Perspective: The State of American Democracy

Editor’s Note: Three faculty members in the department of political science are currently engaged in research related to the 2020 elections in the United States. Richard Matthews is NEH Distinguished Professor and is the co-author of The Philosophic Roots of Modern Ideology: Liberalism, Conservatism, Marxism, Fascism, Nazism, Islamism, Feminism 5th ed. (Sloan Publishing, 2017). Brian Fife is professor and chair of the department and is the author of the forthcoming Citizenship in the American Republic (University of Michigan Press). Anthony DiMaggio is associate professor and the author of Rebellion in America: Citizen Uprisings, the News Media, and the Politics of Plutocracy (Routledge, 2020).
Professor Richard Matthews focuses on political ideologies and the political thought of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. In the aftermath of 2016, and the current political situation in the United States, he offers the following insights:
Two cataclysmic political events occurred in 2016: Brexit, Britain’s unanticipated decision in the spring to leave the European Union; and not as surprisingly, the Electoral College’s election of Donald Trump as president in the fall. Together, these events signaled a legitimation crisis in the West for its justifying theory--liberal democracy. As an ideology, a “belief system,” liberal democracy includes globalization as the inevitable outgrowth of the liberal market system. The primary driving force behind the victorious American electorate, who Trump called “the forgotten,” seemed to be a sense of alienation and discontent with the political status quo. Trump supporters perceived that while a few elites were benefiting from this economic system, many were left behind. This alienation was exacerbated by a xenophobic sense that somehow “foreigners” and immigrants were benefiting from the system while “real” citizens were not.
Liberal democracy, as a worldview, has a long history. Liberalism comes with modernity, the rise of market society, the decline of feudalism, and reason emerging as the new, secular deity. Here liberalism calls for liberating the individual from oppressive institutions of the past, like feudalism, divine right, and the church. Over the course of time, with the rise of industrialization, democracy—the idea that citizens should elect those in power-- attaches to liberalism becoming liberal democracy. Democracy was not always highly valued. At least as far back as Plato and Aristotle, democracy was viewed as an illegitimate form of rule. However, by the middle of the 18th century in the West, democracy slowly emerged as thinkers began to argue for the ethical necessity of voting given liberalism’s value of the rational, free individual. James Madison was not a fan of democracy and favored limiting the vote to property owners. Thomas Jefferson, in contrast, was among the first to endorse the idea of universal white manhood suffrage independent of property ownership. In the 20th century, with the passage of the 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the U.S. could be considered getting closer to being a legitimate liberal democracy as suffrage was expanded to all citizens.  Of course, representation in the Senate is not democratic as it over represents the small states. Perhaps more significantly is the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College. Trump’s election was lawful, but not democratic. Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than Trump. That said, democracy is no longer simply viewed as a mechanism for picking elites where the majority of voters decide. It has slowly evolved to be a type of society where in addition to voting, the goal becomes the creation of a society where every individual has an equal, effective right to reach his or her human potential. In sum, liberal democracy values individual freedom, the rule of law, equal rights to a meaningful life, toleration of difference, a free press, and the significance of reason and logic in decision-making.
Donald Trump’s words and actions, as candidate and president, raise questions of his ideological identity. The sole liberal democratic characteristic he appears to embrace is individual freedom. Since he does not seem to believe in liberal equality, his individual freedom applies to those who are “real” Americans. What other behaviors does he demonstrate that make up his ideology? The belief in an infallible, charismatic leader; myth being more important than reason and logic; anti-intellectualism; nationalism; xenophobia; intolerance; and a press that endorses rather than challenges him. Unlike charismatic leaders in the past, Trump’s powers are significantly magnified by his ability as “twitterer in chief” to speak directly to his base without anyone else challenging his version of reality. Regardless of what specific ideological term applies to this Trumpian set of characteristics—populism, authoritarianism, fascism—it is not liberal democracy. The important question becomes can the political system designed by James Madison, the “father of the constitution,” deal with this challenge.
