America’s Crisis in Civic Virtue

By Arthur C. Brooks

“A republic, if you can keep it.”

That was Benjamin Franklin’s famous response to Elizabeth Willing Powel’s question, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” as he left the just-concluded Constitutional Convention on 17 September 1787.1 We have been trying to keep it ever since. For Alexis de Tocqueville in the early nineteenth century, democracy was the nation’s defining characteristic, giving him the title of his most famous book, Democracy in America. U.S. leaders have promoted democratic values at home and around the world as superior to all others for almost 250 years through diplomacy, development, and military action as well as cultural and intellectual institutions — including this very journal.

And yet, it seems that millions of Americans have lost confidence in this traditional American “brand.” According to a June 2023 survey, almost half of Americans say they believe that our democracy is working “not too well” or “not at all.”2  The year before, 62 percent had agreed with the proposition that “American democracy is currently under threat.”3

What is provoking this identity crisis? Predictably during a time of extreme political polarization, many say, “the other party.” Indeed, in that same June 2023 poll, about half (47 percent) said the Democrats were doing a “somewhat bad” or “very bad” job upholding democracy, while 56 percent said this about the Republicans. In 2021, a huge majority (85 percent) of Americans surveyed said they believed that their nation’s political system “needs to be completely reformed” or “needs major changes.”4