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Whatever Happens Tuesday, Democracy Is Banged Up But Not Broken

Engagement by millennials is up and workplaces have become more civil

Voters gather outside a polling place in D.C. in 2016. In rough political seas, democracy can serve as ballast, Grumet writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Voters gather outside a polling place in D.C. in 2016. In rough political seas, democracy can serve as ballast, Grumet writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — The nation’s view on our democracy has always been a unique contradiction of cheering, wailing and disinterest. The shining city on the hill is also a swampy snake pit. The world’s greatest deliberative body is hopelessly corrupt, and the land of opportunity is completely rigged. While opinions vary, the dominant sentiment today is understandably bleak.

According to a recent bipartisan poll, half the country believes we are in “real danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country,” and over two-thirds of respondents believe democracy is growing weaker by the day. The more optimistic view points to the numerous crises we’ve weathered over the past two centuries and maintains an abiding belief that the structure of the democracy is essentially self-correcting. Public sentiments careen left, right, bold, fearful, populist, elitist, inclusive and uncharitable, yet somehow our democratic society serves as ballast that keeps us afloat despite churning seas.

It takes little effort to describe the despair that has dominated the news over the past few weeks. But as we look to Tuesday’s election, it is important to recognize some positive dynamics that should encourage us all to stand in line and embrace our banged-up but not yet broken democracy.

Engagement by millennials is up. In the latest Millennial Impact Report, Americans between the ages of 22 and 36 — soon to be America’s largest generation — self-reported higher rates of community engagement and activism over the past two years. They’re volunteering more, attending rallies and working on campaigns, and generally more involved in their communities.

Workplaces have actually become more civil. Despite growing concern about incivility in America, a recent survey by Weber Shandwick, Powell Tate, and KRC Research found that 81 percent of Americans feel tough issues can still be discussed in a civil manner. And nine out of 10 Americans consider their own workplace to be civil, a marked increase from the same poll in 2016. (We can only hope that this polite political discourse extends to Thanksgiving dinners across America.)

More women are running for office. Women presently make up only 20 percent of the current Congress. Tomorrow, 22 women who won their party primary will compete in one of the 35 Senate contests. In House races, 235 women are competing for office. All these achievements are historic highs and should make the next Congress look a little more like the people who voted for it.

While the above trends are all encouraging, the key to a healthy participatory democracy is participation. The most significant test of our democracy is not who wins but who votes. Over the past 10 midterm election cycles, an average of 39.9 percent of eligible voters have cast a ballot. This percentage has been surprisingly consistent over 40 years despite dramatically different political climates and candidates. The high-water mark for midterm turnout occurred in 1982, with 42.1 percent participation, and a low of 36.7 percent was recorded in 2014.

The public clearly appreciates the significance of this election. A recent PBS-NewsHour poll found that 98 percent of both Democrats and Republicans think the upcoming midterms are either important or very important. The question is whether on balance that voter intensity translates into bringing new people to the polls or if the passion and fury discourages participation by those who are simply fed up with the fight.

If a spate of divisive races and cacophony of negative ads has left you with little enthusiasm for any of the candidates, consider this 170-year-old insight from Alexander De Tocqueville: “Democracy does not give the most skillful government to the people, but it does what the most skillful government is powerless to create; it spreads a restive activity through the whole social body, a superabundant force, an energy that never exists without it.”

It is my great hope that at least 42 percent of the American electorate channel this restive energy and vote. If turnout reaches 45 percent, a superabundant force will be on display and it will be a great day for American democracy.

Jason Grumet is founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

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