Notes on whether American democracy is working

February 6, 2013

I'm part of a panel on this topic tonight at Miami University in Ohio. If you're in the area, come out! If you're not, I thought I'd share some rough, provisional notes. Feedback welcome, and appreciated.

Is American democracy working?

Well, it’s certainly not working as originally intended, if for no other reason then the United States of America was not originally intended to be nearly this democratic. When your baseline is monarchy, you can be pretty undemocratic and still pat yourself on the back for opening up the political process.

Women, African Americans and Native Americans couldn’t vote. The president was actually supposed to be chosen by wise men and, well, men of the electoral college, not by the electoral college rubber stamping the will of the people. Senators were supposed to be appointed by state legislatures.

The Founders both underestimated the American people’s desire for democracy and overestimated the dangers of democracy. James Madison was, toward the end of his life, much more comfortable with majoritarian rule than he was as a younger man.

As political scientist Alan Grimes observed, 21 of the 27 amendments to the Constitution “may be said to affirm either the principle of democratic rights or of democratic processes.”

So, is American democracy working? It's not clear what that means. American democracy is, for all its flaws, winning. But the question is whether the American political system, which includes both democratic and non-democratic elements, is working.

That question, also, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Working to do what?

A few possibilities:

Working to accord with the Founders vision? We’ve already seen that’s not true.

Working to translate the majority’s wishes into law? Our system is designed to make that extraordinarily difficult. But it’s also true that “the majority’s wishes” are difficult to discern. In 2008, Americans elected President Obama and, in theory, endorsed his oft-made promise to pass a universal health-care bill. By the time that bill passed, it was solidly unpopular. But despite its overall unpopularity, its component parts were popular. So what were the majority’s wishes?

Working to govern well and wisely? I don’t think it’s doing that. Nor does anyone else, as far as I can tell. Which brings me to ...

Working to please the American people? Public trust in government has been in freefall for decades now. Public approval of Congress is laughably low. Pew tracks polls on the subject and they're ugly:

Public trust in Congress is, if anything, worse:

Which is to say, if you want the democracy's take on the American political system, it's pretty grim.

Similarly, the world's take on the American political system is a bit worrying, too. Basically no new democracies have adopted our political architecture. Part of the reason our system isn't appealing to young countries is that it hasn't worked too well in the past. As Juan Linz, a professor of political science at Yale, pointed out in a 1989 paper, “The only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States."

His read of history is that presidential democracies are particularly prone to instability and devolving into dictatorships as multiple branches have a clear claim to democratic legitimacy at the same time. We have been the exception to the consequences of that dynamic. The reason, Linz says, is "because of the lack of discipline in the parties, and the relatively good relationships among the legislators." But he worries that exceptionalism from harsh and destabilizing party conflict is changing, and it's hard to argue.

I'm more optimistic than Linz. But we often underestimate the degree to which American democracy is changing, and in important ways. For instance, sharp party polarization in a system that was designed with the idea that there wouldn't be political parties at all:

Or the filibuster, of which political scientist Greg Koger says,

“Over the last 50 years, we have added a new veto point in American politics. It used to be the House the Senate and the president and now it’s the House, the president, the Senate majority and the Senate minority. Now you need to get past four veto points to pass legislation. That’s a huge change of constitutional priorities. But it’s been done, almost unintentionally, through procedural strategies of party leaders.”

"American democracy" isn't only very different today than the Founders ever imagined, it's very different today than it was 50 years ago. That's unsettling, in that it means past success does not guarantee future returns. But it's encouraging in that the underlying lesson is that our system does change and adapt — as well as degrade and erode. Which tendency overwhelms is, of course, up to us.

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Brad Plumer · February 6, 2013