Madison’s brilliant plan assumes individuals and institutions are self-interested actors; and if “ambition counteracting ambition” is the guiding principle, a strong government can be constructed. He summarized the problem confronting the framers: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” What should be considered a self-evident truth is that early Americans did not want a king. The twin ideas of self-government, and that no person—a president or king-- could be above the law,  propelled the American Revolution. Madison was also concerned about a second kind of tyranny--that of the majority. At that historical moment, Madison meant those without property, the majority, dominating the minority, those with property. Therefore, those who rule, he thought, should be representative of the propertied. Madison hoped to construct a system that ultimately controlled itself.  The civil war being the obvious exception, the Madisonian system functioned well, until perhaps now. The system constructed on self-interest motivating individuals and institutions relies minimally on good will, or virtue. Madison argued that each institution had to be checked and balanced by other institutions. The president by Congress and/or the courts; the Congress by the president and/or the courts; the courts by the president and/or Congress. Moreover, since he viewed the legislature as the most powerful branch, it too required internal balancing by having two independent bodies--the House and the Senate--checking each the other. If the Electoral College picked a person who appeared to want to be king, the checks Madison designed would be many. Both Congress and the Supreme Court have the power to check this person. Indeed, the entire federal and state judiciaries could be a check. Federalism provided an additional mechanism as states could thwart an overly ambitious person when it came to their state. Elections, and if need be impeachment, were additional methods to thwart tyranny. Nevertheless, Madison assumed that self-interest would motivate these bodies to act to protect their own power. He assumed that the House would want to protect its power and check a president’s encroachments, as would the Senate. He assumed it would vigilantly guard its power and not allow a president to become too powerful. For example, he assumed both houses of Congress would be outraged that a president ignored their subpoena power as part of their oversight duties. How can Congress check if it cannot investigate? If these institutional checks do not function, for whatever reason, Madison believed that elections were the final solution to tyranny. Small wonder that so many humans look at the next presidential election as being a defining moment for the world.
Professor Brian Fife focuses on American elections, education policy, and the politics of reform. In this important election year, he offers the following counsel to citizens in the American republic:
On January 26, 1883, a future president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, gave a speech in Buffalo, New York. In the speech, he declared that: “But this is aside from my subject, for what I wish to talk of is the attitude of the American citizen in civic life. It ought to be axiomatic in this country that every man must devote a reasonable share of his time to doing his duty in the Political life of the community. No man has a right to shirk his political duties under whatever plea of pleasure or business; and while such shirking may be pardoned in those of small means it is entirely unpardonable in those among whom it is most common—in the people whose circumstances give them freedom in the struggle for life. In so far as the community grows to think rightly, it will likewise grow to regard the young man of means who shirks his duty to the State in time of peace as being only one degree worse than the man who thus shirks it in time of war. A great many of our men in business, or of young men who are bent on enjoying life (as they have a perfect right to do if only they do not sacrifice other things to enjoyment), rather plume themselves upon being good citizens if they even vote; yet voting is the very least of their duties, Nothing worth gaining is ever gained without effort. You can no more have freedom without striving and suffering for it than you can win success as a banker or lawyer without labor and effort, without self-denial in youth and the display of a ready and alert intelligence in middle age. The people who say that they have not time to attend to politics are simply saying that they are unfit to live in a free community.” (Thedore Roosevelt, “The Duties of American Citizenship,” Roosevelt delivered this speech in the late nineteenth century and today women are included in the discussion as well. We live in the oldest democracy on earth, yet Americans have a very low turnout compared to citizens in most of the rest of the free world. In 2020, the likely voter turnout, based on past presidential elections, will be between 50-55 percent of the voting age population (all citizens 18 years of age or older). Most democracies routinely have turnout about 20 percent higher or more.
In 1931, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, Charles Merriam, published a book entitled The Making of Citizens. He concluded the book with an optimistic prediction: “If present trends continue, the coming citizen will enter the political world far more adequately equipped than his predecessors for participation in the political behavior essential to the well-rounded life, and protected from many of the deformities, diseases, and obsessions that make political relations a zone of darkness and trouble to so many persons, and often so heavy a burden to the community itself” (p. 362). In my estimation, we have not accomplished what Merriam envisioned almost 90 years ago. Voting is but one form of political participation, but it is an indicator of the level of citizen engagement in a given country. By that criterion, Americans have ample room for improvement. Public policy challenges such as climate change, poverty, the national debt, education reform, health care, and national security require a focused, committed, and knowledgeable citizenry in order to address them in an effective manner.
The 2016 elections were informative on many levels. It was the fifth time in U.S. history (the other four are 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000) that the popular vote winner in the presidential election lost the election in the Electoral College. Debates about possible foreign interference in this election continue. We do know through public opinion polling that Americans know shockingly little about American politics and public affairs. We also know that too many citizens rely on social media for their news, which can be problematic if the information that people are consuming is not factually accurate. In short, citizens need to make politics a higher priority in their lives and be willing to engage in an ongoing public affairs debate about the important issues of our time.  
