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But does anyone seriously think we are headed toward authoritarian control of our politics or single-party rule? The media remain strong and determined to tell the truth, and the courts remain rigorously independent. The Mueller investigation is clanking at the President like a Panzer tank, and whatever it reveals, the nation will deal with it through laws and politics.

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Accountability remains a core driver in the national debate. We paint democracy as a utopia, but it is not. It has been called, as Churchill noted, the worst form of government except for all the others — subject to abuse and manipulation and often sclerotic. We must forgive its failings, and work to improve them, as long as its core institutions further civil rights, guarantee rule of law and are subject to the will of the people.

There will be losses in all of these nations, as well as our own, corruption, misbehavior, pressure on the courts and media. Challenges will only grow as change in this century continues at a blistering pace. But for every example of democracy fading out or finding itself under attack, there are counterexamples of democracy and democratic activists moving forward and finding solutions. Under this U. Administration, there is little leadership on global human rights or democratic norms.

Why the United States Should Spread Democracy | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Change is happening in smaller nations as well. And democracy will prevail not because of individual leaders but because it is better than authoritarianism at meeting the challenges of governing. Human nature abhors a boss, and politically, democracy serves as a safety valve. Look to America, even in its current rage. We cannot imagine our own nation without the ability to switch from George W. Or, for that matter, to move from Obama to President Trump.

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Those shifts may look like stark division on the surface. Dictators may impose order, but mounting unrest as often as not turns them out, frequently with disastrous results. Some of the worst massacres in modern history have followed the ouster of strongmen. Sometimes democracy will not resolve complex events, or most effectively use technology, or respond speedily. That has proved more valuable in the long run than more immediate urges. Two hundred years ago, there was a mere handful of pseudo democracies in the world.

At the turn of the 20th century, a couple of dozen democracies existed.

Today, despite the continuation of Chinese and Russian authoritarian regimes, there are well over a hundred. Hundreds of millions have transitioned from fully authoritarian monarchies throughout Europe, Central Asia and parts of East Asia and pure dictatorships Latin America, the Balkans, the Levant and parts of Africa. We can all hope that the battle to defend democracy will be less costly in the 21st century than in the previous one.

We can enhance our chances of winning by empowering women, boosting programs that fight economic inequality and teaching our children the critical thinking skills they need to separate truth from lies. We remain in a marketplace of ideas. That is what has made us most adaptable to new threats and resilient in the face of challenges.

The Real Birth of American Democracy

It is also why we must articulate our vision of the values that, while we execute them imperfectly, are right and true. Contact us at editors time. Andrew Hasson. By James Stavridis July 12, Admiral Stavridis Ret. TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. The critical question is what makes this conflict either constructive or destructive.

Indeed, this is the central question of this book. Political conflict is not a disease, as some pundits contend, but instead an essential feature of American democracy. But not always. And this, in a nutshell, is what we need to figure out. First, though, it is worth taking a closer look at the idea of democracy itself. If you ask family members or friends what democracy is, they are likely to begin by saying that it is a system of government in which people cast votes for representatives and in which laws are determined by majorities.

It is also possible that some of them will distinguish representative democracy also known as republican government from the type of direct democracy practiced in a New England town meeting or in ancient Greece. When this happens, legitimate majority rule is not subverted or captured by special interests but instead perverted by the passions of the majority itself.

The core challenge of democracy, as Madison saw it, was to empower the people to select their lawmakers while somehow avoiding these twin evils, special interest capture of government on the one hand and tyranny of the majority on the other. Particularly fearful of the latter, he came to see conflict—continuous political struggle across a multitude of widely dispersed factions—as the key to preventing tyrannical majorities from forming.

The more difficult question is not whether it was foolproof—nothing in human affairs ever is—but instead whether it was better or worse than the alternatives.

For now, however, it is enough to highlight three core elements of his understanding of democratic governance: first, that democracy is inherently fragile, likely to be subverted by special interests or perverted by majority passions unless the proper checks and balances are in place; second, that the necessary checks and balances extend far beyond the formal structures of government, such as the three branches that Madison would play a large role in designing at the Constitutional Convention in ; and finally, that political conflict—at every level of society—is central to a vibrant democracy.

Successfully building and sustaining a democracy, in other words, is about much more than simply ensuring broad suffrage and majority rule, although both are vital.


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Nor is it enough to provide a compelling blueprint, like the one crafted at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, which specifies formal governing structures and the rules of the game, although this too has proved to be an essential feature of American democracy. Equally necessary, it seems, is a vibrant spirit of political engagement among the people themselves that yields productive conflict in the marketplace of ideas, presumably along the lines Madison envisioned.

If so, this brings us back to the question of what separates constructive political conflict from destructive political conflict in a democracy.

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Unfortunately, there exists no perfect theory or framework that we can rely on in answering this question. We can draw lessons from historical examples, however, on both the positive and the negative sides. Needless to say, the lead-up to the Civil War represents a powerful example of destructive conflict in American politics. Although there was plenty of political tension in the late s and the start of the s, very little of it was in any way constructive. But why, exactly?

In February —not long after Lincoln had been elected president and Southern states had begun to secede from the Union, but before Lincoln had taken the oath of office—the editor of the Atlantic Monthly , James Russell Lowell, suggested that political tensions had turned destructive in the United States because Americans had come to take effective self-governance for granted. He claimed that the Southern secessionists, in particular, had given up on the idea of national democracy altogether: they now question the right of the majority to govern, except on their terms, and threaten violence in the hope of extorting from the fears of the Free States.

Their quarrel is not with the Republican Party, but with the theory of Democracy.


  1. Interference from an Unwitting Species.
  2. The Key to the Secret, Part 2: The Nexus.
  3. Why American Democracy Thrives On Conflict - HBS Working Knowledge - Harvard Business School;
  4. America Is Not a Democracy.
  5. Gideons Game.
  6. Most secessionists continued to believe in the application of democratic procedures at the state level at least for white men , but apparently not at the federal level. When Lincoln won the election in November , many Southerners—perhaps a majority—were unswayed by the fact that he had secured more votes, both popular and electoral, than any other candidate.

    In his study of America, Tocqueville investigates possible remedies to the dangers posed by democracy. He writes admiringly of the American tendency to form associations in pursuit of political, social, and religious goals. Such concrete experiences of deliberation and action, on sub-political as well as political matters, gives the American a practical know-how and elevates him beyond his narrow concerns. Above all, Tocqueville points to American religion as a crucial check on the excesses of democratic individualism.

    This serves as a vital check on the individualistic impulse of the democratic man and offers a fixed moral orientation. It fights against materialism as well as the view that man is completely alone and must decide what is permitted or not permitted according to his own lights. American religion is a prime example. Tocqueville thus differs from contemporaries or near contemporaries such as Mill, Madison, Constant, and Guizot in that he is, on the whole, less confident that democratic problems could be mitigated by a proper ordering of laws or institutions. For Tocqueville, soft despotism and apathy are inherent in the fabric of democracy.

    Tocqueville nonetheless aims to encourage citizens to think through these vulnerabilities while developing an appreciation for moral, political, and intellectual excellence. In contrast to contemporaries who claimed that the French Revolution swept away deeply entrenched class distinctions, Tocqueville explains how kings, noblemen, bourgeois, and the people had all played an unwitting part over many centuries in the production of equality.

    Tocqueville nonetheless hopes Frenchmen might yet direct the equality revolution in their country.