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What Are We Saving?

Democrats have so far failed to make the case for why democracy is worth preserving.
August 21, 2020
What Are We Saving?
Former vice-president and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden accepts the Democratic Party nomination for US president during the last day of the Democratic National Convention, being held virtually amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware on August 20, 2020. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

During this week’s Democratic National Convention, speaker after speaker appealed to Americans to vote in November as if democracy itself were on the ballot. On Monday, Senator Bernie Sanders kicked things off by saying that the 2020 election would be the most important in modern American history and calling on Americans to “stand up and fight for democracy.”

Those who tuned in on Tuesday saw a reprise of Vice President Joe Biden’s May 2019 campaign launch where he warned that under the Trump Administration, “the threat to our democracy is real.” That same night, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates used her three-minute address to remind listeners of the president’s “relentless attacks on our democratic institutions,” including his threats not to accept the election results and his repeated attacks on mail-in voting. She claimed that in the forthcoming presidential contest, “the future of our democracy is at stake.”

Former President Barack Obama picked up the theme on Wednesday, urging Americans to “believe in your own ability—to embrace your own responsibility as citizens—to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure. Because that’s what at stake right now. Our democracy.”

Each of these speakers acted as if such appeals and warnings would be a surefire way to rally people to their cause and to galvanize voters to preserve democracy. In so doing, they not only ignored unnerving evidence of the American public’s diminishing attachment to democratic institutions, they also missed an opportunity to forthrightly address the reasons for that loss of faith and to shore it up.

Disillusioned Americans need more than to be told repeatedly that democracy is in danger and exhorted to stand up for it. If the erosion of democracy’s underpinnings is to be reversed, Americans have to see why democracy is valuable and understand what can be done to ensure that its recent failures will be addressed in the future.

They need a powerful and convincing civics lesson. They must be helped, as the political theorist Danielle Allen puts it, to see how they can “become citizens again.”

Doubts about democracy are of course nothing new; they are as old as the Republic itself.

Historians agree that the Founders did not intend to create a government that would be guided by, and responsive to, popular opinion. They worried that democracy would deteriorate into mob rule and threaten liberty. As a result, they limited the franchise and created a form of government replete with barriers to democratic majorities seeking to work their will.

Alexander Hamilton, for one, rested his defense of the Constitution on the grounds that it was not a genuinely democratic document. As he argued at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, “the voice of the people has been said to be the voice of God; and however generally this maxim has been quoted and believed, it is not true in fact. The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. … Their turbulent and uncontrolling disposition requires checks.”

A year later Hamilton returned to the same theme: “It has been observed that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”

Hamilton’s doubts were shared by many of his contemporaries. Thus in 1814 former President John Adams warned that “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

Modern thinkers have also been prone to such dire doubts about democracy. Two hundred years after Adams, journalist and public intellectual Walter Lippmann echoed his concern. He wrote that American democracy asked too much of citizens. “My sympathies are with [the citizen], for I believe that he has been saddled with an impossible task and that he is asked to practice an unattainable ideal,” Lippmann said. “I find it so myself for, although public business is my main interest and I give most of my time to watching it, I cannot find time to do what is expected of me in the theory of democracy; that is, to know what is going on and to have an opinion worth expressing on every question which confronts a self-governing community.”

Today such concerns about democracy are widespread among the American public.

They are registered in many ways. For example, public trust and confidence in government has plummeted from the early 1960s, when 80 percent of Americans said they trusted the government in Washington. Today that number is 20 percent. Worse, 47 percent of the American people now believe that there is not much that ordinary citizens can do to influence the government.

In addition, national surveys reveal that, like Lippmann, only 34 percent of the respondents “have a very great deal or a good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions.” Sixty-three percent have either “not very much confidence or none at all.” This is a sharp reversal since the late 1990s, when nearly two-thirds said they had confidence in the public’s political wisdom.

Other recent studies report a dramatic decline in the percentage of people who say it is “essential” to live in a democracy and a rise in those who embrace authoritarian rule.

When asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how essential it is for them to live in a democracy, 72 percent of those born before World War II select 10, the highest value. But people born since 1980 have “grown more indifferent”: less than one in 3 agree that it is essential to live in a democracy.

In light of these results, it is not surprising that young people are more likely to agree that having a democratic political system is a bad way to run this country. Almost a quarter of people 16-24 express that view; in contrast among people over 65, just 12 percent judge democracy as a bad way to run the country.

Moreover, the New York Times reports that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to one in 6 in 2014, compared with one in 16 in 1995.

All of this points to what political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa have called democratic “deconsolidation” in the United States.

In this context, defenders of democracy have their work cut out for them.

They will have to offer a defense of democracy that goes beyond Winston Churchill’s famous admonition that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

As the 2020 campaign unfolds, Democrats will have to do more than warn of democracy’s demise. They will have to make a compelling case for why democracy matters—why it is a form of government that best embodies the ideals of freedom and human dignity Americans should prize, and how it can more fully satisfy our aspirations for justice and equality than any other form of government.

And the Democrats need to make clear what they will do to ensure that democratic institutions address the very real challenges Americans are confronting every day.

Austin Sarat

Austin Sarat is associate provost and associate dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is the author of The Death Penalty on the Ballot: American Democracy and the Fate of Capital Punishment.