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Our Crisis of Democracy
When I went to school, I believed America was more or less always a democracy. The constitution guaranteed a representative form of government and guaranteed many civil liberties long before other nations. Along the way, the United States became an even more perfect union through the abolition of slavery, the expansion of voting rights, and extension of civil rights. I don’t think I was alone in receiving this message. For instance, V-Dem portrays the United States on a positive democratic trajectory throughout most of its history. The Polity5 index even gives the United States its highest score as early as 1829.
However, recent scholars view the story of American democracy as one of both progress and setbacks. Suzanne Mettler and Robert Lieberman popularized this account in their book Four Threats where they provided five earlier eras of democratic concern and even backsliding. The most notable occurred during the 1890s when the South consolidated a series of discriminatory laws and institutions known together as Jim Crow. Perhaps the most dramatic episode happened in 1898 when white supremacists led an armed insurrection and overthrew the elected leaders of Wilmington, North Carolina. Yet Polity makes no mention of this era of backsliding. The V-Dem dataset scores the 1890s as a period of considerable democratic progress.
James Bryce on American Democracy
James Bryce offers an interesting account of American democracy during this time in his book American Commonwealth. He published the book in 1889 during a severe rollback of reconstruction era reforms as the South passed what became known as the Jim Crow laws that institutionalized segregation. Many contemporary writers criticize Bryce as too descriptive, but sometimes he did offer analysis and critique based on his observations. Among Bryce’s sharpest critiques of American politics involves its clientelistic form of politics that depended on political machines. Bryce readily championed efforts for reform as necessary for good governance.
In contrast, Bryce gives a pass to the anti-democratic efforts in the South to reduce participation and limit the electorate. Actually, he does more than simply give the South a pass. He views it through the lens of Northern progressive reform efforts to fight against clientelism and corruption. So, Bryce more or less concludes the disenfranchisement of former slaves is necessary for good republican government. Indeed, Bryce was not alone in his time. Many reformers prioritized political corruption and machine politics as a greater threat to democracy than racial segregation and disenfranchisement in the South.
Competing Visions of Democracy
Eras of democratic backsliding often involve competing visions of democracy. Rarely do leaders convince people they do not deserve a say in their government. Instead, people debate over different democratic values and lose sight of the bigger picture in the process. Of course, some people never value democracy in the abstract sense. But they rarely believe their opinion should not matter. So, it should not surprise us when even the most tyrannical regimes in the world describe themselves as democracies. Autocratic leaders also justify their behavior through the language of democracy.
So while many of us think about the crisis of democracy as a war between autocrats and democrats (and sometimes it is), it also involves difficult problems for people to work out through conversation and debate. Republicans in the United States have recently pursued some anti-democratic methods. But many believe those same reforms protect elections and defend democracy. Indeed, some genuinely believe the election was stolen. But even more believe their opinions and concerns no longer matter in a country of over 300 million. This is a more difficult problem to solve. It’s not difficult to think of reforms that could remove undue corporate influence, but no reform truly solves the problem that a single person may feel alienated from politics in a country with so many opinionated voices.
Is there a Solution?
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has largely taken up the mantle as the defender of democratic governance in the United States. On the one hand, it is good for democracy to have a champion. However, it also risks confusing a political agenda for democracy itself. Some already believe any idea from conservatives is automatically undemocratic. This is a dangerous direction that fuels political polarization and hardens calcification. It’s important for the right and the left to distinguish between the ideals of democracy and their other policy priorities. Moreover, it’s necessary for members of the Democratic Party to recognize when their own supporters exhibit undemocratic behaviors.
Nonetheless, I don’t want to discount the very real threats to democracy. Still, the problem is not simply a lack of reform or even support. The problem involves a genuine debate over the meaning and purpose of democracy in the 21st Century. Social media has added a new dimension for democratic participation. Meanwhile, globalization and further economic segmentation has made our ideal of democracy difficult to reconcile with our lived experiences. Still, everything becomes a bit more clear when we emphasize the most basic values of democracy. We can always start with free and fair elections, basic civil liberties, and a commitment to the rule of law. At the same time, I do believe we will emerge from this current crisis. But my hope is the experience will deliver a deeper and thicker sense of democracy reflected in how we govern.
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Lynn Vavreck on the 2020 Election and the Challenge to American Democracy
Robert Lieberman, Kenneth Roberts, and David Bateman on Democratic Resilience and Political Polarization in the United States
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