Democracy in America: Where Do We Go from Here?

A Collection of Essays from Young Leaders

Next generation voices provide their views on democracy's future.

The debate over America’s democracy crosses many lines, including how different generations evaluate its strength. With that in mind, The Catalyst asked a variety of younger leaders to assess the health of America’s democracy, the hope they have for it, and the threats, if any, they perceive. We don’t pretend this sample is scientific, but it does include a range of perspectives. As our name indicates, being a catalyst for thought and action is part of our mission. Understanding the views of others is one way we learn the respect that so many of these contributors believe is essential to strengthening our democracy.

THE ESSAYS

Jenifer Sarver
Former Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of Commerce; 2017 Presidential Leadership Scholar; and Principal, Sarver Strategies

"Each of us has an individual responsibility for civility. It is a bedrock principle, fundamental to maintaining a thriving democracy."


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Our young democracy is surprisingly resilient and strong. It stretches. It strains. It rubs up against new people, ideas, and challenges. But each twist and turn only serves to strengthen it. 

But there are challenges. 

The greatest danger our democracy faces is the eroding confidence in public institutions, such as Congress and, particularly, the media. Some of it is warranted. Some of it is earned. But some is a result of deliberate and malicious attacks of disinformation, and concerted attempts to undermine the institution itself. That causes me great concern and has contributed to the devolution of civil discourse. 

We should be able to agree on facts. If we don't like or agree with something it shouldn't invalidate its veracity.  

Civil discourse is not a quaint relic from a bygone era. It should be the driving principle that moves public dialogue forward. We should challenge and test theories, ideas, and policies. We should experiment. We should debate. We should express dissenting views. But we can and must do all of that without tearing individuals and groups of people down. 

Each of us has an individual responsibility for civility. It is a bedrock principle, fundamental to maintaining a thriving democracy. 

Unfortunately, it is the lack of civility that seems to define much of today's public discourse. 

But I am an optimist. While there are challenges, I am hopeful for the future. I have regular occasion to interact with bright, ambitious, caring young people who can't help but inspire me about the future. 

Our democracy is messy. After all, it is the worst form of government ... until all others have been considered. 


Jensen Ko
Chief Operating Officer of Archegos Capital Management in New York

"I believe in heeding counsel from those with differing views, forging a way forward together, and defining reality rigorously.  This kind of engagement, backed with deep conviction for truth in love, would allow America’s democracy to flourish."


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 “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,” claims Proverbs, “but he who heeds counsel is wise.”

 I believe in heeding counsel from those with differing views, forging a way forward together, and defining reality rigorously.  

This kind of engagement, backed with deep conviction for truth in love, would allow America’s democracy to flourish. If practiced in Washington, D.C. and beyond, it would produce results that make a difference in people’s lives and lead to enduring friendships among the participants.  

One indicator of a low-level of engagement is the decline in the number of laws Congress has passed in recent year. In the 94th Congress, which ended in January 1977, Congress passed 729 laws. In the 114th Congress, which ended in January 2017, Congress passed 329 laws. In the intervening 40 years, the numbers kept on a steady decline.

Some think passing few laws is a good thing. But it also can reflect Washington’s gridlock, which is a manifestation of a deteriorating resolve to listen to one other, heed counsel, and make the necessary concessions for the greater good.

The deterioration may be one of the greatest threats to America’s democracy.  I remain nostalgic for the days when our leaders put aside their deep-rooted differences to forge friendships and keep America moving forward.  

The famous relationship between President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill stands out as a worthy example. The political opposites enjoyed one another’s company after a heated debate. Principled friends who heed each other’s counsel, especially after the debate is over, may be one of the greatest hopes for America’s democracy.


Dr. Brent Taylor
Pastor, First Baptist Church of Carrollton, Texas; 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholar; and Author of Founding Leadership: Lessons on Business and Personal Leadership From the Men Who Brought You the American Revolution

"From the White House to the church house, the school room to the board room, leaders must boldly address wrongs of society and not allow the country to fracture and disintegrate."


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The Founding Fathers were worried. They knew the fledgling government they helped establish was on the precipice of descending into chaos in the Whiskey Rebellion. The Founding Fathers knew rebellions such as this one had brought down governments and could spell disaster if, to use a modern term, it went viral. 

Alas, the cause of democracy held strong through the power of robust leadership. George Washington did something no other President has ever done. As Commander-in-Chief, he led troops into an armed conflict stopping the rebellion in its tracks.

Now the nation seems again to be in the midst of conflict and protest. Now is the time for strong leadership to speak out in all levels of society. From the White House to the church house, the school room to the board room, leaders must boldly address wrongs of society and not allow the country to fracture and disintegrate.

The greatest threat to our country is not external war but the dissolution of our society from internal conflict. When we stop talking to each other and only scream, when we quit seeking common ground, we become less transparent, harbor bitter feelings, and never seek the healing desperately needed.  

The bipartisan Presidential Leadership Scholars program has given me tremendous hope. I do not agree with every one of my fellow Scholars on many major issues. Yet we have found a way to quit pointing fingers and have chosen to lock arms for the good of the country.


Andrew Kaufmann
Digital Editor, The Catalyst

"If we can go online and read – with an open mind – an article a day from a truthful source we don’t agree with, we’ll go a long way toward strengthening our democracy."


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Most Americans carry devices in their pockets that contain the greatest library and source of information in human history. And as Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789, "wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.” (http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/118) Therefore, it stands to reason that democracy in the U.S. should be stronger than at any point in history.

Unfortunately, for every piece of information on the internet, there seems to be a source that states the direct opposite as fact.  Misinformation is as strong a currency as factual information.  And therein lies the concern: if we only listen to the echo chambers of social media, email forwards, and partisan websites that share our worldview, are we truly informed?

