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: Conclusion > How Likely is Reform?

Conclusion: Doom vs. Hope

In the end, there is this key question: Can we make the U.S. political system more democratic or are we doomed to live out our lives in a system that is unfair, unrepresentative, and unresponsive to the majority of U.S. citizens?  In each of the articles on this site describing one of our democratic failures, I tried to assess our chances of solving that particular problem.  It seems clear, for instance, that it would be easier to reduce gerrymandering than it would be to impose term limits on Supreme Court justices.

But in this conclusion, I want to address the larger question:  how optimistic or pessimistic should we be in general about the prospects of meaningful political reforms in our country? Not surprisingly, this is not an easy question to answer. But before I give you my conclusions, let me lay out the two most likely political scenarios and the arguments for them.

The Doom Scenario

If you have read most of the articles on this site, you will know that the political barriers and political groups lined up against democratic reform are many and formidable.  And if you really understand the powerful political forces at work stifling change, it is hard not to believe that most efforts to make our political system more democratic are probably doomed. Here are the main elements that make this scenario likely.

Institutional Reform is Very Difficult. All the problems discussed on this site are institutional problems which require institutional solutions. But as a rule, it is harder to change institutions than policies.  Institutions have a great deal of inertia, and over time people begin to see them as natural arrangements.  Most political systems put high procedural barriers in the way of institutional change – especially constitutional reform.  And as seen on this website, many of our failures of democracy are located in institutions created by our Constitution: the Electoral College, two-senators per state, the separation of powers system, Supreme Court justices appointed for life, and so on.  To make matters worse, our Constitution is the hardest constitution in the world to change – allowing a small minority of states to consistently block amendments that could reform our political system. That double whammy makes it hard to be sanguine about real structural change any time soon.

 Political Leaders with a Stake in the Status Quo.  Institutional reform is difficult without the support of elected officials.  They are the ones who have to enact these changes. But it is these very officials who often benefit from the failures of democracy described in this site. All have a stake in a two-party system that discourages third-party challengers.  All know how to raise lots of private money for campaigns under the current rules. The Republican Party in particular now knows that it probably cannot consistently win without the arrangements that frustrate democracy and enable minority rule in the Electoral College, the Senate, etc.  They simply cannot afford to give up those undemocratic advantages.  In short, the current political winners have every incentive not to change the rules of the political game that brought them to power.

Monied Interests Oppose Reform.  Well-monied interests, like the wealthy and business, also have strong incentives to oppose any political reforms that would lessen their current outsized power in our political system. Right now, wealthy interests have a number of very effective ways of buying political power, particularly through campaign contributions, funding think-tanks, and out spending everyone else on lobbying.  These interests do not hesitate to use their power to frustrate reforms – like public financing – that would take away their political advantages.  Overcoming the power of the most effective political lobbies in America is a daunting task.

Lack of Citizen Awareness.  Given the reluctance of many political officials to lead the charge on reform, it is often the responsibility of citizens to push for change from the ground up. We would need a large and strong grassroots political movement to push through pro-democracy reforms. But this is only possible if large segments of the public are actually aware of the problems with our democracy.  Some problems are so obvious, like the Electoral College’s tendency to elect the person who comes in second place in the public vote and the ability of wealthy individuals and corporations to dominate campaign finance, that many in the public are already demanding change in these areas.  But polls reveal that few citizens are aware of or concerned about the unfairness of our voting system, the unrepresentative nature of the Senate, the disadvantages of federalism and the problems of a separation of powers system.  Without a better public understanding of the many institutional problems our democracy faces, and without a willingness for them to put in the sustained effort to build a movement, the chances for reform are not good.

The system is so broken that it needs to be changed but there is no way to change it because the system is so broken.

A Catch 22: We Can’t Have More Democracy without More Democracy. Even if citizens begin to demand pro-democracy reforms, they need a functioning democracy to push through those reforms – a government that is responsive to their demands.  But when the problem is lack of democracy itself – governmental institutions designed to not be responsive to average citizens – then we have a real dilemma. The undemocratic nature of our current political system makes it hard to make it more democratic.  For example, any attempt to reduce the oversized power of small states in the Senate or the Electoral College can be easily blocked by the small states’ control over the constitutional amendment process. One political analyst summed up the situation this way: “The system is so broken that it needs to be changed but there is no way to change it because the system is so broken.”

