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Learning from History to Plan for What’s Next

By Joe Goldman / 2018 November 1st

​American democracy is in crisis. At a time of deepening polarization and social strife, many of our elected officials – most notably our chief executive – routinely disregard, and indeed actively undermine, the very norms and institutions that buttress our democratic system. At every turn, the foundational values of American democracy are under attack.

Fortunately, the threats facing our democracy are not unique and there is much to learn from other countries and from our own history – both about democratic backsliding and about strategies to reverse its course. Understanding the experiences of other democracies can help us grapple with challenges we are experiencing today, and plan for those that may lie ahead.

Democracy Fund invited Rachel Kleinfeld and David Solimini of the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace to write What Comes Next? Lessons for the Recovery of Liberal Democracy to tackle just this question. Through their research, Rachel and David dig into several case studies and offer insightful recommendations on what might be done in the United States to recover from the path of institutional decline.

Rachel and David’s analysis challenges us to revisit many of the assumptions Democracy Fund has made in assessing our democracy’s vulnerabilities and deploying strategies to protect it. Our staff has grappled these insights in ways that have enriched our thinking and the approach to our work. Among others:

  • We are affirmed in our work focused on ensuring the independence of a robust, healthy media that can hold those in power to account. The watchdog function of the media cannot be underestimated.
  • We take to the warning against placing too much hope in the political parties and legislature to defend themselves against abuses of power by a strong executive. We must explore ways to find, pressure, and incentivize, alternative champions of democracy.
  • While the paper corroborates our fears on the risk of the American’s system reliance on informal norms, we were encouraged to read how federalism should be considered an important tool in combatting the worst overreaches of an embattled federal government.

Democracy Fund regularly publishes research relating to our established program areas, and we occasionally commission work that is intended to push our thinking in new directions. We, like others, have much to learn. We are all well-advised to engage deeply with new, big ideas that challenge our assumptions. The research is a platform for rigorous scholarship that can help us identify new strategies to build a healthier democracy.

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