Is Democracy on the Ballot in This Fall’s Election?

A row of voting booths.

Susan McWilliams Barndt is professor of politics at Pomona College and author of The American Road Trip and American Political Thought. She teaches and writes on political theory, the history of political thought, and politics and literature. This is the fourth in an occasional series with Pomona faculty on issues important to voters in this year’s elections.

We hear it frequently said that “democracy is on the ballot” this fall. What signposts would point that direction?

Well, you’re talking to someone who believes that democracy is always on the ballot. Every election puts people’s lives and civil rights at stake.

But I also believe that the ballot—the mere act of voting—is always insufficient for achieving democracy. I’m a fan of the saying that when it comes to democracy, voting is the period at the end of a very long sentence. Democracy requires cultural and institutional support. Democracy requires some degree of social trust, or at least mutual toleration. Democracy requires certain habits of mind and heart, and it requires faith and moral commitment.

Political scientists like me have been worried about the state of democracy in America for a long time—since long before I became a political scientist. And that’s for lots of reasons: from the rise of an administrative state, to the collapse of unions, to the perpetuation of racial discrimination, to the decline of bowling-league membership (really!), to the weakening of political parties, to the collapse of campaign finance regulation. Everything happening in this election is somehow connected to those broader antidemocratic forces, and others.

So I think it’s a bad news/good news/bad news/good news situation. The bad news is that this election—no matter how it turns out—won’t be the single thing that saves democracy in America. The good news is that this election—no matter how it turns out—won’t be the single thing that ruins democracy in America.

That brings us back to the bad news department: Democracy is on tenterhooks in the United States, and for reasons that go much deeper than this election.

But let me offer one last bit of good news. This follows what the English author G.K. Chesterton said after he visited the United States 100 years ago. Chesterton said that in America, he saw an “army of actualities” opposed the ideal of democracy. But, Chesterton said, he saw no ideal opposed to the ideal of democracy in America. And he thought that in the end, that fact would probably matter the most.

Today, a huge majority of Americans in surveys—something like 80 percent—say they believe that democracy is under threat. But just as large a majority of Americans say they still believe in democracy. At least for now, whatever else we disagree about, I think it’s important to remember that we agree on that.

You research and write about American political thought. Are today’s political currents updated packaging of old ideas or something new?

Mark Twain once wrote that you can’t stop history from repeating itself because for better and for worse, human character is what it is. I think that’s true as a general rule, and it’s certainly true in American political thought.

Students in my American Political Thought course are always surprised (once they get beyond the unfamiliarity of 17th or 18th century writing style) by how directly the course readings hit them. You read great American thinkers like Anne Bradstreet, Mercy Otis Warren, Lemuel Haynes, William Apess, W.E.B. DuBois—I could go on and on—and it’s uncanny. They are asking relevant questions and making relevant critiques and imagining relevant alternatives. Realizing that can really change your political perspective.

Many parts of the world seem to be tacking to the right. How does your study of political theory and the history of political thought help us understand this phenomenon?

At least since Plato, political theorists have noticed that when people feel overwhelmed and anxious, we tend to yearn for a strong authority to come in and fix things. Because as anyone who’s suffered a panic attack knows, the feeling of anxiety is terrible. You’d bring in any force you could to stop it.

We live in an overwhelming and anxiety-producing moment. Ours is a time of massive scale, impersonal power, tremendous technological change, unstable social norms and multiplying inequalities—not to mention a deteriorating planet. It’s a lot for all of us. One of my students’ favorite adjectives right now is “chaotic.”

Under such anxious conditions, many people are going to yearn for strong, decisive and even authoritarian rule. The only way to fight that authoritarian impulse is to fight the anxiety that produces it. I recommend reading Astra Taylor’s The Age of Insecurity, which is really helpful for thinking about this stuff.

Does the history of political thought provide any rays of hope for our age of extreme polarization?

In his recent book Begin Again, my own teacher Eddie Glaude tells a story about when a reporter went to visit James Baldwin in Istanbul in about 1970. Baldwin was a mess at that point. He had gone to Istanbul to hide out during a time of political and personal crisis.

Somehow it comes to pass that the reporter asks Baldwin about hope. And Baldwin says, even though he’s barely holding onto the cliff’s edge, “Hope is invented every day.”

It never gets better than James Baldwin: “Hope is invented every day.” The history of political thought—the history of our species—testifies not only to our terrific capacities for stupidity and terribleness, but also to our terrific capacities for creativity, bravery and love.

Glaude says, when he’s recounting that Baldwin story, “We’re not only disasters; we’re also miracles.” Amen to that. In this age when many people are too cool or too cynical to believe it, I insist we believe it: We are miracles, too.