The Decline of American Democracy (in one Infographic!)

No definition for the word “democracy” has ever made sense to me but this one: a society of self-governing men and women banded together in self-governing communities–in other words, free citizens that possess the autonomy and power to govern themselves.

I have friends that dwell in some of the earth’s most despotic domains. They are often curious about the workings of America’s republic. I tell them that the genius of American democracy is not to be found in Washington. To see democracy at work, I suggest, they should attend a meeting of an American school board. Nowhere are the duties and virtues of participatory democracy more powerfully expressed than in these small assemblies. What Americans know of self governance, they learned here.  The school boards are the measure of our republic.

We have not been measuring well of late:

Figure 3 in Educational Policy Institute, “The Landscape of Public Education: 

Much of what Frank Bryan had to say almost two decades ago about the declining participation in New England town meetings applies equally here: 

Citizens are not born. They are raised. The single most recurrent theme in the literature on the town meeting in the 19th Century—when town meetings were much stronger than they are now—was the notion that town meetings are schoolhouses of citizenship. It is not a coincidence that Vermont, the place where my work takes place, often leads in measures of civic capital and is also the state that has the strongest town meeting tradition. Meanwhile America’s greatest enterprise—our glorious national Republic—is withering away. We ask our citizens to participate in the selection of our president only once every four years at the cost of less than an hour’s time out of their lives. Despite our best efforts it is difficult to get even half of them to do so. It is time to resuscitate real democracy—that unique blending of conflict and decision at the human scale—in the heartland. I see thick, local democracies—real democracies—as pasture springs in the high hills of the American homeland. From these pasture springs of politics will flow the waters that refresh our national reservoirs of citizenship. We have long known that the nation’s parts cannot survive without the nation’s whole. It is time to recognize that at the most fundamental level the reverse is equally so. [1] (emphasis added).

See Also:

T. Greer, “Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream,” Scholar’s Stage (1 July 2013).

T. Greer, “Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture,” Scholar’s Stage (16 September 2015).


[1] Frank M. Bryan, “An interview with Frank M. Bryan, author of Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works,” University of Chicago Press website (April 2003).

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