Democracy appears to be in decline around the world. Freedom House, a think tank founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, recently warned of an ongoing “recession” of democracy. China, Russia, and countries in the Middle East remain unfree. Major democracies such as India and the United States have stumbled. Freedom House claims that when exemplary democracies falter, anti-democratic forces are emboldened.
Authoritarianism was on the rise prior to COVID-19. Threats to freedom of the press predate the pandemic. Religious liberty and other human rights have never existed in some places. But the pandemic created new opportunities for disinformation and democratic dysfunction.
There was some good news. Across the world, protesters clamored for equality and human rights. Unfortunately, these protests were often met with governmental repression.
And, as we’ve seen in the U.S., there is growing distrust. Recent opinion polls paint a worrying picture. An Associated Press poll concluded that nearly half of Americans think our democracy is not working well. Such conclusions reflect our polarization. That poll concluded that 75% of Democrats think the country is on the right track, while almost 80% of Republicans think it is not. A related AP poll found that 65% of Republicans do not believe that Joe Biden’s election was legitimate.
These differences of opinion are troubling. Democracy depends upon trust and common ground.
But let’s not be surprised. History shows that democracy is rare, unstable, and imperfect.
The Roman republic lasted about 500 years. The Athenian democracy lasted about 200. And ancient “democracies” were not all that democratic. Slavery was allowed and women were subordinated. Athens and Rome were also aggressive colonizers. And we should not forget that the Athenian assembly voted to execute Socrates.
This is one of the reasons that Plato distrusted democracy. He thought it was foolish to put the uneducated masses in charge. Plato worried that liberty would be abused. He warned that the masses would fall for the seductive lies of a tyrant. He described democracy as a ship of fools, where the drunken passengers stage a mutiny and throw the expert navigators overboard.
Modern democracies have, of course, made improvements and learned from ancient failures. We have institutionalized human rights that protect freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Socrates would not be sentenced to death in the United States. We have also abolished slavery and advanced women’s suffrage.
Modern innovations may help to stabilize and preserve democracy. But challenges and opportunities remain.
An important question is who is included among “we, the people.” Should there be voting rights for people in prison or even non-citizens? Some states allow felons and ex-cons to vote. Others do not. In the U.S. we link voting to citizenship. But in New Zealand some permanent residents can vote.
We can also ask about the size, stability, and longevity of democratic nations. The United States did not always include 50 states. Could more be added or some allowed to secede? The Constitution is not written in stone. Should it be amended in ways that make it more responsive to the will of the people?
We should also consider the role of global institutions and international law. Should we seek a more global democracy that involves trans-national unions? Or does democracy require small, local, and decentralized communities?
In a polarized era, rational conversations about these things are difficult. It seems increasingly unlikely that we will be able to talk reasonably about all of this. This may be our undoing.
A significant question is how peaceful and reasonable we expect democracy to be. Some philosophers dream of “deliberative democracy” in which rational people engage in sincere and civil debate. But democracy is also a field of conflict and struggle, what scholars call “agonistic democracy.” In the United States, our democracy has become much more agonistic of late. This damages civic institutions. But “people power” may in fact be more like anarchy than law and order.
As we consider the future of democracy, we should remember that democracies have not always existed. Irrationality, self-interest, and conflict are part of the human condition. Authoritarians are waiting to exploit those weakness. And without rational consensus about shared values, democracies will continue to fail.