America’s Fragile Democracy


America is a 245-year-old experiment in democratic governance that is in grave danger of vanishing from the globe. Oh, you say, why are you so pessimistic? It never, ever occurred to me that I would see in my lifetime so much ill-will and downright ignorance embraced by millions of Americans. And then, as I began to ponder why so many Americans had reached this point, an “aha” moment struck me. Perhaps the stars had aligned to cast such a dark shadow.

Let’s begin with our fading civic culture, the social glue of trust that is essential for living with one another, add substance to the rule of law, and hold our institutions together. America’s civic culture has been spiraling downward for decades, although most Americans are blissfully unaware. There is no single cataclysmic event that made this happen, but one can point to several events that in toto are responsible.

Consider abolishment of the military draft in 1973 when the United States Armed Forces moved to an all-volunteer military. Ordinary Americans—men then—were no longer deemed necessary to form a fighting force to defend the country or save the world for democracy, as both World Wars I & II demanded. The socialization of young men as citizen soldiers and democracy avatars came to an end.

The next star that came into alignment was on the educational front. As a youngster, the daily school routine started with “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Today, neither schools nor teachers can require youngsters to take the pledge because of many legal challenges over the years. Some parents claim that a mandatory pledge violates First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the Constitution. Others claim that the pledge discriminates on religious grounds (the “under God” phrase adopted in 1954 to differentiate American values from those advanced by the Soviet Union).

Another educational star that has been largely extinguished is the teaching of democratic citizenship and duty. Where in our high schools or universities does a student learn about the values that are essential to democratic citizenship? The answer to this question is both easy and disarming—nowhere! As a high school student in rural America, I and my fellow students were required to take a class on “citizenship” that began with a discussion of the values embedded in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. In his first State of the Union address, in 1790, George Washington implored Congress to invest in higher education to teach students the subtle and difficult art of good democratic citizenship.  Alas, America’s higher educational institutions have failed to heed President Washington’s admonishment.

The last star to align is authoritarianism. Do you value liberty? Free speech? The right to assemble? Transparency? Surely you do, as I do. All are anathema to strong-man rule. Yet, millions of Americans are in the thrall of authoritarianism—governance by edict from on high. Americans either through laziness, plain ignorance, or an inability to grasp the fundamentals of democratic governance find strong-man rule (authoritarianism) a viable alternative. Woe are we!

So, dear friends, is the fragile experiment of democracy in America about to shatter? It is not easy to be optimistic, is it?  Americans must summon the energy, courage, and political will to break up the constellation above—no easy but necessary task for patriots. We must not let the fragile but grand experiment in democratic governance fail.

Don Menzel is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his recent move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.

13 Replies to “America’s Fragile Democracy”

  1. Some very significant points are made in this clearly written piece., e. g. the threat of authoritarianism.
    And it raises some points for further consideration…for example…the two World Wars were not just about democracy.. many economic and political issues were involved. The role of entrepreneurs like Ford is worth examining.
    The pros and cons of a mandatory draft and overall militarization are worth discussing.
    Thank you for bringing these issues to the fore.

    1. Thank you Marilyn for your thoughtful comments. As U note, WW I&II were about more than democracy, but that’s yet another story, a long one–isn’t it? Yet, is it imaginable that modern Germany & Japan would emerge from the rubble to be truly working democracies in their own way? Hard to imagine, says me.

      1. A very well written and thought provoking article on the demise of Democracy in our country. You have nailed the key points. Secularism in our schools where there is indoctrination rather than education in the values which made our country strong and unified. Democracy is when the people rule through their elected representatives. Now our representatives say openly “do as I say but not as I do” We have moved to authoritarian rule. See the mandates now? They are not constitutional but are released every day on an ovine population. When President Obama was elected Mr Putin said,” we no longer have to fear America because it is already a socialist country.” The truth of that statement is obvious now. In the sixties we placed a bunch of hippies who espoused a globalist philosophy and they are now in charge of educating our children. Thanks for the article.

  2. Civic culture doesn’t necessarily come from embracing the military. It can these days even lead to righteous division. A recent example being signs such as “I stand for the flag and kneel for God.” One might even argue that the other way around is more heartfelt.

    Schools do still teach civics.

    I do agree that trust, and beliefs, are at the core of our discontent these days. Advancements in science and communication technology may contribute to that destabilization. Maybe it’s a good thing, if we can each realize what’s important to us, turn off the noise, and live in peace and harmony.

