The Problems of American Democracy

Quesiton: How do you define democracy?

Michael Waldman:  People have been arguing about that for thousands of years, but let me give an American answer.  Democracy is government of, by and for the people, a pretty good answer when Abe Lincoln gave it and it’s still the best answer today. The whole history of the United States can be understood as a struggle to make real that promise of democracy.  When we started out, we didn’t have a democracy.  We had some ideals about equal opportunity and the rights of individuals, and we’ve basically been trying to live up to them ever since.  When we started out, only white men with property could vote.  It took the Jacksonian Democracy Movement of the 1820’s and ‘30’s, which was a real social revolution, before people without property could vote.  Then came the Civil War and all the issues of race, and African Americans, the slaves were granted the right to vote.  That was another huge advance for democracy.  But one thing we also learned is that you can take back the advances, because after the Civil War, you had black congressmen.  You had black senators, black governors.  But then came the backlash and the end of reconstruction, and all those gains were taken away and you had almost a century of segregation and oppression.  Then women were given the vote in the early 20th century, and finally, in the 1960’s, the meaningful right to vote was given to African Americans.  There was always democracy has been a struggle and has been the great drama of American history.  And the funny thing is, sometimes we think well that exciting stuff is all in the past. But actually, the struggle for democracy is going on right under our very noses even today.

Question: Is American democracy broken?

Michael Waldman: In very significant ways, our democracy is broken.  It needs repair.  And a lot of the progress that’s been made in recent decades, we’ve really fallen back.  You have this remarkable situation right now in 2008.  On the one hand, there’s a huge upsurge in citizen engagement, in interest, more people voting, more people giving campaign contributions in small dollars through the Internet, all these signs that the public is deeply excited and engaged about politics.  On the other hand, our government’s broken.  Our democracy badly needs repair.  We have tens of millions of people who are not registered to vote because of flaws in our voter registration system.  You’ve got campaign spending going up fivefold in the past quarter century, the number of lobbyists tripling in Washington, D.C. in the past decade.  These are all things that have been around for a long time, but they’ve gotten worse and they’ve compounded.  And so the sense that Washington and national politics is stuck, that special interests are keeping action from taking place on key issues, the voice of ordinary citizens is frozen out, and that politicians are caught up in this crazy system of chasing after money and spending much of their time fundraising, that’s all real and it’s something people are waking up to the need to change.  And when you have that sense of public engagement colliding with
broken institutions, throughout our history, that’s when you get real change.

Michael Waldman defines democracy and points out why ours is broken.

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