Democracy Old

The United States, a representative, constitutional,
presidential, federal democracy
Representative Democracy
  • The US political system is a representative democracy, with government decisions, laws, and policies made by officials who:
    • represent the “people”
    • are accountable to them
    • are elected by them through frequent, free, and fair elections.
  • Versus direct democracy.
Constitutional Democracy
  • A constitution defines the “fundamental norms governing the political community and determining the relations between the rulers and the people and the interaction among the centers of power. ” (Britannica)
  • Like most democracies, and unlike the UK, Israel, and New Zealand, the United States has a written constitution.
Presidential Democracy
  • presidential democracy is one in which the executive branch is elected separately from the legislative branch.
  • parliamentary democracy is one in which political power is vested in an elected legislature, which chooses the chief executive (e.g. the prime minister).
Federal Democracy
  • A federal political system is one in which power is shared between a central government and regional governments.
  • The US political system is a federal democracy, in which elected federal officials represent the people but states:
    • decide who the “people” are, i.e. who can vote
    • decide procedures for determining an election’s outcome
    • draw congressional districts
    • decide procedures for distributing Electoral College votes
    • conduct elections.
  • A unitary political system is one in which most or all governing power resides in a centralized government.
States’ Power over Elections
States decide who the “people” are
  • States decide who the “people” are, i.e. who can vote (within the constraints imposed by the Constitution and federal law).
  • Constitutional amendments and federal law have put constraints on states’ power to decide who can vote.
Britannica: Voting in the U.S.A
  • The Constitution doesn’t specify who can vote. That’s left to the states.
  • In the first presidential election (1789), voters were almost all landowning white Protestant males. 
  • By the 1860s white males largely enjoyed universal suffrage
  • While voting rights expanded for some, states began enacting laws that barred women, African Americans, Native Americans, and many immigrants from casting ballots. 
  • After slavery ended, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870, guaranteeing the right to vote to all men, regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” 
  • Southern states subsequently suppressed the black vote through intimidation and other measures, such as poll taxes and literacy tests.
  • By the early 20th century, nearly all African Americans had been disenfranchised in the South.
  • In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, extending suffrage to women. 
  • Native Americans gained suffrage in 1957. 
    • Until 1957 some states barred Native Americans from voting, since the right to vote is governed by state law
  • As late as the mid-1960s fewer than 7 percent of blacks were registered to vote in Mississippi. 
  • In 1964 the Twenty-fourth Amendment was adopted, prohibiting poll taxes in federal elections. 
  • In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was signed, which banned efforts to deny voting rights, such as literacy tests.
  • In 1971 the Twenty-sixth Amendment extended suffrage to citizens at least 18.
  • Some states passed strict voter ID requirements supposedly to prevent voter fraud, though critics argued the real purpose was to suppress voting. Some of these laws have been ruled unconstitutional.
Felon Voting Rights
  • State Felon Voting Laws (Britannica
    • Depending on the state:
      • A felon may vote from prison
      • A felon’s vote is restored after prison
      • A felon’s vote is restored after prison and parole
      • A felon’s vote is restored after prison, parole, and probation
      • A felon may lose the vote permanently
States decide procedures for determining an election’s outcome
  • Systems for determining the outcome of an election: A candidate wins if they get:
    • A plurality of votes
    • A majority of votes, using either
      • ranked choice voting (instant runoff)
        • or
      • possible runoff election
    • A supermajority of votes
    • A unanimity of votes
  • Georgia, Louisiana, and Maine elect officials by majority
    • Georgia and Louisiana conduct runoff elections if needed
    • Maine uses Instant Runoff Voting (Ranked Choice Voting)

View Electoral Systems

States draw congressional districts
  • In Rucho v. Common Cause the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering does not violate the Constitution.

View Gerrymandering

States decide procedures for distributing Electoral College votes
  • The winner takes all except in Maine and Nebraska.

