Raise your hand if you are exhausted from the incessant political turmoil that continues to unfold in the United States. While almost everyone is hoping for a quieter 2021, experience tells us the road to a better democracy will not be quick or automatic. In addition to holding our political leaders accountable for this morass, we (the people) must also abandon the notion that only politicians can fix the ills of this country.
As a professor of government, and someone who spent 11 years working for the U.S. Department of State, this last sentence may seem odd considering my career choices. Yet after working to try and build democracy in countries such as Kosovo and Macedonia, and after dedicating myself to understanding various systems of governance, I am convinced a democracy can only be as strong as those it serves.
Following the criminal and unpatriotic acts that occurred at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 (by this I am referring to the riot), I heard many of our elected officials comment that “this is not America.” Although I understand their response, to some degree this is what we have become. We are a polarized polity, and the events and rhetoric during the Trump administration exacerbated this divide.
Consequently, to hope that the same political elites that led us down this road are going to be the same leaders to bring us out of this quagmire is questionable. While President Trump’s incitement to violence is more blatant and egregious than what we have seen in the past, both Republicans and Democrats share in the degradation of politics, which has transpired into a zero-sum game, i.e., my win means your complete, total defeat.
Recently, I visited several young democracies in Southeastern Europe as part of an ongoing research project. Despite our best efforts in the State Department and local civil societies’ tireless attempts to improve their systems of governance, I discovered that many politicians in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are unwilling to abandon the politicization of ethnicity as a platform because it is politically advantageous. Voters, while they express apathy and mistrust of politicians in general, return nationalist leaders to office because they have been taught to fear and hate the other side.
Subsequently, little gets done. Sound familiar?
Although we have a longer history of democracy, politicians in the United States also win elections by creating an “us vs. them” mentality. While I teach my students that politics is fundamentally a “competition over who gets what, when, and how,” the manner under which this competition unfolds is important. Presently, this process is neither balanced nor civil. In this regard, we must demand more from those in elected office.
In two years, we return to the ballot box, and it will be our responsibility to hold accountable those that govern by division and fear.
Clearly, I believe that what our leaders do and say matters. But my experience tells me that we, the people, are also responsible and must change.
Robert Putnam, in his book, “Making Democracy Work,” identifies the importance of a civic community for well-functioning democratic institutions. This civic community entails not only citizen participation in politics, but it also recognizes the value of inter-personal relationships through non-political forums (churches, recreational associations, etc.). Through these non-political engagements, people develop trust in others, tolerance for other viewpoints, and a degree of political moderation.
Unfortunately, a civic community with a common understanding of what it means to be an American is generally absent in the United States. Likewise, we do not need, nor should we strive for homogeneity of thought and action in order to restore our democratic vitality. As someone responsible for helping others learn about politics and democracy, I am challenged to reevaluate my teaching during moments of crises.
One thing I plan to share with my students this semester is the need for all of us to not only demand more from our leaders but to demand more of ourselves.
(Craig Lang is a visiting scholar of government at Franklin & Marshall College of Lancaster.)