The World Needs a Democracy That Educates Its Citizens to Lead It

In the second of two winning essays in our 2021 college contest, a student writes an open letter to President Biden.

Connor Matteson recently completed his sophomore year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Photo courtesy of Connor Matteson.

Dear President Biden,

Alexis de Tocqueville carried with him a statesman’s goals and a scientist’s methods when he first arrived in the United States in 1831. At the age of 26, the future French minister of foreign affairs traveled extensively throughout the young country in the early 1830s, interacting with all levels of society and diligently recording all of his observations on American culture, government and fundamental beliefs.

The famous text that he eventually published, “Democracy in America,” was not a propaganda pamphlet meant to stir up violent revolution, but a kind of prescription for his own society, with a style of writing that would not be out of place in a contemporary journal of medicine. For Tocqueville, the United States was not a vanity through which he could see a rose-tinted reflection of his own democratic ideals. Instead, it was a chance to impartially observe an experiment in representative democracy and draw lessons for his own country.

The United States today is obviously very different from the one of de Tocqueville’s time. What was once a new country, with unique and untested institutions on the fringes of the international system, is now a global power with economic, cultural and military footprints on every continent. The role it should play in the world during the rest of the 21st century, however, is not dissimilar to the role it played for Tocqueville.

Not just in the realm of democratic ideas, but also in the realm of environmentally sustainable economics, the United States should be a laboratory of tomorrow, a place where forward-thinking leaders from around the world can congregate to observe innovation at work and be inspired to implement positive change in their own societies. In this way, the United States can continue to project the soft power that will ensure not only its own security and prosperity, but also that of the wider community of nations.

It is in regard to the health of our country’s democracy that the most urgent innovations need to take place. Since the end of World War II, U.S. foreign policy actions and rhetoric have leaned heavily into buttressing democratic governance worldwide, yet the trust of ordinary Americans in their own democratic institutions has been on a steady decline since Watergate. This contradiction will certainly not stand forever, and for the sake of freedoms everywhere, it must break decisively in favor of increased confidence.

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This outcome can be brought about through actions such as promoting a nationwide civics curriculum for public schools, making election day a federal holiday and holding social-media platforms financially accountable for spreading fake news. A democracy that educates its citizens on its fundamental workings, makes time for them to participate in the electoral process and sanctions the enablers of dangerous misinformation is one that will continue to inspire freedom activists worldwide and be better prepared to thrive amid the century’s coming challenges.

Of those challenges, climate change and the corresponding task of transitioning the global economy to one that can exist in harmony with the natural world looms largest. The welfare of future generations demands that we get it right. As the world’s most important national economy, the United States must lead the way by investing in cost-effective and job-creating renewable energy solutions, improving our underwhelming public transportation infrastructure to reduce reliance on automobiles, and implementing a national cap-and-trade program to financially disincentivize corporations from releasing pollutants into the atmosphere. A U.S. economy that is both strong and environmentally sustainable will serve as a powerful example for policymakers in other countries and will ensure that the United States will continue to be an integral part of a greener global system.

Effective foreign policy can only exist in the context of effective domestic policy, which is why the United States must make these critical investments in both its institutions and its economy to ensure its place in the world is both influential and positive in the 21st century. The Tocquevilles of tomorrow have already been born, waiting to see which laboratory on distant shores is conducting experiments that hold the most promise for their people. It is our responsibility to ensure that they eventually arrive at ours.