Is American democracy in peril today, endangered by deepening polarization and a president who flaunts democratic norms? Or is it secure, protected by the United States’ Constitution and its system of checks and balances, its long history of stability, and its progress in granting more inclusive and extensive rights over time? I will address this question by turning to earlier periods in US history when democracy – in the form it existed then – was in danger. In fact, American democracy has been roiled by crises time and again, in periods when civil unrest or war or dissolution of the nation seemed imminent, and in some instances it suffered real and lasting harm to key attributes of democracy. Four key threats made democracy vulnerable: (1) rising political polarization; (2) conflict over the boundaries of the political community, particularly the membership and status of those who on the basis of race were excluded or marginalized in the nation’s founding, (3) rising economic inequality, and (4) executive aggrandizement. I will highlight developments in the 1790s and 1890s, and discuss the implications of historical patterns for understanding the state of democracy today.
Suzanne Mettler is the John L. Senior Professor of American Institutions at Cornell University. She conducts research and teaches on American politics and public policy.