As a young person unable to vote, heightening polarization, demagogic leadership, and lack of civic engagement within the U.S. is deeply concerning to me.
The negative effects of malignant partisanship have been warned against since the creation of the United States, and Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to The Federalist papers of 1788 exemplify this concern. Hamilton believed that, with sufficient malignancy on opposing sides of an argument, angry citizens will use the anti-tyrannical rhetoric of the revolution to prevent effective governance. He also warns against intemperate or inflammatory leaders, as he believes that their “specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people” most often hides a “dangerous ambition.” In short, he believes that a harshly divided political field will halt progress and that a demagogue of a leader will lead to despotism.
Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their 2018 book “How Democracies Die,” address these same concerns, labelling the demagogic nature of President Trump and the degradation of American democratic norms, such as partisan tolerance, as areas of serious concern. They explain that, while the “classic coup d’état” makes the “death of democracy immediate and evident to all”, the modern path of authoritarianism comes through “elected autocrats”, who “maintain the veneer of democracy while eviscerating its substance.” They agree with Hamilton’s assertions that a demagogic leader and a fiercely divided political system will eventually destroy a democracy, and go on to connect these warning signs with modern events. They classify Donald Trump as a demagogue, and point to the degradation of inter-party civility exemplified by his campaign and the modern political climate.
I agree with Levitsky and Ziblatt’s assertion that the warning signs of a democratic collapse are present and ominous in America today, but the threats to democracy may be even more prevalent than they have asserted, as civic engagement as a whole within the United States has been declining in recent years. This participation is crucial to the success of a democracy, as outlined by political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He argued that, in order for a democracy, or republic, to function, each person must exercise their freedom to improve their society, and that they must be compelled to do so through a general culture of participation; he essentially believed that we should be “forced to be free”.
However, despite the crucial nature of civic engagement, studies have shown it to be falling in alarming numbers. Yoni Appelbaum’s 2018 article “Americans Aren’t Participating in Democracy Anymore” outlines the evidence of this decline, citing sources, such as political scientist Robert Putnam, that suggest civic engagement has declined precipitously. The engagement of citizens is a crucial aspect of democracy, and has been proven to be declining in recent years. Therefore, while Levitsky and Ziblatt’s assessment of Trump’s demagogic leadership and of America’s hostile partisanship as threats to our democracy are valid and concerning, the threats are more prevalent than they’ve outlined, as the participation that democracy relies on is dwindling.
So, what must be done?
Despite the pessimism permeating the political sphere, these divides, demagogues, and apathetic attitudes are all preventable or fixable. We can heal divisions through open conversations and minds, by listening to the ideals and policies of the other side with the same respect we hope they’d allow us. We can prevent these divisions from manipulating us by rejecting hostile partisan language, and by regarding those on the other side of the political spectrum, not as lesser, but as equals.
A sense of superiority has been promoted by leaders on both sides, and does nothing more than breed malignancy and prevent mutual respect and progress. We can take the power away from demagogues by not allowing their inflammatory language and ideals to reduce us to their level; tyrants only succeed in a democracy when they have an equally incendiary enemy or are allowed to seize power by an apathetic or gullible population driven by fear. Finally, the apathy and lack of civic engagement prevalent today are immediately mendable. We mustn’t allow the saturation and two-dimensionality of the tragedies or injustices in the media to cultivate complacency; find something you care about, and allow yourself to care deeply. Join an organization, organize a demonstration, write a letter, vote. Democracy of, by, and for the people requires the people to cherish and defend what they care about, and the death of our democracy is entirely preventable through personal action. Open mindedness, empathy, and participation will prevent the degradation of democracy. Converse. Listen.
And, if you didn’t vote in this election, make sure to do so next year. Our democracy depends on it.
Sarah Teague is a junior at CRMS, and is passionate about the improvement of our state and country.