Three Circumstances That Could Test Democracy to the Core—and the Long-Term Implications

Three circumstances that people in the U.S. could confront in the years immediately ahead could well challenge the viability of democratic governance as we know it. Recognizing them can help us engage them with the foresight needed if they are not to result in disorganization and chaos. It also invites us to reflect on long-term implications and the kind of leadership needed in our time if we are to progress in ways that will ultimately benefit us. 

With the first circumstance, some issue arises that is sufficiently charged emotionally that today’s social and political polarization reaches the breaking point. This may have been already set in motion. Such ultimate cleavage could eventually follow from the recent repeal of Roe V. Wade. If the result became the U.S., in effect, being split in two, the country could well become ungovernable.   

The second more specifically concerns the U.S. Supreme Court. Historically we have thought of the Supreme Courts as a third, largely non-political and generally stabilizing branch of government. If, in years ahead, we see strategies like that applied with Roe used to overturn the right to same-sex marriage or contraception and to establish other more right-leaning policies (as we now see with the EPA and climate policy) any illusion that the Supreme Court can serve as a non-political trusted agent will have been erased. We also see the potential for a more general train-wreck situation with the Supreme Court if a new opening appeared in the next few years. The ages of the larger portion of current membership makes this unlikely. But if the Republicans assume control of the Senate with the midterm election, they could well block any candidate proposed by President Biden from being confirmed as we witnessed at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency with Merit Garland. Particularly if this happened early on the Biden’s second term, such actions would not get the begrudging pass it got in Obama’s time. We could see a level of conflict in Congress that would make even the limited ability for effective governance we witness today impossible. 

The third circumstance concerns what we may very well see with the 2024 elections. With today’s near equal cultural division, the election will likely be close. And the absoluteness of that division means that it may be very difficult for the losing side, whoever that might be, to accept the outcome of the election. I’ve written extensively about how today’s extreme social and political polarization has to do ultimately not just with what we think, but how we think (see Perspective and Guidance for a Time of Deep Discord: Today’s Extreme Social and Political Polarization and What We Can Do About It). The differences in how we think are becoming increasingly absolute and shrill in their expression. With the 2020 election, we witnessed a level of denial in the face of clear election results not seen previously in the U.S., even at times of major societal division. Whichever side wins in 2024, we could see a considerably more far reaching level of denial. Institutional democracy has its foundation in the rule of law and the acceptance of the popular decision-making process even in the face of great differences. Without this acceptance, the democratic experiment ceases to function. 

These potential circumstances concern me deeply. Much of my life has involved training leaders for the leadership tasks ahead for the species. We may very well dodge such circumstance this time around. But if we can’t get beyond today’s extreme social and political polarization, we will confront them eventually.  

Just what do we need to do? Being ready for them is a start. If these realities surprise us, the likelihood that we will respond reactively and dangerously increases dramatically. As important ultimately, we need to reflect deeply on their implications and what responding effectively to these circumstances might look like. It is not at all obvious how best to interpret what we see. Thus, too, it is not immediately clear what is being asked of us. 

One interpretation put forward by respected thinkers is just that we have forgotten what it takes to maintain a democratic system. We have to remember the simple fact that democracies are fragile and can continue to exist only to the degree we are willing to fight for them. In this interpretation, if we can remember our civic responsibilities, all will be well. 

Another possibility is that we are seeing the end of the democratic experiment. It could be that the stressors we confront today as a species—globalization, climate change, the new demands of a digital world, and more—are creating a reality that is beyond democratic government to manage. Or perhaps we are simply witnessing the kind of collapse that occurs inevitably with all great civilizations. If this interpretation is accurate there is not a lot to do but to step back and let history take its course.  

A third possibility turns to a kind of observation that I’ve developed in my writing. We tend to think of institutional democratic governance as we have known it as an ideal and end point. Creative Systems Theory, the body of work on which most of my life contribution is based, describes how we better think of it as one powerful and important chapter in the historical evolution of governance. It also describes how there is no reason to assume that further chapters don’t lie ahead. With the concept of Cultural Maturity, the theory maps out some of the characteristics of what a needed— and newly possible—next stage in how we think about governance and government might look like. It also describes how we should not expect the process of engaging what the future will require of us to happen easily or smoothly, that we will necessarily confront awkward in-between times and much that the theory calls Transitional Absurdity. 

At the very least, current circumstance require that we be alert and prepared. We could respond in ways that could make already dangerous circumstances much worse. If the third possibility I’ve noted is playing a role, these circumstances also encourage us to reflect on what a next chapter in government’s narrative might look like and ask of us—and to act accordingly. (It is a topic I specifically address in my book Creative Systems Theory: A Comprehensive Theory of Purpose, Change, and Interrelationship in Human Systems.)