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A system under strain: Is US democracy showing real cracks?

Why We Wrote This

America’s political structure has survived serious challenges in the past. But partisanship linked to cultural and racial identity, and sorted by geography, is testing it in ways the Founding Fathers never envisioned. First in an occasional series.

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Is American democracy in decline? A wave of books and articles have been sounding alarms of late about the state of US governance. Polls show voters believe the nation no longer lives up to its core ideals, and only about half think US elections are fair and open. Many Americans blame President Trump for today’s corrosive political environment. Critics say his divisive rhetoric, repeated insistence on untruths, and apparent enthusiasm for authoritarians is undermining US democracy. Mr. Trump’s supporters beg to differ. They say Democrats just can’t accept the fact that they aren’t winning, and are claiming the system must be “broken” as an explanation for their own electoral failures. In truth, America’s political problems have been a long time coming – and many political scientists see Trump as a symptom, not a cause. Consider this: Quite soon, a president elected by a minority of US voters, and supported by a congressional ruling party whose lawmakers represent a minority of the population, could place a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation to come. That’s all within the rules, thanks to the Electoral College and the fact that states get two senators each, regardless of their size. Since the GOP is currently strong in rural-dominated, thinly populated states, while Democrats are strong in urban areas with large populations, Republicans hold a structural advantage. This was not a part of any Founder’s design. It’s an accident of history. But experts say it could increase frustration and foster instability if Democratic voters perceive that it has hardened into a permanent impediment. “I worry about it,” says Frances Lee, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “It is a potential threat to the long-term legitimacy of the system.”

The great machine of American democracy has chugged along steadily since the US Constitution was ratified and took effect in 1788. It has been modified many times and faced monumental stresses, up to and including a terrible civil war. But today, after 230 years, the mechanism seems to many to be leaking oil and shedding important nuts and bolts.

A wave of books and articles have been sounding alarms of late about the state of US governance – from Harvard scholar Yascha Mounk’s “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It,” to Yale Law Professor Amy Chua’s “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations,” to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s “Fascism: A Warning,” and more. All proffer stark warnings that the nation’s political system is under significant strain and could be heading for a disastrous derailment. 

Is US democracy in decline – or outright danger? 

On the national level, toxic tribalism has made the mere act of governing incredibly difficult. If the phrase that used to rule Capitol Hill was “go along to get along,” now it might be “tit-for-tat.” For voters, partisanship has become mixed with racial and religious identity, increasing animosity toward the other side. Big money pours into politics, further complicating the situation, while partisan media means shared truths are no longer a baseline.

Voters still say they strongly support the core ideals of democracy. But polls show they worry the US no longer lives up to them, if it ever did. That’s led to increasing cynicism about the results of the electoral apparatus. Only about half of American adults think elections are fair and open, according to a new poll from Ipsos and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Many Americans blame President Trump for this corrosive environment. His critics say his divisive rhetoric, repeated insistence on untruths, and apparent enthusiasm for authoritarians is undermining US democracy. Mr. Trump’s supporters beg to differ. They say Democrats just can’t accept the fact that they aren’t winning, and are claiming the system must be “broken” as an explanation for their own electoral failures.

In truth, America’s political problems of today have been a long time coming. Many political scientists see Trump as a symptom, not a cause, of glitches in democracy; at times the president’s behavior may even distract us from the real faults in the machine. Remember that the United States is now in unexplored territory. There has never been a successful, stable, multi-ethnic liberal democracy.

“That is our challenge. It is also our opportunity. If we meet it, America will truly be exceptional,” write Harvard Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their bestselling book “How Democracies Die.”

Minority rule?

Democracy is complicated. Or at least, democracy as practiced in the United States, under the mechanism established by the Constitution, is complicated. It is not simply the majority rules, everything now runs the way most people want it.

Consider this: Quite soon, a president elected by a minority of US voters, and supported by a congressional ruling party whose lawmakers collectively represent a minority of the population, could place a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation to come.

That’s all within the rules, thanks to the Electoral College and the equality of representation in the Senate for states – which get two senators each, regardless of their size or population.

This is partly rooted in the way the Founding Fathers thought about future conflicts. They were very concerned about a possible tyranny of the majority, among other things. The issue of equal representation for states in the Senate was perhaps the most difficult problem the framers had to resolve.

James Madison, the Constitution’s principal designer, bitterly opposed equal representation regardless of population. On this, he lost. And over the centuries, the politics of this have evolved in complicated ways. It’s not just that the original 13 colonies have grown and changed beyond recognition. It’s that a vast continent has been added to the US of 1788 and divided into states and partisan alignments of which the Founding Fathers never dreamed. (Many of them adamantly opposed political parties as well, but that’s another story.)

