Through Thick and Thin: Understanding Democracy and its Consequences in the United States

By Zak Schneider
2021, Vol. 13 No. 09 | pg. 1/1


One of the key ways to measure and analyze the performance of such expansive countries such as the United States is to look at their institutions and corresponding values. This paper offers a framework of thin democracy, the institutions, norms, and end goals that are broadly accepted by Americans in order to wage political conflict through peaceful means. And thick democracy, or a more complex sense of civic understanding that permeates at the mass level. Then, this work delves into the American case study of democratic erosion, looking through the lens of both thin and thick democratic elements.

The almost mythological conception of American democracy and governance is undeniable. As Alexis De Tocqueville (1835) artfully exclaimed in his iconic book Democracy in America, “America is the only country in which it has been possible to witness the natural and tranquil growth of society.” Describing the glittering and seemingly untouched North American coastlines as well as the quickly maturing young country, Tocuqville shared his inspiration thoughtfully. Describing an interplay of competing values, Tocuqville warmly describes the American project citing the deep commitments to values such as liberty, equality, and democracy. America truly was a pioneer in democracy and the values that accompanied it at the time of Tocqueville. Over time, many other observers have fawned over a dogmatic scripture-like perception of America and its treasured democracy. TV personality Sean Hannity takes it to another level saying that America is “the greatest country God ever gave us.” This almost supernatural mythology of “America is the greatest country ” has been historically tightly wound into the discussion of democratic ideals. (Jensen, 2019) People often (and perhaps rightly--to an extent) attribute the greatness of America to lie in its ideals and institutions. However, as Tocqueville later elaborated on democracy and the American state, the glowing picture of America will always be threatened with an imperfect reality. “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults,” Tocqueville wrote in 1835. The ability of America to come to terms with the cracks in “her” greatness will prove vital for the future of the American project as we know it.

One of the key ways to measure and analyze the performance of such expansive countries such as the United States is to look at their institutions and corresponding values. America was birthed out of fundamental (though hypocritical) ideas of equality, freedom, and self-governance. These lofty ideals manifested themselves in the population at an individual level and, to be realized at a political level, supplanted the monarchical world order that existed at the time of the founding. The invention of democratic governance--while not beginning in America--was first pioneered in style and scale in a modern state through the American system. Democracy is a complex structural web of institutions and values that were pioneered on a large scale in the American consciousness. However, “democracy” has been usurped as dogmatic scripture for the American collective mythology without actually filling the collective consciousness of Americans in recent years--manifesting in the growth of undemocratic institutions and political thought.

Thick and Thin Conceptions of Democracy

Democracy itself has a complex and nuanced definition. There are the practices and physical processes that account for what we deem as “democratic,” as well as the social consensus of value judgments that are required to sustain a democratic polity. Briefly, this paper delves into the different definitions and roles of “thick and thin” democracy and presents a framework that assists in the analyzation of democratic erosion more broadly. The “Thin” democracies are judged on their accountability to citizen preferences, as well as the resulting manifestations of those preferences in complex institutional arrangements through elite actors. “Thick” democracy entails something deeper: a cultivated civic consciousness of engagement and recognition of social, political, and economic egalitarianism in a society. It must be noted that both forms of measuring democracy are subjective--but notably the latter (thick) definition.1 In order to unpack the intricacies of the recent structural cracks and erosion in democratic governance, one must first understand the core tenets of what a democracy is in practice--or more accurately, in its idealized form.

Thin Democracy

At the most basic level, democracy is built by strong and resilient institutions that house and manage ideological conflict to govern in order to build a governing system that works for the people. This system is built upon an “ensemble of patterns that determines the method of access to principal offices; the characteristics of the actors admitted to or excluded from such access; the strategies that actors may use to gain access; and the rules that are followed in the making of publicly binding decisions.” (Schmitter and Karl, 1991) According to Schmitter and Karl (1991), the end result usually manifests itself through decisions made at the mass level. However, different organizational patterns and structures to accomplish these goals through different participatory models are what this “thin” democratic structure is built on. In the United States, this loose idea of democratic governance theory meshes with broad ideologies that encompass liberalism, and pluralism--among others. (French, 2020). This first appearance of democracy is the most basic “thin” conception of what a democracy strives to achieve: a rule of the people to achieve broadly mutually beneficial political ends.

