The nation’s view of our democracy has always been a unique contradiction of cheering, wailing and disinterest. The shining city on the hill is also a swampy snake pit. The world’s greatest deliberative body is hopelessly corrupt, and the land of opportunity is completely rigged. While opinions vary, the dominant sentiment these days is understandably bleak.
According to a recent bipartisan poll, half the country believes we are in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country,” and over two-thirds of respondents believe democracy is growing weaker by the day. The more optimistic view points to the numerous crises we’ve weathered over the past two centuries and maintains an abiding belief that the structure of the democracy is essentially self-correcting. Public sentiments careen left, right, bold, fearful, populist, elitist, inclusive and uncharitable, yet somehow our democratic society serves as ballast that keeps us afloat despite churning seas.
It takes little effort to describe the despair that has dominated the news over the past few weeks. But as we reflect on Tuesday’s election, it is important to recognize some positive dynamics that should encourage us all to stand in line and embrace our damaged, but not yet broken, democracy.
Engagement by millennials is up. In the latest Millennial Impact Report, Americans between the ages of 22 and 36 – soon to be America’s largest generation – self-reported higher rates of community engagement and activism over the past two years. They’re volunteering more, attending rallies and working on campaigns, and generally more involved in their communities.
Workplaces have actually become more civil. Despite growing concern about incivility in America, a recent survey by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research found that 81 percent of Americans feel tough issues can still be discussed in a civil manner. And nine out of 10 Americans consider their own workplace to be civil, a marked increase from the same poll in 2016. (We can only hope that this polite political discourse extends to Thanksgiving dinners across America.)
More women are running for office. Women presently make up only 20 percent of the current Congress. Yesterday, 22 women who won their party primary competed in one of the 35 Senate contests. In House races, 235 women competed for office. All these achievements are historic highs, and should make the next Congress look a little more like the people who voted for it.
While the above trends are all encouraging, the key to a healthy, participatory democracy is participation. The most significant test of our democracy is not who wins but who votes. Over the previous 10 midterm election cycles, an average of 39.9 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. This percentage has been surprisingly consistent over the past 40 years despite dramatically different political climates and candidates. The previous high-water mark for midterm turnout occurred in 1982, with 42.1 percent participation, and a low of 36.7 percent was recorded in 2014.
The public clearly appreciates the significance of this election. A recent PBS NewsHour poll found that 98 percent of both Democrats and Republicans believed the midterms were either important or very important. Did that voter intensity translate into bringing new people to the polls, or did the passion and fury discourage participation by those who were simply fed up with the fight?
If a spate of divisive races and cacophony of negative ads left you with little enthusiasm for any of the candidates, consider this 170-year-old insight from Alexis de Tocqueville: “Democracy does not give the most skillful government to the people, but it does what the most skillful government is powerless to create: it spreads a restive activity through the whole social body, a superabundant force, an energy that never exists without it.”
It is my great hope that at least 42 percent of the American electorate channeled this restive energy and vote. If turnout reached 45 percent, a superabundant force will have been on display, and it will have been be a great day for American democracy.
Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
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