Can Democracy Survive?

A crossroads election the left the country deeply divided, where some are even doubting that the democratic system could hold. America has asked these hard questions before. Read C. Northcote Parkinson's assessment of democracy in 1960.

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Every election puts a strain on the republic, but this past election was exceptional. Weeks before voting began, Americans were questioning whether the election was rigged and if some voters would cast illegal ballots. There was even talk of refusing to accept the official results.

It’s now clear that America remains divided over the election. It has sparked protests in several cities, and many people are declaring the election winner is “not my president.”

Belief in the election process was once the foundation for Americans’ faith in democracy. We were taught to trust that the combined wisdom of voters would find the best candidates. So if Americans lose faith with the way their officials are chosen, is democracy doomed to fail?

Back in 1960, when the hard campaign between Kennedy and Nixon was underway, C. Northcote Parkinson asked, “Can Democracy Survive?” for the Post.

He didn’t offer any easy reassurances. Parkinson even questioned the assumption that democracy was government evolved to its highest level. Democracies, he said, showed “a tendency to collapse in a chaos from which dictatorship offers the only escape.”

American democracy, Parkinson wrote, had one advantage that would ensure its survival: a large middle class. Typically, democracies die from the warfare that springs up between the wealthy and poor classes. The middle class of America, which was still growing in 1960, would prevent the country from being polarized between the rich and impoverished.

James Madison was more optimistic than Parkinson. In a 1787 essay for The Federalist Papers, he said American democracy would prevail because it was a republic, not a direct democracy. The people might be swayed by demagogues and shifting opinions, but the representatives they elected would be less susceptible to mob enthusiasms.

There is a third factor to consider: participation. The greatest threat to democracy isn’t a handful of fanatics or even a political party. It’s voter participation — and the official voter turnout in the 2016 election was just 55%.

Robert M. Hutchins, dean of Yale Law School from 1927 to 1929, observed, “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”


Front page of the article "Can Democracy Survive?"
Read C. Northcote Parkinson’s article, “Can Democracy Survive?” from the pages of the February 6, 1960 issue of the Post.

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  1. At the ripe old age of 92, I have never seen an election like this one and feel that we dodged the bullet that would have changed our country forever – for all of the reasons that Donald Trump ran on and his suporters agreed with. I regret that the left mever really listened to him – or really did want a socialistic government. I am looking forward to the return of a system that the founding fathers intended – rule of law that is fair for everyone. moe

  2. Conservative ideology NEVER EVER helped this country, Unfortunately, someone like Don M. doesn’t have a grasp on history. He used his comment to foster his conspiracy theory of evil, something that was never ever proven. He’s a good example of someone who believes what he reads online or is whispered to him by a particular interest group. Truth doesn’t matter, belief does!

  3. A large part of the problem lies in the fact that we have an internet society who believe everything the read on Twitter or Facebook. When will we learn that breaking news appearing on these sources is not always truthful or factual? Our public is very gullible in believing false reports intended to sway the election process.

  4. If you live in a large city, you would probably like to have the electoral college go away. “Everyone’s vote counting” would assure that politicians did not have to consider small towns or rural areas at all – they would concentrate solely on the places with the most dense populations. This republic has survived because of the wisdom of the Founding Fathers (flawed as they were). I would never have come up with the political system we have because I would not have imagined that “one person, one vote” wouldn’t be a wonderful method of government – it sounds so great. I am so glad they were much more suspicious of basic human nature than I am and took steps to control it as much as possible.

  5. Conservatives are the only safeguard that this nation has standing between an absolute communistic control over our country. The 2016 election was far to close for my comfort zone especially when you consider who the candidates where. It is very unfortunate that the people supporting Clinton were either incapable or to ignorant to realize how totally corrupt she and the entire Clinton organization is. We really should thank God that we didn’t put those people back in control of our country. Had we done so the debate about democracy would surely have ended by the time they carried out their sinister agenda.

  6. Always interesting to speculate on the future. Good fiction writers frequently make a living at it. I think there’s little to be gained by reminding us of the sideshow that accompanies our recent national election. Should the doomsayers prove right, my feeling is that next falls mid-term elections will rectify the problem quickly. Should the predictors be proven wrong then maybe it’s not all so bad. The inertia of our political method/system is such that rapid change isn’t practical…in some instances, not possible. As for the “what if” writers, keep it up, you’re at least giving some people fresh food for thought…especially those that can read and comprehend. We can only hope that the remainder put their pitch forks and torches away until at least 2020.

  7. The election on November 8th will go into the history texts for electing individual who practices disrespect daily and didn’t receive a majority vote. The electoral college needs to be go away. The Republic of The U.S.A. needs a direct vote so that everyone’s vote COUNTS!


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