David Orr

David W. Orr is Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics Emeritus at Oberlin College. He is the director of the State of American Democracy project and co-editor of Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People.

January 31, 2020

Democracy Unchained

Like a house with a leaking roof, sagging floors, broken windows, and a crumbling foundation, American democracy is suffering from decades of disrepair. The challenge of reforming and updating democratic institutions would be difficult enough in “normal” times, but we do not live in normal times. The pace of change is faster than ever, the problems bigger, the corruption deeper, the risks more global, the time to prevent the worst that could happen is short, and the consequences of further delay beyond reckoning.

The election of 2016 exposed how vulnerable our democracy has become to social and economic divisions, foreign influence, and brazen demagoguery. We have stumbled into a “post-truth” world—a house of mirrors in a circus of the bizarre. Porn stars and illicit payments, corruption and emoluments, WikiLeaks and fake news, Barr v. Mueller, the alt-right and white supremacists, an unstable and impulsive president with his “base,” coal versus solar, an avalanche of mendacity, Russians in the shadows. Up is down, black is white, in is out, truth is fake. Democracy is always at risk to deceit and to those who refuse to abide by the rules and procedures necessary for civil civic discourse. Absent a decent regard for truth and respect for the law, however, democracy dies, and with it “the last best hope of earth.”

The conversations that led to this book began at a three-day conference on “The State of American Democracy” at Oberlin College in November 2017. We intended to clarify the historic and institutional origins of the election of 2016 and the growing risk that we are coming unmoored from our history and our highest values. Conservative writer David Frum puts it this way: “We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me.”

Democracy is a wager that its citizens have the stamina and wisdom to maintain a government of, by, and for the people. In the words of Harvard University political scientist Michael Sandel: “The hope of our time rests with those who can summon the conviction and restraint to make sense of our condition and repair the civic life on which democracy depends.” In that spirit, we are committed to repairing and strengthening democracy and believe it to be a requisite for meeting large challenges ahead including that of a rapidly changing climate.

The title is adapted from Nancy MacLean’s book Democracy in Chains. We intend this both as an extension of Professor MacLean’s brilliant historical analysis and as a statement of our belief that democracy has yet to achieve its full potential. From early conversations in the Athenian agora to the present, its advance has been intermittent and incomplete. The chains to be broken are those of racism, oligarchy, exclusion, militarization, ignorance, complacency, and the lack of imagination about how to rebuild our politics and government for all the people.


Copyright © 2020 by David W. Orr. This excerpt originally appeared in Democracy Unchained: How to Rebuild Government for the People, published by The New Press and reprinted here with permission. Read David Orr's Introduction.