Our Democracy Is in Serious Trouble: It Needs to Be Reinvented

Back to Spring 2021: Volume 110, Number 1

By David Mathews

Democracy’s troubles aren’t abstract; Americans have felt them personally. People have been shocked by what has been happening in the country as we have been whipsawed between despair and hope. Millions are reported to be alienated, dismayed, resentful, and angry. Emotions are raw. These crises have come on top of a long-term trend, the decades-old weakening of our democracy. Major governing institutions from the legislative, executive, and even judicial branches of government have lost much of the confidence that citizens once had in them. Nongovernmental institutions, schools, and the media have suffered a similar loss. All of this happened while the country appeared so deeply divided it seemed impossible to solve problems that require us to work together.

But maybe that isn’t the whole story. Studies have shown hidden common ground on many issues. And, though not research, users of the TikTok app were challenged to share the qualities they admired in people of the opposing political party. Republicans said they admired Democrats for such things as their concern for the environment, their commitment to equality, and their passion for their beliefs. Democrats saw merit in Republicans’ emphasis on hard work, respect for veterans, and belief in free speech for all.1 Research has also shown that most all Americans agree on one thing—the country has been too divided.2

The Crisis in Confidence and Trust

It is important to recognize that what has happened in the country has deep roots. Destructive forces have been building underneath the surface for decades, seldom recognized and even less often addressed. As early as 1964, the trust people had that the government would do the right thing for the country began to decline. This was the first sign of what would become an avalanche that would reach other governing institutions. Many Americans, for different reasons, feel that they aren’t recognized, understood, or treated fairly by these institutions. The criticisms are more than the usual complaints about poor service and bureaucratic red tape. Some institutions give the impression that they think people are not competent to choose for themselves. And people sense that they are looked down upon or treated with contempt. They react as though the country they believe belonged to them has been taken away. Others believe that what has been promised them as Americans has never been delivered. All feel they have lost something invaluable and have just grievances. That creates what has been called a politics of resentment. 3

Because it has been growing for years, I believe that the public’s dissatisfaction with its governing institutions and the institutions’ difficulty in responding to these deeply felt grievances isn’t likely to end quickly. Furthermore, this situation isn’t confined to the United States; it threatens other countries as well. And now, the tone has changed in alarming ways. Frustration and anger have turned into sharp bitterness as the political environment has become supercharged with hyper-partisanship. Unwilling to be attacked, Americans have become hesitant to talk to one another candidly.

The Work Ahead: Using a With Strategy

There is much work to be done by both citizens and our governing institutions. Organizational adjustments, technical solutions, or administrative changes aren’t likely to be effective against the fundamental problems we face. Maybe we can devise a better strategy.

An account of the research that my colleagues and I at the Kettering Foundation have drawn on to begin imagining such a strategy was first published in a small book, With the People: An Introduction to an Idea. (A longer, more detailed version will be published soon.) The book’s title was inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s ideal of a government of, by, and for the people. Because there are doubts today about whether we have any of those, we thought we might add another preposition. What about governing more with the people? That isn’t a radical idea; in fact, we see it applied when there is a natural disaster like a pandemic and citizens have an essential role to play. Why not use a with strategy to combat other problems?

Institutions and Citizens: Repairing a Dysfunctional Relationship

The institutions of democracy are formal structures like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Washington Post company, the local police department, and the public school system. Civic democracy is often not structured at all: It’s a group of neighbors who meet regularly to organize a “watch” program, or it’s a loosely structured grassroots coalition, or a civic association.

Institutional democracy is built on the foundations of civic democracy, which is older. The two are interdependent, but they’ve become detached. That happens when institutions have lost confidence in the citizenry, while citizens have lost confidence in the institutions. The distrust becomes mutual.4 Worse still, citizens feel pushed to the sidelines in a political system that has too few opportunities for them to make the difference they believe they should make.

Institutions alone can’t solve all of the country’s problems, nor can our most expert professionals. As Elinor Ostrom demonstrated in her Nobel prize-winning research, there are things that citizens working together must do to empower institutions and their skilled professionals. That is because there are some things that can only be done by citizens or that are best done by them. The curative compassion of family and friends is an example.

A strategy of people working with our governing institutions requires citizens who are seen, and who see themselves, as producers not just constituents and consumers. That’s the greatest challenge to a with strategy, not because Americans lack the ability, but because many of our institutions have little experience working with citizens as other than volunteers helping the institutions do their work or as consumers of what institutions offer.

In response to the loss of public confidence, institutions have launched many laudable, participatory initiatives. However, they haven’t been effective in stemming the long-simmering public distrust of our governing institutions and their professional authority. Institutions usually rely on data and facts to show they are effective. But the real problem is often the lack of a trusting relationship with citizens, one based on shared concerns. Our governing institutions have to invent better ways to regain their legitimacy. And I think they can be creative.

