Our democracy is not invincible
One of us served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the other was vice chairwoman of the House Republican Conference and of the Republican Policy Committee. Both of us recruited and fundraised for candidates. We worked with the best pollsters, media consultants, and political managers to defeat the other party. We learned how to spot the winning narrative, and we know when strategies are not working. Sadly, if democracy was one of our candidates today, we would conclude that it has an uphill climb to credibility with voters.
It does not take an expert to realize that things are not great. The number of Americans satisfied with democracy as a political system has fallen for the last decade. In 1995, over 75 percent of Americans reported that they were satisfied with democracy, the University of Cambridge found, while this year, research found less than 50 percent of Americans reported that they are satisfied with democracy. For the first time on record, a majority of Americans are unsatisfied with our process of electing leaders.
As discontent with democracy increases, studies reveal more Americans warming to autocratic alternatives. Back in 1995, the World Values Survey asked Americans how they felt about having military rule in this country. One in 15 Americans reported they found it a very or fairly solid prospect. However, when that study was replicated from 2017 to 2020, the number of Americans supporting military rule skyrocketed to one in five.
This should disturb us no matter which side of the political aisle we fall on. Our democracy is not invincible. So it is not out of the reach that one day unelected military officials might make policy choices, a civilian uprising might overthrow elected officials, or a president might defy all checks to executive power and emerge as an authoritarian national leader.
There are numerous reasons so many Americans are unsatisfied with our democracy. From gerrymandering to shaping of opinion by hostile foreign governments, we face legitimate threats to our own political process. Not to mention, our president fits all four indicators of authoritarian behavior in “How Democracies Die” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. Donald Trump rejects the rule of law, tolerates violence, sows uncertainty, and has tried to curtail the rights of Americans who do not back him.
As threats to our institutions increase, it is more urgent than ever for us to resist these forces and not lose faith in democracy. We have to stoke our rage at those individuals who risk our democracy and turn our anger into action. We have to remember why our founders fought for these ideals of democracy in the first place and rally to fight for them ourselves.
In other words, we need a full blown political campaign that supports the basic principles for democracy and opposes its adversaries. This is not a slick marketing campaign that hides what is broken, but a political battle that gives the best candidates the attention they deserve. If democracy is under siege by foreign adversaries and trolls, it is political malpractice to cede the message to them without fighting back. We need to use all such skills we have to defend democracy from attacks, discredit those who are weakening our norms, and offer a better alternative message.
Some of the people who use scorched earth partisan strategies to defeat each other have the skills to defend democracy. They are experts when it comes to figuring out what is wrong, having our attention, engaging our emotions, and directing our actions. They know how to raise funds, run research, target audiences, and conduct winning narratives. They could bring the same weapons that have been used against democracy, from algorithms to social media strategies, to work in its favor.
We have the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a Republican National Campaign Committee, but what we need now is a National Committee for Democracy. It is time for us political warriors to use our resources and ideas for a bipartisan campaign to strengthen the norms of democracy. Only then we can return to the business of voting our opinions in elections that our founders would be proud of.
Steve Israel was a Democratic representative of New York in Congress and Susan Molinari was a Republican representative for New York in Congress.
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