Yes, the U.S. is still a (flawed) democracy
Some has been lost, but there is much worth defending.
Dammit, I have to write about politics again. I promise I’ll get back to economics soon.
Lamenting the Supreme Court’s decision to hear a challenge to Roe v. Wade, Stephen Colbert recently declared that “We don’t live in a democracy.” Some people I very much respect, such as YIMBY activist Darrell Owens, echoed his declaration:
Now, I do think that the (probably successful) drive to overturn Roe is a grave misstep by conservatives. I predict (and hope) that whipping up anger at unelected judges overturning the will of the people — 60% of Americans support upholding Roe, while only 27% want to overturn it — will be as effective at rallying support for Democrats as it was for Republicans in the 1970s. AND, I also think that our democracy is under grave threat, and people are right to sound the alarm (as I’ll discuss in a bit).
BUT, that said, I think the rhetoric that “we don’t live in a democracy” is unhelpful. One reason is that it discourages people from voting. If you live in a place where elections are rigged, e.g. Russia, it doesn’t make much sense to vote; you’re just helping to give the dictatorship a facade of democratic legitimacy. But the election of Biden in 2020 — which was decided by a razor-thin margin in a few battleground states — shows how important and powerful voting can still be in the U.S. That’s why it’s so frustrating to me that the bad old idea that voting doesn’t matter seems to be making a comeback among some elements on the Left:
This is ridiculous; Biden has reduced drone strikes to almost nothing since getting elected, and seems to get no credit for this from the Left. But if people on the Left believe their vote doesn’t count, it’ll just mean more victories for the Right.
Even more ominously, the rhetoric that “we don’t live in a democracy” seems dangerous because delegitimizing the current system could play into the hands of the rightists who actually want to overthrow it. Elements within the GOP are already pushing for state legislatures to steal the 2024 presidential election, defending Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election, and making excuses for the coup attempt of 1/6. If Americans decide that they no longer live in a democracy, then an election theft in 2024 might seem like a modest, incremental step; people might think “Well, we already had gerrymandering and the Electoral College, so how much different is this really?” And that could sap the will to resist.
Of course, if we really don’t live in a democracy, then we ought to be honest and truthful about that. So let’s take a quick look at the data and the relevant facts.
What the experts say about American democracy
In fact, there are various organizations whose job it is to determine which countries are and are not democracies. The three main orgs who do this are:
Freedom House, a U.S.-based think tank
Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), a Sweden-based NGO
The Economist Intelligence Unit, part of a UK-based publication
These are institutions staffed with experts whose job it is to compare political systems around the world, who gather meticulous and voluminous data about these systems in consistent methods over time. So let’s see what each one has to say.
Freedom House rates the U.S. as a “free” country in 2021, with a score of 83/100. The “political rights” score was 32/40, which was about the same as the overall score. Though we still get classified as “free”, we’ve slipped badly in the rankings in recent years, and are now similar to Panama, Poland, or Romania. Japan, in comparison, has a score of 96/100. So we’re not doing too well. Here’s a graph of the change between 2009 and 2019:
Here is a list of all the political freedoms where Freedom House gives the U.S. less than full marks, along with (summarized) reasons for the deductions:
1. “Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?” (3/4)
The main problem Freedom House cites here was Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
2. “Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?” (3/4)
The cited reasons for the subtraction of 1 point include gerrymandering, cumbersome voting processes in some areas, the unrepresentative nature of the Electoral College, Trump’s characterization of mail-in voting as a “scam”, overly strict voter ID laws in some states, and understaffing of the Federal Election Commission’s panel on campaign finance.
3. “Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?” (3/4)
Freedom House gives three reasons for subtracting a point here. First, the influence of money in politics. Second, right-wing threats against elected officials. And third, Trump’s use of government resources to support his own presidential campaign.
4. “Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?” (3/4)
Basically, this is about various state laws that make it hard for Black people to vote.
5. “Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?” (3/4)
This deduction is about Trump’s abuse of executive power, including appointing “acting” cabinet members to circumvent Congressional approval.
6. “Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?” (3/4)
This is basically entirely about corrupt stuff Trump did.
7. “Does the government operate with openness and transparency?” (2/4)
The only 2-point deduction. This is basically all about the Trump administration’s abuse of executive power to conceal information from the public.
The Freedom House scores basically mirror the findings of the other two agencies. V-Dem, the Swedish NGO, doesn’t establish firm cutoffs for “democracy” or “not a democracy”, but it does show the U.S. moving abruptly and substantially toward autocracy in the Trump era, mostly as a result of Trump policies:
The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks the U.S. as the 25th most democratic country in the world, just between France and Portugal. Before 2016 it had us in the “Full Democracy” category, but after 2016 we fell just below the cutoff, into the “Flawed Democracy” group. As with the other two agencies, the EIU assigns the Trump administration most of the blame for the deterioration.
