What will it take to save democracy?

Stuart Pate, News Editor

Many Americans are feeling less than optimistic about the state of democracy. Concerns of failing American institutions are on the rise. An NPR/Ipsos poll from January found that seven in 10 Americans say that the country is in crisis and at risk of failing.

So, is American democracy at risk?

Adrienne Roche, a political science instructor at Madison College, believes that democracy has been stressed but that there is hope. However, Roche says that even being the ideal citizen is not just a matter of showing up at the polls. Preserving democracy begins with education of the state of American institutions.

Roche notes that American institutions have been under stress. Recently with COVID-19 but also going back to the election of 2000 with the role the U.S. Supreme Court played in deciding the election between Bush and Gore.

“That was really the first symptom in some ways in American democracy of institutions being challenged in ways they really weren’t accustomed to,” Roche says.

Since then, Roche says, there has been 9-11, the expansion of bureaucracy, and the war on terror, the response to Hurricane Katrina and the mortgage crisis.

All these events have led to rapid change and with that, backlash movements have risen like nationalism which are the “antithesis to liberal institutions,” says Roche.

Roche also looks to involvement and complacency in American democracy. She points out nearly 67% of eligible voters voted in the 2020 election. Roche is concerned that still leaves 33% that didn’t vote. She feels that Americans have grown “comfortable” with the benefits provided by liberal democracy and that plays into lack of engagement. In addition to lack of engagement, Roche is concerned with obstacles to voting.

“Democratic institutions should be marked by expanding access to voting and voting rights. For some voters, it is not complacency as much as it is a lack of political efficacy – essentially the belief that their vote does not make a difference. There are many reasons for this belief – but one reason relates to the way institutions are structured. When institutions are – or become – more restrictive that can affect citizens’ feelings of efficacy. This erodes trust between the citizens and their government,” Roche said.

Recently local governments have been forwarding legislation that may hinder a person’s ability to vote. Roche believes that this type of legislation limits who can participate in democracy and hinders the role in deciding who gets into office.

Despite all of this, Roche remains optimistic.

“My perspective is to be hopeful, and I think when I’m actually in the classroom, and I’m working with students and hearing their perspectives on American democracy and the investment that they have and the value like liberty, democracy and equality, that give me a lot of hope”

However, Roche does not rely on hope alone. She feels that hope must be paired with action.

“It’s not just voting,” she said.

To Roche, participating in democracy is also getting involved in protests, calling legislators, paying attention to what’s happening legislatively and in congress, signing petitions and taking stances on issues outside of general elections and “having all of that education to make informed decisions when you get to the polls.”