The Fragility of Democracy in America

democracy in america

The Capitol riots exposed the depth of America’s political problems, and the fragility of democracy itself. The country is at a moment that requires a step-change in strategy and support. Without one, the United States will face a major setback similar to those already experienced by Hungary and India.

The US refuses to admit that its own democracy is in crisis at home, and stubbornly asserts itself as the template and beacon of democracy for the world. This imperious approach exacerbates the problems at home, and perpetuates democratic crises abroad. It also leads to a growing sense of democracy as an empty and hollow concept for people around the globe.

In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville praised the American system of self-government based on freedom of association, freedom of the press and religious freedom, and argued that it was uniquely powerful because it was not dependent on a single centralized authority. However, he also noted that the system was vulnerable to the development of powerful interest groups and the emergence of factions with divergent interests. Tocqueville called these factions “the enemy of the people.”

Today’s acute threats to democracy are a symptom of long-term problems that have opened the door for antidemocratic politicians supported by safe seats and polarization to walk through it. The legal net below is threadbare, and the erosion of social norms has accelerated the disintegration of democratic institutions.

Americans must take action to halt the slide and build a future-centered image of what a democratic society could look like. This will require a multi-faceted effort to address the needs of Americans across the country, including those that have traditionally been left out of the full fruits of democracy. This will require addressing their sense of status loss and dignity deficit. It will require a more diverse, inclusive and transparent democracy that embraces complexities and contradictions.

It will require a new generation of leaders that are committed to the vision and principles of the American democracy. It will require a new set of values that prioritize democracy, equality, inclusion and justice over personal wealth or power. It will require an investment in a new infrastructure for civic engagement that includes local and regional organizing, grassroots activism and public policy advocacy. It will require a shift in thinking that goes beyond voter engagement to include the need to address the root causes of political alienation and a lack of faith in democracy. It will require a re-imagining of democracy that enables Americans to live in the fullness of their identities, and that does not pit them against one another. It will require the courage to invest in democracy and to challenge those who would tear it apart. This is an urgent moment that calls for an emergency response. If the nation fails to act, we may see a major democratic decline that is unprecedented in our history. But, if we move quickly and decisively, we can stop the decline and regain a global leadership role in advancing democratic principles.