A Democracy Agenda for the Rest of Us
There’s lots of chatter these days about protecting democracy—a worthy goal for a country increasingly on edge and facing external and internal attacks. Democracies don’t just run themselves. They require elected officials, the military, civil servants, courts, businesses, and regular citizens to do their part to make democratic institutions effective and uphold the rule of law.
The “democracy agenda” however is a bit esoteric and out of reach for regular people. Realistically, the average American can’t do much to switch Senate rules or stop rogue leaders from spewing lies or reform the Electoral Count Act or get dark money out of politics or stop tech companies from exploiting people’s worst instincts online. People in positions of authority and power need to pass laws and create rules within constitutional parameters to fix these issues if they are seen as national priorities. Voters can choose officials committed to these or other ideas—and oppose those who support the status quo—but they can’t fix the system directly.
Likewise, voters should recognize that democracy won’t be saved by one party smashing the other to implement its agenda and force change. Compromise and mutual interest are essential elements in brokering democratic stability and building lasting support for policies rather than the constant whiplash of partisan demands we have today.
So, what can average Americans do to uphold democracy?
Citizens can obviously participate in politics by staying informed about important issues, voting, volunteering at the polls, and working locally to improve neighborhoods and schools. These are vital participatory actions for maintaining the engine of democracy. At the same time, democratic governance must also work for those who don’t have the time, interest, or resources to participate extensively in the machinations of politics. Majoritarian decision making is a key principle of democracy but so is the protection of minority rights and consideration of those not always in the majority or active in politics.
As our leaders parse the big debates on democratic reform, average Americans can try to uphold three core principles in their own lives to help American democracy function better and reduce internal tensions that are threatening beliefs in democracy itself.
Treat all people as political equals. Nothing is more corrosive to peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding in a democracy than tribal “us vs. them” political calculations. Yes, political parties have been fighting one another for votes and power for centuries. Yet undergirding all the churn of politics is a fundamental belief that we are all equal before the law and that everyone deserves basic dignity in life.
It’s taken a long time to get to this point. When the law itself didn’t uphold these principles for all people, social movements and regular citizens worked together to change the laws to better reflect the basic concepts outlined at the start of the American project: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This one line from the Declaration of Independence is the essence of American democracy and the country is well served by citizens upholding these values in their daily lives. People with different beliefs or lifestyles aren’t outcasts. Political parties aren’t mortal enemies. We’re all equal under the law and no one is better than anyone else in a democracy.
Stand against all political violence. Democracies throughout history often arise from violent revolutions against oppressive rulers designed to create representative governments and legal systems that protect individual rights and civil liberties. But after democracies are established, political violence must be always off the table.
Non-violent protest is a cornerstone of democratic change by raising often overlooked concerns and pressing governments to do something about them. In contrast, domestic violence in the name of any ideological goal erodes the rule of law and replaces political equality with raw intimidation and power.
Citizens in democracies must resolve their differences peacefully without resorting to violence—or the threat of violence—to get their way. Authoritarian states and political parties use violence and repression to create order and force their perspectives on others. Democratic states and political parties do not.
Commit to political balance in daily life. Citizens in democracies naturally have passionate and sometimes fierce debates about what to do and how to do it. But democratic principles of equality and non-violent resolution of differences require people to temper their instincts. And there’s no better way to do this than to adhere to a diet of political balance in life.
A simple rule of thumb is the “twice as much” approach to democracy: Listen to others twice as much as you talk. Take in twice as many factual reports about the economy, society, and foreign affairs as you do opinion pieces. Consider twice as many arguments from people with different political views as you do from people on your own side. Pursue twice as many non-political activities in life as you do political ones.
Standing up for one’s beliefs is critical in a democracy. But a willingness to adapt one’s views based on new information—and to learn something from others with different views—also encourages better democratic discourse.
Protecting democracy is an important project—one that shouldn’t be left to the elites and elected officials alone. American citizens can take up the fight for democracy by treating people equally, rejecting political violence, and improving the balance of non-political and political intakes in their own lives.