Approaching Democracy
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Approaching Democracy

American Government in Times of Challenge

Larry Berman, Bruce Allen Murphy, Nadia E Brown, Sarah Allen Gershon

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eBook - ePub

Approaching Democracy

American Government in Times of Challenge

Larry Berman, Bruce Allen Murphy, Nadia E Brown, Sarah Allen Gershon

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About This Book

From unsubstantiated 2020 election fraud claims and the storming of the US Capitol to the rampage of COVID-19 and racial injustice, this book covers the foundations, institutions, and processes of "the great American experiment" with a clear and resonant theme: Democracy cannot be taken for granted, whether at home or internationally, and eternal vigilance (along with civic intelligence) is required to protect it. Approaching Democracy provides students with a framework to analyze the structure, process, and action of US government, institutions, and social movements. It also invites comparison with other countries. This globalizing perspective gives students an understanding of issues of governance and challenges to democracy here and elsewhere. At a moment of growing domestic terrorism, political hyper-partisanship, populism, identity politics, and governmental dysfunction, there is no better time to bring Approaching Democracy --a textbook based on Vaclav Havel's powerful metaphor of democracy as an ideal and the American experiment as the closest approach to it--to a new generation of political science undergraduate students.


  • Two new authors, Nadia E. Brown and Sarah Allen Gershon, who bring refreshing intellectual and diverse perspectives to the text.

  • Includes the tumultuous political context surrounding the Trump presidency, the 2020 elections, the 116 th Congress, the Supreme Court, the COVID-19 crisis, and the fight for social and racial justice.

  • Figures and tables reflect the latest available data and surveys.

  • Two new features--Diversity and Democracy, highlighting the experiences of America's diverse social groups and the role of identity politics — and Discussion Questions at the end of each chapter, assessing critical thinking skills.

  • Critical contemporary events are explored throughout the book, including the attempted coup following the 2020 elections, the Trump administration's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter, protests in American cities that come to the epicenter of America's approach to democracy, the changes in the Supreme Court and the federal court system, the growth of LGBTQ+ legal rights, and the alteration in American Federalism. New and updated data on public attitudes toward police brutality, DACA, voter suppression, healthcare, and the global climate movement are also covered.

