Podcast: Is American democracy dead – or ready for rebirth?

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American democracy in action at the voting polls

Expert commentators from the US Federal Election Commission, Obama Foundation and the ACLU look back on the last few years and ask: is American democracy really dead?

Between accusations of voter suppression and gerrymandering, social media polarisation, insurrection and impeachment attempts, the Trump presidency was tumultuous to say the least.

But with something near ‘business as usual’ resuming in US politics under President Joe Biden, organisations across the political spectrum are assessing what state the country’s democratic spirit has been left in.

RIP American democracy – as we knew it?

Deborah Archer, ACLU president, pointed to the concerns surrounding voting rights in the run up to the delayed 2020 federal election as a symptom of US democracy’s failing health.

“Democracies are fragile. They require that we pay attention, that we work to protect them, that we take care of them. And if voting rights are seen as the foundation of democracy, then democracy is crumbling because that foundation is crumbling.”

She sees the barriers to voting that have been placed in the path of (mostly minority) communities as an attempt by those in power to deny agency to those in opposition.

“The barriers we are seeing to political engagement … are really dangerous because they represent the intention of some people to hold onto power indefinitely and completely, and allow access to others only when it serves their purpose.”

Ellen Weintraub, commissioner at the US Federal Election Commission, sees the problem as one step further back. She points to politicians willing to sell out the system of democracy in order to sustain their own power as a bigger blow to US democracy, “when you have politicians trying to sell a story that undermines our faith in our democracy, they are playing with fire.”

Vote being cast in a ballot box - the symbol of American democracyImage: I’m friday/Shutterstock

Green shoots of recovery

David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation, noted that media polarisation and echo chambers of information have also fostered the conditions for a deeply divided political system. However, he points to this being a global problem and not unique to the US.

“Democracy is an expression of a culture. And in the last 10-15 years we’ve seen that in the United States but also across the world, even though we have many ways to connect with each other, we lack connection. When that happens, that’s when demagoguery … can rise.”

However, David remained hopeful that the US still has a diverse enough population to help bridge all political divides, “when you look at the 330 million people that make up the oldest constitutional democracy on the planet, we are the most diverse along any number of lines.”

David went on to note that while government organisations in recent years have not fairly represented the diversity of their local populations, the US is a country built on immigration and sharing stories. Of connecting on a level of mutual understanding beyond politics.

“Even though the expression of our politics through our government is fraying, one thing that gives me hope … is you can see an African-American family, a Hispanic family, a white family that emigrated from Poland … communicating in a way that is unique and powerful.”

Check out this exciting new episode of 🎙️ The Next Stage 🎙️ podcast. If you feel inspired by it, don’t miss out on Web Summit this November. Grab 2 for 1 tickets now if you sign up before May 19!

Main image of US polling booths: vesperstock/Shutterstock

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