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Lee Hamilton: Is democracy in trouble? Maybe, but there is cause for hope

🕐 2 min read

Sometimes I wonder if the world is doomed to descend into autocracy. We read about nations that are already there, like China and Russia. And countries like Hungary and Turkey that are nominally democratic but have been trending less so.

But what strikes me most about reports of global decline in democratic norms and values is how little news coverage is directed toward places where democracy is robust.

There are strong, stable democracies with healthy electoral systems, functioning governments and enthusiastic political participation. Amid concerns about democracy’s future, countries such as Sweden and Australia are shining examples of its staying power.

There is plenty of reason for concern. Many countries are home to anti-democratic movements that reject the basic freedoms, civil liberties, and pluralism that we associate with democracy. Unhappiness with the way democracy is working appears to be rising.

A Pew poll from earlier this summer is alarming. The poll suggests that Americans see declining trust in both the federal government and in one another. They cite poor government performance, fear about corruption of the political process by monied interests, and a general rise in disrespect for others and their beliefs

And yet, over the course of countless public meetings over the years, I don’t ever recall anyone rejecting the Constitution or representative democracy itself. People seem to support the democracy we inhabit.

What may be most interesting about the poll is that even as Americans express their dissatisfaction, they also recognize the stakes and want to see things turned around. And there’s one other point that offers great hope: Younger people, on the whole, seem to be more inclusive and tolerant in their views than their elders, and they have a more positive view of the role of government. Time, in other words, is on the side of democratic values.

So there is cause for optimism. Democracies have great internal strength, and there is every reason to believe that the core democratic processes of deliberation, compromise, negotiation and cooperation will endure.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.

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