Overview:

Are we confronting an existential crisis of democracy? Historical and philosophical perspective can help us stay vigilant without freaking out.

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The fiery rhetoric of the campaign trail might make you might think American democracy has failed or is failing. There is declining trust in government, elections, and in democracy itself. And some people are freaking out. This is a crisis of democracy.

But there is no such thing as a stable, happily-ever-after version of democracy. Democracy is always in crisis. Understanding the nature of the democratic beast can help you keep focus, despite warnings of impending doom. Here are a few thoughts about how to remain vigilant without freaking out.

Avoid the rhetorical doom spiral

The Left suggest that we are facing a democratic crisis of unprecedented proportions. President Biden gave a passionate speech on November 3, where he said, “democracy itself” is at stake in the mid-term election. Former President Obama warned in a speech in Arizona on the same day that if Republicans win in Arizona, democracy in Arizona “may not survive.” Obama added, “That’s not an exaggeration. That’s a fact.”

The Right paints a similarly gloomy picture. Former President Trump said, on the day before Halloween, “Our Country is Rigged, Crooked, and Evil.” Meanwhile, according to a Washington Post survey, a number of Republican candidates for governor and senator have already decided that the 2022 elections may be rigged, refusing to say that they would accept the result. These are the folks that Biden and Obama are warning about.

This kind of polarizing doom spiral has led people to talk about “civil war.” A new study from Notre Dame University reports, “Slightly more than half of Republicans (51.5 percent), over a third of Democrats (35.1 percent) and nearly a quarter of independents (23 percent) believe the United States is on the brink of a new civil war.” And some delusional people have already acted violently. The gloomy rhetoric can increase the likelihood of political violence, which can, in turn, increase our feeling of doom.

Remember things could be worse

The actual American Civil War brought terrible destruction, with as many as 750,000 fatalities. A hundred years later, the 1960’s was a decade of political violence. And until that decade, our country’s racial inequities existed in obvious tension with the lofty rhetoric of our founding ideals. For women, non-whites, and LGBTQ people, the 2020’s are better than the 1920’s or 1820’s.

And other democracies don’t inspire much confidence. The U.K. has had an embarrassing year. Israel seems to be in perpetual crisis. Italian democracy is a punch line. And in Japan, the former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was murdered.

Things could get worse here. But they are better now than they were. Our democracy has matured and expanded. But democracies are unstable. And there is no cure for this instability other than the patient work of democratic citizenship. It also helps to tune out the doomsayers and polarizing rhetoric that breeds over-reaction.

Recognize the boredom of diminishing returns

When you note that things are better today, it is surprising that trust in the country and faith in democracy is eroding. One problem is that some people don’t like these improvements. White supremacists are not happy to have been displaced (or as they might put it, “replaced”). 

But American crankiness extends beyond the fringe. Some of it has to do with a more general sense of dread about climate change and pandemic disease. The iPhone era has also left us disconnected and distracted. And traditional religion no longer unites us with a common source of meaning and community.

I also suspect that we are suffering from a psychological problem related to the so-called hedonic treadmill. As we pursue happiness, we don’t seem to make progress. But that’s because our sense of progress is calibrated to a basic “set point” in the happiness thermostat.

Democratic progress is inspiring when it first occurs. But the joy of success soon fades, as we become used to a new normal. The excitement of change soon gives way to the grumpy boredom of the status quo.

It is a thrill to witness key moments of democratic enlightenment. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a time to celebrate. But after the Wall came down, the thrill of progress became the hard work of reunification. Incremental change from a new set point of democracy can appear paltry and sad, as the law of diminishing returns undermines the feeling of progress. So, we become bored and apathetic.

Beware the rabble-rousers

And when things are going well, some moron will organize a witch hunt. And then we’ve got a new crisis of democracy.

The average American voter is mostly indifferent to politics. We’re busy with our own lives. We don’t trust the system or the politicians. We are turned off by polarization. And, as mentioned, we are living in a much better time in terms of human rights.

To get our attention, the politicos crank up the volume, thinking that fear and polarization will get us going. These rabble-rousers use hyperbole and vitriol, while playing on our emotions.

Among the most effective rabble-rousers is former-President Trump. He’s got a knack for seeing witch hunts. And he leads them against those bogeys who supposedly stole the last election. Of course, this provides a great opportunity for the opposing party to use Trump as a foil in order to do a little rabble-rousing of their own.

None of this bodes well for critical thinking or for reasonable political engagement.

Relearn the wisdom of the Constitutional

Plato saw this coming. He warned that the mob would fall prey to the emotional outbursts of a tyrant. He suggested that the cure was a philosopher-king who might save us from ourselves. The American Founders suggested another more democratic solution, which is a written constitution with a separation of powers and regular elections. That stabilizing system was designed to keep the rabble-rousers in check and to prevent the masses from becoming a mob.

The Constitution was not perfect in its conception (it allowed slavery, for example). But it has been improved. And it worked to prevent President Trump from remaining in power, after he lost the previous election. One hopes that it will continue to function. But it will only do so, if “we, the people,” understand it and defend it. The American Constitutional system won’t last forever. Nothing does. But so far, it seems to be doing its job. And it is unlikely that it will fail during this election cycle.

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Andrew Fiala is Professor of Philosophy and director of the Ethics Center at Cal State Fresno. His published work includes Tyranny from Plato to Trump (2022), Seeking Common Ground: An Atheist/Theist...