Given all these formidable obstacles to change, it is not irrational to conclude that the prospect for wide scale pro-democracy reforms in the United States is doomed.  We will be stuck with our current dysfunctional and undemocratic political institutions, and we will never be able to have a first-rate democracy like we’ve seen exists in many other Western nations.  In fact, the most likely scenario is for things to actually get worse.  We know that the Senate will continue to get more unrepresentative, and that by 2050, it may take only 5% of our population to elect a majority in the Senate.  We also know that the current entrenched conservative majority on the Supreme Court is likely to issue further rulings that undermine democracy, as it already did with campaign finance and voting rights. In this scenario, wealthy interests and political minorities will increase their grip on power and be able to force their self-serving and unpopular policies on the rest of America. There are dark days ahead.

A More Hopeful Scenario

On the other hand, on some days, I feel more positive about the chances for pro-democracy change.  There are indeed some reasons why we can be more hopeful about the chances for democratic reforms in the U.S. Here they are.

The Lessons of History. One reason to be more hopeful about reform is the fact that history shows that institutional reform is clearly possible in America. Women were able to gain the right to vote. We eliminated poll taxes and literacy tests for elections. The Populist Movement, among others, forced through a constitutional amendment to have senators elected by the public. The Progressive Movement introduced the party primary, spread the use of citizens referendums on the state level, and brought irresponsible corporations under federal regulation. The Labor Movement pushed through major changes in labor laws and forced the business system to increase workers’ pay and safety. The Civil Rights Movement made voting rights a reality for African-Americans and other minorities. All of these reforms, which were once regarded as radical, are now taken for granted as part of our political system.

History has shown that when Americans come together in large social and political movements, change on a major scale is possible. 

Trying to reform an undemocratic political system is like trying to open a very rusty door.  It takes a lot of sustained pushing to force it open. Our government is often immobilized by gridlock and obstructionist political minorities, but history has shown that when Americans come together in large social and political movements, change on a major scale is possible.

Taking Solace in the Long-Term View.  Institutional reform often takes a long time.  All of the movements mentioned above took decades to force change.  Quick institutional change is a rarity.  That is why, in many of the articles on this site, I rated the chance for reform as being quite low.  I was speaking of the short-term—the chances for change in the near future.  But if we begin looking out to twenty or thirty years from now, the chances of change certainly improve. To paraphrase the Buddha, the only thing certain in life is change.  And indeed, it is practically a certainty that American politics and the American political system will be different in some ways fifty years from now.  The question is whether those changes will benefit or hurt the prospects for a better democracy.  Our job is to be active citizens so that we can ensure that this change is in the direction of more democracy.

The Direct Democracy Option.  There is a way around some of the obstacles to political change mentioned in the Doom scenario – at least on the state level.  The use of citizen initiatives and referendums can force through political changes even when politicians oppose them. And if the political system is mired in gridlock and unresponsive to citizens’ concerns, these forms of direct democracy allow them to implement needed political reforms themselves. Referendums have already been helpful in passing state-level reforms in voting systems, campaign finance, political primaries, term limits, and redistricting and gerrymandering.

 Think Small.   It is true that many of our most pressing political reforms are needed on the federal level and our Constitution makes such changes frustratingly difficult. But we should not discount the importance of democratic reforms that can take place on the state and local level.  After all, state and local laws often have a much more direct impact on citizens than federal laws. And as noted above, the use of initiatives and referendums offer an opportunity for change on these levels that is not available on the national level.  So while institutional reform on the federal level seems stalled right now, we see states enacting public financing and redistricting reform, and more and more cities adopting better voting systems like ranked-choice voting. Small scale political changes like these can add up and we should take inspiration from this.

Some Political Elites Do Advocate Change.  Reform often needs the support of at least some powerful policymakers.  But as noted above, politicians who benefit from our current undemocratic system are often resistant to reform.  But many politicians are also frustrated by some of our institutional problems, like the constant gridlock and the endless chore of raising money for their campaigns.  And there are some politicians who are championing institutional changes to make our system more democratic.  Democrats like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others have been pushing for campaign finance reform, term limits for Supreme Court justices, fairer redistricting processes, and getting rid of the Electoral College.  If and when the Democrats can get control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, these reformers will be in a good position to push for changes in these areas.

Resurgence of Unions. In recent years there has been a small but significant resurgence in union activity in the U.S.  Though it may not be obvious, this is good for democracy and for democratic reforms.  As we’ve seen on this site, one of the main problems with democracy is the unfair power advantages that corporations have in areas like campaign finance, lobbying, and support for think tanks. As the sociologist Edward Royce has observed: “A strong labor movement is vital to the health and well-being of democratic government. They function as an indispensable counterweight, setting a limit to the ability of big business to convert its massive economic power into political power.” Unions can help get out the vote, educate their members about political issues, help to fund candidates, and lobby for democratic reforms.

