For 15 consecutive years, Freedom House's annual tally has recorded a decline in the number of democracies worldwide. It's a steady loss of ground that Larry Diamond, a political scientist at Stanford University, calls a "democratic recession." And no event put the reality of democratic backsliding more dramatically on display than the storming of the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021—when the world's oldest liberal democracy endured the first violent presidential transition in its 245-year history. As we mark that event's dubious anniversary, we're reminded how fragile democracy really is.
Democracy is on the defensive, and the reasons are as deep as they are familiar. Growing inequality has fed a global mood that democratic institutions aren't serving their citizens. The internet and social media have hypercharged political polarization and cultural divides, which populists easily exploit. Mass immigration and rapid demographic shifts have empowered extremists. Around the world, authoritarian regimes have seized the West's weakness as an opportunity to expand their influence. Autocrats are winning admirers in the West, too: In an ever more complex world facing generational threats—from pandemics to climate change—the speed and totality with which autocracies can implement decisions has some wondering if messy, deliberative, compromise-seeking democracy can still do the job. In a June 2021 poll, a slight majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 had a favorable view of socialism, suggesting that younger generations in Western democracies are increasingly open to alternative systems of governance.
All this is a call for action. Foreign Policy brought together 10 prominent thinkers to share their most important fixes to reform the workings of democracy, defend it against its enemies at home and abroad, and ensure it survives and thrives by better serving the people it governs.
Several themes emerge. The most urgent fixes obviously begin at home, starting with ways to lessen the inequities of 21st-century capitalism. Technology is an urgent field for policy action, as the toxic discourse abetted by social media and the dangers of hacking, spyware, surveillance, and disinformation demonstrate. Following a year that saw a nationalist insurrection in the United States and the continued strength of anti-immigrant populists in Europe, several of our contributors focus on how racial and other social divisions might be addressed. And in light of the growing conflict between democratic and autocratic powers, it's no surprise that better defenses against external threats—from weaponized corruption to election interference—rank high among the writers' concerns as well. We asked the participants to be as prescriptive and radical as possible. Their responses show that the task is huge and the fixes are tentative at best.
Perhaps the one thing missing from the debate is a call to stop acting as if democracy were doomed. It might help to recall that the history of democracy fatigue is as old as democracy itself: In 1787, Benjamin Franklin predicted that the American republic would soon end in despotism, "when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other." History went on to tell another story. Despite its well-documented flaws and constant need for reinvention, liberal democracy has brought civil rights, political participation, social mobility, and economic opportunity to once-disenfranchised masses and minorities. Around the world, poor and autocratic countries might gladly take Moscow's mercenaries and Beijing's money, but it's still Western-style democracy to which their citizens aspire. As Anders Fogh Rasmussen writes in this issue, "People rarely take to the streets demanding more autocracy." A little more confidence could go a long way as democracy writes its next chapter.—Stefan Theil, deputy editor
Abolish Two-Party Systems
By Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America
One cannot make sense of the current crisis of liberal democracy without understanding the seismic economic and demographic shifts that have transformed Western democracies. Today, economic opportunity is heavily concentrated in major cities. A new urban elite—much more multicultural, diverse, and cosmopolitan—is redefining cultural norms and rearranging traditional hierarchies of race and gender.
Left behind are those who stayed in the rural and post-industrial hinterlands, where globalization has not been kind. Here, far-right populists recasting themselves as defenders of national greatness and a bygone order have flourished, especially among white men. The leaders of such movements are cold to the traditional values of liberal democracy, with its emphasis on diversity and tolerance and its embrace of a market capitalism that has hit these regions hardest.
In the United States and Britain, Trumpism and Brexit are both clear manifestations and fierce accelerators of a dangerous us-versus-them divide that is hitting right at the heart of liberal democracy.
Other countries have been spared such shocks. Nationalist or far-right parties such as Alternative for Germany, the Sweden Democrats, the Dutch Party for Freedom, and the Danish People's Party have galvanized voters in their countries' left-behind regions. But so far, they've been kept out of government, rejected by at least three-quarters of voters.
The difference? The United States and Britain have first-past-the-post elections, which organize conflict around just two parties and force voters into two competing camps. Though the Brexit referendum didn't perfectly map onto the Labour-Conservative divide at the time, it accelerated a divisive polarization that now defines British partisan politics.
