A few years ago I developed a moderately cheering theory about the impact of four years as President Donald Trump. The thought occurred to me while reporting on the 2017 French presidential election. Very few French voters seemed attracted to Emmanuel Macron’s Anglo-American liberalism, but overwhelmingly voted against Marine Le Pen for him because they felt called upon to defend so-called republican values against their populist nativism. The French had a collective memory of their own grappling with fascism during the Vichy era and the 1930s. So did the Spaniards, who kept their own right wing tightly in check. Perhaps, I thought, America’s problem was historical complacency; If so, Trump could provide some sort of homeopathic remedy that vaccinates them against the full blown disease of authoritarianism without making them seriously ill.
I was wrong. The democratic catharsis that I hoped would produce this election has not occurred and is not happening. I don’t have to recite the evidence like so many others have, including Foreign Policy Editor Jonathan Tepperman. Suffice it to say that my medical metaphor has undone it: Trump took advantage of a pre-existing condition of disdain for democratic norms and then made it worse.
What should I do? And by whom? President-elect Joe Biden said the right things to bring Americans together, and I have no doubt that he will keep saying these things because he believes them. An old white man and a severely scarred, deeply decent man, Biden may be a more suitable messenger than former President Barack Obama, whose identity as a Black and Ivy League suspect sparked suspicion and resentment, even when passionate about requests for harmony. But how much can the president’s rhetoric and even symbolic deeds do?
In the last few days I have asked these and similar questions to a number of democracy researchers and hoped for insights from other countries or epochs. They generally agreed that there are few previous examples of a mature democracy that has lost its way and then found its way again, although history provides any number of examples such as democracies in Weimar that have lost their anchors and are in toppled authoritarianism. I found very little optimism. Thomas Carothers, director of research at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a leading authority on democracy and governance, said the United States has now sunk into the “lower tier of established democracies” and is more polarized than any other. “You can’t depolarize,” he concluded. “They are just trying to cope with this state of affairs that we have.”
Scientists have long argued that shaky democracies must “deliver” in order to be “consolidated”. It is now clear that the principle also applies to mature democracies at a time when old foundations have given way. US democracy was not shaken like many European democracies during the Depression, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a radical experiment in state intervention to alleviate poverty and restore confidence in the system itself. At a moment when the prevailing model of capitalism has once again led to stagnation, fear and resentment, Biden, himself a figure of the status quo, is called to forge a new internal order that could ultimately break the national order in Fever.
But that’s probably not on the cards either. Biden will only be able to work on the margins if the Senate is in the hands of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose ideal of political success causes the other side to fail. A better result in the 2022 midterm elections could create political space for the sweeping tax and spending changes that Biden is campaigning for. Still, an ambitious democratic program will only deepen partisan anger, at least as long as Trump has something to say about it. The delivery takes place across generations; The game will be instant.
When one thinks about what to do now about the country’s long-standing disease, it only leads to despair. Perhaps the answer lies in stepping back and thinking about long-term answers that offer less immediate satisfaction. Most of the scholars I have spoken to believed that the political structures of the United States had led Americans to an impasse and that they must change those structures in order to find their way out. Such reforms could well be blocked by the same partisan opposition that a new tax and spending agenda would generate. However, you can enjoy the slight benefit that comes from the fact that neither side is inherently beneficial. In any case, structural reform may need to start at the state level before moving into national policy.
Lee Drutman of the New America Foundation has argued that the two-party system has become a deadlocked machine where both parties feel that “you can’t give an inch or lose the entire war.” In a recent book, Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America (and an article in Foreign Policy), Drutman has called for a move to a multiparty system.
Drutman has pointed out that New Zealand, today’s global darling, was embroiled in dysfunctional governance in the 1980s until a national commission recommended switching to a German multi-party system that allowed people to sort and sort according to their actual views Granting this sees a new level of political representation. He suggested that a President Biden set up such a commission with the mandate to come up with reform recommendations that are so broad that neither party can be sure beforehand whether it will win or lose. (For an example of such a document, see the admirably thorough and balanced report by the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship.)