To buttress these broad claims about what a democracy is, broad manifestations of ideology and values in governmental institutions are necessary to form a democratic government. These “institutional norms'' of behavior encompass everything from behavior expected of elected officials to a deep impenetrable status quo bias. As Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) contend, democratic governance works best when constitutional “rules of the game” are maintained. These institutional norms are unwritten, yet explicitly envisioned in importance to understand the balance necessitated in democratic systems. Forbearance in political institutions and mutual toleration of opposition parties are two key norms that enable democratic regimes. (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2018) Moreover, especially in decision making, our political system resides in deliberate extreme equilibrium, status quo bias, designed to curb the implementation of radical new policies. (Howell and Moe, 2016) This status quo bias not only exists in a physical sense of the intricate and lengthy legislative process, but also as a norm to moderate politics that complements both institutional forbearance and mutual toleration. (Alesina, 2017) The importance of unwritten codified norms and values present in governance is one of the key ‘guardrail’ forces that moderate and manage the intense conflict that democracy seeks to manage.

The “ensemble of patterns” described by Schmitter and Karl, (1991) coupled with the overarching values, frameworks and norms, manifest themselves through necessary and articulable institutions. As Dahl (2000) posits, these institutions comprise: “elected officials, free fair and frequent elections, freedom of expression, alternative sources of information, associational autonomy, [and] inclusive citizenship.” Dahl (2000) goes further to point out the necessity of “universal suffrage” in the civic sphere to fully encapsulate a modern representative democracy. This set of political commandments2 and how they can be wielded in an institutional setting is vital in order to understand how a more amorphous view of democracy lies just beneath the surface of physical organizations and implanted regulations within the government.

Thick Democracy

For democracy to manifest the values of self-governance, a “thick” definition of democracy must be employed underneath the written and unwritten laws and values held by institutional organizations in government. One of the most important aspects of a democracy is the ability to cultivate citizens and a public sphere that is conducive to democratic thought. (Rosenberg, 2019) Tocqueville (1835) echoed this sentiment identically. “The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens.” Inherently, democracy requires certain prerequisite assumptions about societal arrangements. Dahl (1971) theorizes that at a fundamental level, citizens must be able to formulate coherent preferences, signify these preferences to other citizens and government structures through individual and collective action and have these preferences weighed evenly among citizens. Moreover, Rosenberg (2019) deems it necessary for the democratic citizen to have the “cognitive capacities for integration and abstraction” as well as an “affective bond between people who depend on one another to achieve similar ends.” These cognitive and emotional states of being are complex and hard to cultivate as a civic consciousness, but highly necessary to conceptualize the value of what democracy is (at a “thick” level) and why it is important.

Democracy is fundamentally difficult; it demands participants to respect those on the opposite side of the political spectrum and evaluate complex information in the context of an obtuse web of institutional frameworks. But, the democratic citizen requires yet more civic understanding in order to wield power in its political institutions. Wilson (2019) writes extensively that “political equality” is vital to act as an intermediary between physical institutions (thick conception of democracy) and an engaged and understanding populus (thick conception of democracy) that is able to participate in politics meaningfully. While physical institutions of government have “norms of behavior” for operation, at an individual level, democracy only works if the citizenry buy into this social contract of abstract political thought and behavior that posits citizens share basic qualities that deems them equal in the social and political sphere. (Rawls, 1971) Wilson (2019) explains that “we need a conception of political equality that respects the demand for equal political status over time.” While political equality may seem isolated in and of itself, Wilson (2019) argues that in order to have political equality, citizens must embrace a relatively deep understanding of social equality.