In an earlier period, when national politics in most Western countries was dominated by a large moderate center, two-party and multiparty systems proved equally adept in holding together a rough national consensus. But today, with urban-rural cultural conflicts driving political competition, majoritarian democracies are amplifying and escalating the zero-sum fights between progressive urban elites and a resentment-driven rural populist right, with no release valve or opportunity for a new center to emerge.
Voting reform can help. The proportional democracies of northern Europe, after all, are more effectively riding out the storms of authoritarian populism. There, center-right voters have been able to support center-right parties without supporting illiberalism, and more flexible multiparty systems have facilitated new coalitions to keep illiberal forces out of power.
The idea of introducing proportional representation in the United States and Britain is hardly new. What's new is the context. Cultural, educational, and geographic divides are likely to shape politics for decades to come. A two-party system that by definition splits a country in half will reinforce and deepen identity polarization, pushing national politics even further into trench warfare. Proportional systems are far from perfect. But they allow for new and shifting coalitions that can help liberal democracies navigate these difficult circumstances. Most importantly, they avoid the binary winner-take-all conflict that so easily lets politics slip into an irresolvable zero-sum contest of us against them—a toxic polarization that even long-established democracies such as the United States and Britain may not survive.
Destroy Surveillance Capitalism
By Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
Surveillance capitalism is the dominant economic institution of our time, and it is on a collision course with democracy. Surveillance capitalism's giants—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple—now own, operate, and intermediate nearly every aspect of human engagement with global information and communication systems, unconstrained by public law. All roads to economic, social, and even political participation now lead through a handful of unaccountable companies, a condition that has intensified during two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The result is a trail of social wreckage: the wholesale destruction of privacy, vast corporate concentrations of information about people and society, poisoned discourse, fractured societies, remote systems of behavior manipulation, and weakened democratic institutions. While the Chinese designed and deployed digital technologies to advance their own system of authoritarian rule, the West failed to construct a coherent vision of a digital century that advances democratic principles and government.
Rights and laws once codified to protect citizens from industrial capitalism—such as antitrust law and workers' rights—do not shield us from these harms. If the ideal of the people's self-governance is to survive this century, then a democratic counterrevolution is the only solution.
US and European lawmakers have finally begun to think seriously about regulating privacy and content, but they have yet to reckon with the far more basic question of how to structure and govern information and communication for a democratic digital future.
Three principles offer a starting point. First, the democratic rule of law governs. There is no so-called cyberspace immune to rights and laws, which must apply to every domain of society, whether populated by people or machines. Publishers, for example, are held accountable for the information they publish. Surveillance capitalists have no such accountability, even though their profit-maximizing algorithms enable and exploit disinformation.
Second, unprecedented harms demand unprecedented solutions. Existing antitrust laws can be used to break up the tech giants, but that won't address the underlying economics. The target must be the secret extraction of human data once considered private. Democracies must outlaw this extraction, end the corporate concentration of personal information, eliminate targeting algorithms, and abolish corporate control of information flows.
Third, new conditions require new rights. Our era demands the codification of epistemic rights—the right to know and decide who knows what about our lives. These elemental rights are not codified in law because they have never before come under systemic threat. They must be codified if they are to exist at all.
We can be a surveillance society, or we can be a democracy—but we cannot be both. Democracy is a fragile political condition dedicated to the prospect of self-governance, sheltered by the principle of justice, and maintained by collective effort. Each generation's mission is always the same: to protect and keep democracy moving forward in a relay race against anti-democratic forces that spans centuries. The liberal democracies have the power and legitimacy to lead against surveillance capitalism—and to do so on behalf of all peoples struggling against a dystopian future.
Break Down the Barriers
By Eduardo Porter, economics reporter at the New York Times
The most insidious threat to Western liberal democracies doesn't come from China or Russia but from within: from the dread their white majorities feel as demographic change puts their grip on power at risk. The urge of white, Christian native populations to circle the wagons against Black and other racial minorities and increasingly non-Christian immigrants has fueled illiberal politics from the United States to Europe, opening the door to autocratic politicians who promise to protect the volk.
This presents a particularly complicated challenge for the liberal order because demographic change will not be stopped. In the United States, the non-Hispanic white population will slip into minority status in a couple of decades—regardless of future immigration trends. Immigration to Western Europe is increasing despite all efforts to keep outsiders at bay. Saving liberal democracy, given this inexorable demographic reconfiguration, requires that we build a sense of shared citizenship that can survive the reallocation of power.