But you cannot decide to change the party structure; You need to change the voting system. In a first-past-the-post system like the United States, only the winner with the most votes in a given constituency wins. Third parties almost never collect enough votes to win. Both Drutman and Larry Diamond, a democracy student at the Hoover Institution, have advocated a system of proportional representation in multi-member districts. Voters would vote up to five candidates in an expanded constituency, which could allow new parties to win seats. Diamond is a fan of the ranked election he has termed “master reform,” which would enable a variety of other reforms. Once voters can make a second or even a third election, the big party candidates have an incentive to go beyond their base to gain votes from those who prefer another candidate. Diamond has argued that this would both discourage extremism from the major parties and provide incentives for additional parties.
There are both ranked and proportionality systems throughout the democratic world. In the Netherlands, for example, parties get seats in parliament based on the proportion of votes they get at national level. This makes it difficult to cobble together a coalition government, but it ensures that all political groups, even very small ones, are represented. The United States doesn’t have one, however. Maine made a ranking poll; Diamond was discouraged to see that both Massachusetts and Alaska had firmly opposed referendums to establish such a system.
The problem with electoral reform is that you can’t sing it. A ranking vote and proportional voting may excite the soul of political scientists, but few citizens will march under that banner. It is likely that they will get a purchase through state and local experiments that show both the political class and ordinary Americans that these electoral systems can be far more comprehensive than their current system.
My preferred long-term solution is deliberative and participatory democracy, which addresses something very deep in Americans and in the political tradition of the United States. It was the involvement of the citizens in local offices and in the jury service that convinced Alexis de Tocqueville that democracy did not have to turn into demagogy. This small-town world in turn gave way to the rougher and urbanized culture of the big-city party clubs and machines that served generations of newcomers as vehicles for political engagement.
That era has largely disappeared with the rise of a Leviathan nation state and heavily nationalized politics. New means need to be created for a time when citizens are expressing a sense of apathy and futility about their own role as citizens. In 2019, Diamond and colleague James Fishkin founded America In One Room, which brought together 526 citizens of all backgrounds and beliefs for a four-day discussion on ardent issues such as immigration. Few participants said they had changed their minds, but many felt that they respect the sincerity and seriousness of those who thought differently. That is a hopeful result.
Deliberate democracy is good in itself; I hope that many nonprofit billionaires will agree to conduct such experiments. But debating without the hope of changing anything other than your neighbor’s mind will only get you so far. A true participatory democracy, in which citizens gain some degree of power over decision-making, can only take place if current lawmakers agree to relinquish some of their power.
In the United States, participatory democracy takes place mainly through referendums. However, these exercises involve almost no actual citizen participation, let alone consideration. Many put one huge interest against another, and victory goes into a deep pocket. (See this chart of spending for California’s 12 measures this year.) Proponents of true participatory democracy typically point to very modest experiments where, for example, city councils allow a measure of self-government in the neighborhood.
In Europe, however, citizens’ assemblies are becoming increasingly popular. Although France has a far more centralized political culture than the United States, Macron responded to the anger of the yellow vest protests against gasoline tax hikes by calling for a gathering of 150 citizens, chosen by lot, to develop generally acceptable solutions to climate change . In June, Macron officially adopted its report and agreed to spend an additional $ 18 billion on climate action. That is also a hopeful result. (For an institutionalized version of the Citizens’ Assembly, see my article on Holland’s Polder Considerations 🙂
Of course, the United States needs top-down legislative solutions to climate change, the pandemic, infrastructure, healthcare, and more. But none of them will stay – any of them could be reversed – if one half of the country continues to view democratic processes as an eerie means of empowering the other half. There is no solution to this problem. and half the country could well defend itself against anything the other half advocates. But Americans cannot afford to wait for the fever to break.