Is Democracy on the Verge of Collapse?

In the wake of political riots in Congress and high levels of mistrust in public life, many Americans are wondering about the health of democracy. Is it on the verge of collapse? Can it be saved? Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic analysis of the development of US democracy (1835-1840), remains a powerful text today. Striking is its openness to paradoxes and juggling of opposites. Its heft and narrative complexity make it an extraordinary work of nineteenth-century politics.

Tocqueville is considered the first analyst of democracy to dissect the pathologies of a political system and remain loyal to the spirit and substance of democracy as a normative ideal. While his analyses were based on concrete observation, they were also filled with intellectual daring and profound insights. His openness to the paradoxes and juggling of opposites made him one of the most important writers of his time.

His political thought was profoundly influenced by his experiences in America and his encounters with American society. Among his most famous and influential works are Democracy in America and The Old Regime in France. His insights about the nature of American politics and the workings of democracy have never been surpassed.

Tocqueville believed that democracy weakened the capacity for creating and sustaining great art, literature, and culture because it was a political form rooted in practical minds. It was, he said, a “two-faced” political system, with its desire for inclusion and its history of exclusions—either violent, such as slavery, or more subtle, such as the ban on felon disenfranchisement.

He was concerned that the power structure of democracy tended to become an elite class in which small numbers of wealthy individuals gained control over state apparatus and policy-making, the media, businesses, and a large segment of the economy. These elites, in turn, controlled the Democratic and Republican parties and kept them from reaching out to broader social groups and the mass public. Hence, the two parties became more polarized and narrowly defined in terms of voter base, ideology and identity. Consequently, the traditional interparty balance based on policy compromise was lost.

In the current situation, money politics dominates the election process and a disproportionate number of elected officials serve vested interests rather than the people. This exacerbates the political polarization in America and contributes to the rise of extremist ideologies and populism. Moreover, the winner-takes-all electoral system distorts representation in Congress and aggravates inequality between the states.

Despite the fact that the United States still prides itself as a model of democracy for the rest of the world, it is a gravely ill country in terms of the quality and stability of its democracy. The Capitol riots and other incidents have revealed the ugly underbelly of a self-styled democracy afflicted with money politics, elite rule, and partisanship. It seems that the US is suffering from a silent civil war. Unless the country develops a sense of nation and the will to overcome its deep-rooted democratic problems, it may lose its standing as a global leader and the world’s model for democracy.