Skip to content

Latest Stories

Top Stories

Oxymoronic but essential: Why Biden needs to name a democracy czar

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams has had great success defending democracy at the state level. Perhaps she could lead efforts for the Biden administration, writes Warren.

Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
Warren founded Generation Citizen, which engages young people in political activism to promote their civic education, and a visiting fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which seeks to strengthen global democracy by improving civic engagement and inclusive dialogue.

When Joe Biden becomes president in four weeks, he will face an unprecedented number of crises. An unabated global pandemic. An increasingly unequal and fragile economy on the verge of recession. A climate rapidly worsening. A generational fight for racial justice causing a society-wide reckoning.

All are monumental, potentially existential challenges. But it will be impossible to make progress on any of these problems without addressing perhaps the most profound crisis the new administration will face — the crisis in democracy itself.

A fight for the survival of democracy requires a solution that may seem laughable, but is completely necessary. The new president needs to appoint a democracy czar.

This crisis in democracy has not solely been caused by the autocratic tendencies of President Trump, and will not go away when he leaves office. Over the last several decades, the American people have become increasingly distrustful of a system of governance they feel has produced more cronyism than results. The sobering statistics are endless but include: Fewer than 20 percent of Americans trust the federal government to do the right thing, a historic low, and fewer than 30 percent of young people even think democracy is the best form of governance.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

And despite an election that by all accounts was free and fair, historically high levels of polarization remain — stimulated by a Republican Party that has put winning above democracy, meaning tens of millions still wrongfully believe Biden was not rightfully elected president.

While these numbers are alarming, the democratic backsliding and erosion is not just an American trend. Across the world, democracy is at the precipice. Wholesale change, wrought by automation of the economy and societal demographics, is provoking fear. Societies are questioning whether democracy can actually work. And across the world, leaders from Hungary to Thailand to the United States have been taking advantage.

So if the president-elect wants to have any chance of succeeding in his ambitious policy agenda, he must make restoring democracy an urgent priority. And to help spur this critical rebuilding project, he should put a single person in charge as soon as he's inaugurated.

Yes, the term "democracy czar" is oxymoronic. An all-powerful individual to restore collective action and trust amid the masses?

But the appointment of John Kerry as "climate czar" demonstrates the potential for such an approach. Kerry's role, while sitting on the National Security Council, will be to coordinate the administration's response to the climate crisis across multiple agencies. Rather than environmental policy becoming the work of any one department, the former secretary of state and 2004 presidential nominee will have the stature to ensure each Cabinet secretary makes climate change a priority, whether they are coordinating international relations or farm programs.

While some have called for a whole new Department of Democracy, a democracy czar would similarly and nimbly push the interdepartmental prioritization of democracy essential to restoring trust in the American public and across the world.

This official could start by following through on the "democracy summit" Biden promised in the campaign, bringing together countries to focus on fighting corruption, defeating authoritarianism and promoting human rights. A similar, but domestic, summit could include civil rights and voting organizations, educators and civic engagement groups.

Beyond such meetings, an effective approach to democracy would require a broad inter-departmental approach.

It would ensure the State Department prioritizes the fight for democracy in its policies — not through imposing an American-version of the governance concept, but by actively supporting grassroots, pro-democracy efforts in countries such as Thailand, Uganda and Venezuela. It would mean the Justice Department reversing the voter suppression that defined the Trump era, through ensuring new regulations put teeth back in the Voting Rights Act and protect election systems at the local level. It would mean the Education Department ensuring schools prioritize educating for democracy through a revitalization and deep investment in civics education. And it could mean the Health and Human Services Department helping register people to vote when they use or go online with Medicare and Medicaid.

The federal government can prioritize democracy with initiatives to actively encourage citizen involvement. This year has seen an unprecedented amount of citizen action — not only record turnout for the election but the furthering of social movements like the Movement for Black Lives and mass actions on climate, immigration and women's rights. A democracy czar could make sure these movements do not see themselves as oppositional to the government, but instead make sure they build durable power by helping inform and guide federal policy.

Several prominent people are well-suited to lend gravitas to such a position. Stacey Abrams, who's received deserved plaudits for her work organizing and protecting the vote in Georgia, could build on this success at the national level. Deval Patrick built a strong record of civic engagement as governor of Massachusetts, and his brief 2020 presidential campaign explicitly promoted a "democracy agenda" that included making voting accessible and secure, universal national service and strengthening democratic institutions.

