A Cause Worth Fighting For: Democracy and the Need for Public Engagement

By Alec Medine

For more than a century, democracy has been the status quo political force in the world, just like the monarchism and feudalism which had preceded it. Since the birth of the world’s first significant democratic republic in 1776, many new political systems have come and gone, but none of these ideologies have had the staying power or the moral self-justification to prosper in the political arena; many of these ideologies, like fascism and state communism, have even proven to be violent and morally heinous. By contrast, liberal democracy has proven to be the most fair and equitable political system to be devised and practiced by mankind. 

Yet global democracy has fallen into a state of complacency at best, and discontent at worst. Unfortunately, this decline is nothing new: as Freedom House has reported, democracy has been on the retreat around the world since 2007. Over this period, civil and political liberties have deteriorated in many democracies, including the United States. Other democracies have eroded yet more, to the point where there are no longer free and fair elections, backsliding into dictatorship. Worryingly, fringe political ideologies are especially popular among  youths across the world. These movements, many of which are antithetical to democracy, have won over hearts and minds by broadcasting an exciting message with the most innovative tools of mass communication. Democracy’s advocates, meanwhile, struggle to keep up with the ideological competition. It seems that the energy behind democracy, the will to propel it towards further existence, is slipping.

Why is this happening? Why does it seem like democracy has fallen “out of style”? And what can we do to make democracy a cause worth fighting for again? 

Disabled Democracy? 

One of the biggest problems facing democracy today is that people feel as though our political system is ill-equipped to handle the problems of our current age. For example, take the issue of climate change: as fellow Democracy Examined contributor Teddy Tawil has highlighted in his recent article, many average people and intellectuals alike are coming to believe that democratic governance, with its reliance on mass consensus, is unable to decisively solve the climate crisis. Skeptics of democracy claim that democratic practices bog down the process of enacting decisive change because any proposals for reform need to undergo a lengthy and rigorous process of debate and cooperation in order to reach a result that satisfies all groups. By contrast, as the theory goes, dictatorships are more effective at dealing with climate change because the sole leader of the nation does not need to bother with arguments in order to enact policy; they merely need to order it. 

I myself have touched upon this in the inaugural issue of Democracy Examined, where I discussed how some thinkers have made remarkably similar arguments about solving the COVID-19 pandemic; again, the common assumption is that only a dictator can take the decisive steps needed to curb a pandemic by forcibly ordering lockdowns and halting physical mobility. 

The implications of these arguments are deeply worrying: many people would be willing to sacrifice their democratic freedoms in return for a stronger sense of safety (whether against climate change, pandemics, or, in a more historical sense, foreign and internal enemies in wartime). 

However, Teddy Tawil and I have both highlighted that the dichotomy between freedom and safety is a false one. Our findings together indicate that democracies are actually more effective at handling climate change, and they are better at fighting pandemics; rest assured, dear reader: you can have your cake (safety) and eat it too (freedom). 

Democracy and its Discontents

Mass discontent against democracy is growing on many fronts, the outrage being directed at democracy’s failure to handle critical matters of economic, cultural, and social concern. Even in the United States, satisfaction with democracy is plummeting; according to a 2019 Pew study, 57% of Americans reported being “not satisfied” with democracy. Much of the dissatisfaction stems from a growing perception that the government prioritizes the interests of economic elites over ordinary Americans; 58% of Americans from the same Pew study expressed that they felt that elected officials did not care what citizens think. Clearly, citizens feel disconnected from their government, and there is a widespread belief that democracy as a system is no longer responsive to the needs of its citizens. 

One critical issue is the state of the economy. Critics of democracy on the left have argued that democracies do not adequately ensure economic equality, and may even promote economic inequality. The United States is a prime example:  the wealth gap has grown at an alarming rate, and another Pew study quantifies that income inequality rose  by 20% between 1980 and 2016. 

Naturally, these discontents with the distribution of wealth and social opportunity in democratic countries have caused a popular shift towards the political left, especially among the young generation born in the 1990s and early 2000s. This generation has been faced with tremendous economic challenges related to a rising cost of living and shrinking career opportunities, exacerbated by automation, outsourcing, and other cost-cutting business measures. While many young voters have chosen to support mainstream social-democratic candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, many of their peers have embraced yet more radical political alternatives; for example, a YouGov poll indicates that more than a third of millennials support communism. This communism is more akin to the kind of authoritarian political system which existed in the Soviet Union or Cuba, rather than the mainstream democratic socialism prevalent in European democracies. 