View Electoral College

States conduct elections
  • Voter Registration
    • Specifying how and when voters can register, e.g. online
  • Vote Casting
    • Designating polling locations and hours
    • Specifying the kind of ID required
    • Making rules for early voting and voting by mail
  • Counting Votes
    • Specifying the procedure
    • Announcing the results
ArtIcle 1, Section IV, Clause 1 of the Constitution
  • The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.
Undemocratic Features of American Democracy
  • Voter Suppression
    • Voter suppression is the attempt to influence the outcome of an election by making it more difficult, or impossible, for certain groups to vote.
  • House of Representatives
    • Partisan gerrymandering does not violate the Constitution
    • The House has a rural bias.
      • As American as Apple Pie? The Rural Vote’s Disproportionate Slice of Power (NYT)
        • Republican voters are more efficiently distributed across the country than Democrats, who are concentrated in cities. That means that even when Democrats win 50 percent of voters nationwide, they invariably hold fewer than 50 percent of House seats, regardless of partisan gerrymandering.
      • View Unintentional Gerrymandering
  • Senate
    • The Senate skews rural, favoring the political party with more rural supporters.
    • One person one vote governs elections for the House but not the Senate.
      • Each state has two senators, no matter their population 
    • The Senate’s Rural Skew Makes It Very Hard For Democrats To Win The Supreme Court, Nate Silver (538, September 20, 2020)
      • It’s harder for Democrats to appoint Supreme Court justices because
        • the Senate is responsible for confirming Supreme Court nominations
        • the Senate has a major skew towards rural voters
        • Republicans have more support in rural areas
  • President
    • The Electoral College skews rural:
      • Wyoming, the least popular state, has one electoral vote per 195,369 residents.
      • California, the most populous state, has one electoral vote per 711,724 residents.
      • So each individual Wyoming vote counts 3.6 times more than each individual California vote.
      • Comparing the 10 least populous states to the 10 most populous, a vote in the former counts 2.5 times more than a vote in the latter.
How Democracies Die, Synopsis

How Democracies Die, 2018, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are Harvard professors who have spent twenty years studying the breakdown of democracies in Europe and Latin America

