American democracy in 2021: Where do we go from here?

Niko Malhotra

American democracy in 2021 seems to be hanging on by a thread. From the undermining of the electoral process to partisan gridlock in Congress, the challenges to our democracy are leading Americans to lose faith in our democratic system and the institutions that form the foundation of our republic. But these challenges, while difficult, are not insurmountable. Williams students, along with all Americans, must maintain faith in the core values and ideals of our nation to reinvigorate the health of American democracy.  

While democratic instability has festered for years, the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 exposed the flaws in our democratic institutions. The Capitol riot was an affront not just to our electoral system and the separation of powers but also to America’s storied democratic tradition. The trends of polarization and political extremism, often minimized by politicians for political expediency, came to threaten American democracy itself. It is important to examine the underlying factors that have brought American democracy to this moment and the necessary steps needed to revitalize it.

Americans have lost sight of the common threads that bind us together despite our differing political ideologies. Loyalty to political parties has transcended loyalty to the nation, and the bonds that strengthened our communities have dissipated as we have descended into an endless cycle of polarization. Our intolerant political culture, often displayed on social media, has turned American against American, and people increasingly live in homogenous communities with little interaction with those who hold opposing views. 

This polarization has driven the political dysfunction of Washington, where politicians are more motivated to attract media attention than pass legislation to address the nation’s most pressing issues. Congress, the heart of American democracy, remains at a perpetual standstill due to partisan infighting and legislative inaction. Congressional abdication has disrupted the careful balance of governmental power by empowering an expansion of executive authority and judicial overreach. 

While these obstacles are significant, I retain hope for American democracy. Despite frustrating inaction in Washington, civic participation is at its highest levels in decades and is increasingly driven by the efforts of young people. From widespread activism in social movements such as Black Lives Matter to record election turnout in 2020, young people remain engaged and eager to participate in the democratic process. The democratic impulse is core to American culture, and this idealism of freedom and democracy holds the roots for democratic improvement from our current state of affairs. American political culture is ingrained with the principles and values put forth at the American founding, and Americans remain attached to these abstract ideas and ensuring that their true spirit can be fulfilled. 

Recommitting to democracy requires embracing these shared values central to being an American regardless of our political orientation. Williams students as participants in the American experiment and the future leaders of our democracy maintain the responsibility to ensure its future functioning and success. We must advocate for the issues that we care about deeply while reaching out and listening to those whom we disagree with. Through these steps, we can examine our role in bringing American democracy to where it is today, taking actions to improve and strengthen it for the future. 

This piece is the beginning of a semester-long column where I will explore the varied challenges facing our democratic system. I will examine important issues such as our increasingly divided communities, the dynamics which thwart real policy changes, and the politicization of the judiciary. The obstacles ahead of us are quite steep, but I hope to address how we as students can work to protect this fragile democracy for ourselves and for future generations.

Niko Malhotra ’24 is from Falmouth, Maine.