    1. Thanks Peter for the very informed comments. Of course civic culture is not the product of just a military experience–but, having served in the USAF as a “Cold War warrior” when the draft was still in its heyday, it is a powerful influence.

      Thanks also for the civics link–I sure would like to know more about the H’boro class on civics. Is it required of all students? And, given the description listed in the link, the class itself sounds like a hodge pod of subjects–makes me wonder if the civics component gets washed out, much like the subject of ethics when it is fused with “across the curriculum” type approach.

      Oh, your point about science and communication technology has much to do with the fostering of mistrust among citizens and cynicism about the role of government and elected officials, to mention a few things.

  3. This month’s Atlantic has a very detailed analysis of Jan 6 that may be of interest. As a naturalized Citizen for 40 years it shattered my belief that this could never happen in America, having had to study the Gettysburg address in my 5th grade class in India. What shocked me was how close the election was in the end. Winston Churchill is said to have said.. “Americans will do the right thing in the end after exhausting all other options”. Sadly 74 Million chose not to do so when all was said and done.

    1. Well put Bharat. Shattered is the right word, nor did I ever, ever think it possible that I would witness a Jan. 6th in America. America’s path is strewn with the debris of the insurrection–and it “ain’t over.”

  4. Thanks Don,
    Yes a concern, but –
    if 30 % percent still believe what the Trumpers, the MAGAs, QAnons, White Supremists, Proud Boys, the KKK, … FOX and the GOP with the help of Dark Money and the KGB are saying and 70% do not, then we hold-the-center, and like Gettysburg, the Union will be better by fire and we will carry the day.

  5. Wonderfully put, Don. Like Bharat, I came to America in search of freedom. Previously, I had lived under 3 totalitarian regimes, escaping one of them under death penalty. I agree 100% with you–we need to be very alert and active to save our democracy! We still trust in God, and may God bless America!

  6. Powerful testimony Junia. Edmund Burke is often quoted: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Tis time for good men and women to step forward and bring the authoritarian monster to heal!

  7. Don, I read your article with interest; however, I disagree with you on several points. I do agree that the return to civics classes in school would be valuable, and I would begin teaching the basics early on. But these classes have to be made interesting and not become the boring recitation of dates and facts that I myself listened to in high school.

    On the other hand, I don’t understand the value of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in schools or before sporting events – or before any other public gathering, for that matter. Other countries view this behavior as bizarre, akin to a “loyalty pledge.” (THE WEEK, 7-19-2019)

    I also question the idea that, by eliminating the draft, “The socialization of young men as citizen soldiers and democracy avatars came to an end.” Is that how Vietnam War vets saw themselves, as avatars for democracy? As someone who has read memoirs and novels written by US soldiers, and those from the Vietnam War in particular, I don’t believe that many of them saw themselves in that light.

    However, I do see the benefits of a draft if it leads to anti-war protests similar to the ones in the Vietnam War era. As author Eliott Ackerman wrote in his TIME essay dated 10-19-2019, “Imagine if we lived in a society where the commitment of 18- and 19-year-olds to a combat zone generated the same breathless attention as a college-admissions scandal. Imagine Twitter with a draft going on; snowplow parents along with millennial cancel culture could save us by canceling the next unnecessary war….(can) we blame civilians for their apathy? No one asked them to care about the wars. How to make them care? His answer was the draft. It’s become mine too.”

    1. Wow Lucinda! Thanks so much for your thoughtful criticism. A few thoughts . . . reciting the pledge is a “loyalty pledge” that most patriots find it valuable. I, for one as a Cold War Warrior aboard B-52s, am filled with emotion and thankfulness whenever I put my hand on my heart, stare at that wonderful flag, and recite the pledge. Ordinary Americans like people of other nations need to be reminded of our history and commitment to democratic values, not “what’s in it for me?”

      Teaching civics is boring? Well, I suppose if one’s idea of teaching is filling a youngsters head with facts. Is teaching physics or mathematics boring? You betcha if the teacher wants to make it so. I was a math major in college and I can’t remember a single math class (okay, maybe calculus) that was boring. So, it seems to me that it’s not the subject matter, but how it is approached that matters.

      As for “avatars for democracy” I agree that most vets do not see themselves in that role but that doesn’t mean they are not. Vets as combatants and those who give their life in service to the U.S.A. are not doing so b/c they are ordered to–one thing drilled into the head of every active duty soldier is the sobering reality of death for a cause, not a paycheck or job security.

      Thanks again.

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