COLUMBIA, Mo. - This year's presidential race has been marked by growing concern about the health of American democracy. Trust in government has plummeted, while many have condemned the system as broken and dysfunctional. Candidates and political pundits are quick to lament the current crisis; yet, few are able to define it or speak to how America can recover. In his upcoming book, "Four Crises of American Democracy," Alasdair Roberts, professor of public affairs in the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, puts the current crisis in historical context, and highlights the long-term capacity of political institutions to adapt to new challenges.
"The important thing to note when considering the challenges facing U.S. democracy is to not be alarmed; the country has been here before," Roberts said. "However, to understand what is happening today, it helps to study past crises, to see why they occurred and how they were resolved. This provides a better view of what is going on today."
Roberts defines four moments of "democratic crisis" that have struck the U.S. since the end of the Civil War. He calls the first the "crisis of representation," which occurred between 1890 and 1920. It was characterized by widespread doubts about whether the U.S. was a democracy at all. In 1913, women and many African Americans were unable to vote, and many working-class people believed the system to be rigged in favor of the rich. More than 100 years later, anger about the primary election process, the disenfranchisement of former felons and economic inequality are significant messages of the 2016 election.
The "crisis of mastery," was connected to the economic and national security problems of the years between 1917 and 1947. During this time, the question was whether democracy could handle economic problems and the threat to American interests abroad. In response to these issues, leaders focused on building better systems for managing the economy, helping the middle class, and defending the country. Echoes of this crisis occur today as well, as voters question the competence of government in managing economic and national security problems.
The "crisis of discipline" began in the 1970s and was triggered by the perception that voters and special interests were overloading governments with demands that could not be met. The response was a significant roll-back in regulations and creation of fiscal controls, many of which are still being debated today.
Roberts suggests that we might also be experiencing a new "crisis of anticipation," driven by fears about the apparent inability of democratic systems to deal with serious long-term problems such as immigration and climate change. Roberts argues that the early phase of any democratic crisis is usually marked by pessimism about the ability of government to adapt to new challenges. But he observes that American democracy has changed markedly in response to each of the preceding crises, although the process of adaptation has never been straightforward or quick.
"Looking at history gives us a better sense of what is going on today," Roberts said. "The U.S. has had similar bouts of democratic crisis before, and it hasn't been fatal. Throughout history every preceding crisis has started with a sense of foreboding. However, the U.S. has always risen to the challenge, overhauling institutions when needed and redefining what American democracy means."
"Four Crises of Democracy: Representation, Mastery, Discipline, Anticipation" will be published in December 2016 by Oxford University Press. Roberts also is a Fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration and co-editor of Governance, a leading scholarly journal in the fields of political science and public administration.