What’s wrong with democracy?

Are U.S. voters capable of democracy?

It will come as no surprise to you, perhaps, that it’s not working well at the moment, either nationally or locally.

In Minnesota, for example, legislators are shocked — shocked — that Gov. Dayton responded to a sneaky poison pill in budget bills that forced him to sign them, by going low in his own way: stripping funding for the Legislature. See you in court.

In its editorial today, the Star Tribune calls it a “circus”:

A democratically elected government must operate within the confines of legal rules. It is designed to be the civilized alternative to just letting warring tribes go at each other with swords and battle axes for the right to dole out the spoils. Tactics that threaten the very basis of government further erode public confidence in the ability of institutions to work through differences while maintaining the rule of law.

Let’s consider, however, that politicians aren’t doing anything that voters didn’t enable.

A couple of interesting articles today are worth pointing out for discussion.

First, on the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy, Jonathan Rauch argues that efforts to increase voter participation won’t work.

Voters aren’t capable of playing a bigger, smarter role in such democracy, he suggests.

This is true not because voters are stupid, but because they are smart. Given their vote’s infinitesimal effect, they are rational to limit their investment in policy knowledge and instead to treat their vote as an expression of protest, prejudice or tribal solidarity. Moreover, cognitive psychology finds all kinds of ways in which humans, regardless of their IQ, are systematically biased in their perceptions and priorities. Those biases, expressed at the polls, distort both politics and policy, and neither increasing nor decreasing political participation will obviate them.

Second, even if voters were rational, unbiased and well-informed, they still would be incapable handling the kinds of complex decisions that government must routinely make — even if they wanted to, which they assuredly do not.

Third, the populist, elite-bashing tenor of our times denigrates the great value that professionals and experts offer. The Supreme Court and the Federal Reserve are often-cited examples of how expert decision-making can not only work effectively but enjoy relatively high popular esteem. Ben and I develop another example: intelligence oversight. Although the system for overseeing the intelligence community spans all three branches of government, it is inherently both technocratic and secretive. (It deals, after all, with secrets.) Yet it has proven remarkably effective, popular and representative — more so, we believe, than a more directly democratic system could be.

He theorizes that more democratization is what’s thrown things out of kilter.

Meanwhile, at Vox, Sean Illing interviews Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, whose book, “Democracy for Realists“, is spawning this democratic navel gazing.

“I want to believe in those comforting myths about democracy, mostly because the alternatives are worse,” he writes about his interview. “But even if democracy is the least bad form of government, we still ought to know how it works and, more importantly, how it doesn’t.”

How doesn’t it? Voters.

“I think it’s hard to see how the public as a whole would steer the country in any particular direction,” author Larry Bartels writes. “Usually when we think about public input, we think about public input in response to particular kinds of choices that have been framed by political elites of one kind or the other, whether they’re party leaders or elected officials. And whether people come to the right conclusions about the choices that are offered to them, I think this is most of what is interesting and consequential, which is how the choices get framed in the circumstances under which people are allowed to have input into deciding what path to take.”

Co-author Christopher Achens argues that stronger political parties would be a step in the right direction, where party endorsements — for the record, Gov. Dayton didn’t get his when he first ran for the job — mean more, not less.

The model state? New Jersey, he says, where a party endorsement is crucial for winning. Compare that to Minnesota, where its value is declining.

The result is good schools, no measles and mumps outbreaks because of low vaccination rates, and much else by way of good government because it’s harder for the voters to harm themselves here than in other states where interest groups and nutty ideas have more control through unrestricted primaries and initiatives. Of course, New Jersey has lots of problems, but a bad state governmental structure isn’t among them.

The pair argue for a return to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, favoring a more politically elitism and say that those who merely say, “well, many were slaveholders and their ideas no longer should be taken seriously” provide “a recipe for ignorance and not the one that we believe.”


  • Rob

    Huh. IMHO, monied interests and their unfettered access to/lobbying of politicians, gerrymandering, lack of term limits and lack of limits/lack of transparency in campaign spending are the bigger culprits. These are why we have a corpocracy, not a democracy.

  • MrE85

    I can’t speak for anyone other myself, but here is how I decide who to vote for.

    If the candidate identifies as a member of one of the major political parties, if offers me a broad brush idea on what they stand for. If they are independents or political newcomers, I need to look at their words, deeds, and resumes more carefully to see if they are a good pick for the job.

    I realize I don’t know them well, and this is an era were political spin is common. Still, I usually get at least SOME measure of a candidate, and I trust my instincts. My choices don’t always win, but I don’t ever remember having remorse for my votes.

    I don’t expect candidates to change the world single handed, or to make my life instantly better. I expect them to take their jobs seriously, and to do the best they can.

  • John O.

    Our form of government operates at present under The Golden Rule: “He who has the gold, rules.”

