I have always been proud of the United States as an example of democratic institutions for the world. However, watching modern-day politics and social movements, I am struck and saddened by the fundamental lack of understanding of these core democratic institutions – by both liberals and conservatives – which creates a self-perpetuating cycle that erodes the foundation of our democracy. I am not saying our institutions are perfect; indeed, one of the mechanisms that makes our institutions exemplary is the room for debate, reflection, and self-improvement. But if we simply attack and spread misunderstanding for personal and political gain, we are not taking advantage of this mechanism. It’s time for a little reflection.
Some examples to highlight. The media is often maligned as biased, “liberal,” “establishment,” and deceitful, especially when the coverage is not positive. But a strong, independent media is an indispensable democratic institution. Fundamentally, in a democracy, citizens are expected to hold their representatives accountable (or, conversely, reward them for good representation) at the ballot box. How are citizens to know what their representatives are doing or not doing, what challenges they are facing, and the possible alternatives if they are dissatisfied without an objective third-party evaluation? The media plays this role, perhaps in the aggregate, by reporting on daily news and independent investigations. In a world with no independent media, one can imagine where the evaluation of representatives comes from their own Twitter feed, Facebook pages, or maybe personal speeches, all platforms where the representative would be highly incentivized to highlight their successes and hide their failures. Without the media, citizens lose their best tool for evaluating their representatives, and our accountability and transparency disappears. Without the media, our democracy cannot function.
Another example: the judiciary and law enforcement. The judiciary is part of the checks and balances in our political system. It upholds a rule of law, i.e. everyone is held to the same standards and rules, no more nor no less. While this institution might get glamorized in popular programs like “Law and Order,” at the end of the day the rule of law provides a crime and a check list that must be entirely fulfilled with a certain standard of evidence for each point in order for that crime to be present (I’m vastly oversimplifying here, but you get the idea). So if a grand jury, or the FBI, or a judge fails to check everything in that check list, there can be no charges, even if that outcome is disappointing. Deciding someone is guilty through mob justice is not the rule of law. In fact, it reminds one of historically abhorrent autocratic societies, such as Maoist China or Leninist Soviet Union. The United States is better than those regimes, but only if we uphold our rule of law.
A final example: a strong multi-party system. This seems obvious, but if citizens are to hold their representatives accountable, there needs to be viable alternatives, and if a democracy is to exercise those mechanisms for debate and self-improvement, there needs to be diverse policy proposals under consideration. You can’t debate if the other side lies, or if you simply accuse the other side of lying. You can’t debate if the other side has already determined they will be obstructionist. You can’t hold your representatives accountable if there isn’t an alternative. You’re just stuck.
These institutions – the media, the judiciary, the multi-party system – are imperfect, but they are fundamentally important. That is precisely why we need a democracy to work.