As America punishes its people, is U.S. democracy on its deathbed?

A parked limousine burns as riot police clear the street during a demonstration after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in downtown Washington. Protesters registered their rage against the new president Friday in a chaotic confrontation with police who used pepper spray and stun grenades in a melee just blocks from Donald Trump's inaugural parade route. Scores were arrested for trashing property and attacking officers.  (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

A parked limousine burns as riot police clear the street during a demonstration after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in downtown Washington. Protesters registered their rage against the new president Friday in a chaotic confrontation with police who used pepper spray and stun grenades in a melee just blocks from Donald Trump's inaugural parade route. Scores were arrested for trashing property and attacking officers. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The signs are all around us. Something is not right in America. The country is a traumatic place for millions, triggering stress among wide swaths of the public, as if the screws are being tightened ever more excruciatingly. Democracy is eroding, as people are losing faith in an open society and a country that is not working for them — and a government that is not meeting their needs or serving their interests.

A November survey from the American Psychological Association sounds the alarm, or more accurately, reflects the sentiment that so many have known personally or anecdotally. Nearly 60 percent of Americans say today is the lowest point in U.S. history. Moreover, most respondents  (63 percent) say the future of the country is their most significant source of stress, while nearly six in 10 are stressed from America’s social division.

These concerns span all age groups and party affiliations. Other issues causing people stress include health care, the economy, trust in government, crime and hate crimes, wars, terrorist attacks, unemployment and low wages, and the environment.

Young people are disenchanted with the current system. A Harvard study from 2016 found a majority of millennials — 51 percent — reject capitalism.

The U.S. does maintain some of the trappings of democracy. However, the nation is arguably a sham democracy, with important rights enshrined in the First Amendment, but with election integrity ranked at the bottom of Western democracies and a right to vote subjected to gerrymandering, voter suppression, and massive disenfranchisement.

The land of the free has become a punitive nation, where its policies do not reflect efforts to build communities and improve the lives of people, but rather measures that encourage deprivation and reflect a desire to inflict gratuitous violence on the people. America is ruled by an oligarchy in which a small, wealthy elite dictates policy.

A Harvard Business School study declared that the U.S. political system, designed not to serve the public interest but to do the bidding of lobbyists and private interests, “has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge our nation needs to address.”

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has allowed campaign finance to metastasize into unlimited influence of money in elections. A legalized system of bribing politicians means the nation is unable to address the worst poverty and most glaring economic inequality in the developed world. This, as the American middle class has died, and most Americans have regressed to Third World status, as one MIT economist has concluded.

This is why public consensus may favor or oppose a particular policy, yet the legislation enacted in Washington, and in Harrisburg and other state capitals, may not necessarily reflect the popular will. Consider the massive, unpopular tax cuts recently enacted for the wealthy and corporations, efforts to roll back consumer protections and banking regulations, the evisceration of civil rights and environmental protections, and resistance to addressing gun violence.

“We have a situation now where people who are in power impose a lot of punishment on unfortunate people,” said former President Jimmy Carter. “We have seven times as many people in prison now as we did when I left the White House, for instance. We have got a much greater disparity of income among Americans than we have ever had before.”

“In fact, eight people in the world — six of them are from America — own as much money as half of the total population of the world, 3.5 billion people,” Carter noted. “In America, we have the same problem, maybe even in an exaggerated way. We have marginalized the average person for the benefit of the wealthier people in America.”

Even worse, some have sounded the alarm on the threat of tyranny in America. Riding in on a wave of faux populism, hate,and revanchism, the Trump administration has embraced greed, corruption, and self-enrichment. Gaslighting the public and appealing to emotions to give people a warped sense of their own best interests, Trump acts in the long tradition of propaganda and deception employed by authoritarian regimes. Former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates calls what is taking place a “relentless attack on democratic institutions and norms,” with an impact felt not only during this presidency, but potentially for years to come.

Authoritarianism is on the rise in parts of the world, and it is important that we not allow fascism to go unnoticed, warns former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who considers Trump the most anti-democratic leader in U.S. history.

In the absence of civic engagement and an informed populace, democracy dies. The U.S. trails most of the developed world in voter turnout, the public lacking in civic knowledge of the Constitution, the workings of government, and the structure of the three branches. Civic ignorance and a lack of critical thinking skills allow fake news to prevail, and provide an opening for a would-be dictator.

If true democracy — a relatively recent phenomenon in America — is dying, the prescription is a surge of engagement. And that is what the country is experiencing — unprecedented activism after years of increasing economic inequality and waning civic participation. Inspired by the sad state of America, one in five Americans has participated in protests or attended rallies since 2016, and over half have volunteered or supported a cause. Protesting to restore democracy and their psychic well-being, people are learning government is not a spectator sport. The armchair is the deathbed of democracy.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.