fbpx What ails American democracy, and what to do about it | Harvard Kennedy School

Harvard Kennedy School faculty share insights into the evident fragility of American democratic norms and institutions following the attack on the United States Capitol by followers of President Trump. These essays examine the nature and scale of the threat and weigh potential avenues for protecting and nurturing democracy. They were written before the U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Trump on Wednesday for the second time.

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Allies fret and foes gloat at the homegrown threats to American democracy

Nicholas Burns.Last week’s assault on the Capitol represents one of the most dangerous threats to American democracy in our history. It also poses a major challenge to our international credibility. 
 
America’s ultimate power in the world rests more on our attachment to democratic ideals than even our vast military, technological, and economic influence. Our commitment to the rule of law, freedom of the press, equal justice, and the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next has been admired across the globe.   
 
The world thus watched in collective shock on January 6 as our once proud democracy fell from grace. That is what we lost when an insurrectionist mob incited by President Trump laid siege to the Capitol to prevent the Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the November elections.   
 
Trump’s anti-constitutional actions—for which he should resign or be impeached—are a gift to Russia and China. Both are now charging that the violence on Capitol Hill reveals America’s commitment to democracy to be hollow. 
 
Our allies are deeply concerned about our future. European leaders worry that the political contagion of a rising antidemocratic populist right could spread to their own countries. As on 9/11, they have also come to our defense. With the American flag behind him last week, French President Macron said he still believed in American democracy.   
 
It is now up to us to believe in our democracy, as well.   
 
America can survive this crisis. Congress reassembled in the hours after the attack to affirm Biden’s victory. Republican leaders such as Mitt Romney spoke courageously in defense of democracy. Biden himself will be a healing, calm, smart, and patriotic leader when he takes the oath of office next week.   
 
The assault on the Capitol is a wake-up call for all of us. We should each be chastened by this crime against our democracy. The threat is still with us. We know now that democracy needs to be defended every day. It is on all of us to help President-elect Biden restore reason and unity at home, reform our imperfect union, and redeem our standing in the world.  

Nicholas Burns, Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations

Fragility, white nationalism, and redemptive healing

Cornell William Brooks.Three themes emerged in the last week that I'd like us to just think about. The first of which and the most obvious of which is the fragility of our democracy. The fact that we were caught by surprise, the fact that for many Americans, this was utterly shocking that this kind of thing could happen, that we could have an insurrection, that we could come this close to a mass casualty event, that our security, that the police, that the Capitol police, that the National Guard, those are charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe, could fail so profoundly and fail so publicly. 

The second thing that I think is incredibly important is this notion that white nationalism is a threat to the black and brown ‘they’, as opposed to an existential threat to the multi-racial multi-ethnic ‘we the people.’ It's clear here that what happened last week is a threat to democracy itself. Not they, not them, but us.

Last point here that I'm still processing as a human being, not as a member of the Kennedy school faculty, but as a human being, as a moral being, is this notion that healing can be harmful or that healing can be redemptive. In other words, this impatient call for the country to heal, to come together, to paper over the differences, to paper over the divisions, to paper over the violence that we were subject to both morally and physically, is offensive. And this is in fact a common response to this challenge. 

[But] healing can be redemptive, which is to say that we can patiently process as we're doing today what we've come through, the ways in which our sensibilities have been violated; the degree to which many of us feel physically vulnerable. For those of us on this call who have been subject to death threats, who have been subject to racist thoughts and hate, this was a moment of vulnerability.

(Excerpt from Kennedy School community online discussion

Cornell William Brooks, Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations; Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice

Curbing the deadly damage caused by misinformation

Joan Donovan.While we are all reeling from the violent siege on the Capitol, we must not lose sight of the harms caused by misinformation-at-scale. When Trump and his high-profile supporters— including Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, Steve Bannon, and Lin Wood—pushed their disinformation campaign of election fraud, their goal was to disenfranchise more than just those who voted for Biden and Harris. It was an attack on the coalitions bringing about a multi-racial democracy, led by Black women across the nation. 
 
Nowhere was this attack more pointed than in Georgia, where Stacey Abrams and the New Georgia Project were physically and legally threatened for getting out the vote. Poll workers, such as Ruby Freeman—a Black woman volunteering to count votes in Georgia—have been in hiding since online mobs have identified them. In Los Angeles, Berlinda Nibo, a Black woman, was assaulted by Trump supporters as the crowd cheered on. The violence had the makings of a lynching.
 
