We live in a dangerous world and need to be clearheaded about the challenges confronting us. Yet we are also beset by increasingly evident downdraft in democratic resilience in countries that have long been part of the West. In many democratic countries, we are seeing a rise in demagogic populism, illiberalism, nationalism and protectionism. There is fading confidence in free markets and institutions of democracy.
This is due, it must be said, in significant part to the failure of the democracies to deliver on the promise of a better life for many of their citizens. Indeed, the recent recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 to 2009 has been characterized by exacerbated income inequality and wage stagnation across the democratic world.
America, too, is not immune from the rise of illiberalism. We have seen partisan and racial confrontation cynically fostered to the point that racists and nativists have been emboldened. But as President George W. Bush said in New York City last Thursday, “Bigotry or white nationalism in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.”
In order for America to be a credible advocate for democracy and markets worldwide, democracy and the market place in the United States have to be seen, by Americans and others alike, to be working here. So we have proposed a series of actions that can be taken by individuals, organizations and governing institutions, both to strengthen our democracy and to revive the faith of Americans in it. In “The Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In the World” paper, we gather these recommendations in four interrelated baskets.
Harden our defenses
Both the general public and those overseeing our political process need to be more alert to and resilient in the face of growing attacks from external enemies on American democracy. Arguably the most insidious danger is the effort by Russia to poison and distort American political discourse and undermine the credibility of our election process.
This is an extraordinary development, and immediate action is required to secure our elections infrastructure, to enhance transparency in the financing that is creeping into social media, and to train our youth to be savvier consumers of news and information by enhancing their media literacy.
Project American leadership
The United States remains the indispensable nation. Yet many Americans have grown weary of the burdens of global leadership and unsure about its benefits. One way to ease the fatigue is to show the American people how U.S. engagement and global leadership is in their self interest.
We need to recommit as a nation to free trade and make a compelling case to the American people that they benefit. This also requires a new effort to provide meaningful assistance for displaced workers. Our military and political leaders need to explain how democratic allies help make America safer. Congress needs to provide the necessary funding for America’s diplomacy and development assistance, and to sustain support for democratic advancement worldwide.
Strengthen the American citizen
Today’s political polarization is having a pernicious effect, dividing us rather than unifying us, causing us to view others as aliens instead of as fellow citizens and, increasingly, to view those of another political persuasion as unpatriotic.
So we need to revivify our identity as Americans and embrace the shared responsibilities of citizenship in a free society. Two areas for focus and renewal are civic learning and civic service. There are many excellent efforts underway across the country that should be supported and expanded.
Restore trust in democratic institutions
Over the last several decades, we have experienced a nearly a loss of faith in public and private institutions, including government, Congress and the Supreme Court, organized religion and public schools, the media, big business, and organized labor. In our call to action paper, we offer concrete ideas for three institutions: the media, religious institutions and higher education. But we call on all major institutions to take steps to begin rebuilding confidence.
This is a time to resist those who would seek to manipulate our democracy from abroad, a time to replenish our exhausted stores of moral capital and confidence at home, a time to remind ourselves of the ideals of our republic, and a time to better address the needs and desires of the American public through our free institutions and not against them. It is, in other words, a time for patriotic seriousness. It is a time for action.
Thomas O. Melia served as a senior State Department official in the Obama administration and is now a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.