  • chlost

    My thoughts on this are not well researched. But my first reaction is that we have confused capitalism and democracy. Current political “leaders” and their followers are supporting corporate takeover of public government functions and trying to run them “like a business”. In a democracy, we as the electorate are charged with picking leaders who will run our government for the betterment of society as a whole. Those two functions are not necessarily compatible, as the business model does not value the needs of the members of society. Democracy has been sold off to the highest bidder.

  • AL287

    Definition of democracy (Merriam Webster dictionary)



    1a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

    2 : a political unit that has a democratic government

    3 capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the U.S. from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy — C. M. Roberts

    4 : the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority

    5 : the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges

    1-4 sound really good in theory and that is what we thought we had in the 20th Century. At least we did for a while.

    Number 5 is more in line with what is happening across the country. What we have now in the United States is more extreme class distinctions and privileges as well as hereditary distinctions based on ethnicity and race.

    There are a great many voters in the United States that no longer believe in democracy. They want their way or the highway and heaven help you if you get in their way.

    Outright hate motivated attacks and protests are on the rise. Portland, Oregon is not considered a “dangerous” city so you would think taking mass transit would be a relatively safe endeavor.

    Not. The residents of Portland will never look at mass transit the same way again.

    You cannot lead by division. You have to lead by consensus and compromise.

    Does democracy work better when one party has control of all three branches? Judging from the Trump administration, it doesn’t appear that way.

    Government divided by party can work if we look at Reagan, the 1st Bush and Clinton. Why didn’t it work with the 2nd Bush and Obama?

    Get rid of both political parties and make all candidates run as Independents. This might force voters to take a closer look and make better decisions (not necessarily the right decisions) about who they vote into office.

    “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any
    nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863

  • Zachary

    I’m going to start off with a meme that has been circulating around for a while:
    ‘Democracy is the 51% bullying the other 49% into doing what they want.’
    There is probably a quote assigned to that, but I don’t know from whom. I will offer a few of my own perspectives relating to this issue and a couple of solutions.

    First perspective (from Rauch’s Post article)

    “Given their vote’s infinitesimal effect, they are rational to limit their investment in policy knowledge and instead to treat their vote as an expression of protest, prejudice or tribal solidarity.”

    This is so true. When you factor in how little your individual vote counts in nation-wide elections – you really have no other option. When your vote’s ‘effectiveness’ is dependent on how your neighbors cast their ballot, that’s not really causing people to run out and vote.
    The ‘large’ party stranglehold is to blame for this. What we need – like the European model – is more parties of a more focused agenda. This would force coalitions together to pass legislation. This would also allow people to identify better with a party (see the previous NewsCut posting on Paul Douglas) that they have more in common with. As a personal example – in the last election cycle – I had positive scores toward both Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul – based on my personal anti-war, anti-interventionist views. Would those two ever be lumped together in anything else? Probably not – but I had some really weird results in those ‘who should you vote for’ quizzes.

    Second perspective – voting systems.
    I want voter ID. Why? Let me explain. I want a credit-card sized device, with my name, picture, and home district, that will allow me to go to any voting booth in the country – swipe my card – get a print out of my local ballot and cast it there. No absentee, no mail-in, no waiting in huge lines (as I can just go to a different one). Sure, there are some challenges, but I think it could work. Paper ballots also have the advantage of a – heh – paper trail.
    Instant run-off or Ranked-Choice voting. Do away with the plurality system (I need +1 more votes than you to win) and go with an actually majority (50% +1). This is especially critical at local levels – where the most potential impact is.
    Party votes are another solution – especially if you have many small parties. Do away with legislative districts (keep them apportioned the same, just no districts – keeps the gerrymandering out) and then dole them based on percentages of the vote. See the parliamentary systems for how that could work (it’s deeper than I want to go on this)

    Thrid perspective (from Bob’s commentary about the MN budget battle)

    “In Minnesota, for example, legislators are shocked — shocked — that Gov. Dayton responded to a sneaky poison pill in budget bills that forced him to sign them, by going low in his own way: stripping funding for the Legislature.”

    The simple solution is to have ‘lights-on’ or ‘roll-over’ provisions built into how budgets are created and managed. i.e. if no action is taken – levels remain where they are. Another option is to pass things ‘without the paperclip’ (to steal from a Simpson episode), and go line by line.
    The best solution is for everyone to work together. But that doesn’t happen because of how our system runs today. You go back to your constituents and say “I tried, but you didn’t get what you wanted, so you need to re-elect me. Oh, and send more cash.”
    Term limits (of some sort or another) would shore up that issue. I joke that politicians spend the first half of their terms sucking up to those that got them elected, and the second half sucking up to get themselves re-elected, so they never have time to get anything done.

    I’m going to stop here – as I am approaching a huge word count, and I don’t think Bob wants some ‘walls ‘o text’ flooding the comments. But, it’s a start.

    • Jack Ungerleider

      One variation on the quote is: “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” It is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but like so many supposed Franklin quotes the attribution is dubious.

