The Crisis of Democracy 1.

            The American Constitution is the product of compromises.  If all states were represented equally, the few big, populous states feared being outvoted by many smaller, less populous states; if states were represented on the basis of population, the many small states feared being outvoted by the big, more populous states.  Some states depended on slave-based agriculture, while many people in the free states disliked either slavery or the slave-owning elite.  As the instrument of the people’s will, many people feared a tyrannical government located far from voters; many others feared “mob rule” (pure democracy).  Most recognized that the Articles of Confederation were too weak to defend national interests or even hold the country together in a world full of wolves.  The Founders sought to reconcile these tensions by enhancing the powers of the national government in certain specific ways, while reserving other powers to the state government; by dividing power between three co-equal branches of government; and by shoring up individual liberties with a Bill of Rights. 

            This system of government served well enough to deal with the crises of the 19th Century: territorial expansion, civil war, and rapid industrialization.  What it lacked in efficiency, it generally made up for by fending-off tyranny. 

            The 20th Century dropped more challenging problems on the door-step of government.  The two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War each required a massive government mobilization.  That mobilization enhanced the prestige of the federal government as a problem-solver.  That mobilization increased the size, powers, and responsibilities of the executive branch.  The tripod created by the Constitution tilted as the Executive branch grew in power while the Legislative and—for a time—the Judicial branches ceded their powers.[1] 

            These changes were justified in various ways.  Obviously, national emergencies demanded a rapid and effective national response.  Then the greater ability of the national government, based on its ability to recruit able servants from business, academia, and the civil service, could be offered.  Finally, it began to be argued that the President alone was elected by all the people to lead the country.  Members of Congress represented only their districts or states, and judges were appointed.  Thus, the president enjoyed a unique mandate to govern.  The other branches should defer to his (and one day her) leadership in whatever grave hour was at hand. 

            In recent decades even a modified version of the original Constitution seems ill-matched to the needs of the hour.  The country is deeply divided over some issues, so the Congress is polarized to the point of incapacity.  The intervention of the courts in issues of national importance sparked an arms race between the parties over which one could pack the courts with sympathetic judges.  A number of times, presidents have won a majority in the Electoral College, while winning a minority of the popular vote.  Increasingly, presidents have relied upon rule-writing, executive orders, and executive agreements in place of legislation passed by Congress and judged constitutional by the courts.  Presidential inaction and action alike arouse bitter commentary in the media.  More seriously, perhaps, voter frustration with a government that cannot act fueled “populism.”  Now a “crisis of democracy” has become a buzz-term.[2] 


[1] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (1973). 

[2] I don’t know.  Maybe none of this is true.  “I just know what I read in the newspapers.”—Will Rogers.    

Crisis of Democracy.

One way of telling the history of the Twentieth Century is to describe the Triumph of Democracy.  In 1900, only11 countries that could be described as political democracies: they granted all adult male citizens the right to vote and they applied the same laws to all citizens.[1]  The “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy” only somewhat advanced their cause: by 1920, there were 20 democracies and many of them had granted women the vote.  The interwar crisis and the Second World War centered on the defeat of aggressive tyrannies.  Thereafter, however, democracy advanced by leaps and bounds.  Western colonial empires were dismantled.  Democracy expanded its meaning from the purely political to social democracy, and legal protections for civil rights were greatly extended.  The Cold War ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire.  By 2003, there were 86 democracies in a world of 190-odd countries.[2]   

            Rather than continuing its advance, however, democracy has been in retreat since the mid-2000s.[3]  Where democracy continues to exist, “democratic norms and institutions” are being hollowed-out.  What has caused democracy to fall into disrepute?  What has caused dictators and would-be dictators to gain a new credibility? 

            The crisis arises both from specific personalities and from larger and more long-term systemic changes.  On the level of personalities, one can point to the interaction of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump.  Many of the successes for democratization owed at least something to American government backing for democratic movements and institutions from the of Jimmy Carter’s administration through the Reagan-Bush era.  Donald Trump’s administration has largely abandoned the “bully pulpit” on behalf of democracy in the shit-holes of the world.  A host of minor-league wannabe-tyrants draw inspiration from Chinese and Russian aggression. 

On the level of systems, two different sorts of problems exist.  On the one hand. regularly-held elections in which citizens choose their own leaders are not enough to make a country democratic.  Real, living democracy requires also a widely accepted “liberal” mindset.  It requires independent institutions like courts, business, media, and non-governmental associations.  Finally, it requires institutions of government (from the civil bureaucracy to the military to the intelligence services) that serve the nation, rather than any individual leader.  These are the “democratic norms and institutions” that are being hollowed around the world. 

On the other hand, all of these ills arise from the interaction of sclerotic political systems with increasingly indifferent citizens.  Here it becomes difficult to solve the chicken-or-the-egg problem.  Do frozen-up political systems foster citizen alienation?  Does they shift citizens into wavering between solving their own problems through ad hoc means or hoping for a strong-man who can burst the dam?  Does citizen alienation and indifference allow political systems to congeal around dead issues, rather the forcing them to address live issues? 

Neither answer holds much promise for revived democracy. 


[1] This bald definition invites enough qualifications to make your head spin.  For example, women didn’t have the vote; many representative governments hedged-in responsive government to serve an anti-democratic distrust of “the mob”; and democracies ruled over-seas empires in an undemocratic fashion. 

[2] Larry Diamond, “The Global Crisis of Democracy,” WSJ, 18-19 May 2019. 

[3] That is, it began during the years of the Obama-Biden administration.