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
A supporter awaits the arrival of President Trump during a Make America Great Again rally in Great Falls, Mont., July 5, 2018.

Currently, the Republican Party is strong in rural-dominated, thinly populated states, while Democrats are strong in urban areas with large populations. One way of looking at how that might affect the confirmation prospects of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is to use a measure devised by journalist Ron Brownstein – and assign half of each state’s population to each of its senators.

By that accounting, the 51 Republican senators – a narrow majority in the chamber – collectively represent about 143 million people. The 47 Democratic senators, plus Democratic-leaning independents Bernie Sanders and Angus King, collectively represent 182 million people – almost 40 million more.

On a per-senator basis, each Republican represents 2.8 million people, while each Democrat/independent represents 3.7 million.

Given that it’s enshrined in the Constitution, this structural imbalance seems pretty permanent – unless and until the partisan leanings of urban and rural areas change. That, in turn, might require a realignment of racial and ethnic partisanship, given that minorities live disproportionately in urban areas and are disproportionately Democratic, while whites lean Republican and are disproportionately residents of rural areas.

“It’s not an aspect of the system that’s going to change,” says Frances Lee, a professor of government at the University of Maryland and co-author of the book “Sizing Up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation.”

In fact, all signs point to it getting worse. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein recently tweeted: “By 2040 or so, 70 percent of Americans will live in 15 states. Meaning 30 percent will choose 70 senators. And the 30 percent will be older, whiter, more rural, more male than the 70 percent.”

It’s easy to see how this might put increasing stress on the US system. What if one party repeatedly wins the White House over a period of time without winning the popular vote? Already, two of the past three presidents – both Republicans – were elected despite coming up short in the popular vote, something that’s only happened five times in US history.

In the House, the rural/urban divide means Democrats have to win the overall House vote by five to 10 percentage points in order to secure a simple majority. Part of that is due to the advantage gained by gerrymandering of House district lines – but much more of it is rooted in a herding syndrome, a self-directed partisan clustering that journalist Bill Bishop famously dubbed “The Big Sort.” Democrats are often crowded into big cities in districts that become almost solidly blue. GOP voters tend to live in areas that are more geographically spread out, a pattern that is more efficient for winning congressional seats.

This was not a part of any Founder’s design. It’s an accident of history. But it could increase frustration and anger if Democratic voters perceive that it has hardened into a permanent disadvantage.

“I worry about it, yes,” says Professor Lee. “It is a potential threat to the long-term legitimacy of the system.”

‘How Democracies Die’

She’s not the only one worrying. Indeed, we’re currently living in a golden age of books telling Americans that they no longer live in a golden age – as Dan Drezner, a columnist and professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, recently put it.

Among the most prominent of these is “How Democracies Die,” a sober examination by two Harvard government professors of how liberal democracies have decayed in Europe and Latin America in modern times, from Venezuela to Hungary. Their bottom line: Democracies do not die in blazing coups or dramatic stand-offs. They erode, bit by bit, with the steady weakening of key institutions. Leaders who are elected can hasten the erosion. Often those moves are represented as enhancements to the system, not attacks on it.

The ultimate guarantors of democracy are people, according to Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt. Paper does not suffice.

“Even well-designed constitutions cannot, by themselves, guarantee democracy,” they write. “No operating manual, no matter how detailed, can anticipate all possible contingencies or prescribe how to behave under all possible circumstances.”

But unwritten rules – norms for how politicians should behave in certain circumstances – can be key. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, two such norms stand out as fundamental to functional democracies: mutual toleration, and institutional forbearance.

Mutual toleration means recognizing one’s adversaries as decent, patriotic, law-abiding citizens. Losers may shed tears on election night, but feel that the event is not apocalyptic. The system will remain in place; losers will win again another day.

“As commonsensical as this idea may sound, the belief that political opponents are not enemies is a remarkable and sophisticated invention,” they write.

At the beginning of the US republic, John Adams’s Federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans regarded each other as threats to the nation’s existence. They fought bitterly, to the point where some contemporaries thought the system would not hold. It was only over subsequent decades that the opposing parties realized they could circulate in power rather than destroy each other.

That didn’t happen in Spain in the 1930s. The left-leaning Republican government and right-wing Catholics and monarchists, representing a highly polarized society, saw each other as traitors. They spiraled into a terrible civil war.

The second key norm, institutional forbearance, is in essence the avoidance of actions that may respect the letter of the law, but violate its spirit. To play constitutional hardball, to use one’s power to the utmost – in an all-out attempt to defeat one’s rivals – is to risk the system.

In the 1940s, for example, Argentine President Juan Peron used vaguely defined powers to impeach three of five Supreme Court judges, in essence seizing control of that branch of government. In the 1990s, the Ecuadorean legislature voted to remove populist president Abdala Bucaram on grounds of “mental incapacity,” without debating whether Bucaram was, in fact, mentally impaired.

