The words
This is one in a series of Nebraska News Service stories about election and voting issues in the state and the efforts of people and organizations who are working to strengthen democracy. This series is part of a national initiative — — in which more than 300 news outlets published stories on Democracy Day, Sept. 15, to bring attention to the crisis facing American democracy.
The simple phrase “American democracy” is capable of eliciting heated debate over the nation’s welfare. Indeed, Nebraska continues to face its own slew of debates. 
More than 230 Nebraskans are registered members of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government extremist group. At the Nebraska Republican Party’s already-contentious summer convention, a small faction of populist conservatives succeeded in ousting the Nebraska Republican Party’s leadership, spurring over a dozen resignations of party officials.
It’s a set of worries that has only grown more salient to the general public amid a recent increase in partisan polarization and after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the nation’s Capitol.
Dr. Elizabeth Thiess-Morse has conducted research on American democracy exploring whether these concerns are legitimate and if so, to identify solutions to democratic backsliding. Thiess-Morse is a Willa Cather Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and a four-time published author whose research has addressed political psychology and political behavior, in addition to her ongoing research exploring public opinion about equality.
In 2002, Thiess-Morse and her fellow UNL colleague Dr. John Hibbing, who is a Foundation Regent University Professor,  published a book titled “Stealth Democracy” that aims to explore why U.S. citizens feel such animosity toward Congress, the branch of government that is typically seen as the most representative of the American people.
This work prompted the pair to begin exploring whether or not Americans truly value democratic processes; that is, whether the general public really believes in the need for political debate and desires leaders who compromise with other parties when passing policy. 
Hibbing and Thiess-Morse noticed that when questioned about ideal leaders, people overwhelmingly did not wish to leave political power in the hands of elected officials. However, subjects also did not want to hand political power over to the general public. The professors found that most people felt inclined to give political power to so-called “unelected experts,” that is, businesspeople or accomplished individuals who do not have a political career.
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Dr. Elizabeth Thiess-Morse, Willa Cather Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska– Lincoln

“If you just think about that for a second – unelected experts and businesspeople who haven’t been elected–  those are not democratic options,” Thiess-Morse said. “So, we end up arguing that people don’t like democratic processes. They don’t like compromise, they don’t like debate, they undervalue elections, and they’re willing to give power to people who haven’t been elected.”

One reason for this phenomenon, Thiess–Morse and Hibbing found, is that the public is burnt out from feeling resentment and disappointment with their elected officials. 

“They feel that they [elected officials] are completely out of touch with the lives of most Americans, so they end up wanting to take power away from elected officials,” Thiess-Morse said.

Overall, she said the views of the American public suggest a lack of appreciation for a democratic system.

Pierce Ekstrom is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. His recent research, published in 2019 and 2021, examines the causes and effects of political disagreement. Ekstrom said he believes political conflict creates a team mindset, causing people to prefer winning an election to maintaining democracy.

Ekstrom acknowledged that conflict is an inherent part of politics but said in the current United States partisan system, conflict incentivizes major political parties to change election rules in their favor or refuse to admit defeat.

“When this conflict, this desire to win, filters down from Congress to everyday people, voters want parties to play the game this way,” Ekstrom said.

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Dr. Pierce Ekstrom, Assistant Professor, Political Science. October 27, 2021. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication

Thiess-Morse also alluded to decreasing hope for the future among younger generations. She said research shows that the less people trust the government and the economic system, the more these views undermine democracy. She said declining trust in current systems makes people more susceptible to accepting authoritarian leaders and less democratic systems of government. 

“We need to get people to be more hopeful and to understand that they have agency in our political system. They can make change, and it can be positive change,” Thiess-Morse said. 

In spite of the above concerns, she urges the public to remain optimistic about the future of American democracy. Although Thiess-Morse sees some democratic backsliding, she said she feels that much of recent speculation about failing democracy is overly pessimistic.

