Reimagine Democracy.

AuthorTaylor, Astra

After the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago, liberal democracy reigned triumphant. Understood as one person, one vote, exercised in periodic elections, constitutional rights, and a market economy, democracy spread around the world.

Today, the liberal democratic compact appears to be breaking down--democracy, we often hear, is in crisis. Recent research reveals that democracy, defined by the preceding attributes, has weakened worldwide over the last decade or so. According to one well-respected annual report, "seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties" in 2017, leading to an overall decrease in global freedom. "Democracy continues its disturbing retreat," The Economist warned in early 2018 -- not long after the magazine's yearly Democracy Index officially downgraded the United States from a "full democracy" to a "flawed" one.

Democracy, however, doesn't retreat either of its own accord or by some organic or immutable process. It is undermined, attacked, or allowed to wither. It falls into disrepair and disrepute, thanks to the action or inaction of human beings who have lost touch with or, in some cases, sabotaged the tenets, responsibilities, and possibilities that a system of self-government entails.

In order to determine what a progressive agenda to repair and revitalize democracy should be, we need to understand what has gone awry. Unfortunately, conventional narratives too often get things wrong. Consider, for example, the common refrain that "populism" is to blame for our current predicament. We live in a "populist moment," pundits including Yascha Mounk tell us, and Brexit, the rise of ethno-nationalist parties in Europe, India, and Brazil, and the election of Donald Trump all lend credence to this view.

Under this view, the crisis of democracy is caused, in effect, by an excess of democracy. Such was the premise of a piece published in New York magazine in 2016 by Andrew Sullivan, who argued that "hyperdemocratic" society was eroding vital "barriers between the popular will and the exercise of power." Regular people, we are told, can't be trusted to appreciate and protect democratic principles and procedures.

Progressives need to push back against this explanatory framework. In contrast to what Alexis de Tocqueville long ago dubbed the "tyranny of the majority," the threat today comes from a tyrannical minority. Hard-won democratic reforms are being eroded by an entided, affluent elite, who are doing their utmost to stymie progressive reforms and suppress broadly shared democratic sentiments.

In 2016, the majority of American voters preferred a Democratic President, but they were blocked by the outdated Electoral College. Today, six in ten U.S. adults believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, but the U.S. Supreme Court may soon decide otherwise and overturn Roe vs. Wade. Research by Data for Progress and others shows that liberal positions on everything from labor unions to gun control to public health care to the climate catastrophe and the Green New Deal are held by the majority of Americans--with positions generally pushing further left the younger the demographic polled.

And yet, time and again...

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