This is highly improbable. In the United States, the most ethnically diverse of the Western democracies, the debate over the nation's racial divisions has no center. The left demands redress from white people for the centuries of oppression that various groups have faced. The right doesn't believe those groups have a legitimate claim. Communities of color in European countries may benefit from their more robust social safety nets. But immigrants' claim on public goods is resented, and their claim to broader citizenship and belonging are flatly denied.
It is easier to identify pitfalls than to propose an effective way out. The anti-racism proposed by some activists on the US left is divisive by design—cleaving the nation into antagonistic racist and anti-racist camps. The demand for reparations to be paid to the descendants of enslaved people, moral though it may be, is equally contentious. Clearly, building a more cohesive nation requires reducing the United States' gargantuan inequalities of income and wealth. But imagine how a $10 trillion reparations bill would shape the politics of the 63 million non-Hispanic white people who voted for then-US President Donald Trump in 2020, many of whom perceive themselves under threat by their country's racial transformation.
Those 63 million American voters—like the millions of voters for Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France, the Dutch Party for Freedom, or the Sweden Democrats—must be part of the conversation. Liberal democracy cannot be saved without finding better ways to include the angry citizens threatening to bring it down.
How do we do that? Policies to counter residential segregation, including incentives to build affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods, would help. So would efforts to integrate schools that have become increasingly segregated by race and class. A program of national service requiring every 18-year-old to work on community projects and build public goods could mix young people from all backgrounds and help start urgently needed conversations across identity frontiers. The broader objective is to build an inclusive citizenship. Living next to each other, going to school together, and sharing the granular challenges of life are just a few ways to start to humanize each other.
Build an Alliance of Democracies
By Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary-general and CEO of Rasmussen Global
In the free world, national debates are blinding us to the great challenge faced by democracies everywhere: Liberal democracy is in decline around the world, and autocrats are feeling increasingly emboldened.
That need not be the case. The world's democracies represent more than 70 percent of global GDP. If that power is leveraged, that's a language Beijing and Moscow will understand. But above all, we know that the force of human freedom is the most powerful force in the world. People rarely take to the streets demanding more autocracy.
US President Joe Biden's Summit for Democracy should not remain a one-off event. Instead, it should kick-start a broader campaign for democratic renewal and optimism. The aim is to unite the free world in the broader cause of preventing democratic backsliding at home and combating the divide-and-rule tactics by autocracies abroad. For this, our current set of global institutions are insufficient. Take the United Nations: While it does much good, the interests of democracies are routinely blocked by autocracies and their friends in the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, and other U.N. bodies. Even in a bloc of democratic nations such as the European Union, collective decisions are often vetoed by member states in thrall to China and Russia or sliding toward authoritarianism themselves.
What the free world needs if democracy is to thrive at home and abroad is a coalition of the willing—a formal alliance among like-minded nations. Such an alliance could be an extension of the G-7, the group of leading industrialized democracies that was informally expanded in 2021 to include Australia, India, South Africa, and South Korea.
Such an alliance will only work if it focuses its attention not just on summits and declarations but also on concrete outputs. In particular, two key challenges are urgent and existential for all democracies: economic coercion and emerging technologies.
China, especially, has been using strategic investments and economic coercion as weapons to silence or undermine democratic states. Massive sanctions have been applied for the mere act of speaking out against Beijing, such as those against Australia after Canberra called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. An alliance of democracies could develop an economic version of the mutual assistance clause, Article 5, in NATO's founding treaty: When one country came under economic attack from an autocracy, the democratic world could rally with retaliatory steps to deter the aggressor, credit lines to cushion the impact, and a quick rebuilding of new democratic supply chains.
We also face a global race not only to develop new technology but also to define the norms and standards under which these new technologies operate—including, for example, whether citizens' rights are protected in the emerging digital world. Among democracies, attempts to regulate technologies remain fragmented as each country follows its own approach. If that fragmentation continues, China could win the technology race and forge the terms in the image of a surveillance dictatorship. An alliance of democracies should unite to build common solutions, agree on principles for data flows and protection, find a common vision for the development of artificial intelligence and other life-changing technologies, and construct standards that give democratic states an edge over the autocrats.