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1 Approaching Democracy

AP Images/Rick Bowmer


Democracy as an Evolutionary Process

The theme for our textbook is drawn from one of the most eloquent and inspiring statements on the evolutionary nature of American democracy. It was made by former Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who had been imprisoned by the earlier Czechoslovakian government. Shortly after his election, Havel was asked to address a joint session of the US Congress on February 21, 1990. He spoke about the important role of American democracy in setting up his new government. Havel noted that with the collapse of the Soviet Union, millions of people from Eastern Europe were involved in an “historically irreversible process,” beginning their quest for freedom and democracy. For them, the United States of America represented the model, “the way to democracy and independence,” for these newly freed peoples. But Havel put his own spin on the notion of American democracy:
Like Havel, we believe that the United States has continued to approach democracy and in recent years has faced its greatest challenges, most especially in the period between Election Day November 2020 and Inauguration Day on January 20, 2021. Democracy in America has evolved over time—and continues to evolve. To illustrate, consider how many of your classmates have the power to vote and participate in politics. Virtually all of you do. In 1787, however, only those classmates who were free White males, over the age of 21, mostly observed the Protestant religion, and owned land were eligible to vote in the nation’s earliest elections. In fact, as someone of mixed-race heritage, even former President Barack Obama would have been ineligible to participate in the political process of our fledgling democracy. Moreover, it would have been inconceivable for Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee in 2016, as women were not granted suffrage until 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
When you realize the relative openness of American politics today, you can appreciate why Vaclav Havel identified the United States as the guide for understanding “the way to democracy and independence.” This optimistic image of America continually “approaching democracy” offered a model for Eastern European nations that had been freed from communist rule and might learn from America’s democratic experiment.2 Yet, recent events show that democracy in America is still very much a work in progress, an ongoing experiment in republican self-government. For example, at the urging of the then-President of the United States Donald Trump, self-identified Trump patriots attacked the United States Capitol with the explicit goals of stopping the counting of the electoral votes, taking political prisoners, and murdering both the Speaker of the House and the Vice President of the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic afflicted the United States in greater numbers than any other country in the world—and not just because of its size and population. The vaccine roll out was marred by bureaucratic ineptness and misleading public statements. The murder of George Floyd in the custody of police, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Portland, the intervention of federal troops, the counterdemonstrations of concerned citizens like “Wall of Moms,” and the comments of former President Trump and other politicians focused attention on police violence and the powers of the federal government vis-à-vis the states. Indeed, for months before the 2020 national election, Trump questioned the very legitimacy of the election of mail-in ballots and said that there was no way he could lose the election unless it was stolen from him. These types of lies created the most challenging times for our experiment in democratic government.
In Havel’s words, “You have been approaching democracy uninterruptedly for more than 200 years.” This warning recognized that there had been and could be “interruptions” to, or “recessions from,” democracy; threats to democracy itself that would include new challenges, stresses, and threats to its evolution. There can be actions by the government that result in a receding from the democratic ideal. For this reason, we have chosen “Times of Challenge” as part of our title. The system today is fraught with imperfections to its basic principles that include structural challenges with the electoral college, term limits, war powers, and voter suppression, to name just a few topics covered throughout this textbook.
The 21st century has brought several severe tests to Havel’s optimistic vision for the continuity of America’s democracy and its success in serving as a model around the world. American democracy endured through voter suppression via Jim Crow laws, court-packing attempts by Franklin D. Roosevelt, hundreds of years of gerrymander, and the sedition and insurrection of January 6, 2021. By mid-January 2021, seven out of ten Americans believed that democracy and the rule of law in the United States were threatened. A CBS news survey found that just 29% of Americans believed that a democratic system of government was “secure” or “very secure,” while 71% said that it was at risk.3
The Supreme Court has redefined the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and ruled that states’ political partisan gerrymandering system was beyond their powers to review. This resulted in some states altering their voting districts on a partisan basis, purging voting rolls, and suppressing voting on Election Day—all in the name of the “interests of preventing voter fraud.” Today, some states might not even pass Freedom House’s thresholds to qualify as a democratic government.
The constant movement towards and away from democracy embodies the full meaning of Havel’s speech. We have seen the Supreme Court take it upon itself, against its own precedents, to decide the 2000 presidential election in Bush v. Gore. We have also seen the election of Donald Trump to the White House in 2016, a real estate magnate, branding expert, and reality television personality with no prior political or military service. Trump’s transactional approach to his presidency combined with a partisan brand of American populism, fueled by social media and the internet, had no precedent. Reminiscent of the populist era of Andrew Jackson between 1824 and 1836, this governing approach compels a possible recalibration of our approaching democracy theory.
Other factors are also at play when considering recalibration in our system of checks and balances. In July 2020, then-Attorney General William Barr announced the Department of Justice initiative “Operation Legend” to fight the sudden surge of crime in America. Under the initiative, federal agents were deployed from the FBI, US Marshal Service, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) to American cities as “surge resources.” Also, in July 2020, the “law and order” president dispatched federal troops from the Department of Homeland Security to Portland and Seattle ostensibly for the protection of federal buildings, but local authorities saw it as a pretext to get federal officers involved in patrolling streets and targeting protesters. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said, “the President unilaterally deploying paramilitary-type forces into American cities should concern all Americans. His blatant disregard for the Constitution—and for the safety and wellbeing of our residents—is textbook despotism.” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who was tear-gassed when he joined protesters, described the agents an “occupying force.” Tom Ridge, the country’s first director of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush, warned that the department “was not established to be the President’s personal militia… . It would be a cold day in hell before I would give consent to a unilateral, uninvited intervention into one of my cities.”4
Havel would find comfort in the challenges to President Trump’s actions by other sectors of our governmental structure and ecosystem—the investigative journalism of a national press, the Democratic Party–controlled House of Representatives after the 2018 election, social media, and the federal judiciary, which has ruled at least 139 times against the Trump administration. Additionally, federal courts ruled at least 18 times against the Trump campaign’s legal battles to overturn the 2020 election results in key battleground states.
The policies and character of the Trump presidency divided the nation along economic and racial as well as ethnic lines, thus activating and energizing large segments of an American population that is so increasingly diverse that the nation will become a majority-minority electorate within our lifetime. President Trump’s style of governing led to an explosion in both the number and size of social movements through increased and highly visible political engagement. These groups have included the International Women’s Movement undertaking the worldwide 2017 “Women’s March,” the #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and Dreamers groups, and the new “Checks and Balances” that has split from their Federalist Society group to challenge Trump’s attacks on the “rule of law.” There has also been an increase of youth involvement in politics through national school walkouts demanding gun control and Fridays for Future strikes to pressure political leaders to take action on climate change. Of course, many of these movements existed during Obama’s presidency, but they took on new life in response to Trump’s campaign rallies, aggressive tweeting, and divisive governing style in support of nationalist politics and policies. There has also been a historic number of female, minority, and LGBTQ+ candidates seeking and winning elective office. On the other hand, roughly 35%–40% of the American people supported President Trump’s approach, with the red-hatted “Make America Great Again” followers filling arenas for his campaign rallies and cheering his approach...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Approaching Democracy
APA 6 Citation
Berman, L., Murphy, B. A., Brown, N., & Gershon, S. A. (2021). Approaching Democracy (9th ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Berman, Larry, Bruce Allen Murphy, Nadia Brown, and Sarah Allen Gershon. (2021) 2021. Approaching Democracy. 9th ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Berman, L. et al. (2021) Approaching Democracy. 9th edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Berman, Larry et al. Approaching Democracy. 9th ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.