Paul Pillar

America's Flawed and Fragile Democracy

Before the 2012 election fades in our memories, displaced by sex scandals and other attention-getting news, Americans ought to reflect on what works well and—even more worthy of reflection—what works poorly in their representative democracy. I'm not talking about post-mortems concerning the specific electoral outcome and what led a particular party or candidate to win or lose. I instead am referring to serious deficiencies that ought to trouble any American, regardless of liking or disliking this month's election result, who values a healthy and fair political system that respects the will of the people.

Some of the most undemocratic aspects of what American electoral democracy has become were in display at least as much in this most recent electoral cycle as in any other. One concerns the role of money, in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the ineffectiveness of the Federal Election Commission reaching new depths. Much commentary since the election has noted how little return some of the biggest campaign bankrollers received on their investment. But any single election result does not negate the outsize role that money has assumed in American elections and how much that role runs contrary to the principle that in a democracy elected representatives are supposed to represent people rather than dollars. The Supreme Court's reapportionment decisions of the early 1960s established the principle that elected representatives represent people rather than acres or trees. Now dollars have been given back some of the role that was taken away from the acres and the trees.

Then there is the unconscionable inconvenience that many citizens have to endure to exercise their right to vote. Long voter lines even led to a line in Barack Obama's victory speech. In the decentralized American system of administering elections, the problem is largely due to assorted inefficiency, incompetence and misplaced resources at the state and county level. The added twist—an even more alarming one, with regard to subversion of democratic principles—this year was the concerted effort by adherents of one party to make voting more difficult, in the belief that those who would be dissuaded or prevented from voting would mostly be supporters of the other party. The net effect of court actions on this subject was to mitigate this problem by striking down some of the voter suppression efforts. But the efforts were still an outrage; voting is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy. It also was an outrage that there were not more expressions of outrage—from Republicans, Democrats and independents alike—over the suppression efforts. Give credit for candor and honesty, however, to the Republican legislative leader in Pennsylvania who spoke openly about how the suppression effort in that state “would allow Governor Romney to win.”

Dissuading the other side's supporters from voting is not uncommon in political systems in less developed countries—systems that we usually are apt to disparage. Ultimately the difference between the suppression efforts in the United States and, say, what Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union does to its political opponents is more a matter of degree (especially degree of physical brutality) than of kind.

Another undemocratic contrivance—undemocratic because in a democracy voters are supposed to choose their representatives rather than representatives choosing their voters—is gerrymandering. It has become more of a science than an art in recent years thanks to more sophisticated and extensive polling data and computer software that can take advantage of the data. Both parties practice it when they have a chance. Democrats in Maryland perpetrated one of the most egregious recent examples. But because Republicans have majority control in more state governments than the Democrats do, the net effect nationally has been to help Republicans. Republicans retained a solid majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this year even though Democratic House candidates won more total votes than Republicans. The natural concentration of Democratic strength in urban areas has something to do with this anomaly, but so does the gerrymandering.

Each of the aforementioned flaws has a self-perpetuating quality, and encourages perpetuation in power of whoever happens to be in power now. State legislators who have a majority set the voting rules and draw the legislative districts (for their own seats, not just for Congress) to increase the chance of their own party retaining control. The role of big money in the post-Citizens United era increases the chance of electing presidents who appoint the sort of Supreme Court justices who hand down decisions such as Citizens United. And so on. The self-perpetuation is not as strong and irretrievable as in a non-democratic system such as the one controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. But there are closer parallels with, for example, Iran, which has a freely elected president and parliament but in which self-perpetuation is facilitated by the role of the supreme leader and by interlocking relationships among bodies such as the Guardian Council and the judiciary.

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