Disinformation has real-world consequences, and it is not simply an abstract threat to the values of democracy. When people are mobilized by disinformation, the whole-of-society feels the brunt. Over the next decade, technology policy will have a twin aim of tempering disinformation, while also creating the conditions for a multiracial, multiethnic democracy that serves aims of justice and peace. 

Joan Donovan, adjunct lecturer in public policy, research director, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy 

The GOP’s record of undermining democracy predates Trump election claims

Thomas Patterson.The competition between political parties that is the lifeblood of democracy suffers when a political party subverts the rules of fair play. Although the effort by Republican leaders at all levels to discredit Joe Biden’s election was a surprise to many, it shouldn’t have been. The GOP long ago abandoned its commitment to fair play. 

When it became clear that mail-in balloting might benefit Biden and other Democratic candidates, Republicans claimed without a shred of evidence that it was riddled with fraud and then obstructed it. Texas’s Republican governor limited each of the state’s counties to a single drop-off location, seeking to suppress the vote in heavily populated Democratic counties. Montana and North Carolina were among the Republican states that sought to limit mail-in voting. The Trump administration cut Postal Service funding in hope that mail-in ballots would arrive too late to be counted. 

The list of Republican shenanigans is lengthy. There was no constitutional barrier to prevent Wisconsin’s outgoing Republican governor Scott Walker, in consort with the state’s Republican-controlled legislature, to strip the governor’s office of power before the incoming Democratic governor could take office in 2019. But it violated the longstanding norm of American politics that the outgoing party accept the transfer of power that comes with losing an election. North Carolina’s Republicans pulled the same stunt when the state’s voters elected a Democratic governor in 2016. 

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was designed to end the voter suppression that had long darkened America’s elections. It worked until Republicans began devising schemes to keep minorities from voting. In the early 2000s, they enacted laws requiring residents to have a government-issued photo ID, such as a driver’s license or passport, in order to register to vote. Minority group members, young adults, and people of low income—all of whom tend to vote Democratic—are less likely than white Americans as a whole to have a passport or driver’s license.

Nearly thirty states have since enacted voter ID laws and all but one did so when controlled by Republican lawmakers who claimed without evidence that the requirement is needed to prevent voter fraud. The true purpose is unmistakable. As a longtime Republican political consultant said: “Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?” Republican lawmakers in Florida and Pennsylvania slipped up and publicly said that the aim was to suppress the Democratic vote.

Perhaps the mob that ransacked the Capital last week will lead the GOP to change colors. It will, of course, force the GOP to distance itself from Donald Trump. But don’t expect more. Republicans oppose strengthening the Voting Rights Act and have signaled their intention to limit mail-in voting. And, if their recent past is a guide, they won’t stop there.

Thomas E. Patterson, Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press and author of Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?

Did the Capitol Hill riots demonstrate US democracy’s weakness or its strength?

Tarek Masoud.For the rest of our lives, we will debate whether the presidency of Donald J. Trump, and its stunning denouement on Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, exposed American democracy’s previously unseen weakness, or revealed its inherent strength. Proponents of the former view will point to the myriad ways in which President Trump and his allies violated norms and sought to maintain their grip on power even when the voters said otherwise. In this telling, luck is all that kept America from going the way of Weimar Germany. If fate had furnished us with a president who pursued his schemes with more competence, or with local officials who were more willing to bend to his entreaties to disenfranchise voters or “find” ballots, we would today be speaking about the United States in the same breath as Erdogan’s Turkey or Orban’s Hungary—as a poster child for that unenviable state known as democratic backsliding. 
 
More sanguine observers argue that luck had little to do with the abortive nature of the president’s offenses against Constitution. Unlike Turkey or Hungary, the United States not only has a long history of democratic government (which has become part of our national identity), but a society that is too complex and decentralized to be governed by command. Trump could do much to coarsen political life—from race-baiting to conspiracy-theorizing to mobilizing mobs—but he could not assert his will over the thousands of independently elected and appointed local and federal officials whose acquiescence he would have had to secure in order to undo two-and-a-half centuries of (admittedly imperfect) American democracy. In this view, America is not pluralistic because it is democratic; it is democratic because it is pluralistic, and there’s very little a single political leader, no matter how unscrupulous, can do to change that.
 
