The U.S. used to be a role model for other countries. It was a beacon of hope for immigrants looking for jobs or a place to settle with their families. Now, the U.S. has become a nation no country should aspire to be like — it has become a prime example for what not to do. We are jeopardizing democracy through our arrogance and corruption.
The democratic republic of the U.S. used to embody a torch of freedom and prosperity. The Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 symbolized the failure of socialism. The U.S. was convinced that globalized democracy would bring safety, so it forced its democratic ideals on the rest of the world. We embraced American exceptionalism — the belief that the U.S. sees its history as different from all other countries — and internalized it as a rally cry.
But our democracy is far from perfect. As other countries begin to experiment with different types of democracy, our exceptionalism hubris is preventing progress. With the implementation of mandatory voting in Australia, over 90% of eligible voters typically turn up to vote, compared to the 55% of eligible Americans in the 2016 presidential election. In Estonia, 99%t of public services are online and 44% of Estonians use internet voting, or e-voting, which increases transparency and builds trust in their government. However, in the U.S., we have no desire to improve because we believe we are the epitome of democracy, the status quo other nations must follow. But democracy is not stagnant; it is an evolving definition that must be repeatedly redefined as society becomes more complex to incorporate greater government accountability and the diverse opinions of the people.
We are declining into a bloody partisan battle wherein government officials are more focused on quibbling rather than responding to dying and unemployed constituents. While fundamental democracy asks for mutual tolerance, the two major parties have adopted the ideology that anyone opposing their agenda must be stopped. For the Republican Party, which is mainly composed of white Christians, the influx of immigrants and growing diversity in the U.S. serve as an existential threat to their power and ideological base. Some fear losing their country and elections to outsiders that don’t represent their unrepresentative demographic. But it is not just Republicans. Extreme polarization on both sides has caused people to justify support of their own party (and bashing of the opposition) through undemocratic means.
In line with the destruction of democracy, different branches of government have foregone any remaining forbearance and moral judgement. Even the Supreme Court, conceived as the apolitical court of the nation, has descended into barbaric partisan battles. In 2016, Republicans refused to consider former President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland since it was an election year, resulting in a 10-month Republican blockade. Yet when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died earlier this year, she was replaced a week before the election by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, contradicting the precedent Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) set when he claimed vacant Supreme Court positions should be filled after the presidential election.
Additionally, rampant government corruption has led to elected officials working not for the interest of the people but for the corporations pouring their money into Washington. In 2018, more than 40% of political candidate ads were backed by secret donors with private agendas. The egregious financial cost for election campaigning shuts out potential lay candidates. Now, companies control policymaking, and congressional seats are guarded by the economic elite. As a result, the average American is alienated and has “a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” which directly contradicts our rosy notion of democracy.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, a democracy is “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Our current democracy, however, is of, by and for the elite. Historically, allowing people of color, women and other marginalized groups to vote indicated progressiveness, but insidious voter suppression laws and regulations have stymied voter turnout and canceled out much progress. In 2017, Georgia passed an “exact match” law, allowing authorities to throw out voter registration forms if they did not perfectly align with existing records, which primarily affected minority and disenfranchised groups. From gerrymandering to voter suppression, the right to vote has become less of a right and more of a contract in which terms and conditions apply.
Ultimately, the perfect democracy does not exist. Due to systemic racism, polarization and a myriad of other issues, human nature isn’t compatible with the fragility of democracy. Democracy comes neither from preaching it nor as a freely given title; a true democracy demands more from people than they are willing to give. Democracy must be earned through sacrifice. Democracy requires mutual trust, respect, discipline and a desire to change, none of which we currently possess. In the interest of stopping our nation from becoming the laughingstock of the world (though we already are), we must reject American exceptionalism. We aren’t special because we are the United States of America, nor should we try to democratize other nations without improving our own country first.
The U.S. is no longer the flagship of democracy. Our unyielding ego is hindering any progress. The imminent threat to our democracy lies with nobody else but the people.
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.