blood. None of this would have been possible if Israel had a proper constitution.

How do you oppose the Trumps and Likudists? One thing is certain: You cannot satirize, fact-check or protest them out of power. You need to have a political opposition that is committed to democratic institutions and knows how to defend their logic and also knows how to fight for power, including answering the fundamental questions that are in the minds of people who end up voting for national populism. In both America and Israel you need a big-tent Democratic Party, driven by grassroots organizing, not political consultants. Easier said than done, I know.

Josiah Ober

Josiah Ober is a professor of political science and classics at Stanford University. He is the author of Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens and Democracy and Knowledge.

Democracy begins in the ancient world as a very direct process of participation by citizens. If we think about the core meaning of democracy as people having the capacity to make their own history, then the big question posed by examining ancient democracies is: How can that still be a reality? How can people actually govern themselves at the scale that is demanded by modernity, and with representative institutions, as opposed to the direct democratic institutions that were typical of antiquity?

The essence of Athenian democracy, the best example of democracy in the ancient world, was that it was a direct democracy without an established elite group or oligarchy running things. A mass of citizens gathered in a public assembly, listened to speeches by political leaders and then voted, with the majority vote determining the policy. Elite politicians could gain influence only by proposing policies that were acceptable to the people or demos. Conversely, the Roman Republic—it’s not appropriate to use “democracy” for Rome—was structured to ensure that the people who were elected to high office and serving in the Senate dominated the political decision-making process. There were institutional structures guaranteeing that a handful of powerful families remained in control of operations. In a very limited sense, it had nascent elements of representative democracy.

In the end, Greek democracy didn’t really decline; the Romans killed it off. The Roman form of republicanism was destroyed by the success of Roman imperial growth. Ultimately, a few powerful elites captured the institutions, especially the army, and ran the government in their own interests. Political scientists call this “elite capture,” and it is one of the greatest challenges to democracy today.

The founders of America studied ancient history and democracies. They incorporated elements of the Roman system that avoided the directness of ancient Greek democracy, which they feared would lead to chaos, but they were also deeply leery of the government being dominated by a handful of families, as had happened in ancient Rome.

We are at a turning point. There are aspects of the situation in the U.S. that the ancient Greeks would have said were very dangerous because power seems to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a group of elites who might not be acting in the interests of ordinary citizens. Ancient societies also came to such crisis points. Sometimes it went well: Democracy was restored after various crises in Athens. And sometimes it went badly: The republic was never restored in ancient Rome.

Arch Puddington

Arch Puddington is a distinguished fellow for democracy studies at Freedom House and recently served as Freedom House’s senior vice president for research. He is the former executive director of the League of Industrial Democracy and the research director of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

From 1975 until 2005, there was a steady improvement in democracy worldwide. Starting in 2005, there was stagnation and then a decline. It would be wrong, however, to exaggerate how much democratic decline there has been in the United States. American democracy is still very dynamic; it can elect Barack Obama and Donald Trump, both outsiders who would never have been elected in Europe. But conversely, American democracy is showing signs of wear and tear, and nobody seems interested in sitting down and fixing it.

Worldwide, there are much more extreme examples of decline. For instance, Venezuela had a functioning democracy and then in 2000, Hugo Chavez emerged as a strongman, a left-wing and socialist autocrat. For a while, the situation was okay. Venezuela was a petrol state, and while oil and gas prices remained high, he was able to take that money and use it for the poor. Chavez was very popular, not only in Venezuela but throughout a number of countries in Latin America. Many predicted that Chavez’s system would become a model for other countries in the region. But at a certain point, gas prices came down, and because Chavez had not invested in the state—not even in its oil company—things started to unravel. What was once one of South America’s wealthier countries is now a failed state. The left-populist model for which Chavez served as vanguard is in decline and ill repute. Nobody in Latin America wants his or her country to end up like Venezuela.

