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American Democracy Needs to Face its People Problem

Earth’s “beacon of democracy” has a people problem. In 2001, according to Pew Research, 60% of Americans trusted Washington to do the right thing “always” or “most of the time”. Eighteen years later, only 17% of Americans would say the same. A year after that survey was taken, America’s political system palpably feels like it’s on the brink. There has been open theorizing about the death of American democracy as well as the fear of another Civil War. And, after a deeply divisive election, the tensions between the two Americas are at an all-time high. Despite the differences between “red” and “blue” America, perhaps the people populating them aren’t as different as they seem. A year fraught with protests, some against masks, others against racial injustice, expose a common thread in American society: rage against a political system that many feel does not represent them. 

That rage is legitimate. A country that claims to be a representative democracy doesn’t seem to represent its citizens interests nearly as much as it should. The inaction of Congress during the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many of the societal flaws that people feel every day. For far too long, many people were on the brink without medical insurance, savings, college funds or disposable income. When the pandemic hit, the lower you were socioeconomically, the less likely it was that you were able to adapt your job in a digital environment. Many of those who couldn’t adapt lost their employment, their healthcare, their ability to pay rent and their children’s effective daycare, school. This situation has been deteriorating for months but Congress’s stimulus talks are moving slowly, with vacations and long weekends in between. 

The recent rise of unconventional leaders represents a reclamation of political power among those who feel powerless. A common refrain from Trump supporters over the past 5 years is that “he’s not a normal politician” and he’s an outsider coming to “drain the swamp” from the “elites”. The idea that there’s a political establishment that looks down on regular people is a common one. According to an NBC/WSJ poll, 70% of Americans are angry at the political establishment because they believe that they only represent insiders with money and power. And the political establishment, filled with Ivy League educated lawyers who’ve been circling the calendar for the day they run for president, really don’t help themselves in this regard. Let’s take the other side of the aisle. The GOP loves to deride Alexandria Ocasio Cortez for previously being a bartender. What these politicos fail to understand is that people don’t love AOC “in spite of her being a bartender”. They love her because of it. She represents the sentiment that a Yale-educated lawyer is not inherently better than a bartender. And there are more bartenders in the voter base than Yale-educated lawyers. Trump and AOC have passionate followings because they give a voice to working class people. They constantly make the distinction between “us” and “them” as they announce that “I’m going to fight for you”. 

American politics must adapt to become more representative of its people and their interests or face collapse. A new political landscape should inspire the same basic sentiments of representation that Trump and AOC do. Politicians don’t need to become celebrities like the aforementioned two, but they should develop a deep connection with their communities. They should talk to and register voters at protests. They should door knock and canvass all year round. They should reach out to the communities in their jurisdictions that support them and the ones that don’t. Moreover, Congress should legitimately try to address the interests of its people. Despite popular belief, there is a lot that “red” and “blue” America agree on. For example, 72% of Americans would support a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package that would help unemployed Americans and struggling small businesses. If the political system continues to let these people suffer, it will become even more vulnerable to the rise of populist authoritarians or the dissolution of the social contract between the American people and its government.

Obviously, this is easier said than done. We cannot ignore the structural flaws in the political system, such as gerrymandering, money in politics and the alternate media ecosystems that Americans live in. However, American politics must take a step towards systemic reform because a government that inspires little trust, rampant fury and a hyper partisan refusal to govern is one that is destined for dark days ahead. 

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