This view of social equality begins to explore the depths necessary to cultivate a democratic citizenry that can maintain complex institutional values. The interplay between political and social equality is not mutually exclusive; in order to achieve the political equality necessary for democracy more broadly, one must first establish a deep social respect between citizens and the subsequent relationships at an individual level. (Wilson, 2019) Resentment, contempt, and injustice at an individual level are all “vices of inequality” that are objectionable and we have reason to “eliminate such features of social life and prevent them from arising to the extent possible” if democracy is the goal. (Wilson, 2019) Democratic equality is defined by some like Anderson (1999) as not simply a way to compensate for bad luck, but parallel to Wilson (2019), as a mechanism to end oppressive social relationships. This conception of justice as societal equality is principally required for citizens to fully have the freedom to participate in communal self-government. This social equality is also manifested in a thorough sense of solidarity (not just equality) between citizens. The idea of people coming together in a respectful way and making decisions cognizant of not just oneself but the entire community is representative of a deep understanding that “we are in this together.” (Sitaraman, 2020) As Sitaraman (2020) mentions, “we have to see ourselves in each other” at a fundamental level to maintain such complex relationships in a multiethnic representative democracy. This idea of cultivating a more respectful and egalitarian social square is necessitated to form a more equal political square which in turn helps buttress democratic governance--continuing that “thick” democratic idea.

This “thick” conception of democracy is not just limited to the social sphere; extreme inequalities through other dimensions similarly threaten the political equality that democracy necessitates. In order to show a more concrete manifestation of inequality and its effect, economic material possession is an important case study. Expansive evidence of this rising economic inequality indicates that “that a market economy based on private property...contains powerful forces of divergence, which are potentially threatening to democratic societies and to the values of social justice on which they are based.” (Piketty, 2017) As Mettler and Liberman (2020) argue more specifically, one of the fundamental threats to democracy is how this intense economic inequality affects institutions of democracy. They contend that the pinnacle of wealth in a society is “highly motivated to see their interests protected--and ambitious politicians...may be highly motivated to do their bidding,” which inevitably undermines the democratic process. The point of this economic analysis is not to dive into the depths of how economics impacts society, but to further draw on the contention that inequalities--whether they are social, economic--fundamentally threaten this notion of “political equality” that is already established as a basic prerequisite for democratic governance.

The democratic citizen can now be seen as a complex actor with heavy burdens to maintain and prop up a complex system of democratic thought and values in order to realize our institutions fully. While the “thin” institutions of democratic power make themselves noticed through physical manifestations and actions of governance, a deep understanding of the “thick” definition of democracy (or more aptly, equality as an ideal3) is vital to conceptualize the cognitive and social awareness necessary for citizens to participate in politics. While these two conceptions of democracy may seem relegated to the halls of academia, they account for a framework from which analysis can be drawn about the health and stability of democratic institutions in the “real world.” These ideas of democracy have been relatively exceptional in the American psyche before other nations, even if the history of the country brought about great atrocities. As this paper will portray, we are seemingly on the brink of losing the democracy that was established here.4

American Democratic Values in Decline

While democracies have enjoyed a renaissance following the collapse of the Soviet Union, over the past 15 years, democracy has once again been on the decline worldwide. This democratic recession is fueled by the creation of “counternorms” that threaten democracy both at a global scale and an individual government scale. (Cooly, 2015) At all levels, this framework to erode democratic governance roots itself in wanting to change the balance of power in a society. (Cooley, 2015) The lack of confidence in the neo-liberal, post-Soviet, consensus that has dominated society has given way to tribalism, deep cultural misunderstandings, institutional cracks and, a conceptual loss of key values that underpin our governing institutions. In order to maintain the aforementioned political equality that is so vital, other dimensions of equality like the socially constructed relational hierarchies and economically constructed material hierarchies must be minimized to the extent reasonably possible. However, as a society, we have gone in the opposite direction. Turning to alternatives like populism that offer easy solutions but often times step directly over democratic aims. The steep decline of American democracy can be addressed through addressing institutional, social, and political failures that directly contradict and attack the previous definitions of democracy.