Modern Democracies Die Gradually
  • Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves. Like Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine.
  • Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.
  • Gatekeepers in a democracy are the institutions responsible for preventing would-be authoritarians from coming into power.
  • In designing the Constitution the founders were concerned with gatekeeping. They wanted an elected president, reflecting the will of the people. But they did not fully trust the people’s ability to judge candidates’ fitness for office.
  • “History will teach us,” Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, that “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the great number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” For Hamilton and his colleagues, elections required some kind of built-in screening device.
  • The device they chose was the Electoral College, made up of locally prominent men in each state who would be responsible for choosing the president. Under this arrangement, Hamilton reasoned, “the office of president will seldom fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” The Electoral College thus became our original gatekeeper.
  • The rise of political parties in the early 1800s changed the way our electoral system worked. (The Constitution does not mention political parties.) Instead of electing local notables as delegates to the Electoral College, as the founders had envisioned, each state began to elect party loyalists. Electors became party agents, which meant that the Electoral College surrendered its gatekeeping authority to the parties.
    • Party gatekeeping helped confine George Wallace to the margins of politics.
    • In the 1980s the Democratic Party created “superdelegates” to serve as a mechanism for party leaders to fend off candidates they disapproved of. The GOP opted to maintain a more democratic nomination system.
    • Parties sometimes accept short-term political sacrifice for the good of the country. In 2016, Austrian conservatives backed Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen to prevent the election of far-right radical Norbert Hofer. And in 2017, defeated French conservative candidate François Fillon called on his partisans to vote for center-left candidate Emmanuel Macron to keep far-right candidate Marine Le Pen out of power.
Democratic Norms
  • Norms are the soft guardrails of democracy.
  • Unwritten rules are everywhere in American politics, ranging from the operations of the Senate and the Electoral College to the format of presidential press conferences. But two norms stand out as fundamental to a functioning democracy:
  • Mutual Toleration
    • Mutual toleration is the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern.
    • In almost every case of democratic breakdown we have studied, would-be authoritarians—from Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini in interwar Europe to Marcos, Castro, and Pinochet during the Cold War to Putin, Chávez, and Erdoğan most recently—have justified their consolidation of power by labeling their opponents as an existential threat.
  • Institutional Forbearance 
    • A second norm critical to democracy’s survival is institutional forbearance, avoiding actions that, while respecting the letter of the law, violate its spirit.
Signs of Authoritarian Behavior
  • We’ve developed a set of four behavioral warning signs that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one. We should worry when a politician
    • 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game,
    • 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents,
    • 3) tolerates or encourages violence,
    • 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.
  • Table 1 shows how to assess politicians in terms of these four factors. A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern.
  • What kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often, populist outsiders do. Populists are antiestablishment politicians—figures who, claiming to represent the voice of “the people,” wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people.”
How Democracies Die, Page 23 Indicators in Large Print,
  • Thomas E. Mann is the W. Averell Harriman Chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution.
  • Norman J. Ornstein a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of a weekly column for Roll Call, called “Congress Inside Out.”
Figure 2-1 Party Polarization, 1879–2012: Ideological Gap Between the Parties.
Asymmetric Polarization
  • The phenomenon of asymmetric polarization is clear when we look at roll call voting averages for parties on the same liberal-conservative dimension over time. Since the late 1970s, Republicans have moved much more sharply in a conservative direction than did Democrats in a liberal direction. And the change that occurred among Democrats was mostly within their Southern contingent—the demise of Dixiecrat conservatives and the election of minorities. Democratic representatives outside the South barely moved at all. (See Figure 2-2 for voting averages.) The 2010 election dramatically increased the conservative tilt of the House Republicans. Nearly 80 percent of the freshmen Republicans in the 112th Congress would have been in the right wing of the party in the 111th Congress.
Figure 2-2 Liberal-Conservative Voting Averages in the House of Representatives, 1879–2014.
Is It Really As Bad As It Looks?
  • Holds, filibusters, and other delay and obstruction tactics have been around since the beginning of the republic. But as we look at the panoply of tactics and techniques for throwing wrenches and grenades into the regular order of the policy process, which the new and old media’s outside agitation encourages and even incites, we do not see business as usual. The target is no longer an individual judge or cabinet member hated for a real or imagined ideological leaning. The pathologies we’ve identified, old and new, provide incontrovertible evidence of people who have become more loyal to party than to country. As a result, the political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious challenges and grave threats.
  • The single-minded focus on scoring political points over solving problems, escalating over the last several decades, has reached a level of such intensity and bitterness that the government seems incapable of taking and sustaining public decisions responsive to the existential challenges facing the country.
Institutions of Modern Representative Democracies, Robert Dahl

Robert Dahl wrote Democracy and its Critics and was the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University.

  • by Robert A Dahl
    • Representation. All major government decisions and policies are made by popularly elected officials, who are accountable to the electorate for their actions.
    • Free, fair, and frequent elections. Citizens may participate in elections both as voters and as candidates (though age and residence restrictions may be imposed).
    • Freedom of expression. Citizens may express themselves publicly on a broad range of politically relevant subjects without fear of punishment
    • Independent sources of information. There exist sources of political information that are not under the control of the government or any single group and whose right to publish or otherwise disseminate information is protected by law; moreover, all citizens are entitled to seek out and use such sources of information.
    • Freedom of association. Citizens have the right to form and to participate in independent political organizations, including parties and interest groups. 
The American Democratic Sandcastle

American democracy can’t withstand four more years of Trump, Brian Klaas (NYT Op-Ed, September 17, 2020)

Brian Klaas is an associate professor of global politics at University College London, where he focuses on democracy, authoritarianism, and American politics and foreign policy. He is the co-author of “How to Rig an Election” and author of “The Despot’s Apprentice: Donald Trump’s Attack on Democracy” and “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.” Klaas is a contributor to The Washington Post and a regular guest on CNN, MSNBC, BBC News, Sky News, NPR News, BBC Radio, Bloomberg and CNBC. He has advised NATO, the European Union, and several major international NGOs. Klaas received his doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford.

