Analysis & Opinions - Harvard Kennedy School

What ails American democracy, and what to do about it

| Jan. 13, 2021

Harvard Kennedy School scholars examine threats and responses.

Harvard Kennedy School faculty share insights into the evident fragility of American democratic norms and institutions following the attack on the United States Capitol by followers of President Trump. These essays examine the nature and scale of the threat and weigh potential avenues for protecting and nurturing democracy. They were written before the U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Trump on Wednesday for the second time.

Allies fret and foes gloat at the homegrown threats to American democracy

Last week’s assault on the Capitol represents one of the most dangerous threats to American democracy in our history. It also poses a major challenge to our international credibility. 

America’s ultimate power in the world rests more on our attachment to democratic ideals than even our vast military, technological, and economic influence. Our commitment to the rule of law, freedom of the press, equal justice, and the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next has been admired across the globe.

The world thus watched in collective shock on January 6 as our once proud democracy fell from grace. That is what we lost when an insurrectionist mob incited by President Trump laid siege to the Capitol to prevent the Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the November elections.   

Trump’s anti-constitutional actions—for which he should resign or be impeached—are a gift to Russia and China. Both are now charging that the violence on Capitol Hill reveals America’s commitment to democracy to be hollow. 

Our allies are deeply concerned about our future. European leaders worry that the political contagion of a rising antidemocratic populist right could spread to their own countries. As on 9/11, they have also come to our defense. With the American flag behind him last week, French President Macron said he still believed in American democracy. 

It is now up to us to believe in our democracy, as well.

America can survive this crisis. Congress reassembled in the hours after the attack to affirm Biden’s victory. Republican leaders such as Mitt Romney spoke courageously in defense of democracy. Biden himself will be a healing, calm, smart, and patriotic leader when he takes the oath of office next week.

The assault on the Capitol is a wake-up call for all of us. We should each be chastened by this crime against our democracy. The threat is still with us. We know now that democracy needs to be defended every day. It is on all of us to help President-elect Biden restore reason and unity at home, reform our imperfect union, and redeem our standing in the world.  

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:What ails American democracy, and what to do about it.” Harvard Kennedy School, January 13, 2021.