My students at Mount Holyoke College would often ask me whether I was optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for political reform in the United States. I would usually respond to this question in the following way. First off, I don’t like the terms “optimism” and “pessimism.” They suggest a fixed psychological attitude that may not be firmly based in reality. Optimists tend to think everything will be OK, no matter how dire the situation. And pessimists seem to believe something terrible will happen no matter how rosy the future might appear.
Instead of “optimistic” or “pessimistic,” I think we should be “realistic.” We should base our evaluation of the prospects for reform on the political circumstances. So I like to think about how “likely” or “probable” it is that change will come about, and how “hopeful” we can reasonably be about those prospects given our political situation. We also need to acknowledge that the prospects for change vary considerably from issue to issue. Reform is much more difficult, for example, if a problem requires a constitutional remedy.
All that said, here is the answer I would give to my students’ question: With quite a few of the political problems discussed on this website, I think significant reform is unlikely any time soon – but in general I remain guardedly hopeful that change can come about. I realize this may sound contradictory, so let me explain.
Why Reform Seems Unlikely
If you have read most of the articles on this site, you will know that the political forces lined up against political reform are many and formidable.
Political Leaders with a Stake in the Status Quo. Institutional reform is difficult without the support of elected officials. 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. Many like low voter turnout and many are elected in safe, gerrymandered districts. All know how to raise lots of private money for campaigns. So why would these political winners want to change the rules of the political game?
Why should the winners of the current political game want to change the rules to help others win?
Monied Interests Oppose Reform. Again, why should the winners of the current political game want to change the rules to help others win? Right now, wealthy interests have a number of very effective ways of buying political power, particularly through campaign contributions and spending on lobbying. These interests do not hesitate to use their power to frustrate reforms – like public financing – that would take away their political advantages.
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 overtime 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, a separation of powers system, and so on. To make matters worse, our Constitution is the hardest one in the world to change.
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. But this is only possible if large segments of the public are 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, the chances for reform are not good.
A Catch 22: We Can’t Have More Democracy without More Democracy. Citizens need a functioning democracy to push through 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 fear that we may be stuck with our dysfunctional political institutions. One possible scenario is that the problems with our political institutions remain locked in (and perhaps even get worse over time) and the American people continue to suffer from a lack of well-functioning democratic institutions. However, there is a more sanguine possibility and let’s turn to that now.
Why Being Hopeful About Reform is Reasonable
Despite all these obstacles, I am not yet ready to throw in the towel in the struggle for political reform. For all the reasons discussed below, it is sensible to believe that major political change is still possible in America.
History has shown that when Americans come together in large social and political movements, change on a major scale is possible.
The Lessons of History. One reason to not quit on reform is the fact that history shows that institutional reform is indeed 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 Civil Right Movement made voting rights a reality for African-Americans and other minorities. Other social movements brought significant change to non-governmental institutions. The Progressive Movement brought irresponsible corporations under federal regulation. The Labor Movement forced changes on the business system to increase workers’ pay and safety. 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.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard, and the authors of “How Democracies Die.” see the wide-ranging democratic reforms that were pushed through by American citizens a century ago as an inspiration for us today.
There is ample precedent for democratic reform in America. A century ago, like today, the United States experienced disruptive economic change, an unprecedented influx of migrants and the growth of behemoth corporations. Citizens believed that their political system had become corrupt and dysfunctional. Progressive reform advocates argued that Americans were living in a democracy with antiquated institutions designed for an agrarian society, which left our political system ill-equipped to cope with the problems of an industrial age and vulnerable to corporate capture. The response was a sweeping reform movement that remade our democracy. Key reforms — then regarded as radical but now taken for granted — included the introduction of party primaries; the expansion of the citizen referendum; and constitutional amendments allowing a national income tax, establishing the direct election of U.S. senators and extending suffrage to women.
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 next few years. 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. If you have read the article on federalism on this site, you know that it can often impede needed political changes. But there is an element of federalism that can promote change. In many state and local governments, citizens can have a direct say in lawmaking through initiatives and referendums. This is an important option when government is not being responsive to public demands for reform. Reforms can be passed despite the opposition of entrenched politicians. And many of the reforms in areas like campaign financing, voting systems, and redistricting have come about through this strategy. There can be problems. The U.S. allows wealthy individuals and corporations to spend large amounts of money opposing these ballot measures, and this sometimes works. But it remains an important avenue of political change.
Some Political Elites 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.
Other Countries Do Democracy Better. 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. 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 – and that war helped give birth to the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Black soldiers who put their lives on the line for democracy came home to see that they still did not enjoy democratic rights in this country. This deeply frustrating contradiction helped to fuel a new militancy for ending segregation and discrimination. In 1969, an oil rig off Santa Barbara California blew out and released three million gallons of crude oil, wreaking havoc on the coastline. This shocking incident helped to create the modern environmental movement. Or take the Great Recession that started in 2008. This unexpected economic crisis shook up the political realm and Democratic voters came out to vote in record numbers. Without that calamity, it is not clear that our first African-American president would have been elected.
In May 2020, George Floyd was killed while in police custody. This was unfortunately a much too common occurrence in the Black community, but most of these deaths usually received only limited attention. However, Floyd’s death started a firestorm across the country, creating the largest citizen protest movement yet seen in the 21st century United States. Few people saw this coming. But these protests clearly revealed the growing level of frustration about racial injustice that had been simmering below the surface for decades. The lesson here is that we need to keep working on reform, irrespective of what the current chances for it seem to be. We need to keep reform ideas alive for the time when an unexpected spark can ignite the fires of political change.
I remain guardedly hopeful that some meaningful reform is possible.
So in the end, where do we stand? Can we make our democracy work well enough to fix our democracy? The answer is necessarily a complex one. Some of our institutional problems may be too entrenched to change. But I remain guardedly hopeful that some meaningful reform is possible. Despite the formidable obstacles, there are some good reasons to believe that change has a chance. Ultimately, however, it may not matter what exactly the odds are for political change. The political, social, and economic stakes are so high that even if the chances are not good, we must work for political reform. It’s the right thing to do.