How well does the US government represent the people? Is it a democracy? Should it be? What can we learn to do better?
If you ask the average American, they’re likely to tell you the United States is the world’s poster child for democracy. It’s our gift to the world, they might say — our magnum opus.
To begin with, America never invented democracy. And secondly, we’re not even that good at it anymore.
How do we know? And what can we do about it in the face of a president, an administration and a unified Republican government that holds the democratic process itself in contempt?
What’s Wrong With U.S. Democracy?
How much time do you have?
Actually, let’s make the problem simple, because it is simple: Democracy doesn’t really exist in America.
Princeton University researchers looked at 20 years of data to answer a seemingly simple question: Does government in America actually represent voters? Their findings are as stark as they are unsurprising: The American electorate is far more open-minded, concerned with equality and in favor of progressive initiatives than nearly any of the elected officials who currently represent us.
The least popular ideas in America are just as likely as the most popular ones to become law. In other words, public support for an idea is virtually immaterial when it comes to that idea’s likelihood of becoming law.
Guess what’s not immaterial? The support ideas receive from America’s “donor class” of wealthy corporatists. If they support a particular idea, the likelihood of its becoming law greatly improves — because they’re the ones with enough money to lobby the government for change.
Yes — bribery is legal in America, in the guise of unlimited campaign donations.
This manifests in any number of ways, but the bottom line is this: Government in America remains almost diametrically opposed to ideas which are not in the political elite’s best interests. Indeed, former president Jimmy Carter said it plainly as we began busying ourselves with the election in 2015: The U.S. is an “oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”
The personal campaign donation cap currently sits at $2,700. But thanks to shoddy campaign finance laws, PACs and a regressive, conservative-leaning Supreme Court, corporations can pour nearly unlimited funds into the campaigns of their chosen candidates.
Get it? You and I have been “priced out of” helping bring about real political change. We’ll never stop paying taxes, but the system is almost explicitly designed to make sure working folks don’t get a good return on that investment.
The Trump Administration Is a Symptom — Not the Cause
Did now-president Trump breathe a single word about campaign finance reform as a candidate? No.
What he did was appropriate the phrase “drain the swamp” — and then proceed to fill that swamp with every kind of corporatist, lobbyist and shill imaginable — virtually anyone and everyone who stands to benefit in a personal way from the dissolution of the federal government and its replacement with corporate rule.
It sounds like a dystopian novel, but it’s all too real. Phrases like “dismantle the administrative state” and “free market” are carefully worded nonsense to make it sound like you and I are going to have a voice in this brave new world. We absolutely will not.
But don’t mistake this administration for the disease itself — it’s merely a symptom. America has been failing at democracy for a long while now.
The Global Democracy Ranking concerns itself with objectively appraising the “quality” of the world’s democracies and ranking them every few years.
In 2014, the U.S. ranked 16th. We actually dropped from 15th place between 2013 and 2014.
Do you feel great yet?
How We Fail
For a country that’s been coasting on the myth of its “exceptionalism” for a couple of generations now, this is beyond embarrassing. The U.S. has been constructing an ever-more-elaborate mythology to hide behind these long years, all the while turning our backs on the things that actually make us great.
These Global Democracy Rankings rely on several major criteria:
- The “health” of that country’s politics
- Gender equality
- Economic stability and opportunity
- The availability of knowledge and education
- The quality and availability of health care
- That country’s stewardship of the natural environment
When you break it down like that, it’s not really a surprise we fared so poorly.
Nowhere is the U.S. government’s disconnect from reality — and the will of the people — clearer than in Donald Trump’s totally unilateral decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Pact. You’ll remember that this agreement is a nearly unprecedented coming-together of the world’s powers, both great and small. It’s virtually once in a lifetime that you’ll get to see nearly every nation in the world come together for a cause this significant.
Inevitably, our president had other ideas.
As Donald Trump goes about treating the presidency like an entry-level job, the rest of us have successfully educated ourselves on climate change, its dangers and our country’s utterly embarrassing lack of a coherent response. As a result, a majority of Americans support the Paris agreement and the clear place of leadership by example the U.S. staked out for itself.
But instead of showing the other world powers how to responsibly and fairly respond to a crisis, we’re burying our heads in the sand and actively turning the clock back on progress.
You’ll never hear this particular writer claim the GOP’s war against “administration” in general is a sane course of action, but if we’re to pare down the role federal government plays in our lives, we had better be prepared to pick up that slack with real action at the state and local levels. It’s clear that leadership has failed us at the highest levels, but already America is doing one of the things we still do well: jury-rigging an alternative solution.
In this case, it looks like real commitment from America’s state assemblies and mayors, many of whom are already making overtures directly to foreign governments to assure them that although the federal government is currently helmed by self-interested grifters, the rest of us are aware of the problem and willing to take the steps necessary to address it.
More than 200 mayors, 1,200 businesses and an assortment of governors and even college presidents have all vowed individually to adopt the Paris agreement’s goals concerning emissions reductions. World leaders are also putting pressure on our president to come to his senses.
One supposes the lesson here is that we are the government. That’s always been true, but maybe it takes people like Donald Trump to make it clear just how long we’ve been out of control of our own destinies.
Lessons From Elsewhere
America isn’t good at taking direction from other countries, but if we were paying attention, we’d find any number of outstanding ideas out there that could revitalize the way we practice democracy and help make sure voters — not wealthy campaign donors, or oil companies, or weapons manufacturers, or drug companies — are the ones being spoken for in Washington.
Many other countries get by with less stringent limits on campaign donations and/or spending, but don’t have the problems we do because they’re not as committed to white-hat/black-hat partisan politicking. Other countries impose strict limits with similar results.
We might also learn a thing or two about proportional party representation, ranked choice voting, instant-runoff elections or even the parliamentary system, in which it’s somewhat more difficult for a single intractable party to hold the entire process hostage for an extended period of time.
The point is, there are many solutions to the current state of our government and our democracy. Step one is insisting our government, like a jury of our peers, must actually look like us and share our values. Step two is improving the process to make it as inclusive as possible. It should be top priority for America to lead on something this vitally important.