      That said what is often forgotten in these debates is that the nation was created by compromise. The structure of the government, at the federal level which is copied in many states, is a compromise. It’s why it has survived as long as it has. But remember there has always been two primary factions in this country: those that supported a strong central government (The Federalists) and those that have supported stronger state governments and individual rights (The Anti-Federalists). The names have changed, Jefferson quickly replaced the Anti-Federalist moniker with Democratic-Republicans. Which party is on which side has changed over the years. Jefferson’s party would eventually become Jackson’s Democratic party. The Federalists would eventually become the Whigs and then give way to the Republican party on the eve of the Civil War. The next flip happens in 1932 when FDR’s New Deal Democrats become the party of central government. Oddly both parties retain a little of both sides (conservative state’s righters and liberal social activists) for the next 50 years until Reagan leads the GOP to the land of “the government is the problem not the solution.” This then pushes the “New Democrats” under Clinton to be a little more conservative and eventually corporatist. The result is a Plutocracy where the moneyed interests pay to support those politicians whose views most align with their own and hope to sway enough of us “little people” to have their candidate win so they can curry favor with the government and get policies they support enacted.

      That’s a long way of saying that today our political environment is split into two main camps: Law and Order plutocrats and Social Justice plutocrats and the people who align with each group. The actual politicians are merely the instruments of the plutocrats power.

      • Zachary

        It’s sad that ‘compromise’ has become such a dirty word. I would rather see ‘compromise’ (in the sense that everybody gets something that they want) then nobody gets anything.

        But, that doesn’t make good campaign slogans:
        “Senator Compromise – fighting for you. Sort of. Half-hearted at least.”

        • MikeB

          We will get this if/when we go back to competitive Congressional districts.

          • Zachary

            Would switching to ‘at-large’ districts help?

          • MikeB

            I was thinking more of a civic minded commitment to produce a healthier democracy, by drawing better boundaries.

            And a pony.

          • Zachary

            Agree. The only way to really have it work is through math and non-partisan cooperation.

            So, yeah – ponies for everyone!

  • RBHolb

    There are two points I want to make. First, democracy is a process, not a result. It is a way of making decisions. The decisions that will come out of the process may be good, they may be bad, but they are still the results of the process. We have checks on the potential excesses of democracy, but they aren’t intended to make the process any tidier.

    Second, and somewhat related to the first, is we have to question what we value most in a system of governance. Do we value efficiency? Then democracy is not our thing. Do we have a moral view that government should be at least responsive to the will of the people? Okay, but that will mean sacrificing some efficiency. It’s hard to balance the two, but if we want our government to be based on our ethical sense, the balance will often (perhaps usually) tilt away from efficiency.

    As with anything relating to American government, Alexis de Tocqueville seems to have hit the nail on the head:

    “I hold it to be sufficiently demonstrated that universal suffrage is by no means a guarantee of the wisdom of the popular choice, and that, whatever its advantages may be, this is not one of them.”

  • lindblomeagles

    Since the topic is “democracy,” I’m going to try to keep my comments specifically to the topic. I’ll admit openly, it will be difficult to do, but here goes. The term “democracy” in America today doesn’t have one definition. 1) For the wealthiest Americans, democracy IS THE ABILITY TO PASS legislation that decreases the cost of doing business – e. g. cutting taxes, reducing safety standards, allowing riskier investments, breaking up unions, entering international and domestic trade deals — in short, legislation authored by the last 5 U.S. Presidents. 2) For SOME Caucasian Americans, democracy IS to be reserved for whites only, AS the Founding Fathers did, or, if there be dissent, allow the states to “opt out” of expanding democracy to non-white citizens. This group has been with America since the Founding, and are represented today by people like Stephen K. Bannon, and events like Portland, Delano, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. 3) For minorities, democracy is the Founder’s PROMISE that all Americans will not be discriminated against; the OPPORTUNITY to show that they are, in every way, American; and the RIGHT to vote – a safeguard against individuals that would enslave minorities if given a chance. 4) For immigrants, democracy is A LIVING WAGE and PROTECTION from soldiers (both the government’s and the opposition’s) who would use their skill and power to kill those citizens who don’t support their cause. For other Americans, democracy is some combination of these things OR something completely different. DEMOCRACY, for example, takes care of its people, as working and middle class families often believe. The challenge today’s democracy faces are virtually the same challenges America has often faced, specifically since the Great Depression, which is A) how do we reduce tension between the very wealthy, those that want to create their own wealth in the middle, and those who are economically distressed. B) How do we change the hearts of those who believe whites are superior and minorities game the system; C) How do we stay connected nationally if we all suggest America is about individualism? The biggest difference today from years past is public opinion polling and social media have given us access to each other’s thoughts, but it has not provided a vehicle in which each of us, individually and collectively, can assess our thoughts before leaping to a final conclusion. More succinctly, once our thoughts become public, we believe, incorrectly, that we cannot CHANGE our opinion. It has to stay the same even if the evidence against our thoughts is readily available. We, now more than ever, are never wrong.