Testing Democracy's Resilience

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Democracy in America and around the world is under severe strain. Those who value it must mobilize on its behalf. As we move deeper into election season, how can our actions support a healthy democracy rather than further its strain?

A convergence of tough challenges is posing a deepening threat to our democratic values and institutions. These include:

  • Growing economic inequality coupled with diminishing economic opportunity, a poisonous combination.
  • A palpable uptick in politically-charged violence in many forms -- from terrorist acts to violence by the police to violence toward the police.
  • Chronic political dysfunction, despite our mounting problems.
  • New manifestations of our stubborn racial divides.

These challenges are creating a political environment increasingly open to demagoguery, and to rhetoric and policymaking animated by fear and wishful thinking rather than our values and deliberations.

There are still reasons for hope in the resilience and resourcefulness of local communities, as I've argued in a previous column. Indeed, the tragedy in Dallas was compounded by the fact that its forward-thinking police force has been hard at work improving community relations. And the Dallas police chief, David Brown, has demonstrated inspiring and unifying leadership in his response. Many cities are innovating to enhance economic security through, for example, minimum wage and other economic experiments. Likewise, many are working to empower communities through, for example, practices like participatory budgeting.

All of that is good and hopeful, but we would be foolish to put the entire burden of democratic renewal on the backs of cities and states. Without a functional national government playing its part, we are unlikely to make progress fast enough to counter the troubling trends we are seeing. We will also be in constant danger of having local progress undermined via another deep recession, foreign conflict or some other catastrophe.

So let's continue to work locally, where progress seems most possible. But let's also be mindful of the importance of improving our national politics, beginning with the looming election. We should vote with democracy's health in mind, not just our pet issue. We should engage our fellow citizens with civic respect and intellectual seriousness, not the easy disdain and ideological rigidity that our political leaders so often display. We should proceed as activists fighting for democracy itself, not just our political party or interest group, by ensuring that everyone has a voice in our national conversation and opportunities to contribute to the democratic enterprise.

In sounding the alarm, I do not mean to dash hope. America's democratic experiment has proved itself resilient again and again, even the face of the kinds of pressures we see now. Democracy survived the trials of my father's generation, which came of age during the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. It survived the culture clash and political turmoil of the 60s, when I grew up. Our democracy can manage our current crop of problems today, but only if we work for it.


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