What does the rest of the world think of American democracy in 2023? Sadly, we are viewed as past our prime. Canadian friends ask how it was possible that Donald Trump was elected president, why our current 80-year-old president is running for re-election, and why “crazy people” sit in the U.S. Congress. A German friend told me Marjorie Taylor Green is better known there than Chuck Schumer and compared Ron DeSantis to Hitler.
My response to questions and comments on American democracy is to remind people that democracy is messy. I say great presidents can be followed by mediocre ones, and we will have great presidents again. I also remind people that challenging times can ruin a presidency and that “failed presidencies” are not always evidence of democracy not working. The Vietnam War, for example, ruined the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and inflation arguably ruined the presidency of Jimmy Carter.
Presidents are not responsible for everything, good or bad, that happens during their time in the White House. The reelection of Trump in 2020, for example, would not have stopped Russia’s invasion of Ukraine any more than it would have stopped last year’s hurricane Ian. President Biden did not end the COVID epidemic or start the electric car revolution.
People’s opinions of who was a good president or a bad one will differ. We should, however, wonder if more people voting would lead to electing better political leaders. In Australia, voting is mandatory. You can go to jail for not voting. If we had a similar law in the U.S., would we get another Abraham Lincoln, FDR, or George Washington?
I believe that the quality of voters—how democracy is practiced—can make a difference. “Educated” voters are not only more likely to support higher quality candidates for office, but they are also likely to address much of the dysfunction of today’s American democracy.
What is that dysfunction? I found one answer in an unexpected place. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs comments: “Over the years, democracy in the US has become alienated and degenerated, and it has increasingly deviated from the essence of democracy and its original design. Problems like money politics, identity politics, wrangling between political parties, political polarization, social division, racial tension, and wealth gap have become more acute. All this has weakened the functioning of democracy in the US.”
Given China’s authoritarian government and the effective dictatorship of Xi Jinping, it is easy to dismiss any opinion of China about America. As I read the comment, however, parts of its assessment resonated. (Other parts did not.)
An “educated” voter has the wherewithal to rise above identity politics, slick political ads paid for by billionaires, blatant appeals to racism, greed, xenophobia, and lies. Educated voters try to address issues, not passions, and seek objective sources of information (not Facebook or what used to be called Twitter). Educated voters seek to understand views different than their own and practice civility. They do not think anime of Nancy Pelosi getting shot is funny or draw pictures of Donald Trump in prison garb.
Educated voters are guided by a core set of beliefs that are essential to a functional democracy. These beliefs include all people being created equal, the right of all citizens to vote, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and equal justice under law. Educated voters judge candidates with these values in mind.
So, is American democracy on the way out? Is further” alienation and degeneration” of American democracy inevitable? I do not think so. If Americans strengthened their citizenship skills, the odds of addressing issues that the Chinese Foreign Ministry and others raise would improve. The cure to what ails American democracy, thus, is to improve our practice of it. Better informed citizens are more likely to want to work together—use our democratic institutions—to address issues that challenge America today.
Dare I say it, with a little work, the best days of American democracy may be yet to come.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.