According to a recent poll conducted by Pew Research Center, only 17% of those surveyed in 16 countries believed that democracy in the United States is a good model to follow. Nearly 60% say the U.S. used to be a good example, but has not been in recent years.
Americans themselves share the world’s concern, but for partisan reasons. A national survey taken last month indicated that over three-fourths of those polled believed American democracy is under threat. One-half of the poll saw major danger to democracy.
Interestingly, almost three-fourths of Donald Trump supporters and Republicans perceived major risk. About one-third of Democrats and Joe Biden voters shared that belief.
Not coincidentally, around 60% of Republicans believed former President Trump won the 2020 election, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
Another sign of democratic decline was the failure of the U.S. Senate to pass two voting rights bills last week. One was the Freedom to Vote Act, a measure that would provide national standards for early voting and mail-in voting, make “dark money” contributions more transparent and declare Election Day a holiday. The other was the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which aims to strengthen federal efforts to combat discriminatory voting restrictions.
Actually, the Senate could not agree to even debate voting rights, due to near-unanimous opposition from Republicans and the rules of the Senate that empower obstructionists.
The role of citizens
Concern about the state of democracy in America is nothing new. The framers of the U.S. Constitution opposed democracy, defined as direct citizen participation in government. For years after the Constitutional Convention, many delegates in Philadelphia despaired of a growing trend toward citizen involvement.
Resistance to expanding political involvement was so strong, it required a civil war and several constitutional amendments to extend citizen privileges, including the vote, to African Americans and women. Subsequently, reaction to the exercise of the voting franchise by Blacks led to Jim Crow laws. The so-called “reforms” of the Progressive Era weakened the urban party organizations that mobilized the mushrooming immigrant population in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Throughout much of the 20th century, political theorists debated whether mobilization of the citizenry was good or bad for democracy. As contradictory as it may seem, this question arose from the rise of antidemocratic, popular movements that produced fascism and Soviet communism. In the United States, support for Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s ruthless crusade to purge the government of suspected communists revealed a lack of citizen concern for civil liberties.
According to political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in their 2016 book “Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government,” belief in Americans’ capacity to govern themselves, which the authors call the “folk theory of democracy,” has been undermined by the poor performance of American voters.
There is no shortage of evidence of civic illiteracy. For example, only one-third of adults are able to correctly name the three branches of government. Furthermore, reforms designed to maximize citizen control have backfired. For example, 26 states have popular initiative and referendum options, which were intended to involve citizens directly in making public policy. In practice, special interests drive issues to the ballot, and voters know little about what’s at stake.
Faced with such disappointing results, democratic theorists attempted to redefine democracy to emphasize the importance of enlightened elites and limit the responsibilities of citizens.
Writing in 1942, the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter famously classified democracy as “that institutional method for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” Elected leaders, Schumpeter implied, should have ample room to set the agenda and negotiate deals. Citizen involvement should be restricted to holding officials accountable through elections every few years.
Subsequent scholars, such as the Yale political scientist Robert Dahl, elaborated on the importance of interest group representation, the moderating role of America’s two-party system, and the emerging influence of the courts in the civil rights struggle. Atticus Finch, the fictional lawyer in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” became a model of the tolerant leader willing to defy the ignorant and murderous townsfolk.
A mobilized public
The 1960s shattered the complacency of elitist theories of democracy. Mass movements against the Vietnam War and for civil rights reflected demands by marginalized groups for recognition. Intensely heard were criticisms of corporate power, the military-industrial complex and the establishment politicians and groups that monopolized party nominations and decision-making in Washington, D.C.
The rise of progressive movements led some observers to believe that a highly mobilized public could bring about a more inclusive American democracy. A desire for social justice led to landmark legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and the Clean Air Act of 1970. Reforms in the Democratic Party after the explosive 1968 national convention in Chicago opened the presidential nomination process to women, minorities and young people.
On the other hand, rapid social change — and the violence that accompanied it — produced a divided America. Meticulously described by historian Rick Perlstein in a four-volume series, a counter-movement emerged, consisting of supporters of U.S. senator and 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, white Southerners, anti-taxers, anti-busing ethnic groups in the North, Stop ERA advocates, white evangelical Christians and Cold Warriors, just to name a few. Conservative mobilization culminated with the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, and a new political era began.