In the United States, political hardball has been used to deny African Americans the right to vote, among other political rights, from the end of the Civil War onwards.

When losing ceases to be part of the normal political process and is seen as a full-blown catastrophe, democracy begins to fray. The result is democracy without guardrails, escalating into brinkmanship.

In America today, the realignment of partisan coalitions has made the political situation particularly unstable, according to Levitsky and Ziblatt. In the 1950s, married white Christians represented nearly 80 percent of US voters. Today they are barely 40 percent of the electorate, and are concentrated in one party, the GOP.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have increasingly become the party of ethnic minorities.

“The two parties are now divided over race and religion – two deeply polarizing issues that tend to generate greater intolerance and hostility than traditional policy issues such as taxes and government spending,” the Harvard professors conclude.

A new aristocracy

In another notable new book about democracy’s stresses, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill finds that the greatest of US divides is not the one between the two major parties – but rather, the protected versus the unprotected.

Mr. Brill’s “Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall – and Those Fighting to Reverse It” perhaps suffers from an overly dramatic cover of an eagle trailing a corkscrew of red smoke as it spirals into the ground. But inside is an account that draws on Brill’s long experience in reporting complicated governmental and legal processes to detail what he asserts are the unrecognized forces that have broken the country.

To him, these include a meritocracy that has become a new aristocracy, as the winners in today’s economy use their money and power to ensure their children will be the winners of the next generation. The financial sector’s dominance of the economy has given excess power to Wall Street and infused corporations with a short-term outlook. Big business has hijacked First Amendment arguments to allow money to take over Washington. In the nation’s capital, Brill writes, “polarization, entrenched incompetence, and cronyism” have soured outsiders on the prospect of getting anything done.

This is a populist argument. Ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon might agree with large parts of it. But it is far from a pro-Trump book.

The jeremiad aspects of the book are leavened by Brill’s identification of people and forces working to try to overcome these problems.

He praises certain colleges for their efforts to recruit less-wealthy students who can still meet admissions standards. He highlights the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington non-profit that collects and publishes political donation data, and the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank that tries to come up with plans both parties can live with. He interviews Max Stier, the head of the Partnership for Public Service, a group that tries to lure talented students from top colleges into the unglamorous task of making government bureaucracies work.

“This will not be a revolution of those on the left against those on the right,” Brill says. “It will be a revolution that demands that everyone be personally accountable for what they do and share in their responsibility for the common good.”

A delicate balancing act

At the top of her Twitter account page, political scientist Jennifer Victor has pinned this tweet: “Remember, democracy doesn’t mean majority rules. It means we all agree on the rules.”

Dr. Victor, an associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, posted that message shortly after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. The point, she says, was to remind people that Trump did win by the rules, despite the fact that he did not win a majority of votes.

“Also, it was to remind people that what unifies us, and is characteristic of America, is the reliance on democracy and participation – and the idea that all people have some say or input in what goes on,” says Victor.

The Founding Fathers were very concerned about the nature of minority rights, and the possibility of a majority overruling those. “The institutions of the American government are set up very much with that in mind,” she says.

At the same time, the Founding Fathers made two significant blunders that undermined this balancing act, according to Victor.

The first was slavery. They essentially punted on slavery, never engaging with its moral or economic dimensions. They may have had to do that to get the Constitution ratified, but the strain and stain of slavery nearly destroyed the nation some 80 years later. 

The second blunder they made, in her eyes, was their handling of political parties. They feared and disliked them. They thought they could essentially design a system to make them unnecessary, via competing presidential and legislative branches that would channel ideological and political differences.

But parties were inevitable. The original construction may have worked when voting was limited to white male property owners. But as the definition of citizen and voter expanded, ideas, needs, and identities clashed. Liberal, conservative, white, black, educated, urban, rural – the list of the attributes that add up to today’s voters is, if not endless, very long. “Today people hold many different identities,” Victor says.

Perhaps that is one of democracy’s foundational problems today: devising norms and processes for an electorate that is vastly more complicated than it was when the machine first sprang to life, in 1788.

Such a problem is not beyond solving. While Harvard's Levitsky and Ziblatt lay out in bracing detail how it is possible for democracies to die, Brill insists that their revitalization is possible. 

As the Trump presidency has sparked widespread resistance from critics, the long decline of the relationship between the US government and its voters has produced its own counter-revolution, says Brill. Donations and volunteers are flooding into non-profits and other organizations working to reconnect the broken pieces of America. A new activism is afoot in the land.

“They are doing what they do despite developments in America that seem to be galloping in the opposite direction, not because they are gluttons for frustration, but because they believe that America can be put back on the right course,” he concludes.

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