At an institutional governance level, many factors exacerbate this democratic decline. The basis of any democracy is the ability for citizens to be heard and have meaningful input in decision-making. However, in the United States, this sacred capacity is often-times strained. Our constitution, while successfully enabling base-level democratic politics, builds structures that are the antithesis of optimal political, social, and economic equality. (Rahman, 2020) One of the main ways that this anti-democratic agenda seeps into the consciousness of society is through a malformed political infrastructure. Efficient ways to suppress voting power through legal, constitutional means come in many forms. Examples of which include Voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and campaign finance, all deemed legitimate under the constitution. (Rahman, 2020) Moreover, some of the most core tenets of our constitutional system are producing outcomes that are increasingly defying the will of the populus. Examples of these key structures include the Senate and Electoral College which are fundamentally at odds with basic majority rule--a key tenet of democratic governance.5 The constitution and other political structures house plenty of specific and salient examples of how extreme political inequality ends up baked into the democratic system. Though some of these factors of inequality have gotten worse through the years, it must be noted that the founders did not intend for there to be a direct democracy--and, nor is that the contention argued here. These deep institutional realities seemingly serve to catalyze the following anti-democratic aspects in the society.

Feeding off of this democratic institutional malfeasance written into the ‘rules of the game,’ the social affect of this anti-democratic sentiment is observable and leads to consequences that stretch far beyond the individual. As Rosenberg (2019) states, the fundamental deficiency in American democracy is not being able to cultivate the citizenry it requires. As discussed previously, democracy requires citizens to be respectful and understanding within social interactions and to accumulate a broad wealth of understanding about their place in a complex web of multilateral and integrative sectors of society. This thick notion of democracy paints a picture that is opposed to our current reality. As we understand now, American democratic society “is left with citizens who lack the requisite cognitive and emotional capacities to assimilate its cultural definitions and norms, to function in its institutional organizations and to participate in its public sphere.” (Rosenberg, 2019) This scathing indictment of the current political landscape is inescapable and consequential.

However, this view of the inadequate democratic citizen continually goes deeper into the psyche. Over the past 40 years, as our politics began to polarize around partisanship, and as individuals lack the understanding and competence to navigate the weeds of “thick” democracy, the “incompetent citizen” of Rosenberg (2019) takes over one’s political behavior. As Rosenberg goes on, “Right-wing populism provides the lost, lonely, alienated and frightened souls of democracy with an alternative vision and practice that is readily comprehensible, morally sensible and personally satisfying.” (Rosenberg, 2019) Inevitably, this polarizing division in politics supercharges politics. (Klein, 2020) Once these powerful identities are solidified and sorted by party, triggering fear of “them” becomes much easier leading to an evolved American politics that instantly raises the stakes of disagreements housed within democratic institutions. (Klein, 2020) Whether it’s due to the group dynamics, the vast cultural, economic, and political divide, or institutional accelerants, when one side views the other as illegitimate to rule, democracy can no longer function.

This can be observed in the total collapse of respect for political opponents in the democratic process. Trump, speaking to a large crowd of supporters, ranted that Democrats are “treasonous” and “un-American.” (BBC, 2018) These categorizations imply that the political opponent is no longer simply a side group with whom you simply share disagreement; the other side represents a fundamental threat to your core identity as a human being. Once you view the other side as such a threat, (as Trump retorts) all of our disparate identities merge to face that threat and the, the “visceral, emotional stakes [rise]--and with them, our willingness to do anything to make sure our side wins” ensues. The problem is, as Levisky and Ziblatt (2018) describe, one of the key forces in any democratic state is the belief that though the other side may be misguided on policy, they have a legitimate right to compete fairly in politics. This is absolutely essential in democratic regimes. Along with institutional forbearance, mutual toleration is one of the aforementioned norms that codify a very base level of “thin” democratic definitions. Levistsky and Ziblatt (2018) explain further that when extreme partisanship occurs on seemingly every axis of division, mutual toleration becomes harder to maintain. Paradoxically, once the citizenry loses this conception of “thick democracy,” and becomes “incompetent” to participate in democratic politics, the downstream effects of this process directly impose negative consequences for the stability of democratic institutions. These “thin” definitions of democracy rely, and are supported by, the “thick” individual level decisions that democratic citizens must be held accountable for.

