Recently, the Biden administration hosted the Democracy Summit — a convening of leaders and organizations representing democracies around the world. The political context for these meetings is at once urgent and dire, including, and perhaps especially, here in the U.S.
Signs of democratic breakdown are everywhere: partisan manipulation of electoral procedures, disbelief in election outcomes, distrust in political institutions and legislative gridlock that never seems to break. Harvard’s recent Youth Poll revealed that 52 percent of young Americans believe U.S. democracy is either “in trouble” or “failing.”
Post-summit, as a reform agenda takes shape, leaders in Washington must be on notice: Democracy will not be saved through strictly legal or technocratic interventions. Its redemption requires a diverse coalition of attorneys and politicians, yes, but also activists, organizers, businesspeople, journalists, clergy and academics.
Our legislative systems and separation of powers make broad coalitions a virtual prerequisite for major policy change. And when this change is in the service of democracy itself, diversity is indispensable to combat the cynicism, demagoguery and divisive strategies that sit at the center of the autocrat’s project.
President Joe Biden seems to understand this. In a speech in July, he denounced the efforts of some state legislatures to politicize the administration of elections. Biden advocated not only for congressional action, but also for a broad movement in the service of democratic renewal.
We can learn from the lessons of past democracy movements. In the United States, the progressive era of the early 20th century was a time of economic and social upheaval that resulted in new checks on corporate power, a slew of labor laws and a modern civil service.
But it also was a time of democratic revival. Reformers established the nation’s first direct primaries, ballot initiatives and recall elections that were intended to guard against political corruption and patronage. Through the 19th Amendment women were finally given a voice in the democratic process.
These were the hard-fought victories of a coalition of social scientists, philosophers, Social-Gospel Christians, novelists, muckraking journalists, teachers, social workers and others.
And so it was during the civil rights movement that followed, when racial minorities joined coalitions of faith leaders, students and activists to demand the fuller benefits of citizenship. Their efforts made politically possible the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Similar examples of diverse coalitions defending democracy can be found abroad. The autocrat’s playbook — elements of which we have seen in the United States — includes changing procedures for nominating and appointing judges, imposing mandatory retirement ages to rid the courts of independent judges, placing the courts under executive power and, as a last resort, simply ignoring and refusing to publish unfriendly decisions.
To the extent that opposition groups and international bodies have succeeded in resisting these strategies, it has come from a diverse assembly of grassroots organizations, civil society groups and social movements.
Worldwide, the movements that have defended and improved democratic governance have largely been broad, involving multiple classes and organizations. They have drawn upon the expertise and commitments of lawyers and politicians, but also of journalists, academics, community organizers, activists, artists and the business community.
If Biden is to do his part to meet the profound challenges of this moment, he, too, must raise the voices of a truly diverse coalition of democracy reformers.
William G. Howell and Susan C. Stokes are professors at the University of Chicago. Howell is director of the Center for Effective Government, and Stokes is director of the Chicago Center on Democracy.