America’s Democracy Is Not in Danger, but This Is No Cause for Complacency

An Essay by William A. Galston, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution and Columnist for The Wall Street Journal

Support for American democracy remains strong, but its maintenance requires continued commitment by both citizens and government. In order to keep strengthening democracy in other nations, the U.S. needs to make sure democracy is delivering results to all Americans.

Protesters in Boston on November 11, 2016. (Heidi Besen / Shutterstock.com)

Ever since World War II, a liberal democratic bargain has existed. Governments elected by the people would deliver a growing economy and rising living standards, provide security, and protect the health and welfare of their people. The bargain has come up short of late, creating tensions and strains that have fueled populist revolts in the United States and across the Atlantic. This upheaval has led a number of political leaders and scholars to wonder whether democracy is in danger, not only in post-communist nations, but even in America.

On my reading of the evidence, our democracy is not in danger.

Turbulence is not new

During America’s history, we have encountered many turbulent periods when it was difficult to find room for optimism. We probably would have seen declining support for liberal democracy had survey research existed during the Jeffersonian/Federalist struggles, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Great Depression.  (Liberal democracy is best defined by such fundamentals as free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, and freedom of speech.)

During America’s history, we have encountered many turbulent periods when it was difficult to find room for optimism.

During the Great Depression alone, communist and fascist sympathizers were not uncommon in the United States. During that same period, Franklin Roosevelt, one of our most revered presidents, famously attempted to upend the balance of powers by expanding and packing the Supreme Court with supportive justices.

More recently, the tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s, with their devastating assassinations and a presidential resignation, shook American democracy to its core. We faced divisions over whether all Americans finally would be treated equally under the law while an unpopular war and a counter-cultural revolution drove a wedge between generations.

Swami Satchidananda giving the opening speech at the Woodstock Festival, a symbol of the cultural revolution, in 1969. (Mark Goff)

The attacks of September 11 also created a backlash against liberal democratic norms. After 9/11, for example, a plurality of Americans believed that First Amendment freedoms went too far.

In short, we have had plenty of opportunities to wonder about the health of our democracy. All the while, the strength of our institutions and the endurance of our values have allowed us to outlast these doubts.

We have had plenty of opportunities to wonder about the health of our democracy. All the while, the strength of our institutions and the endurance of our values have allowed us to outlast any of those doubts.

Our democracy has proven to possess a powerful resilience, a reality that should not be underestimated. Neither should anyone discount the depth of our resolve to protect our constitutional freedoms. Americans repeatedly have shown that such cornerstone values as freedom of religion, a free press, and equality under the law are worth fighting for.

Our shared values matter the most in preserving our democracy. The Pew Research Center, the gold standard of nonpartisan research, came out with a report on American democracy this year that poses a series of questions about the institutions and norms that make us a liberal constitutional democracy.

The report revealed massive continuing support for open and fair elections, our system of checks and balances, the right of nonviolent protest, protection for individuals with unpopular views, and a free press that can criticize political leaders. 

Millennial and young adult support for these basics is not weaker than in the country as a whole. In fact, it is stronger.

In this same survey, Americans were asked to choose between two statements.  Statement number one: We could deal more effectively with our problems if presidents didn't have to worry so much about Congress and the courts.  Statement number two: It's too risky to give presidents more power. 

The first of those propositions got 17 percent; the second, 77 percent.  Supermajorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents endorsed the second proposition.

As for the question of whether democracy is in danger, we should remember that there's a difference between partisan and policy disagreements on the one hand, and disagreements at the more fundamental level of norms and institutions. We should do everything we can to preserve this difference.  

As for the question of whether democracy is in danger, we should remember that there's a difference between partisan and policy disagreements on the one hand, and disagreements at the more fundamental level of norms and institutions.

At the same time, we should draw comfort from these snapshots of where American democracy stands. No country ever has complete unanimity on basics, but we have a strong foundation for our democratic values.

No room for complacency

This said, the absence of a full-blown threat to American democracy is no cause for complacency. Democratic performance matters and right now our democracy is not performing well.   

There's a familiar litany of stagnant wages and household incomes; wars without victory and apparently without end; ever-deepening political polarization; long-festering problems that persist from one decade to the next and apparently never get solved; and near records of mistrust in nearly all of our institutions.

We are doing better than most of our European peers on the trust continuum. Still, we need to improve the performance of our democracy. Support for it ultimately depends upon delivering results for Americans. For most people, democracy is a tree known by its fruits, and if it ceases to produce those fruits for an extended period, all bets are off. 

We need to improve the performance of our democracy. Support for it ultimately depends upon delivering results for Americans.

For that reason, the stakes are very high. The traditional formula of peace and prosperity is not the only gauge of democratic performance. 

Egyptians protest against President Morsy in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria, Egypt on June 30, 2013.

Two other elements are equally important. The first is dignity. The constant affronts to dignity that led the Tunisian street vendor to immolate himself were actually the spark that set off the Arab Spring. Affronts to dignity finally became intolerable. He had reached the sense that it was intolerable in a way that represented the sense of tens of millions.

The second is identity. I've been doing survey research over much of the last two years and have concluded that the single most determinative issue in the 2016 election was immigration. More than any other matter, immigration drove the people who switched their votes between 2012 and 2016. It was not because of economic reasons or security reasons, but because of the challenge to identity that immigration poses in the United States.

Strengthening American democracy

I take these issues seriously because the core strength of our democracy and indeed of every democracy is its extraordinary capacity to adapt to changing sentiments and changing circumstances. That adaptability gives democracy an advantage over other forms of government.  Anything that burdens this adaptive capacity weakens democracy at its core. 

…the core strength of our democracy and indeed of every democracy is its extraordinary capacity to adapt to changing sentiments and changing circumstances. That adaptability gives democracy an advantage over other forms of government.  Anything that burdens this adaptive capacity weakens democracy at its core. 

In my view, we need a new era of political and institutional reform to restore the adaptive capacities of our government.  Let me offer three proposals.

First, bolstering the American middle class should be a vital objective not only of domestic policy, but also of foreign policy. A mountain of research tells us that democracy in the long run cannot be stronger than the middle class in the country. 

Knowing how the middle class is doing should be one of the fundamental metrics of economic policy. We should focus less on the GDP or even the unemployment rate, and more on the question of how those people in the middle are doing. What’s more, are people at the bottom levels of our economy gaining access to the middle class?

A mountain of research tells us that democracy in the long run cannot be stronger than the middle class in the country.
Several hundred protesters gathered in Washington Square Park to voice support for immigrants & Muslims. (a katz / Shutterstock.com)

Second, we need to at long last rally the forces of goodwill in both political parties and try to resolve the issue of immigration. It is an urgent national matter that we address this issue. Immigration is poisoning our political system and driving many of the discussions about identity.

Third, we have to focus on the sclerosis in our political institutions that is impeding the adaptive capacity of our democracy. Institutions that thwart the good intentions of good people are discouraging the American people. 

The stakes are not only high for us, but for the world.  If American democracy is not strong, our ability to strengthen democracy around the world is diminished. Earlier this year, I wrote in the Journal of Democracy that “Liberal democracy is not self-sustaining. It is a human achievement, not a historic inevitability.” That remains true, but our work in sustaining democracy has a proud heritage and a strong foundation upon which to build.

Leave your feedback with The Catalyst editors