The democracy we have vs. the democracy we act like we have

by Leesa Danzek

It seems easy for international leaders to comment on the future of democracy. With democracy, sovereignty, and human rights under attack across the globe – from Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s persecution of Uyghurs to the assault on the rights of women and trans people in the United States – the script can nearly write itself. 

In fact, the soapbox speech should be easy to write. From the United States’ perspective and that of the greater West, good versus bad is particularly clear from this side of the field. Sanctions on Putin and Russia’s oligarchy equals good. The atrocities in Bucha and the treatment of women in Iran equal bad. 

Depending on what side of the field you stand on, however, the view can be different. In U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s recent conversation with a Georgetown University audience, she emphasized that human rights are not afforded universal recognition and suggested that the infrastructure of the UN does not lend to certain consequential outcomes. It is no shock that such values are not universal and that without the weight of the world, not all players are capable of being influenced or held accountable. 

The lack of universality or some sort of full-court press, however, should not imply that exporters of such values can too cut moral corners. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield made this clear, describing her childhood in the segregated American South and institutional racism as indicators of America’s own imperfections, as well as both the ability to improve and the need for further improvement. 

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff also pointed to such a duality in his remarks at the Promoting Equitable Gender Norms to Foster Democratic Resilience event as part of the Summit for Democracy at Georgetown University. In addition to outlining women’s rights under attack in Iran, Afghanistan, and Russia, he cited the number of American states enacting laws “that restrict women’s access to abortion and reproductive health care,” putting “women’s lives at risk.” He connected the inequalities experienced by women today to gaps in democracy before previewing new USAID initiatives to support “women’s political empowerment” in countries regularly characterized as developing democracies, as well as extending efforts to aid the political participation of women. 

Such initiatives are wise and necessary, a signal that anything less than the full participation of women is less than democracy. As Vice President Kamala Harris professed, “the status of women is the status of democracy.” 

And although it is true, leaders on their soapboxes should be wary of speaking on American hypocrisy while exporting American ideals without enforcing them within American borders. The partisan divide and party in power determine American dedication to truly American ideals, and young people are seeing the disconnect. 

As part of the Global Democracy Coalition’s Partners for Democracy Day, Democracy and Governance students held a panel on the future of democracy and democracy assistance. A recurring theme was the recognition of the absence of responsive governance in democracies. Throughout the discussion, students highlighted the distrust of government systems to resolve political and policy problems, as well as general feelings of alienation from political parties. These discontents manifest in many ways, turning young people toward heightened protest and various wings of populism in an effort to achieve responsive governance. 

So what does all this mean for preaching from the pulpit of democratic governance? 

In the United States, policy conflicts with public opinion. A majority of Americans disapprove of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, and, in a surprising victory for federalism, even voters in states that attempted abortion bans opposed such policies. 

Policy disagreeing with the will of the people can really be a symptom of policymakers disregarding public demand. We’re seeing it play out in real-time as many Tennessee state lawmakers refuse to support the demands of young people calling for gun control following the shooting at The Covenant School that killed six. 

If the lack of response to those who voted to elect them is not democratic erosion, perhaps it is the expulsion of elected officials who disagree with the majority. 

This is exactly what happened in Tennessee just days after student protests on gun control. Republican members of the Tennessee state House of Representatives voted to remove two Democratic lawmakers from the body for violating decorum and joining the young protestors just days prior. 

If removing duly-elected members of office for questionable violations of decorum does not raise red flags, maybe the retaliation of the majority party in response to how minority party officials vote should. 

But are unchecked bodies in power the true problem?

James Madison writes in Federalist Papers No. 10 (1787), “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Could it be the case that we’re still battling the same challenges to democracy as we were centuries ago? Have we become so consumed by partisanship and the corporatization of political parties in America that we’ve handed over power from the collective public to the loudest minority of voices who run political parties? Have political parties come to represent factions who compete for control despite the will of the people? 

It is the challenge of federal lawmakers to stand from the soapbox and fund democracy assistance while looking inward to combat the erosion of democracy at home. The power of leading by example should not be lost on us – not because it necessarily creates better outcomes – but because it is both the will of the people and legitimizes American efforts to support democracy abroad.

Leesa Danzek is a first-year MA student in the Democracy and Governance program at Georgetown University, with a background in public affairs and political campaigns. Her interests include the role of civil society in democratization and democratic backsliding, as well as leveraging storytelling in support of democracy, civil rights, and human rights. She is an Assistant Editor with Democracy & Society and a freelance communications consultant.