Democracies across the globe are facing foundational questions about if and how democracy is in retreat. Global incidence of democratic instability and the rise of right-wing populism in the United States, Europe, South Asia, and elsewhere has led to a renewed concern about democratic backsliding, as scholars explore the factors that accompany or provoke the collapse of democratic regimes into authoritarianism. The United States is grappling with many of these questions as our current political moment reveals the underlying and in some times longstanding weaknesses in our own democratic infrastructure. From increasingly anxious concerns about Executive power, to persisting gridlock between parties and between Congress and the White House, to concerns about voter access and the modern media environment, this democratic dysfunction manifests in many different forms.
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This debate among scholars, practitioners, and ordinary Americans has opened up a critical set of questions for the long-term future of American democracy. What are the dynamics that best explain the gap between the current state of American democracy and our aspirations for a just, responsive, inclusive, and legitimate democratic order? And what interventions might best help narrow this gap between reality and aspiration?
Drawing on contemporary scholarly and public debates, we suggest in this framing paper an infrastructural, systems-thinking approach to these questions. This approach draws upon the recognition that democratic polities require an interlocking and mutually dependent set of political, economic, and social infrastructures to give rise to a responsive, inclusive, and legitimate democracy. As these infrastructures erode, are broken, or become outdated, democracy’s viability falls. While this paper is not meant to offer a comprehensive literature review, this mapping of the key foundations of democracy can help frame and structure the debate over democracy’s challenges—and inform possible interventions.