The Jan. 6 pillaging of the U.S. Capitol, continued denial of the 2020 presidential election results and actions of some state legislatures to control how elections are run have caused many Americans to question whether our democracy is at risk. In fact, this condition is not unique to America. And alas, the history of democracies dying dates back to the very first democracies, in Greece and Rome.
It is important to understand what “democracy” means and how it is best defined. After all, America is not a pure democracy. It is a republic in which the people do not directly elect the president. Its system of checks and balances often allows the minority to dominate the majority. Republicans are in the minority in the Senate but nevertheless recently blocked debate on the John LewisJohn LewisDemocratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Obama, Dave Chappelle nominated in same Grammy category MORE Voting Rights Act.
A democracy can be defined as a “pluralistic, free and open society under the rule of law in which the governed choose their governors.” But that system works only when the public has faith and confidence in the law and in their leaders.
Further, democracy requires its citizens ultimately to put the well-being of the state over individual interests. Today, this is reversed. Winning individual issues dominates politics no matter the cost. Former President TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE’s continued insistence that he won a “rigged” election is a trenchant example of self over country. And many Americans still believe he did win.
Democracy works best with few political parties. In countries where sometimes upwards of dozens of political parties battle for leadership, establishing a stable government becomes impossible. France in the interwar years; later Italy; more recently Israel; and currently Romania show how too many parties harm democracy and governing.
In the U.S. today, the two-party system no longer exists. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are deeply divided, each between two factions. With Democrats, moderates and progressives form the two wings. So far, it is not clear that is reconcilable with governing. With Republicans, the much larger Trump wing overshadows traditional Republicans, now tarred as RINO’s, or Republicans in name only. In essence, there are now four major parties.
Worse, when major American engagement in the Vietnam War began in 1964, about 80 percent of Americans had confidence in government (and virtually all institutions). Today, close to 80 percent don't have confidence in government. One way to cripple democracy is for citizens to lose faith in government and its institutions without any self-correcting mechanisms in place. None are present today.
Civility and respect for other citizens are prerequisites for a healthy democratic society. Clearly, hostility towards immigrants has been present since the nation’s founding. But cleavages over race, sexual preferences, gender and home of origin have arguably never been greater or more expansive. These differences are intensified by orders of magnitude through social media and the failure of too many to accept the existence of basic truth and fact in the face of fake news and alternative facts.
In fairness, in helping to win World War II and then emerging as the sole superpower afterwards, perhaps unwittingly, Americans assumed an indispensable role that would be untenable in the long term. As dominance deteriorated into hubris, arrogance and belief in the superiority of all things American, a kind of Pax Americana, over decades other powers would emerge and America’s aura would be tarnished and, in some cases, shattered by missteps and bad choices, for example in Afghanistan and the second Iraq war. Recent Pew polls show how far America's standing has declined internationally.
Where are the U.S. and its democracy headed? The answers to this question form the Rosetta Stone for the future and the future of democracy. In my forthcoming book noted below, I ask whether a constitution written by the best minds of the 18th century is fit for purpose in the 21st century?
The inability of government, regardless of which party is in charge, to respond in a timely fashion to the needs of the nation and public is breeding anger, hostility, resentment and cynicism that spills over into daily life. Violent behavior on airliners; death threats to those with different points of views or politicians of the other party; massive purchases of firearms for self-defense; and a general coarseness in interpersonal relations are unmissable symptoms of a political cancer eating away at our democracy.
But who is listening? And who among us will have the right stuff to lead and reverse these ills? These are the questions on which the future of American democracy rests.
Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is United Press International’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, due out this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World.”