Sometimes, you wonder if the world is doomed to descend into autocracy. Certainly, that’s what the coverage of the past few years suggests what with its focus on places like Russia and Hungary.
What strikes me about this discussion of a global decline in democratic norms and values, however, is how little coverage has gone to places where democracy remains robust. How much do you read about countries that are performing well on this front, like Norway, Iceland, Canada, or Switzerland?
These are strong, stable democracies with a healthy electoral process, well-functioning governments, and robust political participation. Amid concerns about democracy’s future, they’re shining examples of its staying power.
There’s plenty of reason for concern. Many countries, including some of those above, are home to anti-democratic movements that reject the basic freedoms, civil liberties, and pluralism that we associate with democracy. Moreover, unhappiness with the way democracy is working appears to be rising.
One key to what’s going on in this country may lie in a Pew poll from earlier this summer: Americans see declining trust in both the federal government and in one another.
They cite poor government performance, fear about the corruption of the political process by monied interests, and a general rise in disrespect for others and their beliefs. And they lack confidence in elected leaders.
Yet here’s the thing: over the course of countless public meetings over the years, I don’t ever recall anyone rejecting the Constitution or representative democracy itself. People seem to support the democracy we inhabit.
What may be most interesting about the poll I cite above is that even as Americans express their dissatisfaction, they also recognize the stakes and want to see things turned around.
And there’s one other point from which I take great hope: younger people, on the whole, seem to be more inclusive and tolerant in their views than their elders, and they have a more positive view of the role of government.
Time, in other words, is on the side of democratic values.
So while I would never urge complacency in the face of the assaults we’re seeing on democratic norms, both here and elsewhere, I’m not pessimistic.
Democracies have great internal strength, and they give cause for optimism that the core democratic processes of deliberation, compromise, negotiation, and cooperation will, in the end, endure.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.