IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

America's democracy is failing — and the world knows it

Where does America turn when its democracy is in distress?
Photo illustration: Torn up paper showing a close-up of an ionic column taped together with red colored tape.
American democracy is coming apart at the seams.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

A number of non-governmental organizations that have long worked to rebuild communities in countries beset by violent and intractable conflicts — places that have collapsed under the weight of mass atrocities, political assassinations, authoritarian take overs, and widespread citizen violence — have shifted focus to a new subject: The United States.

For a country that has long thought of itself as a beacon of democracy, this is a wake-up call.

At this moment, our country is in great need of lessons on what it takes to restore crumbling political systems. This week, the United States was added to a list of “backsliding” democracies in an annual report on the global state of democracy, marking a serious decline in international observers’ assessments of our political stability.

In naming the U.S. to the list for the first time, the report’s authors — Sweden’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) — pointed to the “visible deterioration of democracy” in the United States on several criteria, including unwillingness to accept credible election results, voter participation suppression efforts, increasing polarization, and declines in civil liberties.

For a country that has long thought of itself as a beacon of democracy, this is a wake-up call.

There are a lot of different ways that democracies can fail. Some collapse under the weight of political leaders who assume authoritarian control, arrest opponents, or refuse to allow new elections to take place. Others suffer at the hands of citizens who support political violence, dehumanize other political parties as “evil,” or call for civil war. Still others struggle with voter suppression and intimidation efforts, weakened trust in institutions, and falling political participation.

The U.S. is facing all these problems, and more. We are witnessing challenges to the integrity of elections, rooted in disinformation spread by our own elected officials and in widespread conspiracies that circulate online. A third of election poll workers reported feeling unsafe this year, after an “unprecedented” number of them received threats. The violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 came at the hands of thousands of ordinary citizens who aimed to disrupt the democratic certification of the presidential election and prevent President Joe Biden from taking office.

There is a particular urgency in the U.S. warning signs, not least because we are a nation of citizens who are now armed at previously unimaginable levels.

We also face rising harassment and violence from extremist groups, citizen vigilantes, and unlawful militias who threaten minority groups, disrupt our freedom of assembly and demonstration with shows of violent force, and violate civil rights like the right to “public accommodations,” as recent court rulings have shown. We have seen repeated violent attacks, harassment, and even death threats directed at front-line workers and public officials, including school board members, health care workers, teachers, flight attendants, and restaurant hostesses.

The U.S. isn’t the only democracy that is eroding. Democratic stability is backsliding across the globe, as nations suffer from compromised elections, dismantled checks on government, challenges to a free media, and reductions of minority protections. But there is a particular urgency in the U.S. warning signs, not least because we are a nation of citizens who are now armed at previously unimaginable levels. This year is on track to be the second-highest year of firearm sales in history, following a “record shattering” year in 2020, in which 21 million background checks for firearms sales took place — far above the average of about 8.6 million annual checks.

Luckily, just because a democracy is in crisis does not mean it will collapse. On average, it takes about a decade from the onset of democratic backsliding to end in either democratic breakdown or recovery. But we are long overdue for a course correction.

Aside from international NGOs focusing on fixing America’s democracy, we can learn from the experiences of foreign governments throughout history, too. Germany’s post-World War II efforts to strengthen democracy include a wide variety of investments that simultaneously tackle right-wing extremism, racism, and antisemitism. South Africa built a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the atrocities of apartheid and provide a path to restorative justice and healing.

These cases demonstrate that it is possible — with sustained educational, national, and community investments — to create more informed citizens, restore trust across dividing lines, energize youth engagement, and reduce political violence. Doing so requires significant educational and media literacy programming. It requires engagement across sectors, through partnerships with civil society, the tech and media sector, local governments, and faith communities. Ultimately, restoring democracy requires creating a nation in which every citizen and resident feels part of a shared community in which they have a voice and a path to a common future.

We are a long way from that kind of shared community. And in the end, saving our own democracy will require more than the efforts of a few committed citizens. The kind of effort we need to turn our backsliding democracy around cannot be done if the federal government doesn’t lead the charge with serious resource investments.

At its heart, this work is about resilience, rooted in an understanding that democracies must be nurtured through education and not just defended with force. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the U.S. made unprecedented investments in our security infrastructure. We created an entire new agency — the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — whose mission is to “secure the nation from the many threats we face.” But now, the call is coming from inside the house: the biggest threats to our nation are ones we’ve created ourselves.