If democracy is to work, people must be able to govern themselves. This is why most democracies establish rules and procedures that put power under public scrutiny. But these laws, and the systems that implement them, are only as good as the people who carry out and enforce them. And when they aren’t up to the task, a democracy is in trouble.
As the world grapples with a range of global challenges, many Americans and other citizens are questioning whether democratic institutions are up to the challenge. A number of experts have raised concerns that the American system of democracy is not working, with partisan polarization and dysfunction in Congress symptomatic of a system that has lost much of its credibility.
In this environment, political infighting, money politics and vetocracy are stifling the ability of politicians to deliver on the promise of quality governance that citizens expect from their government. The resulting estrangement of the American public from political process and institutions has contributed to the rise of extremist ideologies and populism, a trend that is amplified by the lack of effective media as a gatekeeper.
A recent survey by CIPE found that Americans are pessimistic about democracy and the future of their country, with only 19% saying they feel very confident in the results of the presidential election. This is a new low, and one that is likely to have long-lasting consequences for the legitimacy of the US government and its role in international affairs.
It is difficult to understand the current state of American democracy when we consider its history. The founders of this republic created a system designed to address the problems faced by a newly developing nation. They did so by combining the advantages of a monarchy with the checks and balances of a republic. They aimed to ensure that the government was responsive to the citizens and protected them from tyrannical leadership.
Today, America’s democracy is a shadow of its former self. The oligarch class dominates the political and economic landscape, while the multiparty system is a façade. The two major parties fight constantly for the support of wealthy and influential donors who control the state apparatus, manipulate public opinion, and enjoy enormous perks.
The result is that a minuscule percentage of the population has a very large impact on legislative priorities and the passage of legislation. This makes a mockery of the idea that we are a “democracy of the people, by the people, for the people”.
The US needs to take on more international responsibilities and provide more public goods to the global community, rather than using its self-styled “model” as a justification for military intervention and subversion in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the process, it would help to reclaim the true meaning of the word democracy. Tocqueville understood this, and his thoughts are as relevant today as they were in 1823.