Since the election of former president Donald Trump in 2016, Theiss-Morse noticed more people are aware that democracy can face harsh challenges. She challenged the American people to put in work to protect the nation’s democracy.

There are still legitimate concerns facing American democracy, meaning it is also crucial to understand who should address these concerns and how key political actors have shifted over time, she said.

Thiess–Morse expressed uncertainty about politicians’ roles in protecting basic civil rights. In the past, her research found that elected officials were commonly expected to be the most likely to protect basic civil rights. She is less certain that this is true today yet argues if a situation becomes dire enough, elected officials will defend democracy. 

“When push comes to shove, people will support our system and our democracy,” she said. “Ultimately there are enough people who will speak up, even among elected officials.”

According to Thiess-Morse, the American public is the most valuable group in upholding U.S. democracy. 

“Ultimately, if Americans really believe in democracy and if they really want to have a democratic system, it’s so important to believe in democracy and to want us to continue to be a democratic country,” she said.

It isn’t only up to the American public, either. Thiess-Morse argues that federal institutions are strong enough to protect Americans against the types of backsliding that can often be seen in other countries. She said that because the U.S. has codified freedom of the press, speech, assembly and others, it sits in a better position than other countries because its institutions have historically been utilized to protect the ideals of democracy, and they can do so again.

The questions remain: Where does the United States go from here? How can people begin closing these chasms within American democracy? Thiess-Morse proposed several solutions. She said a free press is deeply important to preserving democracy.

“The press are under attack all the time. Everybody hates the press. Confidence and approval of the media is always so low, and it’s an easy punching bag for politicians,” Thiess-Morse said. “I think having people be more savvy about the role of the media in a democratic system is important. We need to teach people why we have a free media.” 

She also suggested that people vote in more elections, particularly young voters. Many young people feel a lack of trust in the system because politicians often do not listen to their ideas and views, she said, but many politicians ignore young constituents because they do not vote in large numbers. Thiess-Morse advised all young people to register to vote to grow their voice as a national group.

She said in a partisan system, the best realistic way to get better Congressional representation is to have closer elections. This way, the victor realizes they could easily lose their seat. She said that elected officials must then pay attention to voters who didn’t support them the first time around.

Ekstrom said the disagreement is a crucial part of the political process. There is room for debate in a healthy democracy. Ekstrom said different people will always want different things, so he points to political conflict as a useful tool to ensure that overall, enacted policies will satisfy a majority of the American public.

“A good democracy creates an institutional framework for taking disagreement and turning it into some kind of policy that most people– on average– are willing to tolerate,” Ekstrom said.

Ekstrom said political conflict can be used to move the nation forward. Pointing to the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s as one example, he said that large protests are often a sign that American institutions should be changed. Conflict, Ekstrom said, can signal deeper institutional issues. On the other hand, it can also generate high levels of awareness to those issues, therefore becoming a part of the solution.

In today’s hyper-polarized American society, Thiess-Morse sees an increased tendency to write off the other side of the political aisle. She acknowledged that although it is difficult, a concrete method to boost democracy is to truly listen to those on the other side; to realize that political opponents are not always extremists.

If constructive debate is not possible, another suggestion from Thiess-Morse is to read op-ed pieces from writers and scholars on the other side of the political aisle. She said this is a helpful way to gain knowledge of opposing perspectives and find common ground.

Finally, Thiess-Morse asked that people avoid focusing on the extremes of each major political wing but instead realize that most every day people fall in the middle on a majority of issues.

“We need to be willing to speak up and vote for people who are willing to protect our liberal democratic system,” she said.

Read more Nebraska News Services stories about democracy here and national Democracy Day stories here.

Kirsten Wandrey is a senior Journalism major with minors in Political Science and Global Studies. In addition to schoolwork, she is also the Communications Intern for the ACLU of Nebraska and serves as President of the University Program Council (UPC Nebraska).