Democracy Is Still Not Safe in the United States
Recreating democratic values means ditching the excuse of tradition.
Despite the headlines, democracy has not been saved. Yes, the anti-democratic candidate lost; yes, the election result in this case was aligned with the popular vote; yes, the courts have been upholding that result. But the same undemocratic conditions that allowed the election of an unpopular liar —voter suppression, the Electoral College, unchecked disinformation—are still in place, and a roadmap in how to use them is available for the next unscrupulous rich person who wants to try. At best, democracy in the United States has been given a reprieve.
Let’s use it. Now is the time to make the United States more democratic.
Voter rights must be at the top of the list, but also scrapping the Electoral College, which has given two of the last six elections to the candidate the people didn’t vote for, and outlawing gerrymandering, which skews legislative seats and affects representation. The House of Representatives has been capped at 435 seats since 1929, meaning that as population has grown, so has the number of people per representative. At this point, each congressperson represents ten times or more as many people as in peer countries; uncapping the House would be an immediate step towards a more representative democracy. We could make Washington, D.C., a state and reform the convoluted, expensive, and unfair primary system. In fact, we could get rid of the Senate altogether. All these process, rules, or institutions are venerable traditions, but they are also undemocratic.
Realistically, none of these changes will be easy to accomplish, although there are workarounds for some of them, like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would make the Electoral College obsolete without needing to legally remove it. But these ideas still need to be promoted and supported; after all, democracy was never supposed to be easy. Most of all, undemocratic processes have to become seen as unacceptable, instead of winked at or justified by history and tradition.
The evidence of the last four years is clear. A weak party system will not winnow out the candidacy of undemocratic and bigoted candidates; instead, national committee members and downticket candidates are likely to support such candidates if they think they will lead to power. Vetting by the media does not serve to eliminate criminals who lie outright and obviously, especially when large swaths of the electorate might call anything they disagree with “fake news.” The redoubted checks and balances of U.S. government have not stopped abuse of power and will not do so in the future. And no norms or conventions will compel an autocrat, once they have gained power, to govern for the common good rather than their own enrichment.
The challenges in instituting the changes aren’t the only obstacle. Many direct policy areas will be clamoring for attention, and tasks from pandemic response to restoring climate change research are undeniably urgent. It might seem difficult, dry, or counterproductive to focus instead on the parameters of the U.S. election system. But reforming the democratic process is the right thing to do if the United States wants to call itself a democracy. It also might be the easiest way to accomplish some of the policy goals of the incoming administration. Public opinion on most issues is significantly closer to Democratic positions. On gun control, health care, taxes, the role of government, the so-called representatives in Congress are not representing what most people want. Allowing elections to reflect public opinion more accurately—surely the goal of any supporter of democracy—would instantly shift the Overton window of political discourse to be more aligned with what people actually want out of their government.
Crucially, to fix the dangerous gaps in U.S. election systems, the new administration does not need to compromise principles or design complicated safeguards. All they need to do is return emphatically to the founding principle of the United States: democracy.
Primary processes are complex, time-consuming, expensive, and designed to consolidate and maintain party power rather than to display the will of the people. They are also entirely artificial and extra-constitutional, relatively modern, and therefore relatively easy to change. The Electoral College, meanwhile, is an artifice designed to let the elites override the people. Now unthinkable in its original form, it has simply become a mathematical mess that gives some Americans a much greater say in the presidential election than others.
Reforming these systems is a clear step towards greater democracy. Some people argue that more direct voting risks populism, that so-called low-information voters will vote against their own interests and therefore can’t be trusted with democracy. That was, after all, more or less the reasoning of the Founders when they developed the Electoral College. But consider that a simple popular vote would have given us a different result four years ago. Consider that the single-party control that abandoned all moderating role in the interests of appointing partisan judges and personal enrichment was enabled by gerrymandering and corporate funding. The Republican proportion of seats in the House is consistently greater than its share of the popular vote. The District of Columbia and its 700,000 residents have no voting power in Congress at all. The populism and venality in our elections are not the result of too much democracy, but of too little.
This should be an easy call for the Democrats. Recent history and conventional wisdom, as well as the issue polls referenced above, hold that less voter suppression, higher voter turnout, and direct popular votes result in a better showing for Democratic candidates. Removing gerrymandered districts would be likely to increase Democratic representation in Congress, and statehood for Washington, D.C., would change the balance of the Senate at a stroke. More importantly, all of those changes would make the country more democratic. And yet, official statements on any of these issues are full of caution and doubt.
True, making these changes goes up against tradition and inertia. Some of them require difficult battles or complicated work-arounds. But both principle and interest urge the administration, and the democratic party, to commit to reform now. It’s our best hope of protecting ourselves from another wannabe dictator manipulating our flawed system to his own benefit.
We can see the risks of not reforming and the possibilities if we do. It’s time to move the United States closer to the democracy it claims to be.
Malka Older is an affiliated research fellow at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations at Sciences Po. She is the author of an acclaimed trilogy of science fiction political thrillers, beginning with Infomocracy, and a new collection of of short fiction and poetry, ...and Other Disasters.