The State of Our Democracy Is Weak

July 29, 2014

A successful democracy gives citizens a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Our democracy is currently failing on that count.

I fear that the current state of our democracy is not robust enough to prevent the damage a biased-toward-the-rich form of capitalism is bound to wreak on our society.

We are doing reasonably well in observing the external trappings of democracy—voting, the rule of law, divided powers, etc. This is vitally important because it helps us to preserve our freedom and political stability.

Government by the people clearly implies that the people must have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

But we are not doing as well on the substantive side of democracy—the side implicit in Lincoln’s definition of democracy as government of, by and for the people. Government by the people clearly implies that the people must have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

Jefferson observed that a well-informed public is indispensable to democracy’s success. What he meant by “well informed,” however, included not only relevant factual information but also the hard work of deliberation needed to form thoughtful and considered public judgment.

The current state of our democracy fails on these counts. The public voice rarely plays any significant role in shaping policy. People are badly informed about the relevant facts. And most important of all, they lack both the incentive and the tools needed to reach considered public judgment on vital policy issues.

An astonishing example: the public voice had no role whatsoever in formulating the health care policies of either the Clinton or Obama administrations. Nor did the majority even understand either of these health care initiatives, let alone form thoughtful judgment about them. Remember that these were initiatives from Democratic Presidents who strongly believe in the importance of the public voice.

These acts reveal a vast disconnect between the rhetoric of our political leaders and the practice of a robust democracy.

Rebooting Democracy is a blog authored by Public Agenda co-founder Dan Yankelovich. While the views that Dan shares in his blog should not be interpreted as representing official Public Agenda positions, the purpose behind the blog and the spirit in which it is presented resonate powerfully with our values and the work that we do. To receive Rebooting Democracy in your inbox, subscribe here.


Daniel Yankelovich

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