To be sure, the United States is in need of electoral reform. A number of officials across the states have made overt attempts to suppress the vote based on their perception that the individuals in question would not vote for their political party candidates. Such efforts should meet with great resistance by the people, for voting is a preeminent right in a democratic republic. Another salient issue is that some states make voting more facilitative by either having no voter registration required (the state does it) or by having election day, or same day, voter registration, where citizens who are not registered on election day can register first and then cast their ballots. In other states, citizens are required to register up to 30 days before the actual election in order to be eligible to vote. Given twenty-first century computer technology, such laws are transparent in that legislators are comfortable with low voter turnout and do not wish to be accountable by a higher proportion of the citizenry. State and federal legislators could also dedicate more funds to the technology of voting. Citizens across the country should be cognizant that after they vote, their vote actually counted because there were no mechanical malfunctions with the machinery of the electoral process in their community.
Professor Anthony DiMaggio focuses on the mass media, social movements, public opinion, interest groups, and inequality. In this electoral season, he shares the following analysis about American politics:
I emphasize the central role of social movements in transforming American political discourse, culture, and policy. In so doing, I undertake a political, sociological, and historical analysis of prominent movements and populist forces that have been active over the last decade, including the Tea Party and Trumpism on the American right, and Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and #MeToo – among other movements – on the left.  The central finding in my research is that right and left-wing populism operate very differently in the political realm. Right-wing protest is highly top-down and centralized in orientation, relying heavily on corporate funding and organizing, in addition to support from conservative political officials, for its leadership and momentum. In contrast, progressive-left activists typically seek to confront and protest concentrated power. As a result, they face an uphill battle in achieving political change. But these progressive movements – when they do finally break through into the mass consciousness via their protests and the sustained media coverage they receive, are often able to transform American political values. As public opinion becomes more sympathetic to their demands, it produces increased mass pressure on the political system to respond to progressive politics, including calls for government to reduce economic inequality, fight sexism in politics and in the workplace, and to address racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
My work is case study based, examining various episodes of popular protest. For example, I analyze the 2011 Madison, Wisconsin protests against Republican Governor Scott Walker and his attacks on collective bargaining and unionization, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests across the nation, which sought to spotlight inequality, corporate greed, and business power in politics, and the “Black Lives Matter” protests in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, in response to charges of racism and police brutality leveled against local police forces. In these cases, protesters used their power in numbers to demand increased media attention, while benefitting from increasingly sympathetic and positive coverage in the news, across a variety of venues. In the process, these movements succeeded in gaining mass public support, particularly among those paying closer attention to news reporting on these protests. By cultivating public support, these movements have forced a change in national political priorities – among not only Americans, but political officials. Black Lives Matter has pressured local city officials and police to adopt criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing racial profiling, discrimination, and police brutality. Occupy Wall Street and the Madison protests fed into a larger insurgent movement within the Democratic Party, as seen in the rise of 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who embraced a progressive-left populist political agenda aimed at reducing corporate power in politics and combating poverty and inequality.
The rise of conservative-right wing populism and protest, in contrast, has been distinctly elitist in nature. Trumpism is a largely top-down phenomenon, as the name suggests. It is primarily electoral in nature, and to the extent that masses of Americans are behind it, it is based in their embrace of the personality of Trump, as documented in public opinion polls, the ballot booth, and at Trump’s rallies and speaking events. Similarly, my research finds that the Tea Party was heavily elitist in nature. At its height of prominence in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the movement was characterized by infrequent organizing on a grassroots level across the nation. It was heavily Republican based, with the primary faces of the movement at local rallies being Republican electoral candidates, and with dominant national movement figures hailing from conservative media and from elite pro-business networks such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works. The Tea Party and Trumpism, nonetheless, have significantly impacted American politics, due to the resources and exposure they have marshalled by virtue of their powerful benefactors, including right-wing business interests, and the President of the United States.
Right-wing populism retains tremendous significance for electoral politics, particularly moving into the 2020 elections, in light of Trump’s efforts to seek a second term, and the mass support he receives from approximately 40 percent of the population. The 2020 presidential election represents a referendum on Trumpism as a political phenomenon, and will reveal just how strong Trump’s brand of populism is with the mass public. Similarly, 2020 will also reveal the extent of public support for left-wing progressive populism. The ability, or failure of Warren or Sanders to capture the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination is a barometer, for measuring the extent to which leftist progressive forces have succeeded or failed in capturing political control of the Democratic Party. Whoever prevails in the 2020 presidential contest, recent events suggest that left and right-wing protest and populism have had a tremendous impact on American political culture and politics. That impact will continue to be felt moving into the future in an era when protest has been mainstreamed in American politics and culture.