It’s a common refrain, heard in schoolyards and on sidewalks. By itself, it’s an argument, a simple statement of fact asserting the right to do and say anything, within reason.
“It’s a free country.”
The sense that America is “free,” that its government derives its power from the people and not the other way around, is drummed into the minds of young citizens at an early age. It’s a system we often take for granted: The country is free because we are governed by a democracy. We cast votes. We speak out. It has always been that way, and it always will be.
But will it?
This weekend, a new traveling exhibit from the National Museum of American History debuts in Omaha at the Durham Museum. “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith” uses artifacts, photos and multimedia displays to explore the story of U.S. democracy: from its revolutionary origins through the empowerment of African-American and women voters to the rights and responsibilities of the modern citizen.
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The exhibit, according to the museum, is part of a national wave of educational initiatives on democratic government and civics. It’s a mission that today seems all the more urgent as political scientists and watchdog organizations observe what they say is an alarming trend: a worldwide erosion of democracy.
“We’re seeing these trends unfold before us in advanced, industrialized democracies. And that’s new for us,” said Erika Moreno, associate professor of political science at Creighton University. Among some groups, Moreno said, “there’s a generalized sense that democracy isn’t working.”
This year, Freedom House, a government-funded watchdog organization frequently cited by political scientists and others, released a report titled “Democracy in Retreat.” The report chronicles many troubling global developments: a surge in instances of ethnic cleansing, increasing attacks on the free press, poor treatment of migrant people and a decline in traditional democratic norms, like term limits for executives and free and fair elections.
The report notes the rise of nationalist and populist movements worldwide, including in Brazil, where the far-right Jair Bolsonaro was elected president last year. It also criticizes increasingly despotic behavior in formerly democratic countries, like that of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, where journalists have been jailed and protests violently suppressed.
Other research points to a shift in attitudes. According to the World Values Survey, an international network of social scientists that studies changing values and their impact, support for the very idea of democracy has declined among younger generations.
When asked by the survey to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how “essential” it is to live in a democracy, 72 percent of Americans born before World War II chose 10. Only 30 percent of people born after 1980 felt the same.
Political scientists have observed similar trends in new or fragile democracies around the world for years. What’s new, Moreno said, is that now, observers are seeing them on the rise in countries considered democratic stalwarts like Australia, the United Kingdom, Sweden and the United States.
While Freedom House still ranks the U.S. as solidly “free,” its latest aggregate score “puts American democracy closer to struggling counterparts like Croatia than to traditional peers such as Germany or the United Kingdom.”
The 2019 report asserts that democratic norms and institutions face increasing strain under President Donald Trump, citing his attacks on the free press and the judiciary. In addition, the report says Trump’s support for autocrats including Russian President Vladimir Putin weakens the case for democracy worldwide.
But the underlying causes of receding faith in the modern democratic system run much deeper.
Many scholars say the trend originates with an increasingly global world economy: As the world’s wealth has increased in recent decades, most of the money has flowed to either the wealthiest class or to workers in industrializing countries, leaving out low- and medium-skilled workers in long-industrialized democracies, the Freedom House report states.
And this has caused many in those democracies to become fed up with the whole system, said Brett Kyle, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“People are losing faith ... because of a sense that the system has not served them well and that democracy itself is failing to address these high levels of economic inequality,” Kyle said.
Moreno agreed: “Globalization plays a role there. Allowing for the free flow of capital and ideas has been very closely tied to the ideal of democracy, as well. ... If globalization has negatively affected you, because of its close association with democracy, some people are OK with throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
This may sound extreme. But to some, the idea that Americans in particular have held an unwavering commitment to democratic ideals — openness, accountability to the public and robust debate — until very recently is flawed. In fact, research has shown that most Americans are more ambivalent about an open democratic system than even they might realize.
In 2002, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John Hibbing published “Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work.” In the book, the authors explore research that indicates most Americans would rather not trouble themselves with the business of politics. In practice, most would be fine with a government acting mostly behind the scenes, as long as its policies are in the public’s best interest.
“For most people, politics isn’t all that fun. It’s messy, and it requires you to be informed about things. They’re busy with their daily lives,” said Hibbing, still a professor at the university. “They would love a system that works pretty smoothly, that would not require them to daily get into the trenches of politics to make these difficult decisions.”
The research underlines a broader point, Hibbing said: Most people support a governing system only as long as it serves their own interests. He tells an old story about a researcher who once asked a Chinese peasant what he thought about democracy.
The peasant answered: “I would be supportive of democracy if it would bring me more cows.”
“It’s suggestive of how it is for a lot of people,” Hibbing said. “If democracy does not bring them economic prosperity, would they be for democracy?”
Another major factor driving the downward trend in faith in democracy, Hibbing said, is cultural intolerance: Worldwide, many have fears of various groups immigrating and “replacing” established populations. In the U.S., Trump campaigned on promises to build a border wall with Mexico. In 2016, the U.K. voted to withdraw from the European Union, and has been dealing with the potential economic fallout ever since.
“There are people that ... feel so strongly about it that they are willing to get somebody in (office) who may not be deeply committed to democracy,” Hibbing said.
Though their research often takes a detached, academic tone, most political scientists are strongly supportive of democracy and are “deeply worried” about some of the things they’re seeing, Hibbing said.
Because there are real benefits to a democratic system.
Research shows that democracy is associated with a higher standard of living, Moreno said. Democracies also tend to be more peaceful, especially with each other.
“They do fight authoritarian regimes quite frequently,” Moreno said, but “the spread of democracy is seen as an important contributor to world peace.”
So how, then, can concerned citizens fight the downward trend?
Start with changing the conversation, Hibbing said. Instead of focusing only on how the civic machinery works in ideal conditions and paying lip service to the glory of the democratic process, start admitting that democracy has always been and will always be a hairy business. It’s argument. It’s compromise. It’s more complicated than getting your way.
“Some people don’t appreciate how diverse the United States is in terms of politics,” Hibbing said. “Democracy is a flowering of these differences. It’s not some strong guy coming in and saying ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ That’s what populists do. That’s what fascists do.”
Above all, Moreno said, get involved and stay engaged. Many people tend to feel discouraged when they see developments they have no say in happening at the highest levels of government.
But there are countless opportunities to make a difference at lower levels, she said, like a school district or a city. Go to meetings. Stay informed.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the soap opera at the federal level. And, yes, you can’t affect the soap opera,” she said. “But you can have an impact on whether you get your potholes filled or whether your school district cuts its language programs.”