Is There a Future for Democracy in America?



Gennady Shkliarevsky

There is a sense of despondency on the American left that is increasingly visible.  The calls for the removal of President Trump no longer dominate their discourse. It conveys despair and resignation.  The dominant theme today is the lament for what the left sees as the demise of American democracy.

Left-wing politicians, mainstream media pundits, journalists, and all types of progressive sympathizers invariably complain about the rising tyranny of minority led by President Trump and the Republicans.  Their mood is decidedly apocalyptic.  Thomas Friedman, of the NYTimes, characteristically entitled his article “Will 2020’s Elections be the End of Our Democracy?”  Thomas Edsall, Friedman’s colleague, makes in his article “I Fear that We Are Witnessing the End of American Democracy” an unapologetically pessimistic prediction about prospects for democracy in the United States.

The death of the Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and President Trump’s decision to fill in the vacancy her death has created before the election have driven the imagination of the left-wingers to cataclysmic proportions.  Democratic senators accuse the Republicans on the Senate of nothing less than trying to establish the Republican dictatorship.  A piece in the The Guardian intones in unison “our democracy is deeply imperiled”—all on the occasion of the president executing his legal responsibility.  Democratic senators led by the Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer have rallied in their unanimous refusal to meet with President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.

The apocalyptic prophecies about the end of democracy are very broad.  They do not provide any details as to what specifically is under threat.

Our political system has two major components.  They are the structure of our government and our political practice.  The structure of the American government consists of its institutions.  Even a cursory analysis shows that whatever else may be going on in the country, there is no threat to our political institutions.  Nobody puts forward demands that these institutions should be abolished.  So, arguments about the threat to American democracy can only relate to the political practice.

A two-party system is the core of the political practice in America.  This practice that has been in use for much of American history indeed appears to be coming to an end due to the demise of the two-party system.  However, this demise is not due to some hostile actions.  Neither the President, nor the Republican or the Democratic Party is making any deliberate and hostile moves against it; if anything, they all desperately try to preserve it.  The demise of the two-party system seems to be happening by default, as a result of the self-destructive policies of the Democratic Party.  The fact is that the Democratic Party is rapidly losing its viability as a political organization.   It lacks leadership, has no new ideas, and offers no workable solutions for the current problems that America faces; its policies are chaotic and contradictory.  One cannot take seriously its proposed course to turn America into a socialist country, or its delusional Green New Deal, or its support for cancel culture and anarchist groups like BLM and Antifa.

But does the demise of the Democratic Party and the two-party system mean that democracy has no future in America?

The fundamental feature of a true Democracy is universal inclusion and empowerment.  There is not much that the left and the right agree on, but both contend that exclusion and disempowerment is endemic to American politics; and where there is exclusion, democracy is in peril.  Since the current two-party system allows exclusion and disempowerment, it is obvious that a two-party system is not an essential condition for democratic rule.  Therefore the decline of the two-party system does not necessarily mean the demise of democracy and we can, indeed must, look to other new forms of political practice that will be conducive to universal inclusion and empowerment.

The principal features of such new practice should follow from the very definition of democracy as universal inclusion and empowerment.  Universal means by definition that all must be included and empowered.  Therefore, all people must be recognized as equals and have equal access to the process of political decision-making.

The condition of universal inclusion and empowerment exists in networks.  Networks do not permit exclusion.  All members of a network are equal; they all participate in interactions with each other.  Nobody is in a position to exclude anyone from participating in these interactions.  It is simply impossible.

In the course of interactions all individuals have to treat each other as equals, since none of them has a preferential position in the network.  These interactions have to involve inclusion since no participant in the network has the power to exclude another member.  They have to recognize each other’s autonomy and agency. Inclusion is the characteristic and necessary feature of such interactions.  No individual in the network can achieve dominance over others; they all have to embrace and combine each other’s views and opinions since there is no way they can exclude them from the common pool.  They have no other choice but to combine their differences.  As a result of the inclusion and combination of differences, network interactions create new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization since they include all differences, all possible points of view and opinions.

A new and more powerful level of organization means hierarchy.  Thus the interactions of equals create hierarchies.  These hierarchies must be preserved in order to conserve what networks create.  Therefore, hierarchies are important for preserving the creative output of networks.  Both hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions are essential for conserving social systems and advancing their evolution, but they can only achieve this result if thay are in balance.

In social systems that exist today the two types of interactions are not in balance.  As a result, one type or the other usually dominates.  The domination of non-hierarchical interactions prevents networks from conserving they create.  The distinct feature of hierarchical interactions is subordination, not equality.  For this reason, hierarchical interactions are incapable of creating anything new since they are not conducive to the inclusion of differences.  Hierarchical and non-hierarchical interactions should be in balance:  one type of interactions creates and another preserves what has been created.  This balance is the principal condition for a democratic practice.  Such practice involves inclusion and empowerment; it is capable of creating new and increasingly more powerful levels of organization; and it can conserve its creation.  Such democratic practice–and not two-, three-, or multi-party systems—is the essential condition for democracy.  That is the critical condition for the existence of democracy.

The current two-party system increasingly appears to be beyond repair.  If we want democracy to have a future in America, we have to implement a new practice that will create conditions for democratic rule.  We must open a broad discussion of the specific forms that embody such practice and ways to make these forms functional.  We also have to think how new developments and particularly new information and communication technologies can help us realize the new practice.  Such democratic rule will preserve our republican institutions and at the same time create real possibilities for universal inclusion and empowerment.

The Democratic Party and progressivism represent a venerable aspect of American culture:  our insatiable desire to move forward and progress.  Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has chosen an elitist approach toward achieving progress.  This approach is exclusive and disempowering.   Leaders of the Democratic Party do not understand that real progress can only be achieved through inclusion and empowerment.  The approach chosen by the Democratic Party has transformed the party itself.  Its leadership has become increasingly isolated from its own rank-and-file.  This closed and self-perpetuating group cannot generate new ideas and approaches that are necessary for solving today’s problems.

This article does not call for the dismantling of the Democratic Party or the elimination of the two-party system.  It simply recognizes what appears to be an inescapable fact—the inevitable demise of the Democratic Party—and it emphasizes the need to prepare for this contingency.  The Democratic Party is becoming increasingly fragmented; its policies are incoherent and its leadership is in paralysis.  Will the Democratic Party be able to overcome its internal crisis and remain an important factor in American political practice?  The answer to this question can only come from the Democratic Party itself.  The important problem for the rest of us is to make sure that we preserve and continue to develop our democracy.  Our Constitution, our republic, and its institutions are integral parts of our democracy.  The survival of our democracy is too important to depend on the survival of any political party or political leader.  It is our common cause—the cause of the American people.



Gennady Shkliarevsky is a Professor Emeritus at Bard College, New York.

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