Essential readings 


Democracy’s Challenges

Trying to explain the challenges currently facing democracy in the United States is difficult. Surely, the dispiriting descent of U.S. politics and governance into pervasive paralysis, conflict, and sheer mediocrity is part of the problem. But it’s also possible that many of our political and governance issues stem from intrinsic shortcomings of the democratic model itself. What might be called “democracy’s design flaws. This possibility has appeal not just because of what’s happening here in the United States, but also because so many other democracies around the world are encountering similar problems. And because authoritarianism as a form of government appears to be enjoying a global resurgence. As a result, doubts about the sustainability, value, and wisdom of democracy in the 21st Century is getting a much wider hearing than they were a decade or two ago. Below are useful resources that explain the nature of the challenges our democracy’s is facing in the 21st Century .

Max Fisher and Amanda Taub: It Never Was America to Me:- Our childhood history classes may have told us that America has been a democracy for hundreds of years, a shining example of the ideals of liberty and justice for all. But an honest reckoning with history tells a different story.

Daniel Ziblatt: Challenges to Democracy:- With the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the rise of populist, Eurosceptic, and anti-immigrant forces in Europe, observers have begun to worry that even the world’s most established democracies may be at risk. Given our experiences here in this country over the last decades, it seems that we to are faced with a very serious issue: can liberal democracy in the United States survive? Dr. Ziblatt suggests that we will discover whether we can resolve five critical issues: (1) Political Polarization, (2) Immigration and the multi-ethnic democracy it fosters, (3) Economic Inequality and the middle class dissent it fosters, (4) Populism and White Nationalism that a key facets of this dissent, (5) and the Bureaucratic Dysfunctions of democratic institutions.

Thomas Carothers: Is Democracy the Problem:- Given the dispiriting descent of U.S. politics and governance into paralysis, conflict and mediocrity over the past few decades, it’s hard not to wonder whether many of democracy’s problems might stem from the intrinsic shortcomings embedded in the original design of our constitutional democracy. Democracy’s design flaws, if you will. These criticisms and questions are gaining appeal not just because of what is happening here, but also because authoritarianism appears to be enjoying a resurgence.  As a result, not only are doubts about the value and wisdom of democracy being looked at more closely than they ever have been, but so too are the voices that are arguing that authoritarian regimes might be more a more effective and credible form of government, now that we’re facing the new challenges the 21st Century is inserting into our politics. Carothers has identified at least three significant “design flaws” through his research: (1) Money in politics; (2) Intractable ideological, political and worldview conflicts; and (3) Voter ignorance.

Is Democracy Dying? (The Atlantic)

The National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia, is a monument to the benefits of pessimism. This center, which is situated across an open expanse from Independence Hall, is a superior educational institution. But, understood correctly, it’s also a warning about the fragility of the American experiment, about the challenges that our democracy is facing. The 42 Founding Fathers who are celebrated inside the National Constitution Center with life-size bronze statues — the 39 who signed the Constitution, and three who refused — did not believe that men were good. Quite the opposite. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” “Federalist No. 51” states. They were poignantly aware of the challenges their new democracy, and the constitution they’d crafted to implement it, would face. In fact, the system of government the wrote into the Constitution is nothing less than a concession to the idea that humans are deficient in the science of rational self-governance. Today, during a moment in time when the truths that seemed so self-evident in 1776 are in doubt—including the idea that liberal democracy is the inevitable end state of human ideological development—a tour of the National Constitution Center absolutely reminds us that the Founders did not necessarily believe they were bringing about the end of history.

When More Democracy Isn’t More Democratic (The New York Times): In America today, white voters are seemingly challenging rights long promised to minority groups by the Constitution. Populist leaders, including President Trump, are clashing with institutions that they say oppose popular will. In the face of this barrage political institutions seem to be getting weaker every year. The significant and most troubling result, for those who can see it, is a widening divide between two visions of democracy: On one side there is the proposition asserting ‘the people’s natural right to rule. On the other, there is the more complicated reality, in which our political institutions and elected representatives have to balance majority opinion against constitutional considerations like universal rights and the common good. Unable to reconcile these contradictory demands, our once solid-seeming constitutional democracy at times seems to be breaking down. Of critical significance is the fact that popular faith in out system — one that makes two contradictory promises — is declining. The resulting uncertainty amongst both elected officials and the people is beginning to raise and frame a questions that, at this moment is apparently undiscussable in an civil way.