The article first published in washingtonexaminer.com on 02/25/2020.
Current political developments challenge the assumption that Americans naturally yearn for democracy.
The U.S. political system has become dominated by right-wing and left-wing populism, in which both nationalist and socialist ideologies aim to transform a representative democracy into a popular autocracy. In a 21st-century version of fascist and communist mythology, the public is bombarded with promises that utopia is just over the horizon if the political or economic “establishment” is ousted and power is vested in national saviors.
Public opinion polls are conducted about almost every aspect of political life, but they rarely explore the extent of support for the basic tenets of a democratic system. At the most fundamental level, would Americans approve of a stronger presidency in which the three branches of government are no longer co-equal? Would they be willing to sacrifice the constitutional balance of power for uncontested decision-making power that favors their ideology? And would they acquiesce to a “power vertical” in exchange for faster economic growth or enforced economic equality?
In recent years, several Central European countries have been criticized by American commentators and politicians for backtracking on democracy. But that criticism has been weakened by seemingly hypocritical developments here in the United States.
Governments in Hungary, Poland, and several Balkans states have imposed controls over the judicial system by appointing judges who favor the ruling parties and their ideologies. Some also endeavor to use law enforcement and intelligence networks to curtail opposition, muzzle or replace the free media, and spread conspiracy theories about dark forces and public enemies.
Even the most democratically worded constitutions do not guarantee democratic rule, as the example of Russia clearly demonstrates. The American political structure is also vulnerable to manipulation by ambitious presidents, regardless of party, who can push to extend their authority. The system contains several democratic deficiencies, and three of them are especially problematic: the precarious separation of powers, the potential disenfranchisement of majorities, and the deepening polarization of politics.
In the first place, there is insufficient separation between the executive and law enforcement.
This systemic flaw was most evident in the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon fired several top Justice Department officials for refusing to end investigations into his abuses of power. Justice officials continue to be nominated and terminated by the president. As a result, instead of being a fully separate arm of government only answerable to a bipartisan Congress, in practice, the Justice Department is an arm of the executive branch subject to presidential manipulation.
A second failure of the U.S. system revolves around the tabulation of results in presidential elections, which do not always reflect the decisions of a majority of voters.
The president wins through an Electoral College system in which all 50 states send representatives for the candidate winning the most votes in their state. Although the number of college electors is proportional, it does not accurately reflect the size of populations in each state.
A sparsely populated state such as Wyoming sends three electors, while a densely populated one such as New York is only entitled to 29, even though the population of New York is nearly 40 times larger. Growing discrepancies between the popular vote and Electoral College tallies can bring into question the legitimacy of the incoming president and may destabilize the system if the credibility of public representation is widely disputed.
A third significant democracy deficit in the U.S. revolves around the extreme polarization that has developed in the two-party system.
Partisan unilateralism can enable the evolution of an autocratic presidency at the cost of democratic balancing. And a future leftist, populist president with a congressional majority can reverse what many conservatives now view as major policy successes. Without a broad and publicly supported political center, American politics may veer between ideological extremes, weaken national institutions, and even raise calls for autocratic rule to try and stabilize the nation.
Representative democracies cannot be taken for granted. To survive, they must adapt to social, economic, demographic, and technological developments, all while not mutating into autocracies. The 2020 U.S. elections are not simply a contest between personalities, platforms, and policies. They offer a choice between divergent political systems.