Robert Dahl tried fervently to engage the term polyarchy into the political lexicon. It is safe to say that, outside of political science classrooms, it definitely did not stick. Nevertheless, his concept of pure “democracy” is sound: one wherein every member of the society is included, and differing opinions can be openly expressed. Without inclusivity and contestation of every person within a political system, democracy has never been fully achieved.
The question then presents itself: has America ever been truly democratic? From its inception, the founding documents decreed that all men are created equal. Nevertheless, that phrasing only applied to land-owning white males of the time. It would take this nation nearly two centuries to implement the widespread voting of people of color and women. For wide swaths of American history, the interpretation of democracy was flawed and convoluted.
The Democratic Paradox
This situation is what can be referred to as the democratic paradox. Achieving total democracy is perhaps the biggest destabilizer to an existing semi-democratic society. In twenty-first century America, gridlock, polarization, and partisanship are overwhelmingly potent. Now more than ever, Americans identify themselves as Republicans and Democrats before simply being Americans. Compromise has become taboo, federal shutdowns have become commonplace, and the electorate has become divided and discouraged.
The more this nation tries to become inclusive, the more it polarizes. Through cultural backlash as a result of increased inclusivity, the moderate middle has scattered to the far wings of the partisan ideologies. Research from a multitude of political scientists, including that published by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page in Democracy in America?, shows the absolute disappearance of compromising moderates and the overwhelming presence of hyper-partisan representatives. The populist tendencies of big-name politicians from both sides of the political spectrum, including Senator Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump, electrify some and vilify others. Nativism and nationalism are sweeping the conservative right, and socialism and liberalism are controlling the growing response from the left. As more people have been afforded their democratic rights as this country has progressed, the less adaptable and amenable the people seem to have become.
The opportunity for safe contestation that is wholly accepted by all sides, that which Dahl argues is critical to polyarchy, has dissipated. President Trump has openly admonished members of the press, blatantly bashing some while promoting others who align with his political agenda. Not since President Richard Nixon’s battle with The Washington Post has a president so blatantly disfavored outcry or criticism from the opposition. In terms of Dahl’s scheme for a true polyarchy, the United States seems to be doing plenty of regressing. The ability to contest peacefully is diminishing, and, even as inclusivity has grown, xenophobia and fear of people who simply look or think differently has allowed for extremist tendencies to take hold.
The Fear & The Future
It’s understandable for change and societal evolution to be frightening or alarming, but it is undeniably needed for a society to evolve for the better. Gradual change can be powerful, but rapid change can be dangerous to social stability. As changes occur, no matter how mildly, those accustomed to being in the cultural majority will feel threatened and ultimately backlash against the modifications made towards full democratization. Cultural backlash, collectively with polarization and attacks on open contestation, provides the greatest barrier to full democracy.
Ironically, the times of democratic greatness in America seem to be when inclusivity was low. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their powerful book How Democracies Die, point to the pillars of mutual tolerance and political forbearance to maintain a strong democracy. They importantly acknowledge, though, the fact that the American institution has long been resilient thanks to its great stain of racism and sexism. The exclusion of a great mass of the American population has kept the “democracy” stable, but it has kept the democracy from adhering to its true definition.
While much of this seems apocalyptic, this is not to say that the United States has reached levels of irreparable social and institutional damage. The institutions that the Framers designed have proven themselves to be durable. This is to say, though, that Americans must be aware of the flaws of the system. It is unfair and simply incorrect to classify ourselves as wholesome champions of democracy. However, there is nothing wrong with evolving our take on democracy. This democracy is, as many have described it to be, a great experiment. An experiment needs to go through failure in order to discern what needs to be changed to make it work properly. America can still be steered towards full democracy.
Not everyone is fully represented yet. Even after nearly 250 years, America is still working to achieve full inclusivity. The freedom to openly express and contest the government is, most certainly, being questioned. Despite the security that should be guaranteed by our founding documents, we must hold strong against attacks that threaten to compromise contestation. And while Robert Dahl’s terminology might not be applied to all, his concepts certainly should be. To reach polyarchy, to be a truly democratic nation with a representative government where all people are welcome to express their views, we must keep refining the experiment. It is time to democratize this democracy to its full potential. ▪
Photo by Jack Ohman, Tribune Content Registry, used in “U.S. News & World Report.”