How Fragile Is Democracy?
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
The Statue of Liberty, gifted to the U.S. by France in 1886, has historically represented freedom and democracy. (Fabian Fauth/Unsplash)
Ever since George Washington published his farewell address, which emphasized the importance of national unity and checks and balances, America has been centered around democracy. The idea of a democratic government is that the people being governed have a say in the decision making. In America, our democracy is characterized as a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy, meaning that the citizens of America exercise democratic participation by voting for government representatives instead of policies.
The Founding Fathers of America wanted to create a government that would resist “mob rule,” or in other words, avoid being destroyed by the rise of factions, which they attributed to the unrestricted “passions” of the public. With this in mind, they opted to allow American citizens to elect people fit for making crucial political decisions (thus, Congress was formed) rather than giving them a direct say in democracy. The Founding Fathers then implemented the system of checks and balances to avoid any of the three branches of government from seizing complete control.
Based on America’s prosperity and wealth, many assumed this experiment in democracy succeeded. But in recent years, there has been an increase in riots, polarization, and overall disunity within our nation. Can we really trust the people in power to do what’s best for the public? Moreover, should we be afraid of the mob rule the Founding Fathers sought to avoid?
How Flawed is Our Democracy?
Before we examine the recent state of our democracy, it is important to recognize one of the most controversial aspects of the way our democracy is structured. Although Americans are able to vote on important matters such as the presidential election, votes are filtered through the Electoral College, which can have a profound impact on how much a vote really matters. For example, although the 2020 presidential election will go down in history as a tight race, it realistically wasn’t close at all. Joe Biden outmatched Donald Trump by about 5 million ballots in the popular vote. However, since these votes were funnelled through the Electoral College, the scores appeared to be close all throughout the election’s duration.
In the Electoral College system, each state gets a certain number of electors based on its total number of representatives in Congress. The electoral college was created back when America was a young nation to equalize the balance of power between the northern and southern states, the latter having significantly smaller populations. Moreover, the Founding Fathers didn’t trust the common people to participate in democracy, so the Electoral College was their way of keeping power in the hands of those “fit” for government.
According to Sabeel Rahman, president of Demos Action, the nature of the Electoral College gives Republican presidential candidates a 4-5% advantage over their Democratic counterparts when it comes to how much of the popular vote they must achieve in order to win. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that during the past 30 years, a (hypothetical) Republican who earned 49 percent of the two-party popular vote could expect to win the Electoral College about 27 percent of the time. A Democrat with that share of the vote would have just an 11 percent chance of winning, based on the way the Electoral College and number of electors per state are formatted. This is one basis for criticism of the Electoral College.
Elections have also been undermined by voter suppression. Ian Bassin, executive director of Protect Democracy, cited “an effort by the Republican party to make it harder, wherever possible, to vote – especially for black and minority populations” in regards to voter tactics used in the 2020 presidential election. For example, Floridian Republicans put in place a bureaucratic maze that former felons had to negotiate before they could vote to prevent them from voting, ultimately disenfranchising one of every six Black Floridians of voting age. (Of course, the Democratic party also has a substantial history of voter suppression.) Additionally, throughout the 2020 election, Donald Trump’s active criticism of the U.S. Postal Service inspired many of his supporters to undermine the results of the election with little to no evidence. Some argue that if the American public refuses to accept one of democracy’s core values — that every vote counts — our democracy is compromised.
How Fragile is Democracy in the Current Day?
It can be argued that the concept of democracy changed significantly during Donald Trump’s presidency, particularly the days leading up to Biden’s inauguration. Although the now former president’s bold, assertive leadership won him the presidency, his decisions caused national disarray during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic in America. For instance, when he came down with COVID-19 himself, Trump tweeted, “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” rather than expressing sympathy to the 210,000 Americans who had died from COVID-19 by October 2020.
American citizens of various political standpoints shared a feeling of helplessness. It is important to note that although some Republicans criticized Trump, other Republicans refused to do so, and many other Americans of various party ties were hesitant to see the coronavirus pandemic as a valid crisis. Overall, due to both the pandemic and Trump’s response, the nation became increasingly divided.
A growing disappointment in the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic was one factor that led to Joe Biden being elected president in 2020. One of the greatest components of democracy is that its system of succession typically guarantees a peaceful, uncontested transfer of power. However, Donald Trump challenged this aspect of democracy during and after the election. During the election, he attempted to undermine mail-in ballots, which contained a higher ratio of Democrat votes. The president, who claimed that widespread mail-in voting leads to fraud, openly opposed additional funding for the United States Postal Service. “They need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo. “If they don’t get those two items, that means you can’t have universal mail-in voting because they’re not equipped to have it.” After the election, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol (which ultimately resulted in five deaths). Republican legislators, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senator Mitt Romney, blamed Trump for inciting the riot.
Not only did the Capitol riots violate the democratic tradition of a peaceful transfer of power, but the actions of those who stormed the Capitol in support of President Trump inflicted a blow upon democracy.
How Can We Preserve Our Democracy?
“Democracy is precious, democracy is fragile,” President Joe Biden said in his inauguration speech. “And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” A central theme in Biden’s inauguration speech was unity, which he claimed was necessary for “restoring the soul and future of America.” Biden urged Americans to “start fresh” and “listen to each other again.” With his inauguration taking place just two weeks after the Capitol riot, Biden emphasized unity. “Take a measure of me and my heart,” he said. “If you still disagree, so be it, that’s democracy, that’s America. The right to dissent, peacefully.”
Senator Mitt Romney, an influential member of the Republican party, expressed similar sentiments in regards to the Senate: “In light of today’s sad circumstances, I ask my colleagues: Do we weigh our own political fortunes more heavily than we weigh the strength of our Republic, the strength of our democracy, and the cause of freedom? What is the weight of personal acclaim compared to the weight of conscience?” Senator Romney’s statements shed light on another crucial aspect of democracy: the actions of our politicians. In order to maintain peace in partisan times, it is absolutely necessary for our politicians (and citizens alike) to prioritize the state of our democracy over personal gain.
Although democracy is defined as “government by the people,” the manner in which we interact with the political sphere can either lead to unity and cooperation, or mob rule — the very thing our Founding Fathers feared. If we wish to protect our democracy in the years to come, the American public, as well as its political leaders, must treat each other with civility and respect. We must be willing to compromise and voice our opinions and grievances in a diplomatic matter. If we can accomplish this, our democracy will not crumble.