Founder James Madison of Virginia, the principal author of our Constitution and fourth president, believed that various constitutional “checks and balances” were our essential safeguards against tyranny and autocracy.

Yale’s Robert Dahl, the leading American political scientist of the 20th century, took exception to Madison in this regard. Dahl insisted that the ultimate safeguard of democracy lay not in a complex network of institutional mechanisms like the separation of powers, staggered terms and judicial review; he argued that the roots of democracy lay deeper, in the internalizing of restraints within the consciences, the attitudes and the behaviors of common citizens.

In Dahl’s view, “We the People” are democracy’s ultimate safeguard.

More recently, in their 2018 book “How Democracies Die,” Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt make the case that blatant military dictatorship has disappeared from much of the world today and democratic backsliding often begins at the ballot box itself. Today, unlike the more distant past, there is no single, militarized moment when democracy gives way to authoritarian and dictatorial leaders – its erosion can and does proceed almost imperceptibly.

Levitzsky and Ziblatt argue that political parties and party leaders are democracy’s gatekeepers and basic defenders. Abdication of this responsibility by political leaders generally marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism. When fear and miscalculation lead party leaders to allow extremists into the mainstream, democracy is in peril. Political institutions alone are not enough to rein in autocrats.

Like Dahl, Levitsky and Ziblatt find that democracies work best when formal, constitutional mechanisms are reinforced by unwritten and widely accepted norms of behavior; without these, constitutional checks are not enough to safeguard democracy. In the United States, three basic norms have been mutual toleration, compromise and restraint in using institutional prerogatives like the Senate filibuster (now used to excess). These norms are democracy’s ultimate guardrails, and they are weakened today, especially from partisan polarization, now morphed into a fixed battle over the social issues of race, gender and culture.


So, how may we put a stop to American democracy’s decline?

In 2019, the American Academy of Arts & Science created a Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship. The commission – including people like Judy Woodruff of PBS, David Brooks of The New York Times and Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute – conducted 47 public listening sessions across America.

In June 2020, the commission released its report, Our Common Purpose, with some 30 recommendations “to better the common good.” It identifies several imperatives at the heart of our nation’s civic dilemma: to achieve equality of voice and representation; to ensure the responsiveness of our political institutions to majority will; to build a civic infrastructure for common purpose, and to inspire commitment to democracy itself.

There is no dearth, then, of thoughtful reforms available, if only we will act in good faith and with good effect.

Most needed is that after decades of war and climate denial, persistent racism and sexism, oppressive income inequality and chronic neglect of the nation’s public health, R&D, and infrastructure, the national government must do all it might to demonstrate anew its ability to make a difference in the lives of America’s working- and middle-class families.

And we might best begin to repair the nation’s wounds by restoring the Founders’ understanding of “civic virtue” as the very linchpin of American public life: that is, by our putting the general welfare or common good before private interest and gain.

We have far to go today in our civic culture. Twenty years ago, in his first budget address to the Maine Legislature, then-Maine Gov. John Baldacci observed that, “As they say in the County, if you find yourself a mile into the woods, and lost, chances are you’ll be at least a mile getting out.”

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