In general, part of the problem is that autocratic leaders today are much smarter than they were 30 years ago. When communism prevailed in the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe, most of the communist leadership was lazy and rigid. They never really thought about how to keep some semblance of support from the people or how to revive and refresh their system of governance. The same was true of right-wing dictators such as Augusto Pinochet and military generals in Argentina, Indonesia and other Asian countries. They ruled by terror or force. In the age of social media, however, when a policeman beats a civilian, it goes viral—committing atrocities against one’s own people is not tolerated. So autocrats have devised different ways of maintaining authority and a certain level of popularity with their own people. This means they need to control the economy, because they need to be able to take credit for economic gains. China, Russia and other authoritarian countries have become more assertive in pronouncing their own systems as equal or superior to Western democracy. They have abandoned their post-Cold War aspirations to achieve any kind of multiparty democratic system.

Gordon S. Wood

Gordon S. Wood is a professor of history emeritus at Brown University. He received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for History for The Radicalization of the American Revolution. In 2010, he was awarded the National Humanities Award.

Democracy worldwide is not in decline but in flux. In the U.S., democracy is not in decline despite the election of an odd character to the presidency. The political institutions seem to be working as well as they can given the polarization of the parties. That sort of polarization is a problem, but that does not suggest that our democracy is in decline. People are more frightened and fanatic than they need to be. They seem to have little or no confidence in our institutions, but time, I think, will calm the passions. The next election will be here before we know it.

Obviously, the U.S. has had moments when our democracy was challenged, most blatantly with the Civil War. We had a challenge at the outset of our nation with the threat of a French invasion in 1798, but Lord Nelson came to our aid by destroying the French navy at the Battle of the Nile. We were as scared then as we were in 1942 and we overreacted both times, with the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 and with the internment of several hundred thousand Japanese during World War II, more than half of them U.S. citizens.

What is unprecedented about the present is the character of the man elected president and the fact that we live in a world of instant media. President Andrew Jackson was an odd character, too, and much feared by Northeastern elites. Fortunately, he did not have a smartphone. If Trump would stop tweeting, the country could forget about him for a while. But since his peculiar behavior has been the source of his success, I doubt it will stop. What will happen is that many people, here and abroad, will begin to discount what he says, especially if his cabinet members and appointees are saying and doing different things, which seems to be what is happening. The situation is aggravated by the incredible weakness of the Democratic Party, which is the weakest it has been nationally since the 1920s. Recognizing that weakness is important to understanding the present sense of crisis. Because of its weakness, the Democratic Party feels it has to do everything it can to resist Trump and take advantage of his peculiarities. If the Democrats were more confident in themselves, they might be behaving differently and we would not have this sense that we’re about to go over a cliff.

If our democracy were in decline, we probably wouldn’t know it. Do you think the Romans in the third century CE said to themselves, “We are in decline”? A momentary electoral blip like this is not a sign of democracy in decline. After the next election, we’ll probably wonder what all the fuss was about. The American people have not stopped engaging in democratic politics.

4 thoughts on “Is Democracy Broken?

  1. Lana Finegold says:

    Thank you for creating this forum. We live in a scary world right now.
    We have guards at my synagogue. It began only for High Holidays. Now it is for Shabbat too. And there are cameras everywhere. I don’t think Churches have these concerns. This is no longer feeling like a free country.

  2. Rachel says:

    These are important conversations, but action is more important. My 95 year old dad is blogging and trying to help us save the future. Check out his blog
    Here is an excerpt and the 6th principle of a democratic society…

    6. Knowledge

    Benjamin Barber
    Embedded in families, clans, communities, and nations, we must learn to be free. We may be natural consumers – and born narcissists, but citizens have to be made. . . The logic of democracy begins with pubhc education, proceeds- to informed citizenship, and comes to fruition in the securing of rights and liberties. Public schools are how a public-a citizenry is forged and how young selfish individuals turn, into conscientious, community-minded -citizens …. Certainly there will. be no liberty, no equality, no social justice without democracy, and there will be no democracy without citizens and the schools that forge civic identity and democratic responsibility. (1993, 39-46)
    America skips school, Harper’s Magazine, 287, pp.39-46,1983. (p. 39-46).