Beyond these immediate challenges, an alliance of democracies needs to show emerging or backsliding democracies that being in the democratic camp has real benefits, from trade access to economic development support. Democracy will not be on the front foot again until the world's leading democracies show that being in their club is far more advantageous than what the autocracies have on offer.
To Secure Democracy, Face Up to the Past
By Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America and author of Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics
A crucial yet often overlooked characteristic of healthy liberal democracies is the ability of a government to accept criticism. Can it accept critiques not only of its own performance but also of the country's past misdeeds? Dictators typically erase the past and create new narratives and monuments aimed at their own glorification. But democracies, too, have ignored dark chapters of their history, inviting polarization and radicalization as social evils fester and old wounds don't heal. The strongest democracies can stare their pasts in the face and accept their horrors and triumphs alike.
Berlin has a powerful and sobering memorial to the Holocaust. Washington has museums on the National Mall dedicated to Native Americans and to African Americans, both of which tell the tale of some of the very worst parts of US history. Cambodia has the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, documenting Pol Pot's killing fields. Australia and Canada are both coming to grips with their despoliation and killing of Indigenous populations with various forms of acknowledgment and commemoration.
At US President Joe Biden's Summit for Democracy in December, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda reminded us that democracy is based on competition, which often leads to conflict. Democratic resilience, however, depends on the ability of democratic institutions to resolve that conflict. Effective conflict resolution, in turn, depends in part on being able to acknowledge the ways in which democracy is failing specific groups, often ethnic, racial, and other minorities. Moreover, civil society organizations and the media—indispensable elements of strong democracies—must be able to speak truth to power. If governments will not listen, then citizens can and will mobilize accordingly.
No country has a clean past. But governments differ radically in how willing they are to allow their country's history to be told from the perspective of all the people they govern. Let that acceptance, which in turn requires more conventional liberal democratic attributes such as freedom of speech and the press, be one of the measures of democratic strength. Indeed, evidence of a willingness to face up to the past could be one of the criteria for participation in the next Summit for Democracy.
Call Out the Traitors
By Josh Rudolph, fellow for malign finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy
In 2013 and 2014, respectively, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin began to authorize campaigns of strategic corruption that have taken the threat to democracies to a whole new level. Russian oligarchs close to Putin now regularly deploy their corruptly acquired wealth to influence Western elections, coerce public officials, and undermine democratic processes. Xi launched the Belt and Road Initiative, which uses opaque investments and outright bribery in what has traditionally been the most corrupt sector of industry—large-scale infrastructure projects—to spread Beijing's model of authoritarian governance and poison struggling democracies.
Confronting this challenge would require Western governments to dig deep into their own sectors that move and hide this dirty money, from legal services to real estate. They must not only rewrite entire sets of laws but also enforce a radical transparency in politics and business that is bound to be deeply uncomfortable to those in the West who profit from corrupt cash or turn a blind eye. Washington has recently taken some long-overdue steps in the right direction, such as outlawing anonymous shell companies, and is starting to look at regulating realtors and other professional enablers. Announcing new agendas and legislative tinkering at the edges isn't enough—the rules must be radically expanded and strongly enforced. Not just the United States but every major democracy must take this course.
A key obstacle to action is that illicit money flows have become entrenched in many democracies. In Britain, the role of foreign oligarchs as major political donors and lucrative clients of financial and other services has made significant anti-corruption reform all but impossible. Under Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party appears to have become an intake valve for dirty money from Russia and elsewhere; coincidentally or not, the British government has also put the brakes on legislation and enforcement aimed at foreign corruption.
Remedies have been proposed countless times, yet little has happened. Now that corruption has become a top national security threat, rather than a fringe agenda pushed by do-good reformers, it is time to call out the foot-dragging as itself corrupt or potentially treasonous. That may sound harsh, but if Western governments aren't willing to cut off corrupt money flows, from which too many in their countries profit, their democracies will continue to wither and may ultimately die.
Cease-Fire in the Culture Wars
By Yascha Mounk, founder and editor in chief of Persuasion
To thrive, liberal democracies need to adopt policies that offer economic prosperity to more of their citizens. They need to embrace a more ambitious vision of diversity by promising all citizens—majority and minority—social respect and a place at the table. They need to fix their institutions, reinvigorate attachment to their founding ideals, and stand up to autocratic bullies.
It is a vast undertaking. Most countries do not seem close to taking on the challenge. The temptation to despair is strong. And so, as a first step, I'd like to propose something more modest: a cease-fire.
