Opinion | Democracy in The 21st Century

The fault lies not in our Democracy, but in ourselves.

Washington, D.C. — In the United States, like much of the Western world, people are losing faith in Democracy. The number of Americans who view Democracy as “essential” for a free and just society is steadily declining — particularly among younger generations. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans are increasingly hostile to one another, actively undermining policy initiatives and perpetuating decades-long gridlock over the most pressing hot-button issues — at a time when Americans are desperate for change. 

It is easy to understand why Americans are losing faith in Democracy. American democracy offered voters  a choice between two candidates for president in the 2016 election — both of which they disliked — ultimately awarded the presidency to the candidate who failed to win the popular vote.

Distrust and discontent in Democracy isn’t confined to American borders. The British public voted to leave the European Union in an avowedly democratic referendum, only to watch Prime Minister Theresa May and Parliament quarrel for three years and fail to pass any sort of Brexit deal. The French by and large felt compelled to vote for Macron’s En Marche over Le Pen’s ultraconservative Front National in the second round of the French Presidential Election, only to see the ‘Jupiterian’ president struggle to pass the economic reforms he sold them. The Germans opted for a new government coalition in 2017, only to see Angela Merkel’s Grand Coalition assume control of the Bundestag again. In Italy, voters propelled the Five Star Movement and Northern League to power, only to watch them fail to stem the country’s growing unemployment or resolve Italy’s migration crisis.

The profusion of failures in the democratic processes in each of these countries leaves behind a disillusioned, disaffected, and disinterested populace — fertile ground for populists and would-be autocrats.

To many people, Democracy is as they have experienced it. Americans are often told that they have the greatest, oldest, and most robust democracy in the world. To most Americans, Democracy is the body of institutions, laws, and political customs that constitute the United States polity. Americans’ faith in Democracy — like that of their counterparts in Britain, France, Germany and Italy — is tied to their perception of its success at home. When leaders fail, the people feel that Democracy has failed them as well.

Yet what is absent from our societal conceptions of Democracy — and therefore our faith in it — is Democracy as we haven’t experienced it. To the keen observer, the failures of Western democracies are not inherent to Democracy itself, but rather to our implementation of it.

Despite a few discrete changes and expansion of the electorate, the United States’ form of governance hasn’t changed significantly since Alexis de Tocqueville penned Democracy in America almost two centuries ago. One might counter that the expanded role of the Presidency and the additions of numerous executive bodies has led to significant changes in the exercise of governance in the United States. Nevertheless, the overall process and structure of American government has remained much the same. Indeed, the average American would recognize our country today in “The Crisis of Elections” de Tocqueville described in 1830. 

Despite its drawbacks, democracy in America — like its established counterparts in Britain, France, Ireland, Japan, and Germany — has been largely successful. There has been little call to change to ‘upgrade’ democracy in the United States — after all, why fix something that isn’t broken? For more than two centuries, American democracy remained in-tact and the institutions that anchor it grew strong. The United States’ style of governance was so successful that its renown encouraged emerging democracies to emulate it and adapt similar styles of democratic governance. 

Now, it seems, American democracy is struggling. As I laid out in my first piece for The International Scholar, there are a number of deficiencies in American democratic governance, many of which have now been compounded by 21st-century facets such as the influence of social media, disinformation, and the proliferation of opinion which often enough overshadows facts in public discourse. These are by no means the only challenges that democracy faces today, but are perhaps some of the most pernicious and obvious challenges.

Despite Democracy’s setbacks, it seems clear from our collective human history that most if not all alternative forms of government — among them autocracy, ochlocracy, and anarchy — bring with them greater challenges, fewer liberties, and more human suffering. Nevertheless, our own implementations of democratic governance require change to perform better. 

It is something of a minor miracle that modern democracy has survived for over two-hundred years. For our democratic societies to survive another two-hundred, we must learn to adapt them to suit the challenges we face. There is every reason to believe that we can, and will. But we must first recognize that the fault lies not in Democracy, but in ourselves and our implementation of Democracy.

De Tocqueville once claimed that, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” What was once true only of a small nation on the coast of the Atlantic is today true of nations around the world. We need only keep the faith.


 

In keeping with this De Tocqueville’s assertion, and in order to address the challenges Democracy now faces, The International Scholar is now launching the Democracy for the 21st Century Project. Throughout the life of this project, we will seek to address the faults of Democracy in general, as well as address its 21st-century challenges and propose solutions. As the project continues, we will begin to examine how Democracy in specific countries can adapt to address each country’s unique challenges and societal demands.

As always, we aspire to bring Fresh Perspectives to the issues we address, and welcome and encourage new insights and perspectives from our readers, collaboration with outside organizations, and new members to apply to join our team. If you are interested in sharing your own thoughts on Democracy in the 21st Century, you can write to us at democracy21.theintlscholar@gmail.com.

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Cameron Vaské

- Founder and Editor-in-Chief
- Twitter: @CameronVaske
- LinkedIn: Cameron Vaské


All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.


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