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Is American Democracy in Trouble?

Concerns about the state of American Democracy are as old as American Democracy itself. From Washington’s statement of neutrality to Lincoln suspending habeas corpus to the building of the Panama Canal to the New Deal, Americans worried that government overreach was becoming par for the course. We fear the elites taking over and the people not having a voice in their government.

In his provocative new book Our Own Worst Enemy, Tom Nichols thinks that our current fears about the perilous state of American democracy are valid. He points to a rising tide of totalitarianism around the globe, but especially in India, Turkey, Hungary, and Brazil, as evidence that we are facing new threats in our time. Nichols believes that Americans are not equipped to meet these new movements because we lack the seriousness to deal with them.

In the introduction, Nichols tells the story of his father, a blue-collar worker who held racial views that were consistent for white, working-class men of his era. His father had been a faithful Democrat who venerated FDR until the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. Nichols watched a 2012 Presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Nichols found himself stunned as his 93-year-old father said, “We’ll be okay no matter which one of them wins.”

The rhetoric around the last few election cycles has taken on apocalyptic imagery. We talk about the danger of the other party winning as if it will be the end of civilization itself. We say it’s “the most important election of our lifetimes,” forgetting that we said the same thing four years before. This hysteria creates a cycle where citizens care more about voting against their perceived enemies than they do about voting for competent governance.

Another theme from the book and Nichols’ Twitter feed that we should consider is his insistence that Americans are no longer a serious people. By seriousness, Nichols means “the burden of knowing that we own our decisions, that our actions have consequences. It is the sense of responsibility that helps us to act without being ordered to act, the instinct that tells us, even when we are alone, that we owe a duty to others and that our behavior affects them as much as it does ourselves.” He argued that “seriousness is the great requisite for a stable democracy because it allows us to think beyond the moment and to accept the weight of duty and communal responsibility” and it causes us to accept an important truth that is central to democracy: “We are adults who are masters of our own fates instead of irresponsible and powerless children.” 

This part of Nichols’ argument may be the most important for weighing whether or not our country’s form of governance is in peril. In authoritarian governments, all citizens are treated like children as they have basic decisions made for them by those in power. They are told what to do, and their decisions do not matter. However, in a republic, our decisions matter immensely because we are the government. When a huge segment of the population decides not to get a vaccine because they think the government might use it to implant microchips, that has serious consequences. We are seeing them right now in my home state of Alabama, where there are more ICU patients than there are staffed ICU beds. Simply put, we are acting like our actions don’t have consequences.

We should take the thesis of Our Own Worst Enemy seriously, no pun intended. Our political polarization and complete and irrational fear of the opposite political party have caused untold damage to our body politic. In addition, we have stopped seeing people around the globe who would like to do us harm as our enemies and have started embracing a narrative that says that our own neighbors and fellow citizens are the greatest threats to our way of life. If we don’t tamp down this irrational anger, we will continue to make foolish decisions at the ballot box.

The point Nichols makes about seriousness is worth our consideration as well. The stories of how the nation came together to fight the Great Depression and World War II seem like something that would not be possible today. I cannot help but wonder if we are capable of the kind of voluntary sacrifice for our neighbor that is necessary to conquer a difficult foe like COVID-19. If we cannot meet these challenges on our own, people will start to wonder what good self-government is for. When that happens, it might be too late.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: ©Thinkstock


Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”

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