Whatever we do to reinvent our system for governing, it must broaden and enrich our understanding of democracy. Citizens have to have more than voices petitioning others to act for them. They have to have hands—their hands—working together with one another and with their institutions to make things for the good of all. A with strategy is, most of all, a strategy for strengthening our democracy.

What Kind of Democracy?

Coming together across dividing lines may benefit from looking more closely at what we mean when talking about, “democracy,” a common word often claimed by opposing groups. I am not noting this to argue for one “correct” definition but rather to suggest that we value much the same things—being treated fairly, everyone having a voice, respect for the law.5 These are democratic values. Our differences are actually over the application of those values. That being the case, we might talk more in practical, deliberative, problem-solving ways to decide and act on what needs preserving and what needs changing. Looking at various options for getting results in deliberations has helped people appreciate how complex the issues facing us are. Deliberating, weighing all options carefully and fairly, increases the chances of being able to work together with those who disagree with us.

The most common understanding of democracy is that it is a system of contested elections leading to representative government. Elections are unquestionably important. However, is the public’s only role to give its consent to leaders who are better at governing? Can “We the People” just vote and then call it a day? Can a strong democracy be essentially citizenless?

An argument has been made that our troubles come from having too much democracy, that a divided and often uninformed public can’t govern itself. These perceptions have made it especially difficult for institutions to trust working with citizens. That’s tragic because using what citizens can provide would bring much-needed support for overburdened professionals.

Doubts about citizens can’t be brushed aside. But I suggest we consider a broader and much older, more civic, understanding of democracy, one in which the citizenry does act, both through governing institutions and its own work. As I’ve said, I believe that electoral or institutional democracy depends on civic democracy. Perhaps we should think of democracy as an interdependent ecology rather than only a collection of institutions. Civic life serves as the political wetlands for institutional democracy and the breeding ground for change, both good and bad. We neglect its importance at our peril.

Another misunderstanding of democracy is that it requires eliminating all differences and coming to full agreement. No. It’s about using differences to act more effectively rather than letting them fester into divisiveness. As a nation, we have never been in full agreement. Respecting differences in experiences, perspectives, and abilities has made us stronger.

Managing disagreements has to be ongoing in the relationships among the different groups in our country. Democracy is more a journey than a final destination. And there is no road map. We have to renegotiate the route with our fellow travelers every step along the way.

American democracy has survived a bloody Civil War, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the trauma of the Vietnam War, to mention just a few of the tests. Although at times we have been quite at odds with one another, our system has been more like rubber than like stone. It stretches rather than breaks. In times of crisis, democracy in the United States has proven amazingly creative and resilient. That’s a legacy that can serve us well now. We need more inventors in both our institutions and in civic life.

David Mathews is president and CEO of the Kettering Foundation and directs the studies of the foundation’s Cousins Research Group.

1 See the 118,951 responses to @s.nesquik, “If you’re a Democrat, say one nice thing about Republicans; If you’re a Republican, say one nice thing about Democrats,” (January 25, 2021), https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMeJdftwf/ (accessed March 3, 2021).

2 Susan Page, “Divided We Fall? Americans See Our Angry Political Debate as a ‘Big Problem,’  USA TODAY, December 5, 2019, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/hiddencommonground/2019/12/05/hidden-common-ground-americans-divided-politics-seek-civility/4282301002/ (accessed March 3, 2021).

3 This analysis is based on reports going back to 1976, including Robert Teeter, “The Present National Political Attitude as Determined by Pre-Election Polls,” November 1976, Box 62, Folder “Post-Election Analysis—Speeches and Reports (2),” Robert Teeter Papers, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, Ann Arbor, MI. Other studies we have found useful include Seymour Martin Lipset and William Schneider, The Confidence Gap: Business, Labor, and Government in the Public Mind (New York: The Free Press, 1983) and Pew Research Center, Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government (Pew Research Center, November 2015). Also, Katherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker (University of Chicago Press, 2016); Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: New Press, 2016); Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).

4 There is a survey of the negative perceptions that Washington officials have of citizens in Jennifer Bachner and Benjamin Ginsberg, What Washington Gets Wrong (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2016), 9-10, 15-18.

5 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Cycles of American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999 [1986)), 47: “The two jostling strains in American thought agree more than they disagree. Both are committed to individual liberty, the constitutional state and the rule of law. Both have their reciprocal functions in preserving the body politics. Both have their indispensable roles in the dialectic of public policy. They are indissoluble partners in the great adventure of democracy.”

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