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In 1835, just 59 years after the U.S. declared independence, Alexis de Tocqueville published his book Democracy in America. “The democratic republic in the United States continues to exist,” writes the Frenchman, outlining the book’s aim to explain why that is the case.
Tocqueville possessed various admirable aspects, among them his perspective as a foreigner on American soil. But he also took a particular interest in the everyday citizen. In asking how democracy was sustained in the U.S., Tocqueville paid particular attention to not only the importance of strong institutions like an independent judiciary, but also the “habits and mores” of ordinary citizens. To Tocqueville, the democratic dispositions of the average citizen were fundamental to the strength and future of democracy.
I was thinking of Tocqueville this November, as I worked at the local polling place as an election judge. Given the pandemic and tense political atmosphere, I arrived early in the morning at my precinct with some worries. Yet the day passed without incident, and hour after hour, every voter I helped register was able to exercise their right to vote securely and efficiently. By the end of the day, I went home confident that our democracy was as strong as ever.
Indeed, the elections were free, fair and a triumph for American democracy, turning out record numbers of voters. Eighty million votes went to president-elect Biden, over ten million more than the record set in 2008. More than 65 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, the highest figure in more than a century. Despite the constraints of a deadly pandemic, expanded early voting and vote-by-mail made it easier to vote across the country and marked positive steps toward expanding the electorate in the years to come.
However, for some days afterward, the narrative of this democratic success was buried by baseless accusations of fraud. Yet the power to defend our democratic institutions belong not to the president, but to officials in each state. The electoral college is a decentralized system, administered under the authority of diverse state capitals across the country. The legitimacy of the system comes from the people, rather than the executive in Washington. The officials in each state certify the results, and it is they, from Georgia to Michigan, who must uphold their constitutional obligations.
As Tocqueville would say, the dispositions of those citizens—the election workers, bureaucrats and local officials, or more to the point, the people—direct the course of democracy. If those dispositions remain democratic, democracy lives to see another day.
An event hosted by International IDEA on November 19 affirmed the importance of the daily commitment to democracy by the whole of the electorate. Panelists emphasized global trends toward illiberalism. Ann Linde, the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, called attention to the rise of authoritarian tendencies, warning of the “need to act against and formulate a counter-narrative to these negative trends.”
In the U.S., in the wake of false claims of fraud, some polls show that almost a third of the electorate believes the outcome was due to fraud. More concerning is that one in ten people say the outgoing president should not concede “no matter what.” This deterioration of democratic norms is global. Latin America has seen a loss of conviction in the merits of democracy, with polls across the region showing less than half of respondents believe a democratic government is preferable to other forms of government. Some countries remain in better shape than others; Argentina’s 59 percent, for example, compared to 43 percent in Paraguay. But when support dips that low, illiberal ambitions can erode democratic institutions with less resistance.
The Secretary General of International IDEA, Kevin Casas-Zamora, made a case for how “democracy can reform and revitalize itself” over the next quarter-century. Casas-Zamora emphasized the wisdom of taking “lessons from democratic experience from all over the world;” of “leveraging that knowledge and putting it in the hands of leaders and activists;” of “continuously monitoring the health of political systems;” of “accompanying democracy-building processes and lending our impartial and evidence-based advice;” of “building regional and global coalitions of practitioners, activists, and academics;” of “speaking out in defense of democratic values;” and of “insisting that democracy is a global public good that requires multilateral action.”
These are points that all tend toward the same end: The will of the people protects democracy against a singular group of abusers. Such is cultivated through the democratic disposition of each and every citizen.
Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, also turned to history to understand the new American nation. Even “when the power of the Caesars was at its height,” the far-flung corners of the Roman empire “preserved their diverse customs and mores” through “powerful and active municipalities,” granting each part a piece of independence. Although Rome’s power was the “arbiter of all things, the details of social life and of individual existence ordinarily escaped his control.”
To ensure a stable democracy moving forward, perhaps we should pay heed to some pages of our own past, and actively work to preserve our democratic dispositions. Habits, after all, are formed by practice, and can get lost over time. By reaffirming our democratic dispositions, we protect the sanctity of the vote in the future.