Democracy is a word that has a wide range of connotations. For some it is a thing that has been established yet now finds itself threatened, for others it is seen as an ideal that can be compromised by the empowered few. In the United States, where constituencies across the political spectrum believe that their voices have gone unheard, democracy has become a term wielded in so many directions that it is difficult to grasp.
Amid the gunshots and farce on Capitol Hill, the question has arisen whether democracy is working in America at all. A recent online Wall Street Journal article notes that the public is increasingly disenchanted with democracy. In fact, a recent poll found that only 16% think that democracy works well or extremely well, and that 48% think it isn’t functioning at all.
This is a troubling development. The US framers designed a political system to defend democracy and freedom at the time of its founding, and they envisioned that a democratic government was the best means for governing a complex country with a diverse population. Yet, democracy has departed from its original design and is adrift in troubled waters.
In the US, money politics, identity politics, wrangling between political parties, political polarization and racial tensions are all undermining democracy. The US has also adopted a “vetocracy” where politicians are more preoccupied with securing their partisan interests than in advancing the nation’s common good. This has resulted in diminished government efficacy, trampled laws and regulations, stifled economic development and social division.
The US has also used democracy as a cover for meddling in other countries’ internal affairs and seeking regime change to install pro-US governments. These actions have been at odds with the core values and tenets of democracy and have led to chaos, conflict and war.
De la democratie en Amérique (of Democracy in America) is a classic French work by Alexis de Tocqueville that examines the nature of democracy in the United States. It is a two-volume book that was originally published in 1835 and 1840, and it became widely read as people debated liberalism and equality in the 19th century.
The book is a study of the way the American society functions with its institutions, and how it has developed from an aristocratic system to a democracy. Tocqueville writes that the fundamental elements of a democratic society include a constitutional guarantee of citizens’ expression, associational and property rights, the existence of a multi-party system, regular order in legislative decision making, avenues for citizens to limit corruption, and a free press.
It is clear that the world needs to conduct some soul-searching about democracy, and this should include the United States itself. If the US is going to serve as a model for other nations, it must ensure that its own democracy is not in peril. To do so, it must restore the balance between voice and equality in the Constitution, eliminate its legacy of racism, and make democracy more transparent and accessible to all Americans.