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May 06, 2024 ABA Task Force for American Democracy

Why Democracy?

Nisha Lee and Katherine Moss

Origins of Democracy: Ancient Greece and Medieval England

Governance by democracy, or the active participation of citizens in self-rule, originated in ancient Athens. Indeed, our word ‘democracy’ stems from the Greek for people (demos) and rule (kratos). Democracy in ancient Athens was not inclusive, but limited to free men who were citizens of Athens; women, slaves, children, and non-citizens had no vote. However, those who could vote were required to, and it was a direct democracy. Furthermore, the Athenians established The Council of Five Hundred (boule), in which 500 citizens were elected annually to serve in the government making laws and regulating the city-state. The Council would pay participants a modest sum, and serving was considered an ordinary part of life—not something just reserved for the politically ambitious. Failure to serve when elected in this direct form of democracy could attract fines or public shame.

Athenian democracy was unknown in medieval England. The monarchs in England had restraints on their rule until a baronial revolt during the inept and rapacious reign of King John (1199-1216) eventually led to increased self-governance by some free men in English society. Self-governance in medieval England expanded in the thirteenth century through several factors: (1) restraints on the actions and traditional revenues of the monarch (Magna Carta); (2) the tradition—started in 1225—that taxes levied by the crown had to be approved by the upper classes of society; (3) the inclusion of lower classes—the knights and burgesses—in governance by the usurper Simon de Montfort during his short rule of England in the 1260s, which many consider to be the first ‘parliament’; and (4) prevailing canon (church) law doctrines that ‘what touches all must be approved by all’. By the end of the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), parliament was established, bringing a representative form of self-government in which multiple social classes participated in law-making, taxation, and discussing state affairs. Parliament remained exclusive, however, with women, slaves, and serfs not participating.

With the rise of humanism in the 16th and 17th centuries, ancient Greek ideas of democracy began to inform the established English parliamentary democracy. Further, in the early 17th century Chief Justice Coke’s revivified interest in using his interpretation of Magna Carta as a shield against overreaching Stuart monarchs and as a tool for individual liberties was dominating the legal-political scene. Recurrent clashes between Parliament, the English law courts, and the monarch (who looked to France as a model of establishing an absolutist monarchy) eventually led to reforms in England’s form of representative Parliamentary democracy and the safeguarding of some individual liberties through the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act. The turbulent disputes of the 17th century would have been history that the American Founding Fathers knew well. These disputes about who should govern, what form that should take, and the importance of the individual would have directly informed their deliberations as they sought to establish a new nation.

American Democracy’s Development Through Time

American Democracy is as dynamic as the nation itself. Much like the economy and political atmosphere of the country, the way democracy is understood and implemented changes over time. While the country may be going through a difficult period, it is by no means the first time the American people have doubted their government. And through the push and pull of public opinion, democracy has always adapted. A brief history of major coalitions of American political ideology illustrates this.

Democracy started off quite narrowly. Fearing a tyranny of the majority (and having a limited view of what an American “citizen” was), the Founders implemented structural elements that were anti-majoritarian, such as the Electoral College. In 1924, for example, Andrew Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote and the electoral college but lost the presidency in the House of Representatives’ contingent process. Some people rebelled against the “elitism” that allowed for such a democratic failure. Then, when Jackson did become president, his coalition came in as a rallying cry for the common man, meaning white men. Later, the Civil War Amendments and Civil Rights Act of 1866 expanded the concept of citizenship. Then, as the tides turned again, the Reconstruction coalition propped up big businesses as the economy became industrialized and promises of removals of racial barriers to franchise took a back seat. But then the economy crashed, and the New Deal coalition came to power, and brought with them a renewed emphasis on liberalism and civil rights. Here, the 1965 Voter Rights Act was passed, and arguably, this was the first time America became a true democracy. And then, after a wave of civil rights expansion, the pendulum swung back, and in came Conservatism, where changes to voter registration were implemented.

American democracy has always been a question of progress, not finality. While we are now in a period of political fragmentation, history suggests that this may not be lasting.

