Capstone: American Democracy is Under Threat

The 2020 Capstone lecture series continued with a virtual lecture from Providence College Professor William Hudson. 

The 2020 Capstone lecture series continued with a virtual lecture from Providence College Professor William Hudson. Hudson published the book American Democracy in Peril in 1993, in which he analyzed eight factors challenging the future of democracy in the United States. In Hudson’s lecture, he highlighted three additional elements that continue to disrupt democracy: partisan polarization, the decline of democratic norms, and the diminishing role of the government.

Hudson began by emphasizing the need to define democracy, as he believes the term has become a “fraud concept” with multiple meanings. He differentiated between direct democracy, a traditional system where the whole nation votes on specific issues, and representative democracy, where the people “elect representatives who deliberate and pass laws.” Direct democracy has become “impossible” for the United States due to its large population so the nation has adopted representative democracy, which still preserves the democratic aspect of electoral processes.

With that in mind, Hudson introduced the first issue: partisan polarization. He asserted that Americans are “sharply divided” due to diverging viewpoints on public policy issues. According to Hudson, Congress has become greatly polarized today, with Democrats and Republicans “voting [in different] ways” compared to the 1960’s, when splitting tickets and sharing ideologies across parties were common. 

Though Hudson agreed that differentiation between parties is necessary to some extent, he stated that the ideal model for party partisanship is to vote “on the basis of [our] stances” and careful analysis on the issues rather than negative partisanship. Nevertheless, Hudson believes that it is difficult to reach compromises, as politicians cooperating with another political party are often associated with disloyalty and treachery. At large, the development of identity politics in the United States has resulted in partisan gridlock, where legislation votes are becoming increasingly politicized. 

Hudson then shifted to how people undermine democratic norms, particularly mutual toleration and forbearance. He highlighted the importance of recognizing legitimacy among “opposite” political parties to foster mutual toleration. Furthermore, Hudson stated that a party must not have the ability to “rig the [political] game and undermine basic electoral institutions” that define democracy. He noted that both mutual recognition and the willingness of forbearance have declined in the United States, a serious symptom that may “destroy trust necessary for democracy” and become a source of political retaliation.

Finally, Hudson claimed that increasing the role of the federal government is necessary. In Hudson’s viewpoint, the significance of the government's role in the past must not be overlooked, as the federal government played a crucial role in  sending the first man to the moon and building the Interstate Highway System. Hudson affirmed that the lack of governmental administrative institutions has surfaced amid the COVID-19 health crisis as well with the government delaying “what needs to be done.” 

Following Hudson’s lecture, Natalia Ibarra ’20 reflected, “[Hudson] said that a democracy needs mutual tolerance and forbearance to survive, which I had never thought about...I had never thought about the decline in democratic norms, so it was interesting to learn something new. Since I've grown up watching [debates] it was interesting to hear how they held up for decades and weren't expected to fall since they had been around for so long.”

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