Being a student of political science, I have managed to consume a lot of knowledge and information about the United States democracy and its principles. Throughout my studies, I have always come to the conclusion that I am an avid supporter of democracy as a regime type and believe that its basic values, such as individual rights and liberties, should be translated into areas outside of politics as well. However, I have recently been asking myself why we feel so attached to democracy and why we feel so strongly about expanding the regime outside of U.S. borders.
I am aware of all the theoretical reasons why expanding democracy is good; it’s easier to trade with democracies which creates interdependence which should lead to more peace between countries. But what is the psychological aspect behind it? Why do we feel threatened when democracy seems to be eroding?
In a world characterized by globalization, many people have found their nationality becoming more emotional. Humans, at our core, are emotional beings, and when our identity appears to be slipping it causes some sort of internal crisis. It is a comfort to know where you came from, what you value, and what you hope for the future.
Hope and democracy are mutually supportive of each other. Much of democracy’s success comes from the willingness of citizens to achieve their goals for what they want the future to look like. If there was no hope, there would be no civil movements that led to the change we have today. When there is a lack of participation (i.e. democracy is eroding), there is no desire to reform, and this is threatening to groups who seek change. Many of the movements that have occurred throughout history, the biggest arguably being the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, have based their arguments for change on democracy’s most basic principle: individual equality for all. Perhaps that is where our attachment to democracy comes from. When we believe that we are entitled to equal rights, it allows us to see the flaws that exist in institutions, and that is when hope is necessary to accelerate improvements within our government. People need to be able to criticize the current system in order to make it better. This is where First Amendment rights come into play, particularly freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of speech quite literally gives everyone a voice, and as emotional beings, we need to be heard in order to feel that we can accomplish the goals that we set.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on individual equality as a form of identity that we use to compare ourselves to other regimes who pride themselves on collectivity rather than individualism. Our relationship with China is a good example of this. We trust that we will always be on top because we are democratic, even if that is not necessarily the case, which creates a sentiment of security that ultimately contributes to our identity. In this sense, expanding democracy abroad not only has material benefits in the form of trade, but also a feeling of relief that we will always be safe.
Many people love democracy because they feel in control of its outcomes. This is true as long as people participate correctly. When polarization gets too extreme, it devalues democracy because party affiliation takes precedence over policy decisions. Democracy works by presenting two options, allowing voters to decide between which option best suits their beliefs and hopes for the future. When your vote is already decided without giving regard to policy, it becomes a competition between two sides as opposed to creating the best government that the people want. Polarization has become a major issue in recent years, but people are starting to take note of it. This is why hope goes hand in hand with democracy. We are starting to set the goal of creating a new dialogue between parties that prioritizes truth and tolerance instead of hatred and propaganda, but it’ll take a while to get there. We just have to hope that we can resolve our issues instead of breaking into further conflict.
Above all, people just want to be assured that what they are doing is right and good. Democracy gives the tools for people to express themselves without penalty, which creates the hope that is needed to push movements forward. However, there needs to be mutual tolerance on both sides in order to affirm what each side believes, thus strengthening the competitive nature which is essential to the democracy we love so much.