How Do We Save a Backsliding Democracy?

By Margaret Edsey

In the wake of September 11th, the entire nation found itself in a common struggle to uphold American values and protect what millions believed to be the strongest democracy in the world. President Bush saw his approval rating hover between 80 and 90 percent for several months following the attacks. This was bigger than political parties, beliefs, or affiliations—nearly 3,000 Americans lost their lives.

The United States has witnessed ever increasing polarization and distrust in our most vital institutions in recent years, made all the more evident during the Trump administration, though the origins go back much further. In a world of QAnon, misinformation, and claims of rigged elections, many had thought, or even hoped, that the COVID-19 pandemic would act as a “rally around the flag” event similar to what occurred after 9/11. As we enter the third year of the pandemic, and the American death toll inches toward the one million mark, it is evident that Covid has not been, and will not be, the solidarity-inducing event it arguably could have been. 

At the Georgetown Bipartisan Coalition (GBC) Roundtable on Democratic Backsliding, questions arose on if anything could bring the American people together in 2022 the way 9/11 did in 2001. The group concluded that the overarching difference between these two years comes in the form of democratic backsliding, with all participants essentially agreeing that the United States constitutes a backsliding democracy. How do we undo this dangerous trend? Discussants offered a variety of potential solutions. 

Some participants championed grassroots solutions and a focus on local politics. Decisions made at the local level are often the ones that truly impact the lives of Americans, though local politics often gets lost in the drama that is national party politics. The lack of participation in local elections and town hall meetings is discouraging, and a push to reinvigorate local and state politics has the potential to make a huge difference. 

Others pointed to meeting the problem at its source, with several students emphasizing the role of the media in eroding democracy. An important feature of any society is having a common view of what the facts are. As the media has transformed from a resource for learning the facts to an outlet where opposing political parties promote drastically different perceptions of reality, the foundations of American democracy have begun to crumble. Graham Hillmann provoked debate with his question, “Is it worth it to compromise freedom of the press in the name of democracy?” While some immediately rejected this notion and voiced concern about the ways in which this could create a slippery slope into censorship, others saw the value of a world without misinformation, disinformation, and harmful conspiracy theories. 

Alex Bowman highlighted the potential success of conversations between loved ones. Friends and family members that love and care for one another will likely have an easier time finding common ground than complete strangers. Though unlikely to solve the pervasive polarization and hatred we see in the U.S. today, the value of a healthy conversation and a bit of empathy should not be understated. 

The conversation ended with a discussion of voter suppression—a huge component of democratic backsliding. Earlier in the conversation, the group offered up definitions of democracy in order to establish what contributes to its corrosion. Luke Henkel provided a minimal procedural definition of democracy as a system with “free and fair elections, and a regime of enforced civil and political rights.” TJ Rausch noted that there is an argument to be made in favor of codifying the right to vote in the Constitution, as all Americans should have their right to vote protected and guaranteed. 

The discussion then shifted from voter suppression to voter confidence, and how we can improve upon it. Though it has been shown that the 2020 election was free and fair, a lack of confidence in election security is integral to democratic backsliding. Matteo Caulfield proposed instituting some election security measures, emphasizing that convincing Democrats to support some election security in order to convince Republicans that election results are real is an incredibly small concession. 

Ultimately, the entire group expressed discontent over the status of American democracy, and the ways in which the public seems to care about democracy less as the opposing parties hate each other more. To conclude with my own thoughts, I share in this frustration and worry over public trust and faith in our oldest institutions, but I absolutely see room for hope. It is organizations like the Georgetown Bipartisan Coalition, I think, that justify my optimism. Students with a range of political beliefs came together and shared similar concerns and fears, and then discussed ways to solve our common problems. I think that says something about the future and strength of our democracy.

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