Most easily understood and observable, the “thin” definitions of democracy are eroding quickly in the United States. While some of these arguments surrounding the demise of democracy can appear as just the faint cry of academics in enclosed hallways in university institutions, yet we see the observable effects on our political system. One of the most flagrant examples of the emergence of undemocratic values is the alternate realities that Americans build for themselves. According to a research study conducted by Pew (2020), 73% of respondents of both parties said that “they can’t agree on basic facts.” The consequences of this revelation are vast for almost every conception of democracy. Specifically, this can be observed in the widespread dissemination (and even vague mainstream political endorsements) among Right-wing voters. Q-Anon falsely claims that Democrats, (among others) are in a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles. (Roose, 2020) Though these claims are surely beyond the normal political discourse,6 undoubtedly they represent a growing disregard for fact-based reality. And this one instance is no aberration. President Trump has now amassed 20,000 lies over the course of his presidency (Kessler, 2020).

Most significant to the topic of discussion of this paper is Trump’s continued effort to pressure and dismantle democratic institutions. Fueled by his misguided supporters, and a polarized politics, he mounted one of his most flagrant assaults on democracy in the waning months of his presidency. One of the key tenets of the “thin democracy” is the willingness and obligation to participate in electoral politics. Trump has shown a continued fundamental inability to abide by democratic principles relating to the electoral system. “NO WAY WE LOST THIS ELECTION” Trump rage tweeted almost exactly a month following the free and fair election which he lost. The attacks on democracy are not just limited to the Twitter-verse. In late 2020, the president of the United States remarked that we should “lock them all up”-- referring specifically to his political opposition. (Martin, 2020) These grave encroachments on democratic norms and values fundamentally threaten the organization of democratic government itself; and represent a steep slide into autocratic, anti-democratic behavior that has consequences that will be felt for generations.

Though Trump may be uniquely ill-suited for the position he currently resides in, he is not the source of the problem--but rather the manifestation of it. Douthat (2020) describes that the “sheer scale of the belief among conservatives that the election was really stolen” was what shocked him. Moreover, this denial of democratic will wasn't confined to mass publics. A month out from the election, after a clear winner was declared, just 27 Republicans (out of 249) admitted that the leader of their party lost the election. That is a staggering 11% of Republicans that are fully committed to the democratic process. This behavior has been reaffirmed by a December 2020 lawsuit that attempted to overturn a free and fair election receiving the support over 106 Republicans in congress. Absolutely inescapably, this erosion of democratic values has occurred asymmetrically; Republicans time after time have made it clear that protecting democracy is no longer in their self-interest ideologically or politically.7

Much of this is due to the unwavering support of anti-democratic practices and figures. (Levisky and Ziblatt, 2019) Articulating this point out loud, Republican Senator of Utah Mike Lee tweeted in October of 2020, “We are not a democracy....[d]emocracy isn’t the objective.” (Thrush, 2020) This explicit attempt to undermine the values and institutions of democracy presents a widening rift about not only the means to achieve success in government, but what the end goal of government actually is. In order for a nation to hold itself together, we need not agree on policy, but, we must (at least somewhat) agree on a vision for the future. If ideologically the two sides pull so far apart in that regard, it will tear the very fabric that holds this country together. As Levisky and Ziblatt (2018) further remark in their book How Democracies Die, “if, 25 years ago, someone had described to you a country in which candidates threatened to lock up their rivals, political opponents accused the government of stealing the election, or establishing a dictatorship, and parties use their legislatures majority to impeach presidents and steal supreme court seats, you might have thought of Ecuador or Romania. You probably would not have thought of the United States.” This demonstrates how American democratic institutions and practices rely on traditions and norms of behavior instead of the written rules and regulations in society, leading to unprecedented undemocratic action. This realization and subsequent actions have downgraded America’s standing in the EIU Democracy Index (2019), with a further setback expected in the 2020 issue of the report.

Though the erosion of these “thin” democratic values has produced uniquely atrocious institutional realities that may prove insurmountable in the coming years, a trackable and discernable loss in civic understanding related to the “thick” democracy is much harder to empirically address and analyze through anecdotal examples. Perhaps best encapsulated through a dark moment of a comedy show by comedian Hasan Minaj (2017), Minaj recollected how his Muslim family was harassed and physically attacked following September 11th, 2001. Minaj clearly explains how his immigrant father responded: “These things happened, and these things will continue to happen, that’s the price [our family] pays for being here.” Minaj fired back. Explicating that, unlike his fathers’ generation, he was born here so “I have the audacity of equality.” He expected equality in the political and social square because that is how he was taught as an American. This stark example is a clear explication of the amorphous understanding of political and, more deeply social, equality that must permeate the infrastructure of society. Minaj was expecting a competent democratic polity that could parse complex social relationships and understand and cope with the nature of our integrative, multiethnic democracy. This deep social equality Minaj alludes to is not unlike the “thick” definitions of democracy Wilson (2019), Anderson (1999), and Sitaraman (2020) describe. The social equality spectrum (that both scholars define in the abstract and Minaj feels in the physical world) is undoubtedly strained in contemporary American society. Though Minaj’s example is quite specific, the implications of these types of stories indicate that the United States does not broadly hold the values required to promote democratic governance as it would claim.

