A Monitor newsroom debate: Is democracy a 'value'?

Andrew Harnik/AP
The dome of the U.S. Capitol building reflects in the water on Capitol Hill in Washington.

We are having something of a debate within the Monitor newsroom: Is democracy a value?

The literal answer to this question is easy. Democracy is not a value; it is a form of government. But as we explore the values driving news – from respect to equality to hope – democracy comes up an awful lot. 

This week’s cover story helmed by Henry Gass is about justice: What does justice look like when a former president is the one shadowed by criminal allegations? But it is also about democracy. Prosecuting a former president is almost never easy. Most often, it turns citizens against one another, and it drives a loss of faith in the government. But not prosecuting a former president can be worse. After all, if a president can break the law, what kind of democracy do you really have?

Polls show that Americans – and the world – are not terribly enthused about democracy at the moment. A 2020 University of Cambridge study finds that millennials, particularly in Europe, are less satisfied with democracy than they have been in half a century. Only 40% of Texans strongly agree that democracy is the best form of government, according to a 2023 Lyceum poll. The world is facing a “global democratic recession,” researchers say. 

Declining faith in democracy provided former President Donald Trump with fertile ground for his false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. What’s going on?

There are surely a million reasons. But a recent article in The Guardian raises an interesting point. The global democratic crisis of the 1930s followed a period of “complacent overconfidence in the health of democracy.” In the 1920s and then again in the 1990s, historians wondered if we had reached a political end state – if democracy had established itself as the ultimate form of human government. Backsliding followed. 

We see these cycles repeatedly in human history. One might argue that they are human history. Economic cycles of boom and bust. Political cycles of conservative and liberal. Social cycles of racial progress and retrenchment. Fashion cycles of mullets and mom jeans. 

Right now, we are in a cycle of seeing all the annoyances of democracy, which are many. But cycles happen because humans want progress. Demand it, really. We can fall out of love with democracy just as we fall out of love with our sunglasses. But we cannot escape the fact that no form of government yet devised is better at protecting and expanding the things we care about most. So we keep coming back around to it.

In the end, democracy doesn’t need defending, really. As we act with more compassion, more responsibility, more honesty, more fairness, we defend democracy spontaneously. Autocracy and populism are moral laziness. They come from a desire to change others while we ourselves are unwilling to do the same. It is in these scenarios that democracies are least effective. Democracies need us to grow – to live our own values. 

Maybe democracy is not a value. But it is the honest crucible for all our values.

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