The Challenge of Democracy

By Steve Zolno

Democracy is threatened around the world in our day, and many of us wonder what might be done to save it. The answer lies in each of us taking responsibility for its success.

Democracy has been the exception throughout human history. As far back as we can see, most countries have been divided into rulers and those who are ruled. Although it was hoped, particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union, that increasing democratization would be an irreversible trend, we know now that is not the case. The attempt of people in countries once part of the Soviet Union to move in the direction of democracy – Poland and Hungary are examples – has largely been crushed. Other countries that once had a semblance of democracy – the Philippines, Burma, Turkey and Nicaragua to name a few – now are turning toward greater autocracy. Even in long-established democracies there are large “populist” movements working to create division, claiming they are oppressed and that minorities are ruining their country; the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany among them.

We might ask ourselves two essential questions: (1) How has democracy become diminished in so many places? and (2) How do we restore the momentum toward genuine democracy around the world? Answering these questions – and acting on our answers – may be the beginning of safeguarding the rights of everyone, including our own.

To address these questions we first must recognize that there are conflicting impulses within people. We want to develop and act on our own views, but often seek leaders to tell us what to think and do. We want to make the major decisions that affect us, but also seek to align with the traditions of our cultures. At times of change or uncertainty allegiance to authority and conformity may take over.

Where democracies first are successful in protecting human rights and choices, people often take their freedoms for granted. They may allow their countries to turn back in the direction of oppression by backing politicians who champion the rights of some over others. Autocracy can creep in gradually, so that people barely notice, until they have allowed the establishment of an oppressive regime that serves itself in their name and is a threat to the freedom of everyone. Elected leaders throughout history, from Julius Caesar to Donald Trump, have attempted to install themselves as permanent leaders after having been elected to office. 

The preservation of democracy requires the ongoing engagement of us all. Complacency is its greatest danger; only continual vigilance and advocacy can preserve it. When the rights or lives of any of us become diminished, the rights of all are threatened. If we wish to maintain the benefits of democracy for ourselves, we need to champion it for everyone, even those with whom we disagree.

Democracy is not just a political system, but a way of relating to others. We can maintain the best system yet devised to advance the human race by seeing that we all have common needs – both physical and emotional – and supporting each other in meeting those needs. This sense of commonality allows democracies, and those who dwell in them, to flourish.

Knowing we don’t want autocracy is not the same as working to maintain democracy. Criticism of our political leaders by itself will not enable us to keep it. Our democracies are composed of flawed individuals, including every one of us, but our judgments divide us and our compassion unites us. If our everyday conversations – and our educational systems – focus on how to best create the type of institutions and government that best recognizes the value of every human being, we will move toward implementing the democratic vision that best serves us all.

We can wait for others to realize that democracy rests on recognizing the validity of everyone, or we can intentionally bring that principle into our everyday interactions as we acknowledge and support the needs of other human beings. Democracy becomes part of our everyday lives as we listen to others and work with them toward common solutions. This is real populism that can turn the tide back toward a democracy that best serves us all.

Steve Zolno has been leading groups on democracy since 2006 and has published three books on the subject.

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