Democracy in Peril
April 25, 2022
Last week’s column argued that the looming China bill conference affirmed our traditional legislative process, regardless of its substantive outcome. In other words, simply by doing it the old-fashioned way, Congress was making a statement about how it is supposed to do its work and providing hope that what the founding fathers intended might become routine again.
The importance of getting back to normal was reaffirmed last week in an essay by Francis Fukuyama in Foreign Affairs, “A Country of Their Own.” In it, he lamented the decline of liberalism in modern society, which he defined as a worldview of tolerance of differences rather than adherence to a specific set of policies:
The fundamentals of liberal societies are tolerance of difference, respect for individual rights, and the rule of law, and all are under threat as the world suffers what can be called a democratic recession or even a depression. According to Freedom House, political rights and civil liberties around the world have fallen each year for the last 16 years. Liberalism’s decline is evident in the growing strength of autocracies such as China and Russia, the erosion of liberal—or nominally liberal—institutions in countries such as Hungary and Turkey, and the backsliding of liberal democracies such as India and the United States. In each of these cases, nationalism has powered the rise of illiberalism.
It is noteworthy that he was talking not just about the obvious countries—China, Russia, Hungary, and Turkey—but also about the United States, where democracy also is under threat from several different directions: the failure of our institutions to work properly, with congressional gridlock and administrative processes paralyzed by endless consultation and litigation; attacks on our electoral process, such as the continued false claims by Donald Trump about the results of the last election; and our growing intolerance for different points of view, like the cancel culture of both the far left and far right.
These developments reminded me of a very astute comment by the late senator Daniel P. Moynihan, on the occasion of his receipt of a Heinz Award in 1999:
There were in 1787 two nations on earth, which both existed at that time and had not had their form of government changed by violence since that time. There are eight nations in the world, which both existed in 1914 and that have not had their form of government changed except by violence since that time. . . .not always approved, sometimes very much disparaged, the art of politics and government is the highest calling of a democracy. And the achievement we have in the stability of this society is so easily underestimated. It is normal for us—it is the rarest conceivable thing for most of mankind. . . . It will not be sustained and continued if we don’t know in fact how fragile it is, and how much it needs the very best of men and women to continue it with the knowledge and the courage to do.1
To put it less elegantly, Moynihan was saying democracy is hard work. It takes a lot of effort and the time and talents of our best people to sustain it, and if we take it for granted, we put it in peril.
The optimist in me is inclined to hope that our current travails will remind us how much we have to lose by taking democracy for granted and prompt us to work harder to keep our republic. After all, wasn’t it Churchill who said the Americans usually do the right thing—after they have tried everything else? I take some heart in the thought that perhaps in the depths of our despair we can rally and reaffirm our democracy.
The stakes of failure are high, not only in the United States but globally. While we flounder in a morass of litigation, lies, and recriminations, China is quietly selling its system to the rest of the world. It argues that its economy grows more and faster than ours, and its political system works better and is more efficient than ours. The Chinese downplay the costs of authoritarianism, particularly to the human spirit, but it is hard to refute their economic success story. Meanwhile, Russia is showing the true face of authoritarianism, but even its war atrocities have not produced the global condemnation it deserves. It is clear, however, that the path to defeating dictatorship must begin at home. We cannot persuade the world that democracy is better when our own system is under fire from the inside.
Each November, I pay a visit to the John F. Kennedy gravesite in Arlington to mourn the loss of the person who inspired me to do public service, and also to be lifted up once again by his words. This excerpt is not engraved there, but it is worth repeating to remind us of what we must do:
So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
Kennedy was talking about the Soviet Union, but his point is relevant to us now. We begin with civility—a fancy term for good manners—where we respect and do not belittle the other side, no matter the depth of our disagreement. We move on from there to serious efforts to work out differences. That means not simply opposing the other side in order to prevent it from having a victory, something both sides have been guilty of, and it means both sides being willing to throw their extreme elements under the bus in order to produce an outcome in the center.
That’s not all—we need to put “civil” back into civil society discourse and reward truth-telling rather than punish it, among other things—but it is a start that would make our system work better, and in the process, help restore public confidence in it.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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1 Transcript provided by the Heinz Family Foundation.