Okay, so democracy is in real trouble in the United States, right? It must be, since Washington has become radically divided and hyper-partisanship makes compromise impossible. The swamp not only remains, but is overflowing. And whether or not President Trump is found guilty in even just one of the numerous investigations swirling around him, and about him, the country can never be the same again surely?
Pew polls are a good place to start in thinking about this, simply because the organization is non-partisan and also because they’re highly reputed and have been doing it for a long time.
Let’s start with perceptions of the press? In the “fake news” world south of the border, journalism is hugely denounced, correct? Nope. Across all ages, Pew research discovered that an average of 65% still believe the media should carry out its responsibility for watching, criticizing and correcting the political establishment. An average of 85% of Americans believe that non-violent protest is a right. And 75% believe the rights of people to express even unpopular views should be protected. A full 83% believe in the checks and balances dividing power in America between the Executive, Congress and the courts. And despite all the election hassles in recent years, 91% of Pew poll respondents believe that elections are still open and fair.
While it’s true that the great bargain struck by citizens and their governments since World War Two – governments elected by the people delivering a growing economy and rising living standards, provide security, and protect the health and welfare of their people – has been under significant strain in the last three decades, it doesn’t mean that people have given up on their heritage.
America faces challenges unlike any other country, thanks in part to its history of economic strength and military might. And they’ve been through a lot in recent years. The despondency following the Watergate scandal eroded trust. Assassinations, wars, racism, violence, 9/11, and a growing drug culture have pulled at the seams of American cohesiveness. And yet it continues to endure, not only despite these problems but, in many cases, because of them. Citizens still believe their nation is a work in progress and difficulties on the path before them are meant to be surmounted.
The advent of Donald Trump has prompted attacks on the institutions of democracy unlike anything in the modern era. And a blinded Republican Party, along with the elitist approach of the Democrats in the last two decades, have only resulted in the greater worry that America is about to fall over a cliff.
Despite all this, the country’s resilience remains remarkable – as shown in the Pew polling. When Pew asked its thousands of respondents from across the political range – Republicans, Democratic, Independent – whether a president should be granted more powers, a vast majority from all persuasions (77%) said “no” – a number that has not dipped in the last two years.
These values still hold despite the obvious problems – the lingering effect of stagnant wages, unemployment, decline in household incomes, wars without end and without victory, a crippling political partisanship. It all leaves deeper levels of distrust among citizens overall. The core of democracy is weakening in the United States, but of late there are signs of democratic institutions fighting back for the constitutional obligations.
The growing desire to restore the middle-class of America represents the heart and soul of the country’s penchant for political reform. It is still the essence of the American Dream. And despite its recent struggles, immigrants by the hundreds of thousands still seek to move to America legally, and sometimes illegally, each year. The problem of immigration is the great outlier for the political system at the moment, and unless both parties discover ways to cooperate for effective immigration reform, the country’s greatest divisions will only deepen.
As we witness America’s struggles, durability, and desire for reform, it is helpful to remember that success isn’t guaranteed. History is replete with accounts of mighty empires slipping inevitably into decline and the United States is showing such tendencies. Liberal democracy is not a guarantee in America, although for over a century it seemed inevitable. Its core strengths are weakened and its people despondent and facing growing despair. Nevertheless, its democratic prowess remains robust and its ability to reverse its present course remains possible because of the essential values of its citizens.
Winston Churchill was fond of saying that Britain didn’t come such a long way because it was made of sugar candy. Neither did the United States. The key is now to put aside its distractions and get on with the task of building equitable democracy. The essential values remain; now the great nation to the south must stake its claim on them. And that might just be beginning to happen.