Keep Talking—America's Democracy Depends on It | Opinion

For most of my formative years growing up in the north of Nigeria in the 1990s, I automatically associated democracy and freedom with the United States. For me, and many others like me who grew up under authoritarian regimes, America was a beacon of hope. As someone who has lived and worked in the U.S. since 2014, I have witnessed American life and the love of freedom. And yet, after "exporting" or promoting liberal democracy to much of the developing world, American democracy is now in peril.

For the first time ever, in 2021, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) Global State of Democracy report listed America as a backsliding democracy, and recorded its lowest score ever on the democracy index. Certainly, democracy is not all about metrics and numbers. It would also be misleading to think that democracy is all about elections, campaigns, and voting. There are authoritarian regimes that hold regular elections; the U.S. may not be as far removed from such regimes.

A 2022 Pew Research poll stated Americans are the most polarized in decades, from the electorate to Congress—cleaved in half—and incapable of seeing eye to eye on almost anything from the pandemic response to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

An earlier Pew report stated that more Americans than at any other time say it's stressful to talk about politics with people who disagree.

A recent survey also indicated that an increasing proportion of individuals justify the use of violence for political ends. This is clearly not acceptable under any circumstances. Aggression for some is what commences when dialogue ends because they must find some means of self-expression, communication, and engagement.

Some may say that the U.S. democracy is under attack by specific individuals or groups. But democracy is only as good as the quality of public discourse and the level of civil, open, and even controversial discourse.

Many have become exhausted with the labor needed to sustain deliberation, especially the difficult types of discussion needed to understand one another, reach compromise, and formulate policy. This exhaustion can be seen in the decision to take to the streets in peaceful protest or moments of rage as was the case after the George Floyd killing and most recently responding to Tyre Nichols' death.

More often, it is the avoidance of conversations that holds the risk of highlighting perspectives that an individual may be unwilling to acknowledge. Soon enough, each side may find it easier to join their tribe in taking to the streets, than communing with those they have categorized as "others."

Simply put, all sides need to start talking again.

An American flag
An American flag on the back of a ferry. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

It is essential to recognize that true democracy is based on deliberation, what Simone Chambers of University of Toronto two decades ago referred to as "talk-centric" democracy. Deliberation, or carefully planned, moderated discourse which pits ideas rather than people against one another, is crucial to helping people humanize those with whom they disagree. Deliberation promotes learning from and about others, can prompt reflection on one's own positions, and can help reduce polarization. Having open and civil conversations about social and political issues is not a magic pill to improve democracy.

Thankfully, there seems to be an increasing effort to create such deliberative forums at varying levels by groups such as Braver Angels and the One America Movement. Through workshops, debates, and other forums, these groups are working to promote civil discourse.

Those who think that the cancellation or exclusion of certain views from the public discourse is acceptable, except in the most extreme cases, should know that the alternative to free, open, and civil debate is often incivility, expressed in more aggressive ways.

Censoring others should never be mistaken for educating them, nor does it persuade. When used as a tool to silence opposing views, it breeds distrust and resentment. I have seen what it looks like when resentment builds, and dialogue fails.

As a young boy growing up in the north of Nigeria in the early to mid-90s, it meant occasional machete wielding mobs in the streets cutting down everyone in their path. It was not always clear what their resentment was about, but it was always evident that many of us were strangers, occupying the same space but living in different worlds.

It is important that everyone begin the arduous work that involves drawing close to understand unfamiliar ideas, instead of shaming others into silence. It is important to embrace dialogue at the risk of realizing some viewpoints may have been misinformed.

This slow, tedious process of asking, learning, debating, sometimes agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing, but also acknowledging one another and continuing to engage in this manner, regardless of the outcome—this is what democracy looks like.

This is how America's democracy can be saved.

Oluseyi Adegbola is an assistant professor in the college of communication at DePaul University and a public voices fellow through The OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.