Some of us complain incessantly about our politics and politicians. Others dodge any discussion of politics whatsoever. As a society, we have become less and less adept at rising above our political biases, listening to divergent views and reaching consensus. Worse yet, we seem to be losing faith, not only in our civic institutions and democracy, but in one another. Most of us sense that our capacity to forge a shared vision and solve big problems is slipping away.
At some level, most of us recognize the flaws of our political system and the looming threats to the next generation, but how much do we really care about solutions? How many of us stop to ask ourselves how we got here or how we might have contributed to the problem? More regrettably, how many of us ask ourselves what we can do as individual citizens to make things better? Why are so many of us content to blame politicians instead of accepting responsibility?
After 200 years, the global growth of what we have come to know as liberal democracy has stalled. Just 25 years ago, democracy was ascendant. The Soviet Union, South Africa’s apartheid regime and the Berlin Wall had fallen. Even China spawned hopes of democratic reforms. But, since the so-called End of History, we have witnessed a growing assault on democracy, from demagogic policies in the US to nationalistic victories in Europe to authoritarian regimes in Philippines, Turkey and Venezuela.
There are many causal factors for the success of anti-democratic movements. Voter faith in democratic institutions and elites has plummeted, especially since the Great Recession. The unsettling effects of economic disruptions, stagnant wages, demographic shifts and migration trends have placed harsh demands on civic institutions and revealed the fragilities of democracy. Desperate voters have found it increasingly difficult to resist the appeals of loud demagogues promising simple solutions. The threat of populism, especially in nations lacking rigorous constitutional frameworks and deep cultural ties to individual freedoms, is serious and enduring.
We were fortunate—to a point. While our founders were fallible, they foresaw the potential risks of pure democracy. They designed our constitutional system as a representative republic rather than a direct democracy. By doing so, they sought to reconcile the best features of democracy (e.g., majority rule) with constitutional controls that would protect individual liberties (e.g., separation of powers and indirect selection of US Senators and President). They argued that the best way to translate public opinion into public policy was through elected representatives, not direct democracy.
The results have been mixed. Some constitutional controls, like federalism, have met the framers’ expectations, but others have not. The imperial presidency and increasingly partisan (and activist) Supreme Court have upset the separation of powers equilibrium. The Electoral College has wandered far from its origins. In addition, 20th Century democratic reforms (e.g., 17th Amendment, 19th Amendment and 1965 Voting Rights Act) have been offset by profound anti-democratic developments (e.g., gerrymandering, voter suppression, Citizen United and special interest lobbying).
Our Current Situation
The causes of our political dilemma can be difficult to distinguish from its symptoms. And academic discussions of democracy, populism and other political systems can be bewildering, if not maddening.
What is clear is that something is wrong. Our civic problems have worsened and the political systems on which we have long relied to solve them are failing us. For instance:
- Many citizens have become cynical, alienated and ill-informed; in 2016, US ranked 26th of 32 among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations in voter participation
- Trust in civic institutions is plummeting (per the Pew Research Center, only 18% trust government “always or most of time,” down from 62% in 1968) and our support for authoritarianism is growing, especially among the young, less educated and less politically engaged
- Media outlets have become increasingly divisive, with echo chamber business models that are more about fueling acrimony than providing objective news, analyses and ideas
- Too many citizens have shifted from joining civic groups to using social media platforms (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) that spread disinformation, inflame grievances and discourage compromise
- Extreme gerrymandering and voting barriers are making our elections less competitive and outmoded conventions (e.g., the Electoral College and US Senate) are exacerbating the underrepresentation of urban areas, racial minorities and, in some cases, popular majorities
- Hyper-partisanship and low-turnout primaries are giving political zealots disproportionate clout in both parties, making civil dialogue, compromise and problem-solving more elusive
- Candidates for public office are increasingly rewarded for fear mongering, inflammatory rhetoric and big promises, yet demonstrably under-prepared for the challenges of executive office
- Public policy is increasingly shaped by wealthy elites and narrow interest groups rather than our elected representatives, at both the federal and state levels
- The Federal government, exemplified by a polarized Congress, erratic White House and partisan Supreme Court, has become a calcified vetocracy, incapable of adapting to new challenges
- State governments, structurally unchanged since colonial times, have become more and more infected by the same diseases that have rendered our Federal government so weak
- Public accountability has been gutted by proliferating agencies and administrative rule-making at the federal level, diffused executive powers at the state level and fragmented government and dying media outlets at the local level
Examining such problems can be daunting, partly because they seem so complex, but also because they seem so insurmountable. They are broad national problems that demand multi-faceted solutions, many beyond our individual capabilities. This can reinforce our sense of futility and alienation.