Anti-democratic sentiments are growing not only on the left, and arguably, most anti-democratic attitudes are coalescing around the political far-right. The far-right derives its support and ideological basis from the same general cynicism and disdain towards elected officials and societal elites that also fuel left-wing movements. Specifically, many far-right leaders try to frame their movements as a rebellion against  corrupt global elites currently running the government, and they expound conspiracy theories that the government is under direct control of shady players outside the public eye, like the Hungarian-Jewish financier George Soros. 

The far-right also believes that the government is deliberately eroding the culture, society, and national identity of their country. Far-right leaders and supporters bemoan their governments’ open-minded attitude towards immigration and refugee resettlement, as well as the cultural and economic promotion of ethnic and racial minorities; the far-right feels that the success of these groups comes at the expense of the traditional racial-cultural majority of the nation. As such, these far-right movements take cues from historical fascist movements like Mussolini’s Blackshirts or Hitler’s Nazi Party, claiming that the nation must be restored and retaken from its international enemies and their collaborators in the government so that a purified, reinvigorated nation can be passed down to the nation’s children. It is worth noting, however, that although the far-right frames their political agenda around culture, the root of their discontent is also economic like the far-left’s; a study conducted by the London School of Economics’ Democracy Audit found “significant interaction” between unemployment and support for right-wing populism. This relationship/rhetoric is often visible in the United States, where extreme conservatives blame mass-unemployment on the notion that Hispanic migrants are taking American jobs. 

Far-right and far-left mass movements appear naturally attractive for many people seeking an outlet for their discontents. These movements promise a radical change to normal life, as well as a sense of belonging for the movement’s members. They foster community through energetic events, such as protests and rallies. These gatherings serve as spaces to reinforce a sense of group identity and collective solidarity, especially in an era where traditional communal identity is fading away, as the sociologist Robert Putnam described over 20 years ago in his book Bowling Alone.

But we cannot forget that political movements on the far-left and far-right are deeply pernicious; they downplay, overlook (or often, frighteningly, embrace) the humanitarian crimes of their ideological forebearers. The radical far-left hates independent success. The radical far-right hates minorities. They both hate democracy and personal freedoms. Yet, if we want to make democracy into a cause worth fighting for again, we need to learn from these movements in terms of how they carry themselves and how they appeal to their audiences.

One key strategy is to retake the idea of the political rally, which has recently fallen into the province of far-right extremists. One needs not look any further than the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazis marched under torchlight chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” The former presidency of Donald Trump has also come to be characterized by its political rallies designed to ignite his far-right base, all culminating in the January 6th storming of the National Capitol in Washington, DC. 

The far-right’s love of rallies is nothing new, either: the Nazi Party used its annual rally in Nuremberg as a propaganda opportunity to display the party’s power and to reaffirm the loyalty of their supporters across Germany. Indeed, the quintessential images of the Nazi regime come from Leni Riefenstahl’s film “Triumph of the Will,” which revolved around the 1935 Nazi rally in Nuremberg. This kind of display was not exclusive to Germany or Italy: in 1939, 20,000 pro-Nazi sympathizers and members of other American fascist groups converged on Madison Square Garden in New York City for a Nuremberg-esque gathering of their own, the so-called “Pro-American Rally.” Thankfully, this group was a distinct minority, and the event was quickly condemned and ridiculed by the general American public. Nonetheless, it still constitutes a chilling chapter in our nation’s history. 

And this is a recurring story; remember the torch-bearing neo-Nazis in Charlottesville? They too were recreating Nuremberg in the modern United States. 

Political rallies are attractive because they create a sense of community. They bring people together out of common interest in order to advance a common purpose. They convey a sense of renewal and a drive to overcome all obstacles in the way of the political movement, reassuring participants and reaffirming their confidence in the cause. The advocates for democracy can, and should, embrace this form of public engagement.

Director Frank Capra repurposed Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” footage to create a series of stirring films promoting America’s commitment to defending democracy during World War II, which he titled “Why We Fight.” Like Capra, we too can repurpose the concept of the rally to renew our commitment to our foundational democratic ideals. Through the pro-democracy rally, we are building a community of people who are committed to fairness, justice, and equality for all, and who will strive for a just society and government. 

That is why, on February 15th, the Renew Democracy Initiative is taking back the political rally with our Virtual Democracy Rally. We will be hosting exciting guest speakers who have relentlessly advocated for democracy, civic duty, fairness, freedom, and opportunity, including Garry Kasparov, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Preet Bharara, Miles Taylor, Evan Mawarire, Annie Duke, Fmr. Rep. Barbara Comstock, Daniel Lubetzky, and Yeonmi Park. We invite you to participate and attend this rally. You can register at RDI.org/rally.  

Title Image Credit: Chisholm Gallery.

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