Second Rate Democracy

Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than other Major Western Countries and How We Can Do Better

A web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor Emeritus of Politics, Mount Holyoke College

Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than other Major Western Countries and How We Can Do Better

A web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor Emeritus of Politics, Mount Holyoke College

The Seventeen Issues: Democratic Theory > Essential Principles of Democracy

How to Evaluate A Country’s Democracy

The argument here is this: democracy is failing in the United States in a large number of ways and it’s inferior to democracy in most other advanced Western countries.  But how can we know this is true?  Throughout most of 20th century, the litmus test for democracy was simple: free and fair elections.  If a country had legitimate elections it was democratic.  If a country did not – like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union – then it was not democratic.  Today, among Western nations, the main question is not whether a political system is democratic – but how democratic it is.  The answer matters because the more democratic a government is, the more likely it is that its public policies will reflect the will of the people and promote the public interest.

We can tell how democratic countries are by looking at how they measure up to a set of key democratic standards: values, principles, and procedures that are essential to any democratic system. For example, we know that majority rule is a core democratic principle. If we look at our Congress, we see that the Senate filibuster violates this principle – it often allows a minority to control the policymaking process in that body. We also know that the filibuster is absent from virtually all other Western legislatures.  So we can legitimately conclude that the U.S. Senate is not as democratic as it could be, and somewhat less democratic than these other countries’ legislatures.

What follows is a brief description of the basic criteria of democracy that are used in this website to evaluate our political system – Congress, the Presidency, the Supreme Court, elections, the party system, and so on.

Values, Principles, and Processes Essential to Democracy

Many political thinkers have come up with lists of the basic elements of a democratic political system. These lists, though somewhat different, reveal a considerable agreement on the core principles of democracy.  What follows is a set of democratic criteria that provide a good basic standard by which we can evaluate how democratic our country’s political system is and compare the U.S. to other major Western countries.

Majority Rule. This is the first democratic principle that most of us learn as children.  When people disagree, how should decisions be made?  The democratic approach is majority rule. It is thought that a good political decision – one in the public interest – is one that benefits the most people possible. Majority rule is not perfect, but it is the method most likely to produce these kinds of decisions. So when a political system consistently violates the principle of majority rule and allows a minority to control the policymaking process – this is considered a serious failure of democracy.

Fair Representation.  In a democracy, the ideal is to have policymaking institutions that are truly representative of the public.  Political bodies that are unrepresentative of the people are less likely to pass the policies that the public wishes.  So legislative bodies that more accurately mirror the strength and variety of public preferences in the electorate are thought to be more democratic.  Representation can have many dimensions. It may be partisan, and we can look at how accurately political parties are represented in legislatures. It may also be demographic and take into account such characteristics as the race, gender, and class.  For example, a political institution made up primarily of rich white men would be considered to be democratically suspect.

Accountability.  Every democratic system must have a way to hold political leaders and representatives accountable for their policy decisions.  In particular, the public must have a way to throw politicians out of power – which of course is not the case in non-democratic systems like monarchies or dictatorships.  Being able to hold leaders accountable is one of the main ways to ensure they pursue policies that are in the public interest. Accountability is also the primary way that governments improve – how they learn from their mistakes. Officials supporting bad or failed policies are replaced with those proposing policies they believe are better. The most common mechanism of accountability is elections.  Institutions or practices that make it more difficult to hold political leaders accountable tend to undermine democracy.  For example, gerrymandering creates safe districts for incumbents that make it hard to replace them through elections.

Policy Responsiveness. Many democratic criteria focus on political procedures, but this one focuses on policy outcomes.  Responsiveness refers to the ability of a political system to pass and implement public policies that the public wants – policies that match public preferences.  This after all is one of the central goals of any democratic system.  If the majority of the public wants stricter gun controls, higher minimum wages, and stronger global warming regulations and the government does not pass such policies, this can be considered a failure of democracy.  When a nation’s government consistently fails to produce policies that the public wants, this is usually a good indication that there are serious problems in its policymaking institutions – problems that need to be identified and fixed.

Human Rights and Liberties.  An essential element in any democracy is the protection of basic human rights and liberties – religious freedom, free speech, and so on.  These set limits on the power of government and are also one of the main ways that minorities are protected from potentially oppressive majorities.  Countries that deny citizens some basic rights can be considered less democratic than those who don’t. Today the debate is not so much over whether protecting rights is important, but over what should be considered a basic human right.  For example, should access to medical care be considered a right?  Should workers have the right to a fair wage? Countries that protect more key human rights can be considered more democratic.

American political institutions routinely violate these core democratic criteria.

The Rule of Law.  This is the notion that people should be governed by the law, not by arbitrary actions of individuals in power. In addition, all citizens, whether rich or poor, racial majority or religious minority, are entitled to equal treatment under the law.  For example, all citizens should have the right to due process in the legal system, including the right to a speedy and public trial. Policies and processes that discriminate against some citizens based on ethnicity, religion, or gender would be considered violations of the rule of law. Also, politicians who repeatedly use their office’s power to interfere with law enforcement investigations of public officials are putting themselves above the law and undermining democracy.

Political Equality.  In a healthy democracy, all citizens should be considered equal and have a relatively equal chance to affect public policy decisions.  The principle of one person/one vote is a central example of this criterion. To the extent that some individuals and groups have much more power in the political system this undermines democracy. For example, if private money is an important source of political power in elections and lobbying, and it is distributed unequally in society, this undermines political equality and democracy.

Public Participation.  Democracy assumes those affected by political decisions have a right to be involved in the policymaking process.  Thus a high level of political participation by the public is vital to any democratic system.  Democracy, after all, means “government by the people.”  In particular, participation is needed to keep political elites accountable and to communicate the needs and interests of all citizens to these policymakers. Without a high level of participation, a political system is unlikely to produce policies that reflect the public will.  Policies and practices that discourage participation – such as voting restriction laws – violate this central democratic value. And chronic low levels of participation indicate something amiss in a democracy.

As the analysis on this website shows, American political institutions routinely violate these core democratic criteria.  For example, there are at least eight different ways that our political system violates the principle of majority rule and allows a political minority to often dominate: the Electoral College, the filibuster, the lobbying system, an unrepresentative Senate, gerrymandering, the separation of powers, campaign finance, and winner-take-all elections.

To be fair, the United States does do a relatively good job at some specific democratic practices. There is not a lot of fraud in our elections, individual rights of free speech are generally protected, candidates are not barred from elections for their political beliefs, journalists and news organizations are relatively free from government interference, our government protects people’s right to assemble and peacefully protest, and politically motivated violence is kept to a minimum.  All to the good.  But these are things that all major Western democracies do well – not something special to the United States.  More importantly, when we look at how Western democracies differ in fulfilling democratic criteria, the U.S. almost always comes out looking worse.  That is why, after a thorough analysis, it begins to make a good deal of sense to call the United States a “second-rate democracy.”

read the first issue: 1. Special Interest Lobbying

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