But, if the American idea is at least partly about individualism, perhaps we should view our politics partly through an individual lens. There are many questions we can ask of ourselves, such as:
- What makes politicians so different from me? If they are all corrupt, were they corrupt when I voted for them or did they become corrupt after they took office? Would I be any different?
- Why do I blame others for my economic anxieties or misfortunes? Why do I blame certain groups (e.g., CEOs, immigrants or minorities) more than others? Is such finger-pointing productive?
- If I don’t trust government or other civic institutions, why aren’t I more interested in holding such institutions and their leaders more accountable? What makes me think that an authoritarian leader, regime or system would do a better job (especially if I can’t hold them accountable)?
- Even if I’m angry or skeptical about politicians, politics and government, is that really a satisfactory excuse for being ill-informed or indifferent about civic decisions that could impact me?
- Instead of relying solely on partisan echo chambers for my information about politics, shouldn’t I explore media sources that offer different perspectives?
- Wouldn’t it be more useful or at least interesting to join civic groups or associations that would give me insight into other people with different views?
- Is there a better way to communicate about civic issues than social media?
- Is there anything that I’ve done or that I’m doing that contributes to the corrosiveness of our politics?
- Can I be part of the solution? If so, how?
Once we have gathered the courage to ask ourselves these kinds of questions, we can focus our attention on actions we can take on our own and without the intervention of others. It is then that we can become better citizens and share the principles of citizenship with the next generation.
Most every problem has solutions and the dysfunctionality of our political system is no different. The good news is that there is much that we can do as individuals. There are small steps that each of us can take to honor democratic principles. They include the following:
- Think for ourselves – embrace our independence, diversify the sources from which we learn about the world, continually seek reliable civic education tools, subject what we read or hear to honest scrutiny and develop our own opinions (instead of parroting the views of others)
- Relentlessly pursue civility – accept that we all have biases and blind spots (no matter how strongly our views, we could be wrong), demonstrate the humility and grace to learn from others, listen to others with respect and generosity and find constructive ways to communicate about civic issues
- Promote good citizenship – monitor and assess the quality of civic education in our schools, support student self-governance programs in churches and civic groups and continually find ways to help our young people learn the principles of citizenship and become great citizens
- Celebrate elections – register to vote, study the candidates and ballot issues, cast a vote for every race in every election, volunteer on campaigns and even consider running for office
- Take civic action – join civic groups, volunteer for nonprofit and community projects, monitor your local government and serve on local government and nonprofit boards
Civic Way suggests three types of actions for restoring our democracy and strengthening our political system: 1) individual measures (actions we can take as individual citizens), 2) community measures (joint actions we can take with other citizens, but without changing laws or raising taxes) and 3) political measures (changes to laws, policies or budgets). We have summarized some individual measures above and will offer some community and political measures in future newsletters.
The US political system is ours. We can complain about it. We can even tear it down or replace it with something else, but it remains our system (at least for now). And we should not presume that removing one office holder will cure our political dysfunction or revive our civic institutions.
We will have to do many things to revitalize our democracy and align our political system with the challenges ahead. Some will require collaboration (community measures) and others will require new laws, policies and investments (political measures).
But we must not neglect the actions we can take as individuals. Instead of engaging in moral grandstanding or avoiding politics altogether, we must adopt civics as what Abraham Lincoln once called our political religion. By renewing our commitment to and involvement with America’s political system, we can transcend our narrow political identities, reconcile divergent views and even achieve meaningful progress around shared values.
Perhaps we can even become what Walt Whitman saw as blades of grass, arising from and returning to nature, but ultimately becoming part of something larger, stronger, more unified and more inspiring. Or we can stay affixed to our devices, watching cat videos.