The Disconnect from Democracy in the United States and Abroad

Lately it seems that there is a growing global sense of anxiety instead of excitement when looking toward the future. This anxiety is not unfounded: in 2020, life expectancy in the United States fell for the first time; inflation is pushing home ownership, a traditional bellwether for economic security, further out of reach for newer generations; a global pandemic killed around 3 million people, according to the World Health Organization; and the United States, for many an excellent example of democracy, faced an insurrection on January 6th, 2021. Polls show that Americans’ trust in government is also lower than ever before, and some are losing faith in democracy itself. Democracy is a form of government that relies on the trust of its participants, otherwise, the system will fail. In this Working Paper, we explain why democracy, when implemented well, can be a vehicle for positive change instead of a cause for concern.

The Reasons for Feelings of Disconnection

There are many reasons Americans feel disconnected from democracy, and we have listed some major reasons below. If even some of these concerns can be addressed on a large scale, we believe American faith in democracy can be put on the path to recovery.

A Dissatisfaction with Candidates for Election

Many Americans believe that candidates running for public office (at least with high positions in government) are out of touch with the issues most important to the average American. A contributing reason for this is the economic disparity between politicians and voters. In 2020, the majority of Congress members were millionaires, whereas the average American household income was less than 1/10th of that, coming in at $67,521. A 2015 Pew research survey revealed that 76% of participants felt that money has a greater influence on politics and elected officials currently than in the past, and that 64% of all Americans believe the high cost of a presidential campaign “discourages good candidates from running.”

Rights Most Under Threat
                                                             All Americans Republicans Democrats
Speech, 1st Amendment 26% 38% 14%
Guns, 2nd Amendment 21% 38% 4%
Religion 6% 12% 2%
Privacy, 4th Amendment 4% 6% 0%
Abortion, women's rights 19% 1% 36%
Voting, elections 7% 2% 12%
Gun control, safety 7% 3% 8%
LGBTQ+ rights 4% 0% 8%

Americans also believe politicians and candidates are less trustworthy than in the past. In fact, just 22% of the public say that most elected officials put the interests of the country ahead of their own interests; 74% say they put their own interests ahead of the nation’s. Whether this is due to economic disparity or political scandals, it is clear that Americans feel that those running for government offices do not represent the “ordinary” American.

Finally, candidates running for office in the U.S. have become more polarized over time, with the number of moderates running for office decreasing. While it is true that American politics have become more polarized in recent times, American voters are less ideologically polarized than they think they are (although they are affectively polarized—meaning they strongly dislike and distrust members of the opposite party). This misconception is strongest among the most politically engaged people. The disparity between where leaders are ideologically and where their voters are precludes legislative policy agreement on many issues because average voters are not able to assert their (often weak) policy preferences.

% who say __ to ensure equal rights for all Americans regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

% who say __ to ensure equal rights for all Americans regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds.

*Asian adults were interviewed in English only. Notes: White, Black and Asian adults include those who report being only one race and are not Hispanic. Hispanics are of any race. No answer responses not shown. Source: Survey of U.S adults conducted July 8-18, 2021 PEW Research Center

A Dissatisfaction with the System of Government

Especially due to recent presidential election controversies, many Americans feel that the way we elect the President is no longer working. From a 2022 survey, about 63% of U.S. adults believe the President should be elected by a nationwide popular vote instead of the Electoral College. A major reason for this could be that the Electoral College allows a candidate to win the presidency without winning the popular vote, like the 2000 election of George Bush and the 2016 election of Donald Trump.

Perhaps even more detrimentally, regardless of the type of system we have in place, a large group of Americans believe that our elections are fraudulent. A 2023 poll found 30% of respondents believe that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election due to voter fraud.

