When Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in America in 1835, few Europeans had much idea of how democratic government worked. His book, Democracy in America, is the work to which political commentators of every stripe still turn to see what American democracy looks like and how it functions in practice.
The book was a landmark work of history, social science, and politics, but it’s not the only way to learn from this extraordinary experiment in self-government. There are many more ways to study the health of American democracy, including looking at how citizens respond to new challenges in their communities and identifying what kinds of policies will best preserve or improve it.
One important way to do so is to build a movement that brings together unlikely allies. Right and left, minorities and law enforcement, evangelical Christians and nonreligious individuals, younger Americans and older voters, businesses and unions—all must be positive, active or passive parts of a broad-based prodemocratic social movement.
This will require a strong effort to meet people where they are and address the concrete problems that threaten them. This might mean eschewing national messages and issues in favor of local change that focuses on reducing polarization and violent incidents and building resilience to natural disasters or other crises. A local focus can also help to defang cultural wedge issues such as schooling, climate change, and immigration.
It will be essential to address the sense of status loss and the lack of dignity that is driving many people to lose faith in democracy. This will require a careful study of how to reframe the narrative about why America is falling apart, one that does not simply blame individual groups for their troubles but rather sees the long-term problems of polarization and diminished faith in democracy’s ability to deliver on the promise of a better life.
Finally, it will be necessary to study what alterations in America’s economic structure might strengthen its democracy and help overcome feelings that the system is rigged. While government redistribution programs may not alleviate the problem of rising inequality, closing loopholes for the wealthy and ensuring that plutocrats are paying their fair share of taxes will help to mitigate the effects of status anxiety on democracy.
Most importantly, the prodemocratic community must recognize that the authoritarian movement is cultivating a story that puts men, Christians, and White people at the top of a status hierarchy. It’s critical to understand how this unifying narrative pulls some individuals within these groups closer together—but to prevent them from bonding further with the authoritarians, it will be necessary to offer a positive alternative vision of the country. This is a monumental task, but it’s the only way to restore faith in democracy. Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program. She is a leading expert on democratization and international security. She previously served as a co-director of the U.S.-Korea Policy Forum and a deputy director of the Carnegie Endowment for Democracy.