Democracies are fragile and unique political systems and we should be doing more to protect ours.
It’s historical fact. Almost 1,800 years stretched between the fall of the Roman Republic and the Declaration of Independence establishing our American democracy. And with our current state of affairs in politics and frenzied media, it’s clear to me this nation is in danger of forgetting just how rare and difficult it is to maintain a representative democracy.
Worse still, we’re losing perspective on the importance of economic opportunity as the connective tissue of our democracy. As an entrepreneur who has seen success thanks to our system, I am particularly concerned.
Almost 200 years ago, French aristocrat Alexis De Tocqueville was asked by his king to come to America to learn about our prisons. When De Tocqueville arrived in 1831, the United States was the only functioning representative democracy in the world. He found that his work on understanding how Americans approached incarceration was rapidly diminished by his fascination of our society as a whole. Reeling during the hangover of the French Revolution, an aristocrat traveling across 1830s America quickly discovered what it was that made us so different.
De Tocqueville concluded that America was unique because our complex interplay between democracy and economic opportunity. Our liberty and democracy had a support structure: economic opportunity and its corollary, social mobility — not the reverse. Every individual’s chance at a better life was the fabric that joined our society together. Religion, politics, education all varied across this nation, but it was the shared expectation of opportunity that best defined how Americans saw themselves as different from other nations. In fact, De Tocqueville warned that stratification of opportunities could ultimately destroy both our “Americanness” and our democracy as a whole.
In 1893, homegrown historian Frederick Jackson Turner approached this issue through the prism of the “closing of the frontier.” He concluded that with the completion of the settlement of the United States, our nation would face a crisis of democracy. Just the opportunity to migrate to new land in search of success provided a necessary safety valve for our society, he said. Without the ability to find new frontiers, American society would provide less opportunity and our nation’s uniqueness would disappear.
American political history over the last 100 years can very much be understood through the perspectives of these two historians. Until recently, Americans created and led each new industrial wave that shaped the world economy. Entrepreneurs were essential in pushing these boundaries. The question is whether these conditions exist today.
Clearly, our citizens are happiest when they have economic opportunities, and become the most restive when they do not. Don’t think that this is driven by a common desire for equality of outcome – Americans are happy for others who succeed so long as they feel they also have a chance.
Political commentators appear surprised by how angry Americans have become. Politicians play on divisions in ways that are dismaying. The idea of a democracy –- where the interest of all are heard and society reflects compromise –- is being obscured through a sea of confusing messages, agendas and an endless 24/7 cycle of sensational news and clickbait.
The root of this anger is not tough to understand: voters feel their power to succeed is slipping from them. We face dissipating economic opportunity. America’s social mobility is comparable to Nigeria and Argentina — falling, not rising. Americans sense this, live this, and feel discordance between the beacon of the American Dream and their plodding reality. Politicians should take heed. Our leaders must evaluate laws, regulations and policies that bring us closer to the ambition and aspiration this country was built upon.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and chairman of Amplifier Ventures, a venture capital fund focusing on national security technology innovation. He is co-host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program.