Other Countries Show the Way.  As seen repeatedly in this website, other advanced nations tend to be much more democratic than the U.S.  This should be seen as a hopeful sign for change in this country.  It shows that it is possible to create political institutions that are more responsive and accountable to the public – that this is not an unrealistic goal. When problems persist we sometimes come to think there are not any solutions.  But this site has shown that there are plenty of straightforward fixes to our democratic difficulties, and they are working well in other countries.  If they can do this, why can’t we?

The Growth of Institutional Analysis.  The prospects for significant reform increase as an institutional analysis of our political problems becomes more widespread.  It is significant, therefore, that a core of political scholars is coming around to this point of view.  For example, many leading political scientists and law professors, including Larry Bartels, George C. Edwards III, Martin Gilens, Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson, William E. Hudson, Lawrence Lessig, Bruce I. Oppenheimer, Theda Skocpol, Sanford Levinson, Benjamin Page, and Kay Lehman Schlozman, increasingly agree that (1) democracy is failing in the United States, and (2) that the causes of this are institutional, and (3) the remedies must be institutional.  We now see these same themes echoed in the work of a number of prominent journalists and think-tank analysts, including Adam Cohen, David Daley, Caroline Fredrickson, Lee Drutman, Gordon Lafer, Frances Moore Lappé, and Jane Mayer. (Click here to find the works of these academics and journalists.) This is a good sign, for it increases the chances that this kind of institutional analysis is filtering down to the broader public. The more citizens engage in this analytic approach, the greater the chance that they’ll support proposals for institutional reform, such as term limits for the Supreme Court, alternative voting systems, elimination of the Electoral College, and public financing of elections.

Change Often Comes Unexpectedly. We should take heart from the fact that with reform, appearances can be deceiving.  It can appear for years that nothing is changing or could change. But below the surface, social and political concerns are smoldering away, waiting to be released by a triggering event – an unexpected event that suddenly pushes an issue into the limelight and incites people to organize for change. For instance, we were dragged into World War II by Pearl Harbor – but that war inadvertently helped give birth to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.  Black soldiers who put their lives on the line for democracy abroad came home to see that they still did not enjoy democratic rights in their own country. This deeply frustrating contradiction helped to fuel a new militancy for ending segregation and discrimination.

Or consider the beginnings of environmentalism. In 1969, an oil rig off Santa Barbara California blew out and released three million gallons of crude oil, wreaking havoc on the coastline, and killing 9,000 sea birds.  Public concern about pollution had been bubbling below the surface for much of the sixties.  This shocking incident triggered a burst of political activity around the country involving environmental issues. As The New York Times correspondent Gladwin Hill wrote in January 1970, the spill was the “ecological ‘shot heard round the world.’” It led to the first Earth Day in 1970, and prompted large-scale organizing and lobbying, which eventually led to a string of important environmental bills being passed in Congress.

The lesson we can learn from these examples?  You never really know when change will occur, and we need to keep reform ideas alive for the time when an unexpected spark can ignite the fires of political reform.

The Only Choice:  Work for Reform

So in the end, which is the most likely scenario: are we doomed or can we be hopeful about positive political change? If I was forced to guess, right now I would probably say that wide-scale democratic reform is not likely in the foreseeable future. But ultimately, I think the question of which future is most likely to come about is probably irrelevant. In the end, I believe that we have no choice but to believe that at least some democratic reforms are possible. Why is that? Several reasons. First, if we do embrace the doom scenario, then that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people give up on change, that will guarantee that it won’t happen. This is unacceptable.

Second, it’s a mistake to assume that our course of political action should be determined by the odds of our success. Even if the odds are against political reform, there are good reasons to work for change anyway. To begin with, fighting against the odds is far from being a fruitless endeavor. I am a poker player and I know that just because a poker hand early on has a 60% chance of losing, it does in fact win 40% of the time. More importantly, the political, social, and economic stakes are so high that even if the chances are not good, we still must attempt to make our country more democratic. If we consider ourselves to be good people and responsible citizens, then working for democratic reforms is simply the right thing to do, irrespective of the odds.

And in the end, we want to be able to tell future generations that at least we tried.

[ back to top ]