One of the reasons why authoritarian populists have a real shot at winning democratic elections is that many voters feel they are on the receiving end of a culture war in which the most powerful elements of their own societies look down on them. They intuit, not entirely without reason, that many politicians, journalists, corporate leaders, and university professors have instinctive disdain for what then-US presidential candidate Donald Trump called "the poorly educated." And they can see that some establishment institutions—universities and schools, the media, corporations—have, in recent years, embarked on an ambitious project of social transformation to eradicate what they consider the backward elements of their countries' culture.
But in a democracy where every adult has a vote, this is a victory that cannot be won top down. And so the elite—the kind of people who read and write for Foreign Policy—should propose an armistice. If we try to like our own compatriots again, if we trust that most people are mainly motivated by reasonable concerns, and if our political and cultural institutions no longer treat them like barbarians at the gates, then we might have a chance to return to some kind of social peace. And that might just help us resist authoritarian populists in the best possible way: by beating them at the ballot box.
Stop the Corporate Enablers of Tyranny
By Marietje Schaake, international policy director at Stanford University's Cyber Policy Center
Democratic countries will continue to be undermined as long as they don't clamp down on the commercial market for intelligence-grade software and other technologies. Spy and hacking systems threaten the free press, freedom of expression, and the right to privacy. They help criminal networks, malignant state actors, and power-seeking oligarchs intimidate public officials, candidates for office, journalists, NGOs, think tanks, universities, and companies. Anyone with money can easily purchase top-notch intelligence capacities on a toxic yet unregulated market. Few other services so directly undermine democratic governments, but their credibility is at stake as well: After all, what is the value of beautiful declarations at democracy summits when companies in democratic countries are key enablers of tyranny?
Right now, many of the victims of these technologies live under repressive regimes far away from the places where the systems were built: Israel, the United States, and Europe. From the hearts of democratic states, the tools for repression are shipped the world over.
But who is to say these technologies won't soon be wielded against democratic societies on the same scale as in autocratic countries? Already, the powerful Pegasus spyware sold by Israel's NSO Group has been found on the mobile phones of US State Department employees and other Western targets. Waiting for a full-scale attack—perhaps using similarly aggressive systems produced by China, Russia, Turkey, or the United Arab Emirates—means it will be too late to develop rules to curb technologies whose sole purpose is to violate human rights, even if they are marketed as counterterrorism solutions.
Accountability about the technologies that undermine democracy everywhere is urgent. Hacking and spyware systems may be the most flagrant in their harmful impact, but they are certainly not the only ones. Mass surveillance through facial recognition, voice and emotion recognition, and ever more systematic tracking of physical and virtual activity is another frontier in the battle between freedom and repression where some of the most prominent Western corporations play key roles as enablers of tyranny. Democracies must act now to bring democracy-undermining technologies in check if they have any interest in the survival of democratic principles in the digital age.
Digital and Disinformation Defense
By Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia
Democratic countries haven't even begun to get serious about attacks on their information infrastructure by authoritarian governments: hacking, doxxing, and disinformation. The same two Russian hacking groups have infiltrated the US Congress, the US State and Defense departments, the Democratic National Committee, the German Bundestag and party think tanks, the Danish and Italian foreign ministries, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and many other targets.
In addition, Russia has launched disinformation campaigns to influence elections and referendums—in favor of Brexit; against US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, French President Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor candidate and now Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and the Dutch vote on the European Union's association agreement with Ukraine, to take just a few prominent examples. Russian state media organizations and state-linked accounts have inundated social media in Western countries with homophobic, antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-vaccination, pro-separatist, anti-NATO, anti-fracking, and many other kinds of disinformation. The jury is still out on whether Russian efforts helped tip the scales in the 2016 US presidential election. What's certain is that a foreign power played a significant role in the election, something a democracy cannot allow.
The problem is that we have not addressed this as a broader threat to democracies, ignoring that the sources of the hacking, doxxing, and disinformation are limited to a small group of autocratic states, primarily Russia, China, and Iran.
In addressing this well-known and by no means new threat, most democracies face two problems: First, a frozen, siloed bureaucracy that lacks interdisciplinary and interagency collaboration and cooperation. Here lies the first urgent need for change. Adversaries use multiple digital attack vectors and easily combine them. Every democracy must recognize this and establish silo-crossing agencies that can address the whole problem and coordinate a rapid response.