While at the individual-level this view of social equality is palpable (as Minaj demonstrates), this “thick” conception of democracy is also fueled by civic organizations that underpin and cultivate these values. Galston (1997) denotes the importance of specific organizations and their role in promoting this “thick” conception of democratic ideology. “Voluntary associations have been valued because they are thought to build civic virtue, foster trust, encourage cooperation and promote political participation,” Galston (1997) writes. He goes further to specifically point out union membership as being important for the cultivation of these values. Consistent with the observed lack of trust, cooperation, and solidarity among citizens leading to democratic decline, Union membership has fallen to an all-time low in the current day-- with under 10.5% participating in Union membership today. (Ivanova, 2018) These conclusions are also symbolic of growing animosity and cultural misunderstandings between citizens who lack overlapping shared characteristics and a sense of shared virtue. (Pew, 2020; Klein, 2020) As Tocqueville (1835) added, “There is no country in the world in which everything can be provided for by laws, or in which political institutions can prove a substitute for common sense and public morality.” Though the Union example is once again a small sliver of a broad discussion when it comes to the erosion of “thick” democratic values, this distinctly fits into the growing trends of tribalism and incivility that pose a threat to democracy and the deep values that must accompany it.

Once a pioneer of democratic values, citizenry, and institutions, America has seemingly lost its way in this regard. Whether it was the individual political actors and their followers that distinctly tore up norms and rhetoric surrounding democratic ideals, or simply the diffusion of interlaced claims to political and social equality that underpin these democratic institutions, it is clear that American democracy (and the values for which it stands) is no longer exceptional. As I have attempted to portray, the loss of the American democratic ideal has not occurred in neatly organized categories of “thick” and “thin” democracy. The two are intermeshed and feed off of the incompetence of one another. This interplay makes diagnosing the decline difficult, especially with the framework set forth.

Perhaps the root cause of these conflicts stem from economic circumstances, racial grievances, or possibly the group dynamics that accelerated division; or maybe democracy is strained because of the loss of institutional respect between parties or the dearth of egalitarianism within civic organizations at an individual level. Either way, the state of our union, democratically speaking, is brittle. Through understanding what democracy actually entails, the polity can more accurately measure and describe the failings occurring within it. Democracy is fundamentally difficult. In order for the whole project to work, citizens must respect the institutions and each other. Due to the nature of our two-party presidentialist system, when one party simply does not have the desire or will to do the upkeep that democracy requires at all levels, the entire arrangement will falter--resulting in infighting and chaos. One of the key questions I hope to generate in this work is whether the idea of democracy itself is fundamentally desirable, especially in an age of such disillusionment. If the country can not nurture and maintain democratic thought8 and practice, the future of the republic as we know it appears grim.


Alesina, A., & Passarelli, F. (2017, February). Loss Aversion in Politics. Harvard Scholar.

Anderson, E. S. (1999). What Is the Point of Equality? Ethics, 109(2), 287–337.

BBC. (2018). Trump calls Democrats 'treasonous' and 'un-American'. BBC News.

Cooley, A. (2015). Countering Democratic Norms. Journal of Democracy, 26(3), 49–63.

Dahl, R. A. (1971). Polyarchy: participation and opposition. Yale Univ. Press.

Dahl, R. a. (2000). On Democracy. Yale University Press.

Douthat, R. (2020, December 5). Why Do So Many Americans Think the Election Was Stolen? The New York Times.

EIU, D. I. (2019). EIU Democracy Index.

French, D. (2020). Divided We Fall: America's secession threat and how to restore our nationSt. Martin's Press.

