Secular and sacred history teaches us that freedom and liberty are always at risk. When we stop standing together to strengthen and protect our democracy, it begins to weaken. The institutions and safeguards that protect our freedoms begin to bend and crack. The principles and ideals that unite us dissolve and disappear. We’re witnessing this now.
Since the end of the Cold War, we have experienced a steady decline of civic unity and a corresponding weakening of our democratic institutions. Economic and demographic changes, together with advances in communication technology including social media, have put incredible pressure on our social contracts and democratic processes. Our elected officials, who ought to serve as a source of stability and leadership, have not responded well to these challenges. They have become more inwardly focused, leading to increased partisanship and polarization in political life. This extreme partisanship has strained our democratic institutions to the point that in early 2017, the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy.”
Unfortunately, over the past year, the situation has become even worse. A new bipartisan report called “The Republic at Risk” describes how our democratic institutions have been further weakened in six distinct ways under the current administration and Congress:
- The increasing politicization of our independent institutions has weakened the rule of law and undermined trust in public officials.
- The spreading of disinformation and a consistent attack on truth by those in power have weakened a shared acceptance of facts that allow people to hold the government accountable.
- The continued amassing of executive power in response to gridlock in Congress has strained the balance provided by separation of powers.
- The quashing of dissent by the president has created a culture of fear at the very top of our government that makes it increasingly difficult for people who disagree to speak up.
- The delegitimizing of entire communities by the president and others in power has narrowed the definition of what it means to be a free American.
- The corrupting of elections by the president’s constant undermining of electoral legitimacy and ignoring of foreign interference has made it more difficult for Americans to exercise their most basic political freedoms.
One of the main reasons that our democracy is at risk is because too many people, including our leaders, have prioritized particular policies above more important fundamental democratic principles like negotiation and compromise. While the specific policies people support are generally rooted in a desire to do good, as one religious leader remarked, "Any virtue when taken to an extreme can become a vice. There comes a point where milestones can become millstones and ambitions, albatrosses around our necks."
We are drowning in a sea of party politics as the shoreline of stable democracy slowly slips from our sight.
We the people need to address the erosive elements that have entered into our democracy and swim for shore. At the end of this month, individuals from around the country and from all political ideologies will be gathering in Washington, D.C., at a national summit for democracy. Here, people will discuss important questions like “How can we protect the independence and objectivity of government institutions?” and “What is required to foster integrity and competition in our current political system?” The recommendations that come out of this gathering will help Americans everywhere stand up for democracy in specific and actionable ways.
While it’s true that our democracy is currently at risk, it’s also true that there is hope so long as we prioritize the strength of our democracy above our political platforms. Regardless of our political differences, we can stand up together and be united in the basic cause of democracy. If we want a strong economy, we must stand up for democracy first. If we want religious liberty, we must stand up for democracy first. If we want to make America great again, we must stand up for democracy first.
It’s time to put our freedom, our democracy and our country ahead of our party and policy preferences. Our political priorities will mean very little if they come at the cost of our fundamental freedoms. Protecting and promoting our democracy is something that can, and should, unite us all.