    There is no such thing as an ignorant democracy.

    Democracy is the triumph of reason. It becomes feasible only if a population is well enough educated to perform the challenging role of citizen. The goal of education in a society desiring to be democratic is providing ALL students by a certain predetermined age (eighteen?) that which is necessary to know, understand, and responsibly react as citizens in a democratic society. Given the complexity of that society and the magnitude of the difficult problems being confronted, ordinary citizens will need to know a lot.

    Is what has to be known beyond the capacity of ordinary citizens? Until some effort is made to provide such education it is impossible to adequately answer that question. We do know that humans have the capacity to learn a lot. In education

    The major reason we have made so little progress toward democracy has been the inability, or, unwillingness to create an institution, an agency, to provide opportunity for the necessary knowledge.

    Part of that knowledge comes from experiencing democracy. Learning about democratic authority by experiencing the authority of democratic teachers. Learning about democracy in projects in which the world is made a better place, through class projects that create a public good. As the student advances in school, the projects become more ambitious. It is through those projects, the information provided to make them work, and the reflection when completed that students obtain the knowledge to become informed citizens,

    . Learning the skills required of democratic citizens by practicing them in. In upper grades students research and debate with logic and evidence differing solutions to war, poverty, environmental devastation. The intent of that debate is to make the best case for a public good, not to win.

    Today everything done has been dictated by a corporate mentality. The ostensible goal is to prepare a workforce to compete in the global economy. There is no such competition but that goal becomes the excuse to coerce passive conformity, to produce docile followers rather than informed citizens.

    Docile followers are not what this country needs. Needed is an education that prepares students capable of addressing the problems that currently go unattended. Desperately needed is an education that promotes active engagement, encourages thought, challenges students to deal effectively and responsibly with both the major issues of the day – war, environmental destruction, poverty and injustice – as well as to make informed and responsible decisions in every facet of their lives: to become, good spouses, parents, friends, neighbors, citizens. There are no known solutions to any of the above problems. Because there are no known solutions it is necessary that students – all students – be helped to attain the background needed to discover, analyze, evaluate, debate, synthesize a range of proposed solutions and through thorough examination of diverse ideas, all defended with logic and evidence, arrive at the best solutions. Is such an education possible? Who knows? We do know that with a very restricted and limited effort, Project Citizen, students respond positively; do the research, engage in the discussion and move significantly in the direction of democratic citizenship. If progress can be made in 6 months, think what could be accomplished in a 12-year effort. There is every reason to believe that we can make significant movement in the direction of education for democracy today if only we would try.

  3. Prof Asher J Matathias says:

    B”H The jury is out today, as those voters not having voted by mail, or early in person, have a last chance to exercise their franchise. We shall soon thereafter witness how resilient is our democracy to withstand repeated desperate Trumpian attempts to undo the expected sizable Biden victory! Our democratic institutions have been shaken by the assaults of an aberrant Presidency, actively undermining the institutions that have for 244 years have made the United States the modern paradigmatic liberal democracy. Contrary to instigated animus by the incumbent President, acquired maturity will guide us to an uneventful, violence-free culmination of Election Day, with every recorded ballot counted. Then, realizing the weight of tectonic defeat, even Trump will accept the inevitable; perhaps, and unaccustomedly, graciously cooperate in the smooth transition of power to our 46th President! Truly, then, justly proud as Americans for experiencing an occasion to celebrate, our democracy surviving a dire challenge, after all.

  4. h gottlieb says:

    A very interesting question,,, and I will give a somewhat abbreviated answer… Does any ???? one know what democracy means???? I listen and hear Constitutional ‘Rights” being abused. by the governors of the state (any state)… what constitution are they talking about… I see court cases about medicare, freedom of religion being violated…. HOW ???? What freedom? I am 87, and do not plan for any more children… Should I get a special rate..///
    and by the way, one man one vote… look at various state and county populations, NO way Hose… We don’t even vote for our reps… party hacks pick who runs… we don’t vote for president.. the electrol. college sees that
    etc.. I’m tired ….. and disappointed

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