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The Civic Bargain: How Democracy Survives


Published July 2, 2024

America’s constitutional republic finds itself in an inevitable decline, or so some would say. Political polarization, institutional distrust, and economic uncertainty threaten to fray America’s societal fabric. Decline is only inevitable, however, if we choose it. A recommitment to civic education, dedication to a common good over unilateral perfection, and civic bargaining, Americans can ensure the United States endures and flourishes.

Check out more from Josiah Ober, and learn more about The Civic Bargain:

  • Listen to the Hoover Book Club podcast with Josiah Ober and Brooke Manville as they trace the long progression toward self-government from Classical Athens, Republican Rome, Great Britain’s constitutional monarchy, to America’s founding. What worked? What failed in each case? Together they draw out lessons for how modern democracies can survive and thrive. To listen, click here.
  • Read "What the Ancient Greeks can Teach Us About Democracy" featuring Josiah Ober here.

The opinions expressed in this video are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hoover Institution or Stanford University. ©2024 by the Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University.

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American democracy is in crisis. Political polarization and institutional distrust threaten the fabric of our republic. Some claim the United States is in an inevitable decline. But are we? Is it inevitable? 

Our Constitutional republic has survived crises: civil war, societal unrest, and economic turmoil for nearly three centuries while other states have been short lived and collapsed into tyranny. 

Understanding the conditions from which democracy is born and thrives can determine whether our current crisis will lead to a decline and inform what corrections must be made to ensure American democracy continues to flourish. Global peace, prosperity, and liberty depend on it.

Asked in 1787 at the end of the Constitutional Convention what kind of government the United States will have, Benjamin Franklin famously replied “A republic – if you can keep it.”  These words were laden with responsibility.

Experiments in self-governance like those of Ancient Rome and Athens were rare and asked much of citizens. Benjamin Franklin understood that and recognized our republic demands constant effort to keep it alive to preserve our liberty and rights.

Democracy demands much from us as citizens because, unlike autocracies, there is no boss but ourselves. Citizens govern with one another not over one another. Consequently, this relationship between citizens survives only through civic bargaining. Kings and oligarchs dictate laws and prescribe cultural norms with little need to negotiate or bargain with their subjects. 

Constant compromise and negotiation are, however, integral to democracy. Yet only when certain necessary conditions pertain, can civic bargaining take place from which democracy can emerge.

First, no boss.  Citizens must accept the responsibility of governing themselves directly or through accountable representatives,
States must ensure lawful and peaceful conditions, and the people must have ample opportunity to secure basic means of living.
Collective self-governance by a citizenry must clearly define who is a citizen and who is not.  Citizenship brings with it rights but also duties. Being too inclusive can dilute the value of being a citizen.  Being too exclusive can create resentment.
The institutions of decision-making and conflict resolution must be well designed, so they can be run by, and accountable to, the members of the democracy. 
The survival of democracy depends on citizens’ ability to engage in good faith compromise.  The creation and preservation of a common good must take precedence over unilateral demands for perfection.
To negotiate in good faith, citizens must be able to see one another not as political enemies, but as civic friends, engaged in a shared enterprise, interested in finding common ground.
And lastly, perpetuation of these conditions relies on civic education.  Cultural values, institutional knowledge, and political and societal history must be passed down to future generations to take ownership in self-governance.

These conditions, while necessary for democracy to emerge, must be robustly sustained for it to flourish. When these conditions break down, democracies face decline. When they are abandoned, democracies fail.

There is a growing sense, however, that many of these conditions are weakening. But that should serve as a call to action rather than resignation. The United States has persevered through many external and internal crises and our Constitution was deliberately constructed to self-correct by restoring these conditions.

At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, not everyone signed. It was an imperfect document that did not answer every question or solve every issue, the institution of slavery the most glaring among them. But Benjamin Franklin understood it was the best we could achieve at that moment, and a document that could evolve over time to address its imperfections.

Quote - “I consent because I am not sure that this Constitution is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.”

Franklin’s message to the convention was one that emphasized sacrificing demands for perfection to achieve a common good, trusting that the Constitution was a framework for ongoing civic bargaining, and that issues like slavery, although unsettled, would eventually be resolved.

The United States faces no shortage of challenges, but decline is only inevitable if we choose it. 

American democracy can still flourish through individual civic action, a recommitment to civic education, and the willingness to bargain with our fellow citizens so that we may continue to drive cultural, political, and legal change, and enable peaceful transfers of power. 

The United States, with all its imperfections, has brought more liberty and prosperity to more people than the Founders could have imagined. With courageous and thoughtful civic action from many individuals with diverse interests, but a commitment to a common good, America will continue to thrive and shine as an example to the world.