Is Democracy Dying?
The Atlantic’s October issue examined the current democratic crisis—in America, and in the world.
October’s special edition asks whether democracy is dying. Reading of the challenges we face, it is hard not to feel a sense of despair. However, I would like to offer some hope from a part of the world where democracy is far from a given: the countries of the former Soviet Union. Yes, this is a region where numerous autocracies are doing their best to both crush civil society at home and destabilize democratic institutions abroad. However, it is also a region where many have not given up on the ideal of living in a free society and are risking their all to achieve it. What strikes me is that no matter how tarnished democracy’s reputation may be, its fundamental promises of freedom, dignity, and accountability remain an ideal for many. Take Armenia’s surprise velvet revolution in defiance of its cynical kleptocracy this year. Armenia is stuck in a frozen conflict, has few friendly neighbors, and is reliant on the whims of Russia for its security. Yet its citizens risked a bloody crackdown, Russia’s wrath, and a reignition of war in taking to the streets and peacefully protesting for the removal of its corrupt leaders. Questioning the health of democracy in the West is good and necessary, but let’s not be trapped by doom, gloom, and introspection. As long as people continue to stand up for democracy, it will always have a chance.
Executive Director, Prague Civil Society Centre
Prague, Czech Republic
The October issue of The Atlantic is a literary and civic tour de force. Nowhere have I read—in one succinct and powerful publication—a better explanation of and warning about the ills besetting American democracy. This issue is a call to arms for all who care about America and its problems and possibilities—past, present, and future.
Missing, however, from your pick of pitfalls was any in-depth discussion of Russian and other foreign manipulation of our political and electoral processes, as well as the relationship between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump—potentially the most deadly threat to democracy and world order the United States has faced in modern times.
Charles W. Kozlosky
Old Bennington, Vt.
The Atlantic edition on dying democracy was a disappointment, at least as far as the American experience is concerned. In the first place, the premise of the issue was wrong. Donald Trump’s election and the current GOP dominance in Washington are largely the result of the undemocratic elements in American government. The American people rejected Trump, who was elected president only because the Framers did not trust the presidency to a national election. He won fair and square by the rules, but the Electoral College is not a democratic institution. Similarly, GOP control of Congress is largely the result of the Framers’ acceptance of equal state representation in the Senate, as well as gerrymandering in the House of Representatives. Maybe we should try democracy rather than bemoan its failure.
I don’t think our democracy is at risk. President Trump has done one positive thing: He’s motivated many people to get active for the first time.
What a pity that our schools no longer have civics classes, where this issue of The Atlantic could be required reading. But that, of course, is a huge part of the problem, isn’t it?
Madison vs. the Mob
America’s Founders designed a government that would be insulated from the heat of popular sentiment, Jeffrey Rosen noted in October. But they didn’t anticipate the unbridled passions of the digital age.
Rosen writes about James Madison’s views on factions and fear of majority rule in the context of the chaotic, passion-infused politics of today—as if our current racial, gender, and economic inequalities were not influenced by the fact that the country was, in many ways, founded by an aristocratic class seeking to protect its property and slaves.
Our current political climate does not show the decline of Madison’s reasoned world; it shows the limits of what Madison sought to create.
State College, Pa.
Losing the Democratic Habit
As Americans’ participation in institutions such as neighborhood associations and labor unions has dwindled, so has public faith in democracy. To restore it, Yoni Appelbaum wrote in October, we must return democratic practices to everyday life.
Yoni Appelbaum convincingly argues that declining membership in democratic civil institutions is a root cause of the governmental and social dysfunction we’re seeing today. In laying out his argument, he mentions a poll in which a quarter of American Millennials said that democracy was a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country, and that they thought it “unimportant” to choose leaders in free and fair elections, an oft-cited statistic. I’ve never counted myself as a thoroughbred Millennial (I was born in 1982), but I do slide in before the cutoff for the generation as it is commonly defined. I also still believe that democracy is the best form of government, so I hope it’s not too presumptuous of me to speak here on Millennials’ behalf.
The above statistic sounds horrifying. Yet if one simply puts oneself in the shoes of a Millennial, this sentiment doesn’t seem so unimaginable. Take someone born in 1990, for example. We’ll call her Suzy. Suzy’s earliest meaningful memory of a presidential election is of one decided by the Supreme Court in a 5–4 ruling. Four of the justices who confer victory on the Republican were appointed by Ronald Reagan. The fifth was appointed by George H. W. Bush. That’s okay, though, because it’s democracy. The following year she witnesses the 9/11 attacks, and looks on as George W. Bush pushes America into the longest war in its history (which is later determined to have been founded on a lie). But this, too, is essential to protect our democracy.
As Suzy enters college, in 2008, she is most likely heartened by the election of Barack Obama, who is the candidate of overwhelming preference among her cohort. All right, democracy! Unfortunately, he’s inaugurated to face the worst economic recession in 70 years, and soon thereafter is stymied in every possible way by juvenile and petulant Republicans in the House, who regularly threaten to shut down the federal government unless their legislative demands are met.
Suzy eventually graduates, probably crippled by student debt of an unprecedented magnitude. The things that she cares about have largely gone unaddressed: debt, climate change and environmental degradation, monstrously disproportionate distribution of wealth and opportunity. To add insult to injury, in 2016 she watches as Republicans steal a Supreme Court nomination in a borderline criminal act of insurgency.
Finally, she sees the ascension to the presidency of a man carried to victory by people whose votes seem to matter significantly more than her own. How else can she explain this result in the face of his nearly 3-million-vote deficit?
No one Suzy’s age is in Congress. No one her age sits on the bench of the Supreme Court. And certainly no one her age has ever held the presidency. She has simply borne witness to her venerated elders as they exemplify the virtues of democracy in action. In this light, is it any wonder that Suzy questions the competency of our institutions, regardless of whether or not she was class treasurer?
Quote of the Month
“An excellent series of articles appeared in the October issue of The Atlantic.”
— Barack Obama
Yoni Appelbaum powerfully describes democracy as a habit that must be learned anew in each generation. Unmentioned, however, is a vital place where teaching this habit has recently broken down: America’s colleges and universities.
Over recent generations, higher education’s once-shared commitment to serving democracy has given way to new priorities: research, global prestige, economic development, and student self-actualization. None is ignoble. But they have displaced a fundamental commitment to the “liberal arts” in the term’s classical sense—meaning preparation for citizens to conduct public affairs in a free society. Democracy has become just another topic to study agnostically.
As the son and grandson of college presidents, and now one myself, I’ve had unique generational perspective on this shift. But the American residential-college experience remains a formidable democratic training ground. College campuses are among the few places left where Americans can’t hide online and must learn to get along face-to-face.
Now we must revive the focus on democracy more broadly, especially in the classroom. The public university I lead has a new core curriculum that explicitly cultivates the habits of mind for democracy—critical thinking on civic issues, information literacy, teamwork. An effort like this across higher education would rebuild broken public trust and the understanding of higher education’s purpose. It would also serve America in this hour of need.
W. Taylor Reveley IV
President, Longwood University