Many of Biden's policy proposals are focused on outcomes — a rebuilt economy, for starters, then reforms of the immigration, education and energy systems. None will be sustainable without a robust democracy that encourages citizen engagement, fosters dialogue and ensures Americans of all stripes feel the government truly cares about them and listens to their opinions.

No person can solve all of these challenges. But in an unprecedented moment, innovative solutions are required. A democracy czar would show the Biden administration's commitment — not only to solving for the challenges of today, but to making sure the American democratic experiment continues into the future.

Read More

Podcast: How do police feel about gun control?

Podcast: How do police feel about gun control?

Jesus "Eddie" Campa, former Chief Deputy of the El Paso County Sheriff's Department and former Chief of Police for Marshall Texas, discusses the recent school shooting in Uvalde and how loose restrictions on gun ownership complicate the lives of law enforcement on this episode of YDHTY.

Listen now

Podcast: Why conspiracy theories thrive in both democracies and autocracies

Podcast: Why conspiracy theories thrive in both democracies and autocracies

There's something natural and organic about perceiving that the people in power are out to advance their own interests. It's in part because it’s often true. Governments actually do keep secrets from the public. Politicians engage in scandals. There often is corruption at high levels. So, we don't want citizens in a democracy to be too trusting of their politicians. It's healthy to be skeptical of the state and its real abuses and tendencies towards secrecy. The danger is when this distrust gets redirected, not toward the state, but targets innocent people who are not actually responsible for people's problems.

On this episode of "Democracy Paradox" Scott Radnitz explains why conspiracy theories thrive in both democracies and autocracies.

Your Take:  The Price of Freedom

Your Take: The Price of Freedom

Our question about the price of freedom received a light response. We asked:

What price have you, your friends or your family paid for the freedom we enjoy? And what price would you willingly pay?

It was a question born out of the horror of images from Ukraine. We hope that the news about the Jan. 6 commission and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination was so riveting that this question was overlooked. We considered another possibility that the images were so traumatic, that our readers didn’t want to consider the question for themselves. We saw the price Ukrainians paid.

One response came from a veteran who noted that being willing to pay the ultimate price for one’s country and surviving was a gift that was repaid over and over throughout his life. “I know exactly what it is like to accept that you are a dead man,” he said. What most closely mirrored my own experience was a respondent who noted her lack of payment in blood, sweat or tears, yet chose to volunteer in helping others exercise their freedom.

Personally, my price includes service to our nation, too. The price I paid was the loss of my former life, which included a husband, a home and a seemingly secure job to enter the political fray with a message of partisan healing and hope for the future. This work isn’t risking my life, but it’s the price I’ve paid.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

Given the earnest question we asked, and the meager responses, I am also left wondering if we think at all about the price of freedom? Or have we all become so entitled to our freedom that we fail to defend freedom for others? Or was the question poorly timed?

I read another respondent’s words as an indicator of his pacifism. And another veteran who simply stated his years of service. And that was it. Four responses to a question that lives in my heart every day. We look forward to hearing Your Take on other topics. Feel free to share questions to which you’d like to respond.

Keep ReadingShow less
No, autocracies don't make economies great

libre de droit/Getty Images

No, autocracies don't make economies great

Tom G. Palmer has been involved in the advance of democratic free-market policies and reforms around the globe for more than three decades. He is executive vice president for international programs at Atlas Network and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

One argument frequently advanced for abandoning the messy business of democratic deliberation is that all those checks and balances, hearings and debates, judicial review and individual rights get in the way of development. What’s needed is action, not more empty debate or selfish individualism!

In the words of European autocrat Viktor Orbán, “No policy-specific debates are needed now, the alternatives in front of us are obvious…[W]e need to understand that for rebuilding the economy it is not theories that are needed but rather thirty robust lads who start working to implement what we all know needs to be done.” See! Just thirty robust lads and one far-sighted overseer and you’re on the way to a great economy!

Keep ReadingShow less
Podcast: A right-wing perspective on Jan. 6th and the 2020 election

Podcast: A right-wing perspective on Jan. 6th and the 2020 election

Peter Wood is an anthropologist and president of the National Association of Scholars. He believes—like many Americans on the right—that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and the January 6th riots were incited by the left in collusion with the FBI. He’s also the author of a new book called Wrath: America Enraged, which wrestles with our politics of anger and counsels conservatives on how to respond to perceived aggression.

Where does America go from here? In this episode, Peter joins Ciaran O’Connor for a frank conversation about the role of anger in our politics as well as the nature of truth, trust, and conspiracy theories.

Keep ReadingShow less