Is American Democracy on the Brink? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Is American Democracy on the Brink?

Is American Democracy on the Brink?

By Pooja Bhatia


Because this election will leave our democracy weaker. 

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

’Merica, we have a problem: We have lost our faith. 

We don’t much trust CNN or Fox, or our elected representatives. Many of us will not trust the next president or the process by which he or she is elected. Why should we? Everyone from Donald Trump to Elizabeth Warren has already told us that the system is rigged, and we believe those politicos even as we don’t believe them. Roughly half of Americans now say they lack faith in their democracy, according to an October poll conducted by Stanford professor Nate Persily and Survey Monkey, and this would be a truly shocking number if we could believe in polls anymore. “God help us,” we’d say, except … can we really trust God?

By Tuesday, more than 100 million people will have cast their ballots, if history serves as an example. But whoever becomes president will likely face investigations, a weakened mandate and other obstacles to getting shit done. We’ve turned to Persily, a constitutional scholar, to help us understand why Americans are so disenchanted — and what we can do about it. Persily studies voting rights, campaign finance and fairness issues generally and was the director of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, created to deal with various problems, such as long lines, that plagued the 2012 election. 

Why do so many Americans say they’ve “lost faith in American democracy”?

Nate Persily: Trust in government has been declining for decades now, though, so the causes for such a decline are not unique to this election. Greater polarization between the parties (and news sources) means that a team of people stands quite ready to criticize any incumbent — both in hopes of defeating the incumbent and to feed an audience seeking validation of its views. At the same time, polarization has produced gridlock that has prevented the government from addressing perceived needs. This gridlock, which has been a historical feature of the American political system, has been exacerbated by the adoption of constitutional hardball tactics that place additional obstacles in the path of successful legislation. What were previously seen as the nuclear weapons of American politics — debt-default threats, government shutdowns, refusal to hold confirmation hearings — are now routinely used for conventional political warfare.

But distrust in government is just the beginning of the story. Americans have lost faith in institutions more broadly, such as the church, media, schools, banks, corporations and unions. The forces affecting confidence in government must be grounded in general social dissatisfaction with the way legacy institutions address contemporary needs. This social ennui is not unique to the United States, as the rise of illiberal and anti-system parties in European countries and other developed democracies attests. 

Americans’ loss of faith in their democracy (as opposed to government in general) comes from additional sources. First, if you don’t trust government, you are unlikely to trust or have faith in the process of choosing government officials. For example, sore losers from an election are more likely to think the winner won through illegitimate means. Second, many politicians and other elites say the system (i.e., the democracy) is rigged.

The viciousness of this campaign will not die on November 8. 

Donald Trump is not the only example, by the way; plenty on the left make similar claims. Both the left and the right complain about the media — its bias, power and intentions — and how it may skew campaigns and elections. Trump, of course, also suggests the democracy is rigged because of voter fraud, and many Republicans believe him. Democrats are more concerned about voter intimidation and suppression. Many Democrats (e.g., Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), and at times Trump, see the democracy as rigged in favor of corporate interests or the wealthy. So the public is receiving plenty of bipartisan signals that their democracy is failing them. It should be no surprise if their responses on public opinion surveys reflect that.

What effect will this election have on Americans’ trust in the government?

Persily: I think this election will exacerbate those feelings of distrust. The viciousness of this campaign will not die on November 8. Sizable shares of each candidates’ supporters already say they would not view the election of the opposing candidate as legitimate. Political elites have already promised to obstruct the agenda of the next president, and some have refused, for example, to confirm any Supreme Court nominee even before they know who he or she is.

Can elected leaders do anything to restore citizens’ faith in democracy? What can citizens do?

Persily: There are two ways I could see for this distrust to abate in the coming years. The first is if a crisis scrambles our politics so that the familiar partisan divisions are no longer salient. Remember that in the wake of Bush v. Gore in 2000, partisan nerves were about as raw as ever — and then the crisis of 9/11 eclipsed all that, and we saw a dramatic rise in trust of all institutions in its wake. Now, no one would wish a crisis upon America to paper over partisan differences, but one could envision any number of domestic and international developments that might refocus our attention from internecine political warfare.

The other way to address polarization and distrust would be for a broad-based, bipartisan coalition of elites inside and outside government to do and say the things necessary to send signals to the mass public that legitimatize the democracy and government. The problem is that type of concerted elite action feeds into the conspiracy narratives that are undercutting government trust to begin with. Political entrepreneurs in the media and government, moreover, will always have an incentive to distinguish themselves from the powerful elite and to destabilize the agreements that tend toward compromise and moderation.

What sorts of problems do you think voters wil see on election day?  

Persily: The report [from the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which Persily directed] sounded an alarm concerning many vulnerabilities in our electoral system. The response from the states over the last four years has been mixed. With respect to long lines, I think many of the places that had problems in 2012 will not have problems this time around. Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina, for example, have taken steps to address some of the problems that they witnessed in 2012. Florida, which is always under the microscope in a presidential election, will likely be a mixed bag, with lines in some places and not others.

Counties are working with the same technology they used in the pre-iPad era. 

The commission made several recommendations that have gained traction in the states. For example, several states adopted online voter registration, and as a result, millions of voters will be able to register for the first time or change their registration over the internet. This is undoubtedly the wave of the future, so we should expect to see a move from paper registrations to the internet in the coming decade.

On voting technology, though, the situation is quite disconcerting. Much of the talk this cycle has been on the danger posed by hacking of electronic voting systems. Of equal or greater danger, as the commission noted, was the prospect of widespread breakdown of voting machines in this election. Many, if not most, of the electronic voting machines in operation today were purchased more than a decade ago, when Congress appropriated significant funds pursuant to the Help America Vote Act. No such money is forthcoming today — which means that counties are working with the same technology they used in the pre-iPad era. As more machines break down, you can expect longer lines and greater frustration at the polling place.

This is particularly worrisome given that many jurisdictions need to do more with less. Many have contracted the period of early voting so they have fewer days for voting. We have also lost about a third of our polling places in the last decade, for various reasons. One issue we heard about during the commission’s work was that, since the Newtown shooting, schools are less willing to serve as polling places because of rules that have adopted prohibiting outsiders on school premises during school days. And schools are the most frequently used polling places.

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia

Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.

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