Misinformation comes in many forms: opinion stated as fact; outright fabrication; facts that are disputed because they don’t fit into a particular world view.  The key is in being able to see when “fake news” is truly fictional, or when it is simply a story we don’t agree with.

Few things are as damaging as authoritative attacks on the truth. It has a lasting effect that extends far beyond the issue in dispute – it creates distrust in honesty and distrust in our system of representatives and those who hold them to account.

But when we begin to agree or disagree with our representatives and the media based not on fact but on distorted reality, we are no longer holding up our end of the Jeffersonian bargain of the informed electorate.

The good news is that Americans care deeply about the issues facing our country and speak through peaceful activism and our votes.  If we can go online and read – with an open mind – an article a day from a truthful source we don’t agree with, we’ll go a long way toward strengthening our democracy.


Sam Tadros
Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom

"As someone who lived all his life in an un-free country before coming to the United States, the past year has been troubling. But I am not worried about America. There is something exceptional and revolutionary about what has unfolded here over two centuries."


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As someone who lived all his life in an un-free country before coming to the United States, the past year has been troubling. The unusual election campaign and traded insults, the questioning of election results prior to and after November 8, the accusations of foreign meddling and the growth of conspiracy theories, and the deep polarization in American society; all reflections of a serious crisis, all unwelcomingly familiar to someone who grew up in the Middle East.

But I am not worried about America. There is something exceptional and revolutionary about what has unfolded here over two centuries. There are tens of democracies around the world, some struggling, others stable and flourishing, some new and others consolidated, but neither number nor age has come close to what the Founders did. 

The attempt to create one out of many while maintaining the uniqueness of each, the creation of a central government while maintaining state rights, the system of checks and balances; all a reflection of the genius of the Founders. Their constitution stood the test of time, only needing the perfectionist touch of Lincoln.

France in the same period adopted sixteen constitutions amidst regime changes that included five republics, two monarchies, two empires, a Vichy regime, an age of terror and a host of other follies. On that exceptional foundation America stands. 

If there is a lesson to be learned from the current crisis, it is that this experiment should not be taken for granted. Instead, it should be vigorously and constantly defended. It is neither preordained nor natural for man to live in a free society.

In the summer of 1787 as he emerged from the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin famously replied to a question about the form of government enacted “a Republic, if you can keep it.” I have faith that this generation of Americans will carry that burden. I have faith in America.


Farhat Popal
Manager, Women’s Initiative, George W. Bush Institute

"The people of this country who stand up for those principles, young and old and from all walks of life, give me hope for our future. They remind us that respecting human dignity is the highest directive of all, and that democracy and human rights are inextricably linked."


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As a Muslim, immigrant woman of color—and more importantly, as a human being—I am deeply concerned about the direction our country appears to be headed.

We are seeing the normalization of ideas and behavior that go against the very core of American ideals, with physical and verbal attacks on marginalized communities of all types. Some promote the notion that one must deny the rights of others in order to advocate for oneself, and that is a dangerous interpretation of America. These are not my values, and they are not American values.

This country was founded by settlers who fled religious persecution, seeking shelter and tolerance in their new home. These immigrants envisioned a democracy that respects the rights of the individual, and instills equality under the law. They, as with every group of immigrants since then, contributed to the social and economic growth of this country.

Some fear immigration because of the notion that immigrants are somehow replacing them – in their jobs, in their communities, in their schools, in their national ethos. But immigration is not about replacement; it’s about joining the millions of others who are here to take part in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is about working together for the health of this democracy, and constantly striving to learn, build, and grow.

In the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.” The people of this country who stand up for those principles, young and old and from all walks of life, give me hope for our future. They remind us that respecting human dignity is the highest directive of all, and that democracy and human rights are inextricably linked. May we never forget that.


Linda Etim
Served in President Barack Obama’s administration, has worked on strengthening democracies at both the U.S. Agency for International Development and the White House National Security Council.

"Yes, America’s democracy is under siege. However, it is far from defeated and, despite these challenges, functions every day." 


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American democracy is at a crossroads.  The barrage of actions against it by hostile powers and the executive branch’s increasingly charged rhetoric against the very institutions charged with safeguarding our democratic system (the media and the judiciary) could result in two distinct outcomes. 

The first involves our nation grappling with the original sins of our country’s foundation (slavery, the rights of women, and the treatment of indigenous people) and working to bolster democracy for future generations. The second path is the erosion of public confidence in our institutions, and more sophisticated attacks on our information systems and corporations by Russia and China.  Neither path is inevitable.  However, there is a higher probability of the latter without addressing three issues:

Aggressive action to combat information and cyber terrorism by Russia and China. If the United States cannot protect our systems and companies against the cyber and information attacks launched by Russia and China, it will compromise the validity of our systems and further erode public confidence in the viability of our democracy.

Bipartisan commitment to the critical role of the media and the core institutions of our democracy. Defending press freedom and safeguarding our government institutions must be seen as a core American value instead of part of a partisan debate. 

Public education on the importance of democratic societies. Polling shows that Americans are thawing to Russia, a dictatorship.  Additionally, Americans trust the military more than the legislative branch on policy issues.  While the military needs to have a seat at the decision-making table, civilian control is critical to preventing a slide into authoritarianism.

Yes, America’s democracy is under siege. However, it is far from defeated and, despite these challenges, functions every day. 

More importantly, Americans are not accepting these threats quietly as is evidenced by the growth of donations to and engagement civil rights and religious organizations. This is what gives me with hope every time I open the newspaper to some new and troubling headline.


Amanda Huber, EmmaKate Few, and Kailey Goerlitz
Juniors at SMU in Dallas, Texas