American Democracy Today - Fighting For It, Working at It

Tom Daschle is Founder and CEO of The Daschle Group and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for American Progress, having previously served as U.S. Senate Majority Leader. You may follow him on Twitter @TomDaschle


A SUCCESSFUL democratic republic relies on four primary pillars. Each are essential to its quality and permanence. Oftentimes they are difficult to construct and even harder to maintain. It is not uncommon for one or more of the pillars to erode and crumble, with no option but to reconstruct the pillar once it is gone.

The first is tolerance. It is virtually impossible to achieve complete tolerance in any society, but there is no more basic need in any true democracy than to recognize the importance of diversity. A strong democracy relies on its citizens’ ability to accept their dissimilarities and demonstrate a respect for differences of race, religion, philosophy, gender, and lifestyle.

In many respects, over the past two centuries, tolerance in the United States has grown significantly. Yet, we are still deeply burdened by a level of intolerance around almost every one of the differences that exist in our society. This intolerance continues to provoke conflict and even violence. As a result, the quality of our democracy has suffered. There can be little satisfaction in recognizing that a greater degree of intolerance can easily be found elsewhere in the world. Our country cannot achieve its full potential until we become a much more tolerant society.

The second essential pillar for a successful democratic republic is respect for the rule of law. Corruption corrodes every element of governmental infrastructure, while destroying the very essence of its purpose. Its importance to the quality of any democracy cannot be overstated: there is a direct correlation between adherence to legal principles and people’s confidence in the basic institutions of governance. Too many countries in the world today have failed to recognize the importance of this pillar.

But that has been true throughout history. While the United States has generally adhered to a healthy respect for the rule of law, there have been many instances in the past 220 years when our country has fallen short. Scandals at all levels of government continue to remind us that the maintaining this pillar remains a very difficult but essential factor in the quality of our governance.

There is a significant distinction between enacting laws and enforcing them. Many countries, including the United States, proclaim support and adherence to vital constitutional and statutory principles. However, acknowledgment of the importance of these principles is insufficient. The real test is found in enactment and enforcement. Transparency is catalytic to doing so.

The third critical pillar is the level of participation on the part of a country’s citizenry. Participation is so essential that all countries actually mandate certain elements of it. Taxation, education, healthcare, and military conscription are all examples of mandatory participation found to varying degrees in countries around the world. In some places, political participation in the form of mandatory voting is also practiced.

The United States has a mixed record when it comes to participation. Most Americans pay their taxes, educate their children, and now subscribe to health insurance—in part as a result of statutory mandates. But, because it is not mandatory, a very small minority of us enlist in the Armed Forces or engage in public service.

Even more discouraging is American voter turnout. Only 38 percent of all registered voters bothered to vote in the last election. In some primary contests, voter turnout is literally in the single digits. This lack of involvement can be attributed to public disgust with politicians and the political process, but the result is that extraordinary power and influence shifts to a small, unrepresentative group of people simply by default.

The final pillar is leadership. Without it there is little national direction or achievement (at best) and anarchy (at worst). Consistently high quality leadership is also virtually impossible to attain. American leaders have risen to the occasion repeatedly when their country depended on it. From our founding fathers to Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, we have benefitted immensely from strong, capable leadership at times when we have needed it the most.

But we have also paid the price for leaders who failed to meet the tests of their time. That is true not only of our presidents, but of Congressional leadership as well.

A common topic for debate in the United States over the past several years has been the leadership of President Barack Obama. He has been the subject of extraordinary derision from conservative and even sometimes progressive sources ever since taking the oath of office.

Yet, I believe that history will judge President Obama well. His list of impressive accomplishments in his two terms in office have rarely been matched by his predecessors.

Beginning with saving the country from an all-out depression in 2009; enacting the first stages of universal healthcare after more than one hundred years of efforts to do so; prohibiting discrimination based on sexual preference; establishing normalized relations with Cuba after 60 years; the recent agreement with Iran to ban the development of nuclear weapons, and reducing greenhouse gases as we confront the growing threat of climate change are but a few illustrative examples of his leadership.

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