All of these agencies are basically telling the same story: The U.S. is still a democracy, but now a flawed and injured one, and the injury was mostly done by Trump. That extends, of course, to the movement Trump created within the GOP, and the Republicans who are now laying the groundwork for election denial.
But note that longstanding U.S. institutions — the Senate, the Electoral College, and SCOTUS — can’t be the cause of the deterioration in the U.S. rankings. In 2009 we had a Senate that dramatically overrepresented rural areas and allowed a minority to block legislation via the filibuster, an Electoral College that could (and occasionally did) go against the will of the majority, and a SCOTUS that often bucked the will of the people when issuing its rulings. And yet in 2009, Freedom House rated the U.S. as one of the freest countries in the world, V-Dem had us with a very high score (and an all-time high), and the Economist Intelligence Unit rated us as a Full Democracy.
Thus, the people whose job it is to study comparative international political systems don’t share the popular progressive conviction that the Senate, the Electoral College, or SCOTUS made the U.S. undemocratic. Personally, I share the conviction that the Electoral College and the filibuster are grave impediments to democracy (though I’m fine with SCOTUS and the Senate). But when professional experts compare the U.S. to other countries around the world, they find that it was the Trump administration, not these longstanding institutions, that made the difference between a democratic country and a merely mostly-democratic country.
The “oligarchy” myth
I’d like to take a moment to address one other popular argument — the idea that American democracy is subverted by the influence of money in politics. Certainly, this has been a longstanding complaint, exacerbated by the decision in Citizens United in 2010. Freedom House docks the U.S. one point out of 40 because of this. But among certain segments of the Left, it has become catechism that the U.S. is an oligarchy — that the American political system exists to serve the rich, while ignoring the desires of the rest of the country.
The empirical evidence for this belief is incredibly thin. It mostly rests on one single paper: “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”, by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (2014). This paper is cited again and again by people asserting that America is an oligarchy:
The BBC even reported that Gilens and Page’s paper demonstrated that the U.S. was “not a democracy”.
This is complete misinformation. Vox’s Dylan Matthews explained why in a 2016 article, and I have little add to his masterful and succinct debunking, so I’ll just quote him here.
Since its initial release, the Gilens/Page paper's findings have been targeted in three separate debunkings. Cornell professor Peter Enns, recent Princeton PhD graduate Omar Bashir, and a team of three researchers — UT Austin grad student J. Alexander Branham, University of Michigan professor Stuart Soroka, and UT professor Christopher Wlezien — have all taken a look at Gilens and Page's underlying data and found that their analysis doesn't hold up…
[T]he researchers critiquing the paper found that middle-income Americans and rich Americans actually agree on an overwhelming majority of topics. Out of the 1,779 bills in the Gilens/Page data set, majorities of the rich and middle class agree on 1,594…That means the groups agree on 89.6 percent of bills.
That leaves only 185 bills on which the rich and the middle class disagree, and even there the disagreements are small…
Bashir and Branham/Soroka/Wlezien find that on these 185 bills, the rich got their preferred outcome 53 percent of the time and the middle class got what they wanted 47 percent of the time. The difference between the two is not statistically significant…
The researchers found the rich’s win rate for economic issues where there's disagreement is 57.1 percent, compared with 51.1 percent for social issues. There's a difference, but not a robust one.
Bashir's paper prods at the Gilens data even more and finds a number of holes. Bashir concludes that strong support from the middle class is about as good a predictor of a policy being adopted as strong support from the rich. "In the original data set, change is enacted 47 percent of the time that median-income Americans favor it at a rate of 80 percent or more," Bashir writes. "Yet change is enacted 52 percent of the time that elites favor it at that rate."…
Bashir also notes that the Gilens and Page model explains very little. Its R-squared value is a measly 0.074. That is, 7.4 percent of variation in policy outcomes is determined by the measured views of the rich, the poor, and interest groups put together. So even if the rich control the bulk of that (and Bashir argues they do not), the absolute amount of sway over policy that represents is quite limited indeed.
There are many more problems with the paper, so you can go read Matthews’ entire article, and the three critique papers. But the statistics quoted in the excerpt above are already utterly damning for the Gilens/Page result. The whole model has almost no explanatory power at all — an R-squared of 0.074, for a model with that many variables, is nothing. And the fact that Gilens & Page’s data shows that policy outcomes tend to agree with the middle class as much as they agree with the rich completely destroys the claim in the tweet above — i.e. that “elected officials make policy to benefit the richest ten percent of the country to the exclusion of the needs of everyone else.”
In other words, if America is an oligarchy, it has not been demonstrated by Gilens & Page (2014), and all the people claiming that this paper is proof that America is an oligarchy are engaging in pseudoscientific mythmaking. Maybe in the future some research will show that super-rich people or big corporations really do pull the strings of American politics. And it’s sensible to worry about the influence of money in politics. But the exaggerated claims regularly made by the Left, based on a misinterpretation of this one very shaky paper, are a distraction from the real threats facing American democracy.