Regardless of which side of this debate you line up on, there is no denying that there is work to be done if we are to avoid a repeat of the drama that has engulfed this country over the last few weeks. And much of this work will be done at the Kennedy School. In our role as the pre-eminent training academy for America’s public servants, we can do much to deepen the attachment to democratic government felt by the next generation of this country’s leaders, so that future Trumps will find no helpmeets in whatever undemocratic designs they may hatch. And as a nonpartisan institution committed to unbiased, scholarly inquiry, we can generate proposals for electoral and other institutional reforms that can form the basis of the bipartisan compromises our country needs if we are to restore faith in government and in each other. Though the debate about how close we came to losing American democracy during the opening days of 2021 will never end, it’s my belief that the Kennedy School of Government will do much in the coming years to ensure that it becomes a purely academic one. 

Tarek Masoud, Professor of Public Policy and Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman Professor of International Relations

How can we build a democracy that we all believe in?

Archon Fung.Profound polarization makes it impossible for conventional politics to produce a democracy we all believe in. Instead, we need to imagine ambitious new ways for all Americans to generate a new birth of democracy. For example, we might put democracy questions directly to voters in referendums. Republican and Democratic voters alike have often supported pro-small “d” democracy reforms in large numbers: such as when Florida voters re-enfranchised former prisoners in 2018; or when voters in Michigan, California, and Utah voted for independent redistricting commissions; or when they approved ranked-choice voting in Maine, Alaska, and New York City. Along a different path, we might convene Citizen Assemblies—composed of ordinary Americans just like juries are—to figure out how to create a democracy that we all believe in. Imagine convening groups of 100 citizens, chosen at random with representative proportions of Republican, Democratic, Independent voters, nonvoters, women, men, youth, PhDs, people who didn’t go to college, and people of different races and ethnicities. Charge one group with making recommendations about election security to make sure that no one can steal an election, another to assure that every American can vote, a third to deal with money and politics, a fourth to tackle gerrymandering, and so on.

Though this idea of putting citizens in charge of democracy would be new to the United States, the experience of Citizen Assemblies from countries such Canada, Ireland, and Iceland shows that they can generate very sensible recommendations that many other citizens like and accept as legitimate. Most of our political leaders will reject the idea that citizens should have a powerful role in improving our democracy, not least because they won their positions according to the current rules of democracy. But if the Stop the Steal riots last week mobilize us to be more ambitious and innovative about our republic, to be curiously searching for better ways from all around the world rather than congratulating ourselves about our exceptional system of government, we can build together a democracy that we all believe in.

(Excerpt from a longer essay)

Archon Fung, Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government

The roots of democratic backsliding go beyond Trump 

Pippa NorrisThe blame for the Capitol chaos most obviously lies primarily with the president. From the day he declared his candidacy, on June 16, 2015, Trump has signaled that he was willing to trample over the norms of liberal democracy. In March 2016, well before he became the Republican presidential nominee, I identified him as a leader who used populist rhetoric as a smokescreen to camouflage authoritarian values. Populism is a style of discourse that claims that legitimate power rests with “the people,” not the elites, and therefore rejects rival sources of authority. In this view, disobedient journalists, scientific experts, officials, and judges are the enemy. It should not have been surprising, then, that Trump has promulgated a disturbing set of authoritarian values. Like many other populist leaders—including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, India’s Narendra Modi, and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte—he has an Us-versus-Them mentality. As they see it, when defending “Us” against the existential threat of “Them,” nearly everything is justified. “We love you, you’re very special” he said in his video response to the mob running amok in the halls of Congress.  

But the rot goes deeper than one man. In the last eight elections, from 1992 to 2020, the Republican Party won a majority of the popular vote only once (in 2004), and as its national electoral prospects declined, it has drifted further toward illiberalism. Two recent independent cross-national studies, by the V-Party project and the Global Party Survey, show just how extreme the GOP has become in its position toward the principles of liberal democracy, where it is now estimated to be closer to authoritarian populist parties such as Spain’s Vox, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, and the Alterative for Germany than it is to mainstream conservative, Christian Democratic, and center-right parties. By contrast, the studies found that the Democratic Party’s position is similar to that of many moderate parties within the mainstream center-left. 

Finally, the problem also lies in the Republican base. The foundations of American civic culture—attitudes of trust in government, confidence in the political system, and support for democracy—have weakened over the decades. The World Values Survey asks whether people approve of various types of political systems, and in 1995, 25 percent of Americans said it was a good idea to have “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections.” That already alarming share rose steadily, and by 2017, 38 percent of Americans embraced this belief. Trump was thus throwing a lit match into a puddle of gasoline when he chose to claim that Biden had stolen the election.

(Excerpt from commentary in Foreign Affairs, “It Happened in America”)

Pippa Norris, the Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics

Header image: Police clear the U.S. Capitol Building with tear gas as supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather outside, in Washington, U.S. January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

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