A Feeling That the Political System is Stacked Against Them

With a two-party system and a population of around 332 million people of diverse racial and ethnic origins, it is easy to understand that many minority groups do not feel represented by their senators or congresspeople. While, as a nation, we have made many strides to overcome the structural biases built into our political system, many feel that these biases have not been eliminated. A 2021 Pew Research Survey found that half of American adults say “a lot” more needs to be done to ensure equal rights for all Americans regardless of their race, while about 34% say that a little needs to be done, and 15% say nothing needs to be done. Out of those who believe “a lot” needs to be done, they are fairly split on how to go about achieving this: half believe necessary changes can be made within the current system, and half believe most laws and institutions need to be rebuilt due to fundamental structural bias.

The feeling that the system is stacked against people is not just limited to minorities or race— a 2017 poll found 55% of white Americans felt discriminated against on the basis of their race, and a 2021 survey found that 8 in 10 Republicans felt the current system is stacked against conservatives and people with traditional values.

Youth Disengagement

The younger generations (younger millennials and Gen Z) are politically active in ways that differ from the past generations. During the 2022 midterm elections, only about 27% of young people (aged 18-29) voted. But that it not to say that young people are uninterested in politics. Young people are often at the forefront of social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too. In May of 2020, 38% of young Americans (ages 18-24) surveyed said they posted political content online in the past 7 days, and 70% said they received information about the 2020 election on social media. In a survey of young people aged 18-29 in 2022 where respondents were asked to select the three most important issues they are the most concerned about, 41% selected inflation/gas prices, 29% selected abortion, 25% selected jobs that pay a living wage, 23% selected climate change, and 19% selected gun violence. Furthermore, younger people are trending towards alternative sources of news to keep them updated on current events. A 2022 Pew Research study shows a quarter of U.S. adults under 30 regularly get their news from TikTok.

Youth Who Didn't Vote in 2022 Cited Lack of Time, Information, Other Barriers

Youth Who Didn't Vote in 2022 Cited Lack of Time, Information, Other Barriers

CIRCLE 2022 Post-Election Youth Survey

Ideas on How to Reconnect People with Democracy

Understanding the Difference Between Political Movements versus Political Parties

Americans tend to tightly align themselves with a political party, and often feel a strong sense of identity in which party they belong to. A 2017 study found Americans feel more strongly attached to their political party than even their race or religion. As the graphic to the left indicates, members of each party are taking increasingly polarized positions on political issues.

More Democrats Take Liberal Positions, More Republicans Take Conservative Positions

More Democrats Take Liberal Positions, More Republicans Take Conservative Positions

2014 Political Polarization in the American Public. Pew Research Center

Ideological consistency based on a scale of 10 political values questions (see Appendix A). Republicans include Republican-leaning independents; Democrats include Democratic-leaning independents (see Appendix B).

Provide Youth with Active and Meaningful Participation in Political Activity

Growing up in a new age of technology, Gen-Z generally responds to political messaging in a different way than previous generations. Based on in-depth interviews with Gen-Z participants, researchers have found that overall, Gen-Z is suspicious of traditional advertising. They are more likely to pay attention to digital advertising that comes across as more authentic—messages that are brief, use humor, and shared through social media. They especially respond to unfiltered messages that capture the “messiness” of real life. When it comes to what messages resonate with them, they respond well to compelling stories, and often open dialogue around them. Research also shows that regarding politicians, Gen-Z prefers to see a candidate’s personal side (again showing their preference for authenticity), and dislike when candidates speak in political jargon or come across as untransparent.

Liberal democracy based on the expert assessments and index by V-Dem, ranging form 0 to 1 (most democratic).

Note: Shown is the "period life expectancy." This is the average number of years a newborn would live if age-specific mortality rates in the current year were to stay the same throughout its life.

Life Expectancy Vs. Liberal Democracy, 2021

Life Expectancy Vs. Liberal Democracy, 2021

UN WPP (2022); Zijdeman et al. (2015); Riley (2005); OWID based on V-Dem (v-13).

Explain Why Democracy, as a Form of Government, Is Ultimately Best for Its Citizens

The Government Effectiveness Index captures perceptions of the quality of public services, the civil service, and policy formulation and implementation (positive values mean higher effectiveness). Liberal democracy is based on expert assessments and an index by V-Dem, ranging from 0 to 1 (most democratic).