What’s the right rhetoric?
Combining my own concerns, the opinions of the experts, and the research on “oligarchy”, I have the following recommendations for the rhetoric progressives (or centrists, or conservatives whose conscience doesn’t let them sign on to the Trump movement) should use in defense of democracy.
1. Don’t call for the abolition of longstanding U.S. political institutions.
“Abolish the Senate” is the equivalent of “Abolish the police” or “Ban cars” — a rallying cry that gets lots of Twitter likes, but gives normal people the impression that you’re an arsonist trying to burn down the country’s institutions, while simultaneously having zero hope of actually succeeding.
This is bad because we already have a gang of arsonists trying to burn down the country’s institutions — the Trump movement. We don’t need two such gangs. What we especially don’t need is an ineffectual, big-talking gang of Twitter progressives calling for institutional destruction that they’ll never ever actually achieve, pitted against a gang of Trumpists who have the intent, the will, and (eventually) the ability to actually destroy the country’s institutions in real life.
This is true to a lesser extend of the slogan “Pack the court”. I personally do think threats to pack SCOTUS have their place — FDR used them to force a recalcitrant court to allow most of the New Deal. But in a time of unrest like the present one, where the Supreme Court is not the main impediment to important legislative initiatives as it was in the 1930s, the usefulness of court-packing threats is lost on me. The rationale behind court-packing in the 2020s isn’t “allowing Congress to do its job”, it’s “reversing decisions that progressives don’t like”. Even if court-packing were possible given current Congressional realities (it’s not), it would destroy a long-established norm for no real gain; Republicans would simply pack the Court even more next time they won control of the government, etc. etc., ad infinitum, until the institution was effectively destroyed. Everyone who spends a minute thinking about the ramifications of court-packing understands this. So the slogan of “Pack the court” is worse than useless.
In fact, the one political institution that the Democrats both can and should destroy is the filibuster. The modern form of the filibuster is a relatively recent invention, and would take a simple majority to weaken substantially to the point where it no longer makes majoritarian governance impossible. So progressives should focus all of their institutional ire on the filibuster in the short term.
In the long term, we can think about how to fix the Electoral College.
2. Focus on undoing the damage done by the Trump administration.
The experts all seem to agree that the degradation of American democracy is a recent phenomenon, and that the blame overwhelmingly falls on Donald Trump and the rightist movement he created. Whether or not you think that the people in Freedom House and V-Dem and the Economist Intelligence Unit have any claim to objective fact here, it’s likely that their judgements reflect the impressions of the general public. (They certainly coincide with international opinion of America.) People used to have great confidence in American democracy. Trump shook that confidence deeply.
In other words, most people are probably NOT willing to buy a story that America’s founding institutions — the Senate, SCOTUS, etc. — make us “not a democracy”. But people ARE probably willing to buy a story that Donald Trump and his followers degraded and damaged our democracy, and that this democracy needs to be restored. So focusing on the damage done by Trump is probably a smarter bet than focusing on longstanding gripes about the way Madison and Hamilton set up the branches of government two and a half centuries ago.
3. Drop the “oligarchy” stuff.
Yes, money in politics is a real concern. But claiming that money in politics makes America “not a democracy” simply reduces the urgency of defending our democracy against election theft and other terrifying, imminent threats. I mean, who cares if we stop the Trumpists from stealing elections if elections don’t matter anyway and the rich just control everything?
If the rich did control everything, then maybe this would be valid. But the available evidence suggests that they do not; policy outcomes strongly track the desires of the middle class. And though the experts are concerned about money in politics, it’s only a small piece of the democratic deficit they’re warning us about. Thus, shouting that America is an undemocratic oligarchy under the best of conditions is simply counterproductive.
4. “Defend democracy” is more useful than “We’re not a democracy”.
The right rhetoric, I believe, is that our democracy is under attack and must be defended at all costs. Darrell gets it exactly right in the following tweet:
We’ve been in a period of national unrest for 7 or 8 years, and I believe that people are getting tired of that. They want retrenchment, they want stability. And if progressives are offering them a program of institutional destruction — attacking SCOTUS, attacking the Senate, etc. etc. — then there’s a chance that Americans may turn to the GOP for stability and retrenchment, holding their nose at the Trumpists’ manifest attempts to subvert elections. Thus it went in Russia, in Hungary, in Venezuela, in Turkey, and so on.
But if instead progressives are the ones defending democracy against the manifest institutional arson and democratic subversion of the Trumpists, then I believe the majority of Americans will be on our side. There is still much worth preserving in American democracy. And only by preserving it today do we have any hope of improving it tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.