Democracy Worthy of Disdain
"The Trouble With Elections: Why Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 1.1
Publisher’s note: Welcome to the first installment of “The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong,” a new book being released in serial here on the Democracy Creative Substack. Expect new posts 1-2 times per week as we work our way through the manuscript. Posts will be archived in order on this page as they are released. International readers may find these introductory posts a bit America-focused, but be assured that the book is relevant to anyone living in a country with elections (and even those without).
Additionally, we are excited to be partnering with the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College to offer a biweekly ‘book club’ for The Trouble With Elections. If you’re interested, sign up at this link.
Distress over the poor performance of democracies around the world seems to be constantly reaching new heights (or perhaps “sinking to new depths” is more fitting). Public focus on democracy's failures may wax and wane, but the problems become readily apparent whenever the system is stressed. Here in the United States, the election of Donald Trump shocked and dismayed liberals and many traditional conservatives, but also substantiated the depth of the disdain many Americans feel for politics as usual. Our elective government and politics are indisputably failing. During the periodic crises over raising the national debt ceiling, many commentators acknowledge that the American political system is completely dysfunctional. Some even suggest it might be beyond repair. In discussing President Obama's concessions to Republican demands during the July 2011 standoff, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times:
“In the long run, however, Democrats won't be the only losers. What Republicans have just gotten away with calls our whole system of government into question. After all, how can American democracy work if whichever party is most prepared to be ruthless, to threaten the nation's economic security, gets to dictate policy? And the answer is, maybe it can't.”
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said at the time: "What we did learn is this -- it's a hostage that's worth ransoming."
Since that standoff, Congressional leaders have repeatedly resorted to the strategy of threatening national default, and quite plausibly a collapse of the global economic system based on the US dollar, for political advantage. Indeed, as of this writing in 2023, we again face the specter of another partisan standoff over the debt ceiling with the threat of a default on the national debt and “full faith and credit” of the United States, which could lead to unimaginable ramifications for the national and global economy.
Nobody really expects democracy to completely live up to the ideal. But when the distance between ideal and reality grows too great, we should re-examine our assumptions and reflect on ways our democracy might function better. In the final days of the notorious Trump-Clinton election, a New York Times/CBS poll found that more than 80 percent of Americans said they were repulsed rather than excited by the campaign. While 2016 may be an extreme example, the trend towards popular disgust with politics shows no sign of reversing.
We must, however, take into account both the political process and the policy outputs of our democracy. Even if the process is distressing, if the results serve the public reasonably well, people will generally tolerate it. Congressional pundits often quip that nobody likes to see how sausage, or legislation, is made. But they assume that the unseemly processes are equally necessary for achieving the final products. It’s long past time to reconsider our assumptions about both process and output in American democracy today.
Even before Trump, Americans complained about hyper-partisanship, uncivil smears, poor representation, domination by special interests, public alienation, and politicians who seem unable to tackle critical and urgent matters. On countless issues, including war, taxes, corporate bail-outs, health care, etc. there is a stark divergence between Congressional actions and public attitudes, as revealed in opinion polling. Our elected leaders seem unwilling or unable to effectively deal with severe economic problems, budget deficits, the trade deficit, decaying infrastructure, the growing chasm between the “99 percent” majority of Americans and the super-rich, and the effects of climate change. These are just a few examples of the repeated failures of our politicians to face up to issues that knowledgeable people agree only get worse by delay.
According to public opinion polls, most Americans are extremely dissatisfied with the output of their democracy. For years, surveys have typically shown that around two-thirds of Americans believe that the rich benefit most from the policies of the federal government, while only a tiny percentage think that the middle class benefits most. More than three-quarters of respondents typically agree that members of Congress are more interested in serving special interest groups, especially large corporations, than the people they represent. A 2016 Associated Press-GfK poll found that nearly 80 percent of Americans felt dissatisfaction or anger at the Federal government. A CBS news story about the poll stated:
“...This anger isn't so much driven by political ideology as it is by an overall disdain for a political system that doesn't seem to be working, voters said in follow-up interviews. They're upset with both parties, as well as career politicians and Washington insiders who, those surveyed said, don't put their constituents' interests first.”
Another survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center in March 2021, found that 67 percent of Americans agreed that the phrase “most politicians are corrupt" described their country well. Though it is possible that the people are simply mistaken about the performance of their elected politicians, overwhelming evidence indicates that they are correct. It is not a coincidence that most people believe government policy favors an elite. I will argue that this is an inevitable result of our electoral system. While various election reforms may ameliorate some of the failings, by their fundamental nature, elections are unfixable. However, this book is not primarily about documenting the poor performance of our electoral system. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t believe politics are satisfactory as they are. Instead, my jumping off point accepts this dismal situation as a given, examines why it is so, and humbly suggests what might be done about it.
Some among us accept these disheartening characteristics of American politics as the unavoidable price of admission for nations wishing to join the democratic club. Others actually revel in the spectacle and power games of contemporary politics. But many people, myself included, decry these as threats to our society's long-term health. Is democracy doomed to endlessly suffer from such failings? Or might there be a better form of democracy itself? That is the question that underlies this project.
Note that the book manuscript has copious footnote citations, but only a few are included in this Substack format. If you need a citation for some other quote, or source material, you can send an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. A full list of citations can also be found at this link.