Our democracy is not working. It is plagued with extreme partisanship that often verges on the precipice of shutting our nation down. Public opinion of Congress, the President as well as the Supreme Court are at historic lows. The institutions that are essential to protecting our democracy (e.g. the FBI, the media, the intelligence community, the courts) are under attack. It is easy to blame this on our current President. However, the roots are far deeper and systemic and lay in the structure of our political system that has evolved since the 1970’s. The risks are not only that our democracy is failing to cope with the challenges of the 21st century but also that the US, the exemplar of “liberal democracy” in the world is no longer able to speak for these values nor lead by example.
Success of US Democracy
Since the ratification of our Constitution in 1790, the United States has been considered an experiment in democracy. It has been an experiment because, until then, history had produced no example of a stable democracy. One of the great debates documented in the Federalist Papers was whether a democracy could even work in a country as large as the new United States. History has, until recently, given high marks to the form of democracy created by the signers of the Constitution. However, there is reason to now doubt its current and future success.
The United States has weathered a civil war, two world wars, and multiple other internal and external conflicts to protect that democracy–though some have not shined a favorable light on our government. Yet, through all of this, our democracy matured and weathered many tests.
Perhaps the best measures of this success have been:
- significant economic growth, propelling us to the richest major country in the world (on a per person basis);
- an evolution in human rights illustrated by instituting voting and many civil rights for all citizens, independent of ethnicity, religion, or gender;
- protection of the rights of free speech;
- a system of rule of law that has served as a model for many other nations; and,
- an education system and capitalist economy that has enabled significant, social and economic mobility.
The US has also been the country that has been looked up to by most people in the world. For most of the two centuries following our Constitution, the U.S. was the impetus and model for many other countries aspiring to and successfully transitioning to a democratic form of government.
Metrics of a Failing Democracy
But our democracy is no longer working! Over the past 20 years, our political system has become increasingly ineffective. The cause has been an increase in partisanship which has led to increasingly low opinions of Congress resulting in lowered voter participation in presidential and mid-term elections:
- Favorable views of government have dropped from about 75% in 1958 to near 20% in 2017.
- Voter turnout in both presidential and mid-term elections have dropped since the 60’s. And turnout in US elections is consistently lower than in Europe and Canada.
This political ineffectiveness has been accompanied by a measurable loss of U.S. standing in the world. This is not “fake news” or hyperbole. It is fact. Some of the data that support this judgement are:
- The US News and World Report Best Country rankings (2018), based on a survey of 21,000 people around the world, ranks the US as #8.
- World’s Top 20 Project ranks the US educational system 16th in the world.
- The World Health Organization ranks the US 37th in healthcare.
- Freedom House ranks the US as 20th on the “Human Freedom Index.
- Between 1981 and 2008, economic mobility upward in the US decreased by about 20%.
- Income inequality has been steadily increasing and is now at levels not seen since the 1920’s.
- 70%-75% of population favor various types of gun control with most supporting enhanced background checks. Yet Congress has not acted in years. In fact, they have responded quite negatively by passing a bill forbidding any federal money to be spent on even researching the issue.
- In the World Happiness Report the US has fallen, among OECD countries, from 3rd in 2007 to 19th in 2016.
As these metrics clearly show, the US is no longer a leader in areas essential to our continued economic progress as well as economic and social mobility. We have also lost much of our “soft power” in foreign policy. The political partisanship has removed the ability to find common ground that has brought to a halt the political processes of solving problems essential to our future. Our political system is squandering our future and that of our children and grandchildren.
Why Then, Is US Democracy No Longer Working?
There are two possible explanations. One is that the voting public has become more partisan and, as a result, elects more partisan politicians. The second possible explanation is that the political system has changed to give greater weight in elections to the more extreme wings of both political parties.
In looking at polls on party affiliation among registered voters, taken by both Gallup and Pew, we find that there has been no significant change going back to 2004. If anything, there has been a movement to the center as indicated by a growing number of voters who self-identify as independent. And this has been during a period where there has been increasing attention to diversity and cultural issues which both political parties have used as “wedge” issues to further build walls between party partisans. While there has been an increase, among independents, in “leaning” towards one party or the other, they are still not to be counted among the more partisan wings of either party.
If the voting public has not become more partisan then the political system must have changed to where it gives greater voice and greater voting power to the more partisan elements in both parties.
Changes to the Political System
The “political system” is the sum of all of the elements of the governing process from selection of candidates to the determination of policy for the country. What has happened to our political system that has supported this change and how have these changes occurred?
- Increased “Gerrymandering” of congressional political districts.
- Increased money flowing into political campaigns largely representing political views on the outer fringes of the political spectrum.
- Closed primaries.
- Increased opportunity to use the “revolving door” between the private sector for Congressmen and key Congressional staff positions.
- Congressional rules increase single party control of the House such as the Hastert Rule.
These all have one root that has welded them together into a powerful force of change. That root is the extension of elected office into a career. Today, that career is not just defined by the elected position but by leveraging that position into lobbying, law, or the corporate world. This has injected increased self-interest into making political calculations. That is, elected officials have increased personal goals that will often conflict with the interests of their constituents. Nobel Prize winning economist, James Buchanan made this argument of self-interest as the basis for his theory of “public choice” (The Calculus of Consent (1962), written with Gordon Tullock):
“Governments, they argued, were being assessed in the wrong way. The error was a legacy of New Deal thinking, which glorified elected officials and career bureaucrats as disinterested servants of the public good, despite the obvious coercive effects of the programs they put into place. Why not instead see politicians and government administrators as self-interested players in the marketplace, trying to maximize their utility?”