Glenn Kessler, S. R. (2020, October 2). Analysis | President Trump has made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims. The Washington Post.

Howell, W. G., & Moe, T. M. (2016). Relic: how our constitution undermines effective government, and why we need a more powerful presidency. Basic Books.

Ivanova, I. (2019, January 21). Union membership in the U.S. hit record low in 2018. CBS News.

Jensen, T., & Raza, N. (2019, July 1). Please Stop Telling Me America Is Great. The New York Times.

Klein, E. (2020). Why we're Polarized . Avid Reader Press.

Levine, P., & Galston, W. A. (2016, July 28). America's Civic Condition: A Glance at the Evidence. Brookings.

Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracies Die. Penguin Random House.

Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2019, September 20). Why Republicans Play Dirty. The New York Times.

Martin, J. (2020, October 18). 'Lock Them All Up': Trump's Whitmer Attack Fits a Damaging Pattern. The New York Times.

Mettler, S., & Lieberman, R. C. (2020). Four threats the recurring crises of American democracy. St. Martin's Press.

Netflix. Hasan Minaj: Homecoming King.

Orr, D. W., Gumbel, A., Kitwana, B., Becker, W. S., & Rahman. (2020). Democracy unchained: how to rebuild government for the people. The New Press.

Pew Research Center. (2020, October 8). Voters Highly Engaged, but Nearly Half Expect Difficulties Voting in 2020 Election. Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy.

Pew. (2020). How Americans View Trust, Facts, and Democracy Today. How Americans View Trust Facts and Democracy Today | The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Piketty, T., & Goldhammer, A. (2017). Capital in the twenty-first century. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press.

Roose, K. (2020, August 18). What Is QAnon, the Viral Pro-Trump Conspiracy Theory? The New York Times.

Rosenberg, S. (2019). Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism. Psychology of Political and Everyday Extremisms.

Schmitter, P. C., & Karl, T. L. (1991). What Democracy is, and What it is Not. Journal of Democracy , 2(3). 10.1353/jod.1991.003

Sitaraman, G. (2020). What should Democrats do about the Supreme Court?

Thrush, G. (2020, October 8). 'We're not a democracy,' says Mike Lee, a Republican senator. That's a good thing, he adds. The New York Times.

Tocqueville , A. D., & Chapman, H. S. (1835). Democracy in America (Vol. 1). C. & W. Reynell.

Wilson, J. L. (2019). Democratic Equality. Princeton University Press.


1.) In the United States, this view of democracy is one that is under direct threat--and one that I will address directly later on.

2.) Purposely evoking an almost theistic sense of political organization as referenced previously in some peoples’ categorization of America and its organizations.

3.) In this more rigorous and broad sense of equality--both socially, economically and politically--I do not mean to evoke images that are often on the front lines of partisan squabbling today. The definition of equality in a thick sense has less to do with material wealth or any one given social hierarchy, (e.g. equality does not mean make everyone exactly the same in all circumstances as critics on the political Right would try to strawman) but rather a generalized principle of interaction between actors that addresses every individual human equally.

4.) This claim is fraught with generalizations. For the sake of brevity, I am not recounting the fact that America was not really a democracy until 1965, and even since then, there have been many undemocratic elements throughout our history.

5.) Though I do not have the space in this work to get into the intricacies of “majority rule,” there is certainly no consensus to which the majority should control the minority. In fact, the founders specifically built a system where the “tyranny of the majority” could be quelled. However, on the other hand, an even more toxic idea is “tyranny of the minority which is the contention that I try to argue against through these institutional structures.

6.) Though this may be an aberration, it must be noted that of the 2020 representatives elected to congress, Marjorie Taylor Green (R) showed tepid support to the group during her campaigning events.

7.) After a closer election in 2016, the day following Trump’s victory, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) minority leader of the Senate, called Trump to officially congratulate him as the legitimate winner--less than 24 hours after the race was called. No elected democratic officials sought to overturn or delegitimize the the 2016 election. This is not equally the “fault” both sides.