Moving to the 21st century, we have experienced a level of citizen activism not seen since the 1960s. Voting turnout in the post-9/11 period, which encompassed the Barack Obama and Trump presidential campaigns, rivaled that of the John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon elections. Aided by digital technology and social media, new social movements appeared — Iraq War opposition, the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and March for Our Lives.
Unfortunately, increased popular engagement also activated the political fringe. Hate crimes and white supremacist activity increased — the latter including here in Lancaster County. School board members and election officials, many of whom are volunteers, have been harassed. The Jan. 6 insurrection challenged the peaceful transfer of power. Led by Republican officials, organized efforts at voter suppression and election subversion are well underway in the states. If GOP quislings succeed, they will have people and mechanisms in place to annul a Democratic presidential victory in 2024.
Even by Schumpeter’s lean definition of democracy as rule by accountable elites, American democracy is falling short. Notably, the Republican Party has radicalized. Fear of Trump, his allies in the media and his millions of followers has tongue-tied most GOP leaders. They refuse to condemn acts of domestic terrorism and embrace the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election. They deny science, invent their own truth and politicize lifesaving vaccinations. To raise campaign dollars, media engagement and, most disturbingly, racial animosity, they manufacture crises, such as the critical race theory that is not being taught in K-12 schools.
Democrats see the threat from the far right, but have done little to counter it. Obsessed with passing his ginormous social spending bills, President Biden sees the GOP antics as distractions. Wedded to the traditions of the legislative chamber in which he served for 36 years, the president vacillates on the filibuster, an unconstitutional procedure that is enabling Republicans to block his agenda. Mildly concerned about a reactionary-dominated U.S. Supreme Court, engineered by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Biden appoints a presidential commission that is guaranteed not to recommend major reform of judicial selection and tenure.
In addition, Biden’s Justice Department was criticized by a federal judge for treating the occupants of the U.S. Capitol on 1/6 as petty offenders. Meanwhile, his attorney general, Merrick Garland, shows little interest in prosecuting the ringleader of the insurrection.
What lies ahead
The debate over whether more citizen involvement strengthens or weakens democracy continues. Despite unprecedented amounts of information available to citizens, political knowledge has not improved. In choosing a candidate for whom to vote, say Achen and Bartels, most citizens rely on party and group identity. In fact, voting is increasingly detached from incumbent performance. At best, voter rationality is myopic — i.e., what have you done for me really lately?
Sadly, empirical studies of American democracy in action paint a dismal picture of popular influence. From an examination of outcomes covering more than 1,500 issues from 1981 to 2002, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page argued in 2014 that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups (unions and membership organizations such as AARP) and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” In particular, when fairly large majorities of citizens favor policy change, “they generally do not get it.”
Putting it another way, people need to see that their participation in politics can make a difference. Trust in government and political efficacy — belief that one’s involvement in politics matters — remain at low levels. The current fights in Washington, D.C., over President Biden’s infrastructure and reconciliation bills, which contain popular items such as increasing the child tax credit, lowering Medicare prescription costs, paid family leave, universal pre-K, access to high-speed internet, and taxing the very rich, are key tests of whether democracy can work.
Also important were the many local contests at stake in last Tuesday’s elections, in which conservative activists challenging anti-COVID-19 mandates and diversity education asserted themselves. Except for those who intimidate candidates and officials, this activism is also democracy in action. Those who oppose these efforts have no choice but to enter the political arena. While MAGA insurgents won school board seats in places such as Elizabethtown, they were defeated in Camp Hill, Cumberland County, by people determined to defend the truth and stop racial and gender exclusion.
In either case, whether progressives or conservatives prevail in elections and government, it is essential that losers in the struggle accept the results and pledge to fight on peacefully. Given what happened on 1/6, concession by the “loyal opposition” is no longer guaranteed. Without popular resistance and decisive legal action against authoritarian tactics, it is likely we will see more insurrections, as Big Lies descend to the state and local level.
The threat to democracy is here and it is now. It is up to enlightened leaders — and ordinary citizens — of both parties to embrace values of both liberty and equality and demand a return to basic ground rules of fairness, decency and respect for those who disagree. The future of the American experiment depends on us.
E. Fletcher McClellan, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College. Twitter: @mcclelef
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