  • The November election is not a battle between Democrats and Republicans. It’s a battle between democracy and authoritarian populism. That’s the choice on the ballot.
  • Democracies are like sandcastles. Sometimes they are swept away in a single big wave, as with a coup or a revolution. But these days, authoritarian populism tends to erode democracy gradually, one piece at a time. In countries such as Hungary and Turkey, it took years, even decades, for authoritarian leaders to wear away democratic institutions.
  • Eventually, they succeeded. The trappings of democracy remain. But elections aren’t fair. The rule of law is a political weapon. Checks on executive power are increasingly meaningless. Political scientists call such governments “competitive authoritarian regimes,” meaning that they are effectively counterfeit democracies, semi-autocratic regimes masquerading as something they are not.
  • Trump has already done immense damage to U.S. democracy. He has effectively neutralized congressional oversight of the presidency because his own party refuses to hold him accountable. The White House routinely ignores subpoenas, despite overwhelming evidence of criminality around the president. His enablers are systematically purging inspectors general, who are supposed to be the referees of many democratic institutions. And Trump’s attempts to trade crucial aspects of U.S. foreign policy in exchange for help damaging his political opponents left him with the historic blemish of impeachment but no real consequences. He got away with it.
  • Much of the damage that Trump has done so far is intangible — yet still destructive. Democracy requires a shared sense of reality. He has subverted it by pumping lies, disinformation and conspiracy theories into our information pipeline. And chillingly, Trump has convinced millions of people to cheer for him as he attacks the very institutions that separate democratic governments from authoritarian ones. More than half of Republican voters now say the free press is “the enemy of the people,” a phrase so incendiary that Nikita Khrushchev insisted it be removed from Soviet propaganda in 1956.
  • A second Trump term would be much more destructive. If he wins in November, Trump will be unshackled from the biggest check of all: the electorate. He will also face weaker pushback from the judiciary, which he has packed with unqualified judges who routinely rule against basic democratic values such as voting rights.
  • That will give him latitude to start acting on the threats he has routinely made throughout his first term. We could see him acting far more aggressively to prosecute political opponents, pardon his criminal cronies, blacklist journalists who criticize him and revoke media broadcast licenses. He could step up his efforts to purge scientific experts who dare correct him, to politicize law enforcement and to accelerate the expansion of executive power. His recent attempts to sabotage the post office while encouraging supporters to commit a felony by voting twice in this year’s election offer a preview of his likely behavior before the 2022 midterms. And most disturbingly, his frequent encouragement of political violence could easily lead to widespread bloodshed.
  • In foreign affairs, he could make good on his threat to withdraw from NATO, while more closely aligning America with the foreign dictators he frequently praises.
  • American democracy was in decline before Trump, so he is not exclusively to blame. There are long-standing structural flaws, such as the electoral college, gerrymandering, campaign spending gone wild, voter suppression and lobbying that too often equates to political corruption. Our democratic sandcastle needed serious repairs before Trump. Yet if we give him another four years, it risks being washed away altogether.
Danger of Direct Democracy
  • George Will: Brexit shows how direct democracy can be dangerous
    • The Founders could teach 21st-century Britain something: Direct democracy is dangerous because public sentiments need to be refined by filtration through deliberative institutions.
    • The bedrock principle of representative government is that “the people” do not decide issues, they decide who shall decide. And once a legislature sloughs off responsibility and resorts to a referendum on the dubious premise that the simple way to find out what people want is to ask them, it is difficult to avoid recurring episodes of plebiscitary democracy.
Traditional Criticisms of Democracy
  • Ignorance of the Masses
    • Most people are incapable of participating in government in a meaningful or competent way because they lack the necessary knowledge, intelligence, wisdom, experience, or character. 
  • Tyranny of the Majority
    • Once in power the majority might trample on the rights of minorities, passing laws that penalize disliked ethnic, religious, racial, political, or social groups.  They might also enact laws redistributing the property of the wealthy minority.
“Democracy” vs “Republic”
  • For James Madison, democracy meant direct democracy, and republic meant representative government.
  • Following his visit to the United States in 1831–32, the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville asserted in no uncertain terms that the country he had observed was a democracy—indeed, the world’s first representative democracy, where the fundamental principle of government was “the sovereignty of the people.” 
  • Today the word democracy includes both direct and representative democracies.  The word republic refers to representative democracy.
Checks and Balances
    • Checks and balances, principle of government under which separate branches are empowered to prevent actions by other branches and are induced to share power. 
    • The framers of the U.S. Constitution, who were influenced by Montesquieu and William Blackstone among others, saw checks and balances as essential for the security of liberty under the Constitution: “It is by balancing each of these powers against the other two, that the efforts in human nature toward tyranny can alone be checked and restrained, and any degree of freedom preserved in the constitution” (John Adams).
    • Though not expressly covered in the text of the Constitution, judicial review—the power of the courts to examine the actions of the legislative and the executive and administrative arms of government to ensure that they are constitutional—became an important part of government in the United States.
    • Other checks and balances include
      • The presidential veto of legislation (which Congress may override by a two-thirds vote)
      • Executive and judicial impeachment by Congress.
      • Only Congress can appropriate funds,
      • Each house serves as a check on possible abuses of power or unwise action by the other.
      • Congress, by initiating constitutional amendments, can in practice reverse decisions of the Supreme Court.
      • The president appoints the members of the Supreme Court but only with the consent of the Senate, which also approves certain other executive appointments.
      • The Senate also must approve treaties.
  • Senate Republicans voted against calling witnesses at Trump’s impeachment trial, like John Bolton.
  • Congressional Republicans have not questioned Trump’s putative polarization of government.
  • Congressional Republicans have generally failed to criticize Trump’s false statements and ad hominem attacks.
Was Democracy on the Ballot in 2020?

