February 2020
Oakland County clerks count election ballots during a recount of presidential ballots in Waterford Township, Michigan December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook


By the people: Democracy at stake

The basic terms of democratic governance are shifting before our eyes. Some fear the rise of hateful populism and the collapse of democratic norms and practices. Others see opportunities for marginalized people and groups to exercise greater voice and influence. Harvard Kennedy School’s scholars are producing ideas and insights to meet these great uncertainties. Below are excerpts from three essays by our faculty on democracy, democratic institutions, and making governance work better in practice. Explore more faculty essays in the winter issue of our HKS Magazine.

Archon Fung: We Voted

“A vibrant democracy depends on robust electoral participation. That is not what we have, but it is what we must aspire to. Though some hold up the United States as a beacon of democracy, the country’s electoral participation is relatively feeble: In the 2016 general elections, it was 56 percent of the voting age population. In other words, people who didn’t vote greatly outnumber those who voted for the winning presidential candidate.

In fact, the United States compares poorly with other countries in this regard. In the most recent national election, turnout was 87 percent in Belgium, 79 percent in Australia, and 68 percent in France. Among the 36 developed democracies that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America ranks 28th in voter turnout.

There was a time when some political scientists thought that low participation was a sign that people were satisfied with how their society was being governed. Whether or not that was ever the case, few would be so sanguine about low engagement today. Many decades of research have firmly established that people who are white, better educated, and have higher incomes tend to vote more often than those who don’t enjoy socioeconomic advantages. Although political inequality has many other sources, such as lobbying and in-group connections, equalizing influence at the ballot box would be an excellent first step in addressing it….”

Pippa Norris: Kicking the Sandcastle

“Democracy is under siege around the world. In the early 21st century, many countries face major challenges of democratic backsliding and even occasional outright regime reversal, with authoritarian forces rising. It’s not just events occurring under President Trump in the United States. Democracy has already been destroyed in Egypt, Venezuela, Thailand, Ukraine, and Russia. It is in the process of being undermined in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and the Philippines. Long-established democracies are not exempt, as demonstrated by the political instability and deep polarization in the United Kingdom, under pressure from Brexit. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington warned that gains for human freedom are temporary, in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back dynamic. Earlier historical eras experienced periodic waves of regime change around the world, with reversals in democracy in the 1930s and the 1960s. During recent decades, accumulating signs suggest that history is now in danger of repeating itself.

The most comprehensive and rigorous data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), an academic project devoted to measuring democracy, demonstrates that the quality of liberal democracy has eroded worldwide during the past decade, although the map is patchy. Some of the most dramatic net losses have occurred in Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine, Poland, Nicaragua, India, and the United States. Several Anglo-American democracies have seen major erosion in civil liberties and political rights, according to V-Dem estimates, with some of the worst performance in the U.K. under Brexit and the United States under Trump. Around the globe, American retreat and European divisions threaten the rules-based order and global alliances established to defend the values of democratic governance, freedom, rule of law, and human rights….”

Jane Mansbridge: A Teachable Skill

“It is easy to think of the polarization of American politics as a fairly recent phenomenon, a sudden departure from a collegial and collaborative past. The truth is that the causes of our current political divide are both systemic and historical, stretching back far beyond the rise of social media or the ascendance of cable news and free-flowing political money.

The seeds of today’s partisanship were planted in 1964, with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. Southern conservatives began their exit from the Democratic Party, making the Republicans more conservative and both parties more homogeneous.

That mythic time when politics “worked” was also, as many of us forget, a time of Democratic hegemony—Democrats were the sun to the Republicans’ moon, and Republicans knew they had to go along to get along. After 1980, as majority control of the House and the Senate came up for grabs, and getting a majority in Congress became each party’s single most important goal, incentives for cooperation began to evaporate.

Economic inequality may also play a role: Polarization declined from a high point at the end of the 19th century to a 50-year low from approximately 1930 to 1980 and has risen to an even higher point today, mapping almost perfectly to the decline and rise of inequality. That close mapping suggests a causal relationship, but which caused what, or the degree to which both might be effects of another cause, is unclear….”

Visit the Winter 2020 HKS Magazine for more democracy essays by:



Only when politicians care so much about democracy that they would be willing to sacrifice their fondest policy goals in order to maintain it, can we bet on its survival.

Tarek Masoud, Professor of Public Policy and Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations

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“…reducing your travel by one-and-a-half transatlantic airplane trips has as much impact as getting rid of your car for a year.”

The Hidden Face of Rights: Toward a Politics of Responsibilities by Kathryn Sikkink, Yale University Press, 2020


  • The new spheres of influence [Graham Allison] Foreign Affairs

  • College students don’t turn out to vote. Here’s how to change that [Kathryn Sikkink] Los Angeles Times

  • Hong Kong women upend gender roles in democracy fight [Erica Chenoweth] Bloomberg

  • Becoming Trump is not the way to defeat him [Nancy Gibbs] Washington Post

  • What makes for a moral foreign policy? [Joseph Nye] Harvard Gazette

  • Coronavirus shows risk of Trump cuts to health spending [Linda Bilmes] Financial Times


The Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) has launched the “3 Things You Should Know to Advance Gender Equity” video series, featuring experts from Harvard University and other institutions. The video series is inspired by WAPPP’s research seminar on promoting gender equity at work. Watch it now

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