Jennifer N. Victor
Three things everyone can do to reinforce US democracy
Modeling democratic values in everyday choices strengthens the fabric that is the foundation for troubled democratic institutions.
US democracy is in crisis. Journalists and scholars from many corners have been transparently alarmist about the weaknesses in US political institutions and the dangers they pose to the broader society. One-third of Americans do not have confidence in the outcome of the last election, and the nation narrowly survived a violent insurrection aimed at overturning the election.
These are challenging times. Managing them can be overwhelming. One’s sense of democratic threat is strongly related to their perceived sense of personal liberty and justice. But regardless of whether we see democracy as an individual trait or a national characteristic, reinforcing democracy comes only in two general forms: very big and very small.
Very big reinforcement is institutional reforms, like moving the US House to a proportional representation system and creating the conditions for multiple parties to exist and hold power. Or expanding the franchise to create national standards for voting rights and to give full voting rights to the millions of people who live in US territories and federal districts. Or reducing the legislative influence of the Senate or its proportional setup. Or using a national popular vote to elect the president. Together, such reforms would fundamentally change government and politics in the US. Arguably, any of these would be an improvement over the status quo, as they bring greater rights and representation to more people.
But achieving those reforms is intimidating. While it would be nice if the US government structure more closely reflected the needs and composition of its population, we face enormous collective action problems in making such things happen.
Very small reinforcement looks like things everyone and anyone can do at the most local level to promote democratic values and norms. The challenge the US faces today isn’t just that democracy is degrading, it’s that many people don’t seem to favor a democratic way of life anymore (although, they wouldn’t use those words). Some of what’s wrong in America today can be fixed by making the case for democracy and getting more people to buy into its values. We have to remind one another why democracy is the only form of government that has the potential to make everyone better off.
We can all take everyday actions that reinforce democratic norms and values. When we share what we have with others in need, we strengthen the community by creating connections among neighbors and ensuring no one falls through the cracks. When we treat one another respectfully in public spaces, even when we vehemently disagree, we model mutual respect and advertise its value.
We have to remind one another why democracy is the only form of government that has the potential to make everyone better off.
At the risk of sounding naïve and trite, I offer three very small things that everyone can do to bolster democracy. You can poo-poo these for being trivial and ineffective, but then if you also throw your hands up at the big stuff, you have to admit you’re not willing to do anything to help save democracy.
First, vote. I know you did. Anyone reading an obscure political science blog is almost certainly an avid voter. But someone you know didn’t vote. You just don’t know who that is. Your job is to find out, and get that person to vote. Every. Single. Time. Sure municipal elections are boring, so is ballot counting. If you want to live in a democracy, you have to do the work. Voting and encouraging others to vote is the most basic responsibility of living in a democracy. It’s always possible to do more to help others vote. Make a habit of checking your voter registration on a biannual schedule, like changing the batteries in your smoke alarms.
Second, build community. Meet your neighbors. Make or join a coffee klatch, bridge club, book club, or mahjong group. Join the PTA. Enroll your kids in group sports. Volunteer at the public library. We’ve known for several decades that this type of civil society and social capital has been declining in the US, and it’s been replaced by virtual spaces that have some real unhealthy downsides, but there’s nothing stopping us from choosing local, in-person activities over online alternatives. Research shows that finding commonalities and connections with those around you can improve your sense of civic efficacy, help us appreciate one another’s differences, and generally feel more invested in our communities. All of these are democratic values. We can reinforce them in everyday choices.
Third, read. Seriously. Subscribe to a local newspaper. Subscribe to a national newspaper. Read books. Read poetry. Read plays. Read anything that’s more than 240 characters. How can reading James Patterson, USA Today, or the New Yorker save democracy? Because reading stimulates the mind. When we read, we use the creative centers of our brains. We learn about topics we didn’t know about before. We develop an openness to new ideas. Reading helps us to try on others’ perspectives, which improves our ability to be empathetic toward others. Reading helps us generate a more nuanced, complete understanding of the world. When we talk about what we read with others, we add community building to reading and earn a democratic improvement twofer. If all of our reading time is spent scrolling through social media (you know, like how you found this blog post), then we have less time for the type of reading that is more likely to open our minds to kindness, newness, and others.
Saving democracy probably requires very big and very small changes. Maybe voting, community building, and reading won’t save the republic, but they aren’t going to hurt it. When I have given public talks about politics, many people express concern about the stability and future of the country. They want to do more and are not sure what to do. My reading of research about political efficacy and democratic values suggests everyone can contribute to strengthening the social fabric that provides the foundation for democratic institutions. Advocate for structural reforms, but make adjustments to everyday activity, too. We can bolster democracy, but we have to do the work.