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It’s Time to Think Seriously About Our Democracy

Recent developments, like the rise of Donald Trump, suggest that we shouldn’t take our beloved democratic systems for granted.

By Seth Masket


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the CFE Arena during a campaign stop on the campus of the University of Central Florida on March 5, 2016. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Just how democratic are our governing systems? This is not a question with which American politics scholars or pundits usually grapple. The United States is simply assumed to be a functional democracy, the yardstick by which other democracies are measured. But some recent developments suggest that we shouldn’t take our democratic systems for granted, and we should be thinking seriously about just how democratic our institutions are and should be.

Why should we be focusing on this now? For one thing, our nation is confronting some decidedly anti-democratic movements. North Carolina’s recent voter identification laws, for example, reveal an attempt by a governing party to make it fundamentally more difficult for African Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups to vote. This example made it clear that the nation’s commitment to equal participation in elections is in doubt.

Second, one major party’s nominee has demonstrated, in some cases, open hostility to democratic norms. Donald Trump’s casual endorsements of violence against political protestors, his expressions of support for authoritarian regimes that crack down on free speech, his questioning of the capabilities of a judge based on his ethnic heritage, and his call for a ban on the immigration of Muslims, among other things, suggest little respect for or adherence to democracy.

Trump is what happens when the party steps out of the way and lets the people decide. The result is a candidate who is not only not particularly wedded to party priorities, but also appears to be a weak general election candidate.

Third, we’ve just finished a presidential nomination cycle where one of the most frequent complaints was not that a candidate didn’t win or that another candidate fought dirty, but that the system was rigged. Supporters of Bernie Sanders have protested bitterly that party primary rules and the Democratic National Committee conspired to nominate Hillary Clinton. Even while Trump cleaned up in the Republican nomination contest, he complained about delegate selection systems in states like Colorado that worked against his efforts. There’s been an overall trend in American political parties over the past century or so to make them more internally democratic — to give rank-and-file party voters a greater say in important party decisions. Allegations of rigged contests suggest that our parties may not be as democratically run as is generally thought or hoped.

In our recent paper for the annual conference of the American Political Science Association, Julia Azari and I discuss some aspects of democracy within the context of American politics. Political theorists and comparativists have generally done a far better job grappling with these issues than Americanists have, and we borrow extensively from these literatures to discuss some different dimensions of democracy. We focus on three particular aspects of democracy, although there are certainly more:

  1. Participation: How easy is it for people to participate? To vote, to have their voice heard, to run for office?
  2. Competition: Are contests actually competitive? Are the outcomes uncertain? Do certain candidates have built-in advantages, or can hard working challengers actually take them down?
  3. Representativeness: Do governing bodies actually look like or share the views of the people they serve?

Our paper focuses particularly on the development of presidential primary debates, which has has been quite odd. But it’s nonetheless a useful case for thinking about internal party democracy. Polling thresholds for participation in primaries are not very democratic, but they’re an improvement over the previous system, in which media organizers simply decided whom the “major” candidates were in an utterly opaque fashion. Recent attempts by the Republican National Committee to reduce the number of primary debates limited participation, but also made the debates more convenient for various candidates.

Thinking about democracy within parties is a useful exercise because it reminds us that the most democratic outcome isn’t necessarily the best one. Unlike in previous presidential contests, in which party insiders have steered contests toward their own preferred outcomes regardless of what early public opinion looked like, Republican voters got what they wanted in 2016. Trump is what happens when the party steps out of the way and lets the people decide. The result is a candidate who is not only not particularly wedded to party priorities, but also appears to be a weak general election candidate.

What should our general elections look like? How easy should it be to vote? How competitive should our elections be? Are we OK with anti-democratic methods if they serve some other national goals? We actually need to be thinking about these questions now. At the very least, we need to discuss just what our democratic priorities are and how committed we are to them. It’s not enough to simply assume that everything the U.S. does is democratic.