The United States, once a beacon of democracy, is grappling with internal challenges while striving to promote democracy globally. Amid international interventions for democratic ideals, domestic disillusionment grows as the very foundation of US democracy falters. A recent Washington Post article highlights these issues.
Consensus becomes elusive in a nation where many agree that the political system is broken, failing to represent them. Contentious topics like climate, immigration, inequality, and more leave governments and politicians divided, but also reveal potential common ground. The January 6, 2021 Capitol attack epitomizes a democracy in crisis due to partisan polarization and former President Trump’s attacks on electoral legitimacy.
As the Post begins, “In a country where the search for common ground is increasingly elusive, many Americans can agree on this: They believe the political system is broken and that it fails to represent them. They aren’t wrong.” Why?
Rooted in history, the constitutional design’s clash with modern forces exacerbates these issues. The Founders’ distrust of public sway led to structural safeguards. Today, deep polarization fueled by ideological shifts, geographic divides, and intense hostility towards political adversaries hampers effective governance. The result is minority rule and amplified dissatisfaction.
Cracks in democracy stem from factors including deepening government distrust, persistent despite moments of rebound after crises. Political polarization distorts traditional systems, as seen through Trump’s influence on the Republican Party. Flaws in presidential elections, congressional representation, Supreme Court appointments, and state legislatures exacerbate the divide.
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The gap between public opinion and policy exacerbates the federal government’s stagnation. Addressing structural flaws through constitutional amendments is difficult due to political polarization. While the US Constitution’s value is in its adaptability, current rigidity risks systemic change through rebellion.
This report initiates a series examining Americans’ sentiment that their government no longer represents them. As the 2024 election approaches, the state of democracy looms large. Distrust, polarization, flawed elections, and institutional challenges intertwine, fueling a dire situation that requires significant intervention.
Distrust in Government
Trust in the federal government began dwindling during the 1960s amid the Vietnam War and suffered a significant blow in the early 1970s during the Watergate scandal. Brief recoveries followed the 9/11 attacks and economic prosperity in the late 1990s. However, over the last two decades, spanning both favorable and challenging economic conditions, mistrust has endured.
Historically, Americans have harbored skepticism toward centralized government power. Instances of scams and corruption have further deepened this sentiment over time. Recent times have seen officials openly undermining the institutions they are part of, hindering bureaucratic efficiency. Notably, this trend was exemplified by Trump, whose tenure featured persistent attacks on institutions, marking a defining characteristic of his political approach.
While some degree of skepticism exists universally, few democracies exhibit a lower level of confidence in their government than Americans.
Historically, the constitutional system crafted by the Founders largely functioned effectively within the United States. Yet, more recently, the system’s vulnerabilities have become conspicuous, amplified by the emergence of tribalism in political conduct and the shifting stance of the Republican Party from its traditional principles. The influence of Trump has altered conventional Republican conservatism, leading to the acceptance of blatantly false notions as reality.
A striking example is the widespread belief within the GOP that Biden’s election was illegitimate. The far-right faction of the Republican Party, particularly Trump’s supporters, displays staunch resistance to compromise.
“Compared to European countries, our constitutional system doesn’t accommodate polarized political parties well,” noted Stanford Law School professor Nathaniel Persilli.
Election of Presidents
The Constitution established an unconventional method for selecting the President through the Electoral College. This system was based on assumptions that time has revealed to be flawed.
“The founders devised it because they were uncertain about the best approach,” explained George C. Edwards III, a political science professor at Texas A&M University. “However, it doesn’t operate as intended by the founders.”
During the Constitutional Convention, a significant compromise was reached: the House’s representation would be based on population, whereas the Senate would ensure equal representation for every state, regardless of its population size.
This arrangement has led to an imbalance, as Republicans often secure dominant influence in less populous states. Consequently, there’s a disconnect between the number of senators they send to Washington and the percentage of the overall national population they represent.
The Supreme Court
In seven out of the last nine presidential elections, Democrats have secured the popular vote. Paradoxically, during this period, Republican presidents appointed six out of the current nine Supreme Court justices. Notably, three of these justices, nominated by Trump, were confirmed by senators representing minority populations.
Over the past fifty years, the portion of the American population represented by senators voting for justice confirmation has dwindled. With the shift to a simple majority vote for confirmation instead of a supermajority, it has become typical for justices to be confirmed by a majority of senators representing minority constituents, particularly when Republicans control the Senate majority.
In Washington, political divides have resulted in stagnation and a lack of action on numerous issues. Conversely, in states, a different scenario unfolds as they increasingly align as predominantly red or blue.
Only two states possess legislatures that are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. In over half of all states, the dominant party commands a supermajority, granting them the ability to override gubernatorial vetoes or exert considerable influence over legislation.
Furthermore, absolute control of state governance—where both the legislature and governor’s office are held by the same party—has become the norm rather than the exception. Currently, 39 states fall into this category. This dynamic leads to a marked and clear divergence in the policy agendas pursued by different states.
Public Opinion vs Public Policy
The disconnect between public policy and public opinion stands out as a significant outcome of the current stagnant federal government. This disparity is particularly evident in the contentious debates surrounding three key issues: abortion, gun control, and immigration.
Addressing some structural issues—such as the Electoral College, a Senate allowing a minority to elect a majority, and lifetime appointments of Supreme Court justices—could involve amending the Constitution. However, altering the US Constitution, despite its intended amenability, has proven incredibly challenging. Additionally, there’s no bipartisan consensus on the system’s shortcomings. While conservatives often favor the status quo, they argue that liberals seek changes driven solely by partisan motives.
Unlike all countries, not every nation has a written constitution; for instance, Britain. Jill Lepore, overseeing Harvard University’s Corrections Project, notes that the process of correction functions as a “peaceful revolution” when effectively employed. Thus, a written constitution holds value, contingent upon its capacity for change.
Lepore warns that a peril lies in the constitution becoming rigid and unchangeable—where altering the government system or instituting reforms necessitates rebellion as the only recourse.
Summing up the analysis, it’s evident that democracy in America is currently navigating a crucial juncture. Strengthening nations in their pursuits to establish and preserve democracy globally, while simultaneously upholding their own democratic principles, will be the key to America’s success.
(Increasing Fractures: Examining America’s Democratic Disarray – Insights from Washington Post Analysis)
(This assessment draws from a piece authored by Dan Balz and Clara Enns Morse in the Washington Post.)