Beginning in the 1960’s, the government began increasingly to regulate commerce in general, as well as specific industries. In response, the role of lobbying grew, as well as the need for corporations to hire executives who understood the workings of both the legislative and executive branches of government at both the national and state levels. This has created a career path for politicians and senior staffers–an opportunity to lever their experience into a career that extended beyond their position in government.
At a minimum, this self-interest could influence who gains access to them, where their political contributions come from and how much, and even how they vote. It certainly can often place their personal goals in conflict with what is in the best interest of their constituents. To my knowledge, there has been no study attempting to correlate voting patterns with careers after political office. However, there are numerous examples of politicians and staffers following this career path. And there have been a number of such instances that have led to questions regarding votes cast while in office. Certainly, the major discontinuity between public opinion on action to tighten control on gun ownership and congressional inaction is such an example.
To take advantage of this career path, a senator or congressman must stay in office for sufficient time to both gain the experience and the contacts to establish their value for the next career step. To maximize this opportunity, the “gerrymandering” of political districts ensures the chance of remaining in elected office. Then one needs money to maximize campaigning. Along came Supreme Court decisions that allowed unlimited political contributions, Super Pacs, and the use of the dark money of 501 (c)(4) Corporations. Around all of this there has grown a political industry of Think Tanks and other facilitators. These have been on both sides of the political spectrum and usually close to the ideological extremes. The net result of these changes to the political system is the partisanship that we now see.
What can we do to regulate or to change this destructive political system?
One suggestion often made is “term limits.” This would not change the political system that has been put in place. The low voter turn-out, particularly in off year elections, the closed primaries, and the “gerrymandered” congressional districts would still ensure follow-on candidates would be determined by the same distorted system that has been put in place.
What we must do is to make changes to the political system to ensure that those who become elected are more representative of the voting public. The voting public does not represent the extremes of the political system. Forty percent of eligible voters are independents. Add to this some number who are on the center-left and center right in each of the political parties and we have a majority of voters closer to the center than to the extremes.
Even beyond the low voting turnout– a measure of the voting publics loss of confidence in our institutions–our primary system further disenfranchises much of the voting public. Most states have a closed primary system in which you can only vote if you are a registered Democrat or Republican. Today, that excludes about 40% of the population. Add that to the low turnout for primary and mid-term elections and the fact that those who do turnout are the most active in either party and we begin all of our campaigns selecting candidates who represent the more extreme wings of the party.
Then the “gerrymandering” of voting districts enhances the chances of those candidates getting elected and reelected.
And the two Supreme Court decisions, Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC have unleashed greatly increased amounts of money into political campaigns. This flow of dollars comes from those who have it and have chosen to use it—wealthy individuals and corporations. It has given a major amplifier to the views of a small minority. This decision certainly runs counter to the fundamental belief in our democracy of “one person, one vote.” Since the great majority of the money flowing through as a result of these decisions has come from the more extreme wings of the political spectrum, it further enhances the partisanship.
Finally, the parties have made rules changes in Congress, to further ensure the control of the party in power. One example is the “Hastert Rule”. This rule which has no Constitutional basis allows the party in power in the House of Representatives to keep bills from coming to a vote if they are counter to the controlling party’s interest and may pass with a minority of votes from the controlling party plus votes from the opposition. This is a direct effort to foil compromise and thus further partisanship.
The most effective path to restrict the power of the political system that now exists is to take actions that would restore greater control to the voters. There are four steps that would enable that.
First, encourage each state to have “open primaries.”
An “open primary” is one which is open to registered party affiliates as well as voters unaffiliated with any party as long as they vote in only one primary. “Open primaries” were constitutionally affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2005 and currently seven states hold them. This will increase the participation in selecting candidates and thus better reflect the views of the voting public.
Second, eliminate partisan “gerrymandering.”
A number of states have removed the drawing of voting district boundaries from state legislatures and given it to a non-partisan entity. Recently, the State Supreme Court in Pennsylvania rejected the district map of the legislature and did the redistricting themselves.
Third, place restrictions on the amount of donations to political campaigns by individuals.
That is, reverse the McCutcheon v. FEC decision. In addition, political spending on issue advertising by 501(4)(c) social service organizations should be restricted from being in print, on TV or on the internet for some blackout period before the election. It is very difficult to police any coordination of this advertising with campaigns. This blackout period would effectively act to weaken any attempt at direct electoral influence.
Fourth, pass a Constitutional Amendment that would require all eligible voters to vote.
Perhaps the most dramatic of the actions would be to pass a Constitutional Amendment that requires all eligible voters to vote subject to a financial penalty for not voting. This is the law in Australia. This is completely consistent with the founding principles of our democracy. That is the right for the citizens to be responsible for selecting our leaders. To not exercise that right is a failure to exercise a responsibility of citizenship.
Beyond these, we need to return to teaching our students, beginning in at least middle school, the political and cultural history of our country with an emphasis on their responsibility as citizens. This history must include examples of the how the balance of power has evolved to where political structure has removed the ability of the voters to determine the future of our government and thus of their own future.
This is not a political argument regarding policies nor is it an argument for a smaller government or a libertarian agenda. It is an argument for the people to assert themselves in determining our future.
While all of these require significant effort to accomplish, the first two can be implemented at state level and, as noted, have already been implemented in a number of states. These actions are not aimed at partisan policies but ensuring that the politics of this country represents the views of a majority of the eligible voting public. If that part of the citizenry does not take back the power that is given them by the vote then the political elite in the country will continue a partisanship that drags us all further away from a future that is best for us, our progeny, and the world.