Editor’s note: Leading up to the May 3 grand opening of Harris’ new home at the Keller Center, our #PolicyForward series spotlights how the Harris School of Public Policy is driving impact for the next generation. In addition to stories from faculty, students, and alumni, we reached out to other experts in the field to share their perspective on strengthening democracy and our institutions.

Teri Kanefield is a U.C. Berkeley-educated lawyer and the author of numerous books, articles, and essays.

Why are challenges to democracy so important to effectively address?

Democracies can, and do, die. 

“If it happens here,” says Prof. David Strauss, “it won’t happen all at once. A large, diverse society with democratic traditions and a strong civil society is unlikely to become an autocracy overnight.”1  

A Coup d’état, like what happened in Chile in 1973, is very twentieth century. Twenty-first century autocrats have less bloody, less dramatic, and more effective methods: They assault democratic institutions and gradually wear them down.

Putin’s methods for eroding democracy and installing autocracy have been well-documented. He attacked the free press, and criminalized libel. He consolidated control by removing checks against his power. Most importantly, he undermined factuality itself by means of what the Rand Corporation calls a “Firehose of Falsehoods." Telling a constant stream of outrageous lies confuses people, and wears them out. Eventually people give up trying to sort out fiction from fact. Once this happens, rule of law becomes impossible, because rule of law requires truth. Without truth, for example, what’s reported in newspapers (“fake news!”) and even jury verdicts can have no meaning. In the words of Yale professor Jason Stanley, “Without truth, we cannot speak truth to power. So there is only power.”

Once factuality has been cleared away, the autocrat can do as he likes without fear of being held accountable.

The only way to stop a gradual erosion of democratic institutions is for citizens to be actively involved, and to work to strengthen and defend democratic institutions like the free press and the independence of the judiciary.

What advice would you give the “next generation” of young people eager to strengthen democracy?

Get involved. Organize locally. Run for office. Register new voters. Elections are held locally. Get involved in yours. Join political organizations. Subscribe to local newspapers, and national journals that do good investigative reporting.

To quote filmmaker Michael Moore, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”

One goal of Putin’s Active Measures (the Russian strategy for undermining democracies worldwide) is to sow discord and cause people to lose faith in democracy. Democracy will work if enough people want it to work. On the other hand, Constitutions don’t enforce themselves. If enough people just stop following the democratic norms and the procedures and guidelines in the Constitution, it will cease to be a guiding document.

The word “democracy” comes from two Greek roots: demos, which is translated as “people,” and kratos as “power.” If the people become passive, they relinquish their power, and democracy will die.  

What policies would make the most impact to strengthen democracy?

The most destructive policies are those that give too much power to certain groups at the expense of others. One example would be gerrymandering, which effectively silences entire groups of voters, while giving extra weight to other groups.

Another example is the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which allows wealthy people to have more say in government. 

So the most positive impact would come from getting rid of gerrymandering and Citizens United.

Democracy is always in danger of slipping into oligarchy (a small group of people holding all the power) because those in power often (but not always) enact laws that benefit themselves. Before the Civil War, Southern slaveowners had disproportionate power, and they enacted laws to maintain their power. After the Civil War, when the industrial revolution exploded, robber barons enacted legislation to maintain their power. With inequality in the United States once more reaching the levels we had in the 1920s, America is slipping back toward oligarchy. This must turn around in order for our democracy to regain its health.


1“Law and the Slow-Motion Emergency,” in Can It Happen Here: Authoritarianism in America, p. 365.

About Teri Kanefield

Teri Kanefield is a U.C. Berkeley-educated lawyer and the author of numerous books, articles, and essays. Her books have won several awards, including the 2015 Jane Addams Book Award. Her stories, essays, and opinion pieces have appeared in a range of magazines and news outlets, including CNN and Scholastic Magazine. For 14 years, she had private appellate practice in California limited to representing indigents on appeal from diverse rulings. Follow her on Twitter at @Teri_Kanefield.