U.S. Capitol Riots

Experts Share How the U.S. Can Save Our Democracy … and Avoid a Civil War

“People don't really understand how serious the threat is,” says former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

America is closer to a collapse of its democracy than much of the country may realize, according to several experts interviewed by NBCLX in the months following the insurrection in Washington on Jan. 6.

Since November’s election, the republic has endured attacks on the truth, the undermining of legitimate election results, and open discussions about secession by high-ranking officials in several states — threats to America’s democracy that haven’t been seen in nearly 160 years. 

And the attack on the U.S. Capitol suggests such an extreme idea as a civil war may not be as far-fetched as once thought.

So what will it take for America to avoid democratic collapse, and the fate of so many other world powers throughout history?

NBCLX spoke to experts in different fields for their opinions on how the United States can save its democracy.

The Politician: Way More Focus on Moderates, Less on Partisans

“My concern is that people don't really understand how serious the threat [to America’s democracy] is,” said former U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).  “We aren’t always going to agree, but we need to disagree respectfully, and we need to quit demonizing the other side.”

Heitkamp, the last Democrat to have won a statewide race in conservative North Dakota, told NBCLX that Democrats and Republicans alike have fallen out of touch with local communities, as national identity politics dominate headlines.  But that’s disenfranchised moderate voters, while encouraging partisans to treat their political opponents like mortal enemies.

The greatest damage that President Trump did, in my opinion, was pit one group of Americans against another group of Americans and said, ‘they're the bad guys,’ instead of, ‘we all have to be in this together,’” she said. “I firmly believe that we all want the same things. We just use different methods to get there.”

After leaving office two years ago, Heitkamp launched the One Country Project, a politically-active nonprofit working to promote the interests of rural communities, particularly within the Democratic party.  She says President Joe Biden needs to re-engage Americans in more rural and more conservative states to prevent the country’s divides from deepening.

If I were the president, I would put out a 50-state plan of where I'm going to go, what I'm going to talk about, whom I'm going to visit with and whom I'm going to listen to. It's time for politicians to get out of Washington and start listening to people and bringing people together and convening meetings that aren't just about rallying your supporters, but are about bringing communities together to solve problems.

“You need to remember that 74 million people voted for President Trump,” Heitkamp continued.  “I'm not saying all of them share every idea that he ever had or every bad impulse he ever had, but they felt like he was the better leader for a reason. We need to have a communication with those people…these are our neighbors…these are our friends.”

The Former Conservative Activist: Stop Ignoring Non-Evangelical Christians

“Non-Republicans need to understand just how much the conservative movement is motivated by religious zealotry at the highest levels,” said Matthew Sheffield, a former conservative activist who founded the right-wing news site Newsbusters.  “It’s really radicalized a lot of people because they've been told for decades that the whole world is resting upon who they vote for — for Congress or president or governor.”

Sheffield, a former devout Mormon, says division — particularly over religion — is one of Republicans’ most-powerful political tools. And he says Democrats have played into their hand by pushing religious voters away, which has contributed to the country’s division and disenfranchised many moderates who also happen to be religious.

“There needs to be more of a space for people [in the Democratic Party] who have more traditionalist viewpoints but are not far-right,” Sheffield said. “And those voices need to be elevated and they need to be included in conversations more.”

He recently launched Flux, a news site dedicated to elevating under-represented voices in the media, including those of women, racial and sexual minorities, lower-income Americans, and those who “live outside the Boston-to-DC corridor.” Sheffield says a more diverse news diet will help Americans have better conversations with those they disagree with, and more moderate opinions will ultimately reduce the number of Americans who have become radically-partisan.

“If President Biden were to move his policy agenda and market it toward these centrist Republicans who are out there, he could actually achieve quite a bit (on the unity front).”

The Historian: Liberal Arts Can Save Us

“The latter half of the 20th century, there was sort of an automatic assumption behind most [American attitudes that] if you just sit back and wait, history will turn out OK,” said Stanford University history professor Priya Satia.  “But nothing is going to just work itself out. It is on us to work things out. We need to do that work.”

Satia said too many Americans have not only failed to learn lessons from world history, but also their own country’s past.

“If you have a good, accurate narrative of…United States history, you won't go storming around the Capitol building with a Confederate flag,” Satia said.  “[We should] invest much, much more in humanistic studies so that people are better readers and can better-distinguish fact from fiction, [but] investment in those fields has really eroded in recent decades as we've emphasized technology and technological fields much more.”

A recent poll by USAToday and Suffolk University found 58% of President Trump’s supporters believed Antifa was behind the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, compared to just 28% who believed it was mostly Trump’s supporters, even though the FBI has repeatedly rejected claims that Antifa or any liberal groups were involved in coordinating the attack.

“The more educated we are, the more we're able to cope with this media universe,” Satia said.

She added that history suggests confronting America’s gender and racial inequality could strengthen democracy.

“Is American power preeminent in the world? I don't know if that's how we should be judging the health of American society. Maybe we should [ask]: Is there less inequality in America? Is everyone well employed? Does everyone have health insurance? Maybe those are better things to look at for how well-off America is.”

The Sociologist: Difficult Conversations with Our Political Opponents

“We have to assure people that change does not necessarily mean that...you’re losing something,” said Reuben A. Buford May, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He says the culture war over change isn’t helping America evolve for the better; it’s getting in the way of progress.  But much of the angst over immigration, the social safety net and other progressive policies may be misplaced.

“One of the key things that we need to do is to get to the essence of people's insecurities to recognize why they feel like their position, their status, their life is in jeopardy,” May said.  “[But] we haven't been able to do that successfully, partly because it serves very little interest for people who want to maintain power and position to actually engage this in any real way.”

Like Heitkamp, May advocates looking at your political opponents as humans, not demons.

“People get the sense we're losing ourselves if you don't stand firm to what you believe in a way that keeps you from hearing other people…[but] if you entertain someone else's ideas or thoughts about their perspective, you are not losing yourself.”

May says the inability to have conversations with political opponents will likely plague America for a long time, but won’t stop the country from evolving.

The structures in society are so slow in moving,” he said.  “Sometimes you see inspirational experiences where people, who are not Black, begin to support things like Black Lives Matter. And then you get the sense that something is actually taking place here.  Or, you can think about the women's movement — women's right to vote and equality with pay — and how people began to stand behind the [movement] who are not women. [Eventually,] there's a sense that something is actually changing.

“So [the key] is to get people to see a wide range of perspectives, then get them to connect to other people that are not like them. Then, [America] can grow and change.”

Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor.  He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at noah.pransky@nbcuni.com or on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.