How Serious is the Threat to our Democratic System today? What are the Major Challenges? What can be Done?

Challenges to democracy threaten free market capitalism.

A strong democratically elected, transparent, and accountable government is vital to market capitalism because it not only provides the public services on which the free market relies, but also sets the ground rules that ensure prosperity is widely shared and challenges, such as climate change, or Covid-19 are adequately addressed. 

Economic growth rates and social welfare levels are significantly higher and more stable in inclusive regimes. Peace, prosperity, and progress rest on democratic values and the institutions that support them, as history has shown.

What are the main challenges to our democratic system?

1. The growing disenchantment of most Americans with democracy is worrisome. When they look at the decisions made by politicians, they find that they do not reflect their priorities or preferences. In many areas, public policy ignores their concerns. Examples of desirable reforms include: raising the minimum wage, strengthening gun regulations, providing access to affordable health care, restoring the right and legality of abortion, offering paid parental leave, providing tuition-free public college education, and more. ....

According to a 2019 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, more than 70% of the population believe that democracy is broken, that the system is rigged, that their vote doesn't count, that only people with money and power are influential. The idea that "nobody is paying attention to me" is a view shared by the left and the right, and it is very dangerous.

The one politician who best sensed this discontent – and most loudly promised to address it – was Donald Trump. Central to his candidacy was the claim that he would channel the voice of the people to fight a corrupt and unresponsive elite. "I am your voice," Trump promised. 

Public opinion statistics clearly indicated that a deep sense of powerlessness was very prominent among those who voted for Trump.

2. Contributing to the challenge is the rise of partisan polarization, which deepens societal divisions, breeds conflict, and undermines the sense of national unity. Over the past decade, polarization has peaked, leading to a decline in congressional effectiveness, eroding public trust in key institutions, including the judiciary, and fueling social tensions and anger.

In this climate of controversy, some were led to believe that the "enemy party" was out to destroy the best of America. This perception was reinforced by "fake news", which created an alternate universe involving both election integrity and public health guidelines for the Covid pandemic. The inability of large numbers of people to agree on basic facts is in itself a serious threat to democracy.

3. The need to build a diverse and inclusive democracy – to transform a mono-ethnic and monocultural democracy into a multi-ethnic one – is another emerging challenge facing democracy today. But given the current composition of our societies, there is no alternative.

In his new book, “The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure” Yascha Mounk warns that countries like the United States are not as stable or immune to violent conflict as they appear. "The history of diverse societies is grim," Mounk writes.

How hard is it to build a diverse democracy? How hard is it to be tolerant? Not to hate your neighbor for irrational reasons? Such challenges are intrinsic to human nature. It is our instinct to form groups and then to discriminate against anyone who is not part of that group.

Why do diverse democracies falter?

There is no precedent for highly diverse ethnic and religious democracies that truly treat their members as equals.

There are several examples of relatively homogeneous and stable democracies, such as West Germany after World War II. In contrast, originally heterogenous democracies, such as the United States, afforded special status to some groups while oppressing others – at times horrifically.

We are witnessing a rise in anti-democratic populism, where the likes of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban and others exploit the fears and anger of ordinary people. These emotions tend to feed off poor socio-economic performance and deep divisions over social issues, such as immigration. Racial hatred spreads easily. In tough times, when demagogues point to scapegoats, they make the classic promise: break the democratic pact, and ordinary people like you will become great again.

The greatest danger about them is their anti-pluralism, the claim that they alone represent the people. This is what drives them to concentrate power in their own hands and to reject electoral defeats.

What can be done?

1. The primary mission of any democratic and multicultural government is to uphold the rule of law to protect individual rights, ensure social equity and foster entrepreneurship. This requires the establishment of norms and institutions capable of dealing with competing interests and mitigating conflicts of race and identity.

2. Perhaps one of our best hopes for preserving democracy is to get past the majority-minority dichotomy that dominates our political system, where compromise and concession feel like surrender, says Lee Drutman, author of “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America” By moving away from winner-take-all and stakes-driven politics, we might become more receptive to different ideas, a prerequisite for a successful diverse democracy.

3. A major challenge for both political parties is to further advance the racial depolarization of the American electorate. Racial discrimination feeds right-wing extremism and left-wing activism in a country where simple demographic categories – whites versus people of color – no longer reflect the much more complex reality.

4. Since economic prosperity and democracy are interdependent, a sustained private sector commitment to democracy is essential. As stated in a recent Chatham House report, “business should recognize its own shared space of the rule of law, accountable governance, and civic freedoms… Business has a responsibility – in its own interest and that of society – to support the pillars of profitable and sustainable operating environments.”

Final thoughts

This pandemic reminded us that there is tremendous energy and goodwill in America, that we all are all dependent on each other, and that partnerships between businesses and government can help restore some stability to our democratic system and inspire fundamental change.

Above all, protecting the integrity and plurality of our democracy requires increased democratic participation. Actively engaging in the democratic process means getting out to vote, taking the time to consider the options before rewarding a candidate with a vote. This will compel leaders to assume greater accountability for solving pressing problems and implementing policies that truly reflect the interests of everyday Americans.

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