Can Democracy Self-Heal?
This article is part of our Future of Democracy Blog Series which offers reflections from discussions on issues around democracy that alumni of the German Marshall Fund’s leadership programs have had as members of our Future of Democracy Working Group. If you are our alumna/us and are interested in joining this group or supporting its work, please sign up for our Alumni Leadership Council at any level.
Election Day in the United States is approaching with early voting happening in record numbers and overall voter turnout expected to be high. The most recent presidential debate, aided by the threat of a mute button, was much more intelligible than the first and hopefully served to educate voters on the candidates’ policy positions. High voter turnout and civil discourse are positive indicators of a strong democracy, but the threats to democracy cannot be ignored and require a careful understanding of the symptoms and underlying problems.
In late July I moderated the German Marshall Fund’s Leadership Perspective session “Covidocracy: Assessing the Coronavirus Impact on Democratic Systems,” which you can tune in to here. This was a fascinating conversation and exploration of the health of democratic institutions in the United States and Europe. My job as moderator was made easy thanks to three outstanding participants: Leslie Herod (MMF ‘14), Yascha Mounk Ph.D., and Zsuzanna Szelenyi (MMF ’93). While I encourage you to listen to the entire discussion, this blog focuses on the final few minutes beginning at about the 55:30 mark.
At that point in the conversation, I made reference to a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the History Channel that had taken place earlier this year, and specifically their History Talks event where former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush were on stage together for a conversation about democracy. A friend of mine who was there told me President Bush talked about how democracy serves to promote “self-healing.” He made this comment in the context of a discussion about how tumultuous the United States’ system of government is today and as reassurance that things would get better.
My question was, “Is it? Is democracy self-healing?”
We had nearly completed an hour-long discussion of how democracy is severely challenged and arguably trending towards more autocratic systems in countries like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and even the United States. It is comforting to think it is self-healing, but I could not help but think of the parallels between my own personal 2020 experience and the injury from which I am currently healing.
My youngest son graduated high school and joined the Marines in 2019. He completed boot camp at Parris Island, and my wife and I could not have been more proud. To celebrate, we went snow skiing for a weekend. More accurately, my sons snow boarded while the old man stuck to skis. Near the end of the second day, I summersaulted in the back bowl and tore my meniscus and ruptured my ACL. While I have recovered, the experience was anything but self-healing. It was the beginning of a lot of hard work, work that I am still doing nearly 10 months later.
After the diagnosis (X-rays and MRIs), I had surgery. I then began several months of physical therapy. At first the muscles were so weak and atrophied that shock therapy was needed just to get things moving. This was followed by basic stretching and massages, and then months of progressive strength training. After about four months, I successfully completed a “return to sport” test. I had to demonstrate that my injured knee was at least 90 percent as strong and capable as my healthy one. The last 10 percent is up to me with continued work on my own, and I am told I could be back to 100 percent within a year.
With that in mind, I feel democracy as an institution is undergoing a return to sport test as more autocratic forms of government are evolving. This evolving autocracy is not revolutionary but creeping in nature. Yascha does an excellent job of exploring this in his book, The People vs. Democracy Why Our Freedom Is In Danger And How To Save It. It has been happening over time, and the pandemic has in some ways served as a shock to atrophied instincts. It has inspired meaningful evaluations of social justice, race relations, and government decision-making.
As I have thought about this blog, I have come to realize there is no Hippocratic Oath in politics, but there should be.
I have also come to the conclusion that democracy is only self-healing with hard work. We must be willing to endure pain and put in the effort to ensure the will of the people is reflected in our governments. The muscles of democracy and freedom must be exercised and strengthened. And there really is no finish line. Even in a healthy democracy, continued and sustained effort is required in order for it to remain.
As I think about our democracy, I’m reminded of a quote from President Ronald Reagan. He once said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
As co-chair of the GMF’s Future of Democracy Working Group, we are engaged in this process and committed to putting in the effort.
My neighborhood is filled with many different signs for various candidates running for a variety of offices at all levels of national, regional, and local government. But there is one that I like most: Vote for America. Instead of voicing support for one side, it encourages voting. It encourages engagement. It speaks to everyone. It encourages democracy. Vote!
Sam Matheny (MMF '07) is the CTO and Executive Vice President of the National Association of Broadcasters. Sam co-chairs the Future of Democracy GMF Alumni Working Group