Do Americans really want to live in a democracy? This may seem like a foolish question in the aftermath of a hotly contested election in which tens of millions of Americans braved long lines, a deadly virus and numerous efforts at voter suppression to cast their ballots, and thousands of others volunteered to work on campaigns. On reflection, however, the question bears scrutiny, particularly as the country faces the real possibility of four more years of divided government, intense political partisanship and increasing social fragmentation.
The dictionary defines a democracy as “a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.” In order for a democracy to thrive, it needs several key ingredients. First, people need to participate to maintain the system’s viability. Yet, between one-third and one-half of eligible voters consistently refuse to exercise this fundamental right, largely due to their erroneous belief that election results have no effect on their lives.
In addition, throughout U.S. history the American electoral system has been designed to make it more, not less, difficult to vote. Particularly since the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County versus Holder gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Republican governors and state legislators have erected formidable barriers to voting, particularly for formerly incarcerated individuals, persons of color, immigrants and college students. During the 2020 campaign, these barriers included more stringent voter ID requirements, fewer polling places, shortened early voting periods and — even during a surging pandemic — obstacles to voting by mail. With characteristic bluntness, President Donald Trump admitted that if everyone voted, Republicans would never win a national election. One GOP senator, Mike Lee, went so far as to assert that the U.S. is “a republic, not a democracy.” Sen. Ted Cruz has long wanted to repeal the 17th amendment that provides for the direct election of U.S. Senators.
People also need to have faith in the validity of the electoral process and the institutions of democracy itself. Yet tens of millions of Americans voted to re-elect a president who exhibits clear anti-democratic tendencies. On election night, President Donald Trump prematurely proclaimed victory, sought to delegitimize millions of legally cast ballots and threatened to file suit against their inclusion in the final vote tally if he lost.
In addition, proponents of democracy have long argued that a democracy requires a well-informed populous that is committed to free expression and freewheeling dialogue. Americans of all political persuasions, however, often demonstrate a lack of commitment to these democratic essentials in several ways. We consistently underfund public education and de-emphasize the liberal arts — the foundation for constructive civic participation. We view education largely as a means to advance our economic self-interest rather than enhance the common good. We refuse to pay teachers adequately or provide low-income students with the technology required for academic success. Widespread resistance to science, the denigration of truth in public discourse and the failure to acknowledge the negative aspects of our history all stem from these failures.
Across the political spectrum, Americans resist information from sources outside of their ideologically and culturally distinct media bubbles. We not only live in increasingly homogeneous neighborhoods, our interactions with people of different backgrounds have decreased significantly in recent decades. The social isolation the coronavirus pandemic necessitates has exacerbated this trend. Consequently, we have become less tolerant of those with whom we disagree and less able to find common ground on issues that affect all of us.
Beyond popular rule, a democracy is also “a state of society characterized by formal equality of rights and privileges.” The Electoral College, the composition of the Senate and the consequences of gerrymandering demonstrate that we do not honor this principle in practice. Since the 2010 Citizens United decision increased the political power of corporations and wealthy donors, the policy priorities of Congress and most state legislatures reflect those of a narrow segment of the population rather than those of the population as a whole.
It is difficult to imagine how we will address the combined crises of a pandemic, climate change, systemic racism and widening socio-economic inequality if we do not commit ourselves to creating a functioning democracy. A first step would be to acknowledge our current resistance to adopting this form of governance.
Michael Reisch (MREISCH@ssw.umaryland.edu) is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland.