Restoring American democracy a challenge that is within our reach

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Our democracy is at a crossroads. While Americans remain committed to the founding ideals of democracy, there is a profound crisis of confidence in our governing institutions and a shared perception that systemic issues such as racism and discrimination, as well as the influence of money in politics, are eroding the functioning of our democracy. As former President George W. Bush has said, “The health of the democratic spirit is at issue, and the renewal of that spirit is the urgent task at hand.” It is a mission that unites our organizations and should unite us all as Americans.

New public opinion research conducted in the Democracy Project should give us cause for comfort but also real concern. Our study brought together bipartisan institutions and polling firms to survey American attitudes on the value of democracy at home and the support for these principles abroad. Our conclusions, drawn from 10 focus groups in five cities and a nationwide telephone survey, show that majorities of all races, genders, age groups, levels of education, income brackets, and political parties agree that our democracy is not delivering as it should.

{mosads}This is especially true for members of minority groups, indicating that those historically underserved by American democracy appear to be the least convinced of its promise. It is significant given that minorities will become the majority in the next several decades. “The findings of the Democracy Project confirm we can’t take our freedoms for granted. We have to work for them, and we have to defend them,” former Vice President Joseph Biden said this week. “It is also a reminder that our democracy has never been perfect. We can’t be complacent if we hope to continue to lead in the 21st century.”

As the directors of three institutions that are committed to strengthening democracy at home and around the world, we believe the nation is at an inflection point in our own democracy. Although the frustrations Americans share are not new, our collective failure to address them more effectively increasingly risks undermining our democracy.

Our research tested over a dozen messages aimed at generating increased support for American democracy, and the message that resonated most across nearly all groups stressed both the danger of this moment and a call to service. The message read, “Today, there is a great need for us all to act as responsible citizens, things like voting, volunteering, taking time to stay informed, and standing up for what’s right, so that the freedoms and rights we cherish don’t get whittled away.”

Across the country, citizens are giving meaning to this message and taking powerful steps to restore the health of our democracy. We watched together as courageous students in Florida took a stand on our nation’s gun laws. We saw compassionate volunteers, business owners, and public safety officers flock to southeast Texas when Hurricane Harvey ravaged and flooded communities. We witnessed millions of women peacefully take to the streets to raise their voices, and we have been moved by individual acts of civic engagement and leadership.

The American public has a strong allegiance to defending our democracy, exemplified in such powerful acts of civic engagement. This carries over into a belief that the United States should do what it can to support democracy and human rights around the world. Our research showed that Americans, by a two to one margin, would prefer to increase rather than decrease government efforts to support democracy and human rights abroad. As one focus group participant said, “If we want to be this forerunner and represent idealistic democracy, we have to do this.”

One of the goals of this project is to encourage everyone who has a stake in our democracy — civil society groups, educators, businesses, elected officials, policymakers, indeed every citizen — to think critically about the challenges facing our country and take action to rebuild faith in fundamental democratic principles and institutions. We are committed to identifying ways through which we can mobilize public support and send messages more effectively on behalf of democratic ideals.

The strengthening of our democratic spirit will be challenging but is within reach. As President George W. Bush said, “Americans have a great advantage. To renew our country, we only need to remember our values.”

Michael Abramowitz is president of Freedom House. Holly Kuzmich is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute. Antony Blinken is managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy.

Tags America Constitution Democracy Government legislation Politics

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