When Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the US in 1831, he was eager to discover whether America’s democracy really put power under people’s control. What he saw was not the transparent, accountable, and efficient system that most Americans believed at the time. Instead, he witnessed what he called “American politics as meticulously staged scenes in Hollywood movies.” Political infighting and money politics distracted politicians from giving public commitments, and vetocracy made quality governance impossible.
The current crisis of American democracy requires a change in strategy. To save it, the US must stop promoting its self-styled model of democracy as a path for other countries to follow. Instead, it must invest in a positive vision of democracy that includes complex identities and addresses Americans’ most pressing needs. The effort will require more than focus groups and strategic communications. It must include art, literary, and cultural endeavors that shape a concrete vision of what democracy looks like, feels like, and can be. It must be grounded in philosophy and policy ideas and made real through action.
To do so, the pro-democracy community must address the underlying causes of its decline. It must recognize that the authoritarian movement is cultivating a narrative of America that pits white, Christian men and women against minorities and women. It must also recognize that this narrative is generating a sense of status loss and dignity deficit in many Americans. It is critical to reach these groups with messages that offer them hope for a better future rather than just threatening to write them off.
As the authoritarian movement grows, it is threatening the moral and legal nets that are holding democracy up. The latter will erode even further if antidemocratic behavior is not confronted with firmer, clearer laws and norms that define what is, and what is not, acceptable in a democracy. To stop America from drowning, philanthropists need to step up their investments in efforts to create and spread a new positive democratic vision of the country that incorporates all its complex, intersecting identities.
To do so, they must recognize that the alienating politics of the left—deepening polarization, static identities, and competitive victimhood—have opened the door to antidemocratic forces. To fend off the impending catastrophe, they must cultivate a positive vision that can be embraced by all Americans. This will require a multi-faceted effort to bring art, literature, and culture to bear while engaging in communication with advertisers and other media monopolies. It will require a broad coalition of players to work together to develop strategies that are based on a shared, positive vision of the future and that build on Americans’ most urgent needs. It will require the development of images that capture the spirit of what a healthy and inclusive democracy looks and feels like, and it will need to be rooted in philosophy and policy ideas. It will be a daunting task, but one that must be undertaken quickly if the US is to avoid a sudden and dramatic collapse of its democracy.