I am asking my readers to consider what may seem like a rather obvious question. We Americans are quite proud of our democratic foundations as an example to the world. But, compared to other nations and other systems, we may find some deficiencies in our system of government. Herein, I will give you five examples to consider that show some weaknesses in our current system.
In light of much of the news lately, I want to make clear that I am going to discuss institutions and systems. There is a lot of divisiveness and certainly a great weakening of public discourse that has weakened our democracy, but that is a subject for another time. If you are interested, a fine editorial in the NY times addresses this issue nicely and dispassionately with solutions that we can all embrace.
Before we start, let’s see if we can define what we mean by a democracy. To me, democracy is a system of government that allows a majority to be fairly chosen to rule, while still allowing substantial rights to the minority. It is important to remember that our founding fathers, when writing our Constitution, had no concept of political parties or the immense loyalty they would derive and wield.
Here then are institutional factors that have for years deeply flawed our democracy.
The Electoral College
Yes, that system by which we elect our president and vice president is quite undemocratic. We have this mantra from voting rights that we occasionally pull out, “One person, one vote.” But consider the reality of the process of the electoral college. The state of Wyoming has a population of 581,075 and 3 electoral votes. The state of California has a population of 39,613,493 with 54 electoral votes in the 2024 election. That means that the voters in Wyoming have 3.8 times the voting power for the president than voters in California. Some democracy! Of course, this could be fixed with a constitutional amendment, but do you think that Wyoming will approve that? States could partially solve the problem themselves by apportioning electoral votes in proportion to the popular vote. But would California approve that if Wyoming doesn’t. We are in a stalemate. Others have reviewed the situation with similar conclusions.
The Filibuster Rule
This is the complex rule by which every act that does not involve money must pass the Senate by a 60-vote majority. This is very unlikely in that evenly divided chamber. And so, apart from budgets (and Supreme Court appointments), nothing substantial gets passed in Congress. The filibuster is also widely misunderstood, even by senators. While I favor protecting the minority party, I would also like a government that solves problems and advances the welfare of the country. With our deeply divided political parties who consistently chose party over country, we all are the losers. Compromise is no longer possible. This rule has to go. There are also various ways that it could be reformed.
In some of the most shameful legislation of the past two years, many states have passed laws limiting the ability to vote. They use conspiracy theories and fake news to create barriers to the very people who might vote them out of office. This transparent raw use of political power is an embarrassment to our founding fathers and the many who have sacrificed for our freedoms. The only direction in which voting legislation should go is to create more access, more freedoms, less barriers, and more openness and transparency in the process. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is before Congress at this point and would correct many of these problems but has little chance of passing.
The apportionment of voting districts has become a blood sport for state legislatures. The sole purpose is to stay in power by any means possible. My own state of North Carolina is an example. Our state is fairly evenly split with 36% registered Democrats and 30% registered Republicans, but you wouldn’t know it with our congressional representatives being 9 Republicans and 5 Democrats. How was this done? Our state house is 69-51 Republican, and our state Senate is 28-22 Republican. Gerrymandered districts have been in court almost continuously for the last couple of decades. The Republicans will do whatever it takes to stay in power, even as they lose the edge in the popular vote. If you think is just a Republican phenomenon then check out Maryland where the opposite is happening.
This is the quietly undemocratic arm of government. If you don’t have a lobbyist working for you then you aren’t getting the benefits you deserve from your government. What? You say that you have a congressional representative? Sorry, that doesn’t count in the halls of power. You may think your vote brought your representative to Washington, but it was actually lobbying money. Technically, any citizen can walk the halls of Washington and plead their case. But there are several factors that tips the scale in undemocratic ways. Most obviously is the complexity of the governmental apparatus. Who do you go see and specifically what do you ask for? So, who benefits most from our current lobbying process? The most likely to be engaged are those with the most to gain and with the concentrated wealth and focused need to make the investment. That would include specific industries with specific policy and legislative needs. Who loses? That would be large unorganized groups with vague needs that have no organization or time to organize. That would include poor people and consumers of the products from said industries. These also tend to come from certain localities, think rural, and certain minorities, think Hispanics. So, lobbying tilts our democracy in favor of those with money and a knowledge of the apparatus of government, not those who often need the protection of their government.
A Democratic Solution?
Is there a possible fix to these issues that might improve the democratic nature of our “democracy”? It is not an easy fix. We would need lobbyists to fix lobbying and new legislatures to undo legislative gerrymanders that set legislatures in stone. We would need representatives who would be willing to give voting rights to their possible opponents and undo the legislative barricade known as the filibuster. And can anyone see Wyoming and California agreeing on anything? This is how empires slowly rot from the inside and collapse. I am of the baby boomer generation. We grew up singing, “If I had a hammer”, thinking that we would change the world before we were 30. Sorry gang. It looks like even in retirement we still need to be swinging that hammer if we want to see our grandchildren in a more democratic country. GenX and Millennials, you’re up next. It will be a long fight.