Government Effectiveness vs. Liberal Democracy, 2021

Government Effectiveness vs. Liberal Democracy, 2021

OWID based on V-Dem (v13); World Bank via V-Dem(v13)

Protecting democracy in America is critical, as democracy impacts almost every aspect of our nation. When it comes to our economy, studies show that foreign economic policymakers largely prefer to trade with democracies over non-democracies, likely because democracy provides a stable and reliable government for trade. Democracy also promotes innovation in technological performance, which is an essential element of a healthy economy. Perhaps even more importantly, democratic countries have healthier people, resulting in longer life expectancies, as shown to the left.

Further, democracies are simply more effective at providing for the basic needs of their citizens. Democracies also have more educated populations because, overall, citizens of democracy spend more time in school than citizens of other forms of government.

National School Life Expectancy and EIU Democracy Index

National School Life Expectancy and EIU Democracy Index

Friedrich Huebler,, December 2008

And probably most importantly, democracies are more effective at protecting human rights.

Based on the expert assessments and indices by V-dem, ranging from 0 to 1 (most rights / most democratic).

Human Rights Index vs. Electoral Democracy Index, 2022

Human Rights Index vs. Electoral Democracy Index, 2022

OWID based on V-Dem (v13)

As evidenced from the facts above, democracy affects almost every aspect of American life, and these are easy to take for granted. Based on the information above, statistically, living in a democracy makes a person more likely to live a longer, healthier, and more prosperous life than a person living in a different type of government. These facts alone show the protection of American democracy is essential for the well-being of its citizens.

Possible Solutions to Restore American Faith in Democracy:

  • Leverage NGOs currently working on these issues.
  • Encourage younger and more relatable politicians to run for office.
  • Implement term limits or age caps to congressmen or judges.
  • Provide support to moderate candidates running from either party.
  • Pass laws tightening security on elections/implementing more non-partisan checks on elections.
  • Support the creation of a viable third party.
  • Increase comparative media coverage of other countries and their democratic journeys (to show that a perfect democracy is unachievable, and on the world scale, the U.S. is overall more “democratic” than many other countries)
  • Pass more legislation on the inflammatory spread of “fake news” via social media and traditional media.
  • Lower the voting age to 17 (research shows this increases voter participation among young people, as most are still living with their parents at 17, who encourage them to vote) Tik Tok and other social media campaigns to engage youth.

This document has been submitted to the Task Force for American Democracy for consideration and has been posted and/or circulated for information purposes only. The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author(s) and not those of the Task Force or the ABA. They have not been reviewed or approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position of the Association or any of its entities. This publication is freely available to download, copy and distribute provided there is attribution to the ABA Task Force for American Democracy, and provided this notice is reproduced on all copies.

    Nisha Lee

    Georgia State College of Law

    Nisha Lee is a second-year law student at GSU Law. She graduated from Georgia Tech in 2020, where she majored in public policy. During her time in undergrad, she worked for several public sector organizations, including the Georgia Lt. Governor's Office and Lucy McBath's congressional campaign. After her time at Georgia Tech, she worked at Comcast for two years on the Government Affairs team, where she served as a project manager for a large settlement negotiation. So far, during her time at GSU, she has interned in the CDC's Office of General Counsel and hopes to practice health law in the future.

    Katherine Moss

    Georgia State College of Law

    Katherine Moss is a second-year law student at Georgia State College of Law. After graduating from the University of Georgia in 2016 she joined the Army as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Officer. During her time in the military, she served in several different roles, including Platoon Leader and EOD Officer-in-Charge of North-West Africa in support of Special Operations-Africa. While at GSU, she enjoys participating in Pro-Bono opportunities, and has completed an internship with the Federal Defenders Program for the Northern District of Georgia. In her free time, you can find Katherine enjoying Italian food, reading fantasy novels, and spending time with her family.