“It’s how you see democracies come to an end.”

  • Does Trump exhibit authoritarian behavior?
  • Have Congressional Republicans violated democratic norms, shirked their gatekeeping responsibility, or ignored their duty to check-and-balance the executive?
  • Test of Senate Republicans: Norms vs Party
    • Per Article II, Section 2, the President “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint … Judges of the supreme Court.” The Constitution provides no deadline for advice and consent. Nor does it require the Senate to even consider a nomination. But it’s been an accepted norm that the Senate consider a nomination within a reasonable period of time.
    • Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016.
    • Shortly afterward Mitch McConnell said:
      • “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” he said. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
    • On March 16, Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the position, over seven months before the election.
    • Senate Republicans refused to consider Garland’s nomination. The Republicans thus ignored the nomination for 310 days (232 days before the election and 78 days after), by far the longest time in Senate history.
    • Senate Republicans justified their action by invoking a new norm:
      • If a Supreme Court vacancy occurs in the year of a presidential election, the next president should make the nomination.
  • If Democrats control the presidency and both houses, they can play hardball by:
    • expanding the Supreme Court
    • changing the law so that Supreme Court justices can be reassigned to lower courts
    • narrowing the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction so that, for example, it can no longer rule on the constitutionality of federal statutes, state laws, and disputes between Congress and the executive (Jennifer Rubin)
    • imposing term limits on justices
    • eliminating the filibuster
    • admitting D.C. and Puerto Rico as states, expanding the Senate to 104 votes
    • impeaching Justice Brett Kavanaugh
    • increasing the number of lower-court federal judges.