8.) In order to navigate this topic fully, I feel as though I must address two of the most contentious claims in this work: the definition of democracy itself, and its subsequent “American exceptionalism.” I do think these are important tangential points that add to the value and understanding of why this analysis is deeper than simple partisanship. While there are surely competing claims of what democracy is, the “thick” conception of democracy is harder for those on the political right to support. Though they are tepidly on board with the institutions and practices (less so recently) believing in maximizing social, political and economic (to an extent) equality is difficult to reconcile under their world view. To some, it may appear that I am simply explicating a wishlist of liberal utopian demands. However, it has become evident in immersing myself in this body of scholarly work and philosophical thought about democracy, one can only maintain the “thin” if they maintain the “thick.” Meaning, in order for the thin institutions of democracy to flourish, and to realize the broad ideal of self rule, it is vital to cultivate a rich sense of social understanding or that amorphous “thick” sense of democracy so extensively covered. Without that, the laws, norms, (continued below) and physical institutions have no grounding. This may come off as an inherent defense of “Leftism” as a political ideology as being the true “right,” but that is not my goal. I am simply stating that if democracy is the goal, those who strive to attain it must remember how the interplay between thin and thick definitions rely on one another. Unfortunately, in today’s evolved politics, the Left seems to embody more of these values than the Right leading to difficult conversations about the compatibility of ideologies within systems.

On the political left, the main contention is with the claim that democracy in America was once this great force and we “lost it.” They would claim that the United States was never a real democracy in either sense until at least 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and possibly still should not be categorized as one due to the rampant political, social and economic inequalities that are omnipresent today. While this point is valid, for the purposes of the argument that I try to put together, the American democratic system--as it has existed in previous states-- has lost some of its virtues both morally and institutionally. The Left’s claims are only tangentially relevant to the argument made above. I am not arguing that America was ever a perfect democracy, nor through its citizens or its institutions. However, I am arguing that for its time, the ideals were exceptional--even if they are no longer.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

‘State fragility’ comes in many manifestations, ranging from violent civil conflict to state-sanctioned corruption. Often the term is paired exclusively with the developing world. This is a misnomer. Those within the liberal world order (LWO) are not immune to such societal ills.[1] Indeed, when a democratic State shows... MORE»
This thesis explores the inherent conflict between liberty and equality—the twin pillars on which the United States and its Constitution are predicated—and the materialization of this conflict in storm center... MORE»
Political polarization in the United States has been one of the main issues at the forefront of American politics. Studies show that political parties have in fact become more divided ideologically than ever, and more Americans... MORE»
The continued application of the death penalty in the United States marks the country as an extreme outlier among its allies and like-minded nations in the 21st century. In order to explain America's retention of this criminal punishment, scholars have sought to first explore: what explains variation in a Western democracy's retention... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in Political Science

2022, Vol. 14 No. 09
This interdisciplinary paper investigates the shortfalls and obstacles to success currently facing the climate movement, examining issues represented by the disconnect between policy and electoral politics, the hypocrisy and blatant indifference... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 06
Two of the most prevalent protest movements in recent history were the Black Lives Matter and the #StopTheSteal movements. While there are many differences between the two, one of the most prevalent is their use of violence. Whereas the BLM movement... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 05
Strong linkages between autocrats and the military are often seen as a necessary condition for authoritarian regime survival in the face of uprising. The Arab Spring of 2011 supports this contention: the armed forces in Libya and Syria suppressed... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 04
During the summer of 2020, two fatal shootings occurred following Black Lives Matter protests. The first event involved Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the second Michael Reinoehl in Portland, Oregon. Two shootings, each committed by... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 02
In popular international relations (IR) theory, knowledge production is often dismissed as an objective process between the researcher and the empirical world. This article rejects this notion and contends that the process of knowledge production... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 01
This article explores the political relationship between nation-building, ethnicity, and democracy in the context of Ethiopia. It traces Ethiopia's poltical history, explores the consequential role ethnicity has played in the formation of the modern... Read Article »
2022, Vol. 14 No. 01
The study examines the degree to which Xi Jinping has brought about a strategic shift to the Chinese outward investment pattern and how this may present significant political leverage and military advantages for China in the Indian Ocean Region (... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


How to Manage a Group Project (Video)
Finding Balance in Graduate School
5 Tips for Publishing Your First Academic Article