Harvard historian Jill Lepore, in an article for The New Yorker, recounts the last time democracy almost died in America and around the world, in the 1930s, “from the Andes to the Urals and the Alps…Americans argued about it, and then they tried to fix it…(American democracy) staggered, weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation.”
The U.S. fell from a full democracy in 2006 to a flawed one in 2016, according to the Democracy Index. Since then, the flaws have only gotten worse, Lepore observed: “misinformation, tribalization, domestic terrorism, human-rights abuses, political intolerance, social-media mob rule, white nationalism, a criminal President, the nobbling of Congress, a corrupt Presidential Administration, assaults on the press, crippling polarization, the undermining of elections, and an epistemological chaos that is the only air that totalitarianism can breathe.”
The people who saved American democracy in the 1930s, she writes, were “schoolteachers, city councillors, librarians, poets, union organizers, artists, precinct workers, soldiers, civil-rights activists, and investigative reporters.” They appealed to Americans’ street smarts: “not necessarily book learning,..reasonableness, open-mindedness, level-headedness.” The federal government funded civic forums in schools and civic halls on the meaning of democracy.
“It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent,” Lepore wrote.