Second, what efforts exist remain strictly national, with only halfhearted information-sharing across borders. Clearly, when hacking attacks and disinformation campaigns all trace back to the same few sources, democracies need to cooperate instead of standing alone.
Strategies to cope with cross-border threats require serious cross-border cooperation among democracies. When a hacking attempt or a disinformation campaign is identified, other democracies need to be informed and a common information pool—preferably a common response—forged. Today's primary multilateral democratic institutions, NATO and the EU, are hampered by a restricted mandate and lack coherent policies. As a result, they only do the bare minimum.
What's more, a multilateral digital defense must be genuinely values-based. Unlike NATO and the EU, it should come with a strict mechanism whereby countries backsliding from democracy lose their digital security umbrella.
This is the only way we can counter attempts to undermine what we hold so dear.
The Oldest Question in Politics
By Fareed Zakaria, host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS and columnist for the Washington Post
Almost 25 years ago, I began to notice a disturbing trend in fledgling democracies. Countries in the former Soviet empire and elsewhere were holding elections, leaders were gaining power with considerable popular support—but these leaders were then acting in ways that undermined liberal democracy. They would intimidate the opposition and free press, bypass institutions and laws, and rule by executive fiat or decree. Sometimes these moves went unnoticed; often they were popular.
To describe this combination—a regime with popular support and participation that was eroding the constitutional and legal structures of good government—I coined the term "illiberal democracy." It captured the current dilemma but also the historical reality that there have been two processes of political modernization. One process involves popular participation in politics through elections—democracy. But there has been another, deeper, and longer tradition of liberalism, which began with the Magna Carta in 1215 and aims at restraining the arbitrary power of the state to create space for individual liberty and autonomy. Britain was the most liberal state in Europe in the mid-19th century, when less than 10 percent of its population was allowed to vote. The two traditions merged quite recently in the Western world, creating liberal democracy. But the two had been historically distinct for many years.
At the time, illiberal democracies had taken hold in Russia, the Philippines, and Pakistan. I worried about the danger spreading to the West but in a much more low-key fashion. In my book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, I devoted several chapters to the United States, describing populist tendencies that were reshaping US politics, culture, and society—such as the decline of political parties and the rise of political entrepreneurs unconstrained by party tradition and history. But I have to confess that I regarded these as slow and shallow trends eroding the strength and vitality of the country, not threatening its fundamental character. Today, however, it's clear that the United States faces a serious threat to its political system—one in some ways more profound than any since the Civil War.
To put it simply, large parts of the US electorate, mostly centered in the Republican Party, no longer accept the idea of a legitimate opposition and have convinced themselves that if that opposition wins, it is by fraud and that the election is thus null and void. This kind of mentality is fundamentally opposed to liberal democracy and dangerous to its survival. It suggests the future will be filled with contested elections, efforts to suppress votes, and fights to overturn elections. Even if they fail, as happened in 2020, the lasting effect will be to delegitimize the elected president and paralyze the political system.
How did we get here so quickly? There is much study needed for the rise and deepening of US partisanship, which is now as much a cultural as a political divide. But what has struck me has been the inadequacy of one of the core ideas of the American founding. James Madison, the most important architect of the US political system, was deeply enamored by the Enlightenment thinkers who saw politics as a science. They imagined a system of checks and balances producing good government almost as a machine with wheels and pulleys could produce motion or transfer energy. They did not expect people to be wise or virtuous. "If men were angels," Madison famously wrote in the Federalist Papers, "no government would be necessary." Madison built a system, he believed, that did not require virtue to function. "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," he urged, and from this conflict of interest would come ordered liberty and democracy. This American model became the template for much of the world.
In the United States and around the world, we are now witnessing experiments in politics without angels—and they aren't working so well. Democratic institutions have weakened in many places, broken in others, and feel under stress where they are still functioning. Those countries that have not faced the full furies of populism and nationalism—Germany and Japan are the most striking examples—have escaped these dangers more because of their culture and history rather than some better democratic design. Everywhere, Ralph Waldo Emerson's truth seems to hold: Institutions are merely lengthened shadows of men. If such men fail and act badly, venally, or irresponsibly, the democratic system is imperiled. We enter the 21st century asking one of the oldest questions in politics, much older than the Enlightenment ideas that democracy was built on. It is a question the ancient Greeks and Romans debated more than two millennia ago: How do we produce virtue in human beings?
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement.