Georgia State University

Losing the Plot: Democracy is the Solution, not the Problem by Sam Sharman @ Georgia State University

As academics, pundits, and causal observers respond to widespread democratic erosion across the western world, many have argued that to counter democratic erosion, we need less democracy. However, this frames the solution as the problem. The real problem is that weakening democracies, illustrated by Poland and the United States, lack enough democracy.

Writing in New Republic and advertising their new book How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Letisky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that the democratizing of the presidential candidate selection process through the primary system enabled the rise of Donald Trump, whom they regard as an undemocratic leader unprecedented in the American presidency. True, the convention system, controlled by party bosses and outsiders, wouldn’t have nominated Trump, but a truly democratic process likely wouldn’t have either. Trump consistently won around 30%-40% of the early primaries, rarely capturing majorities. Nevertheless, thresholds and winner-take-all primaries portrayed Trump as steamrolling the competition and injected his campaign with crucial momentum. Conversely, the Democrat primary extended the fight between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton because it accurately reflected voting totals. In other words, the Republican primary skewed voting totals and portrayed public opinion inaccurately.

In both Poland and the United States, the structure of legislative elections warps actual support to an even greater degree. The Polish parliamentary elections of 2015 delivered the Law and Justice party (PiS) majorities in both chambers of parliament. PiS’ success has allowed the party, which also controls the presidency, to pass myriad undemocratic reforms during the past several years. However, PiS did not win a majority of the vote. In fact, it received only 38% of the vote yet landed 52% of seats in parliament. To earn a seat in Poland’s parliament, a party must receive 5% of vote, and a coalition of parties must receive 8%. Due to this system, 16% of votes were not counted, exaggerating PiS’ support. A decidedly undemocratic outcome.

In the United States, Republicans also control both chambers of Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats won more votes for both chambers nationwide. This is less surprising in the Senate because the framers desgined the Senate as undemocratic. The House, on the other hand, is supposed to be proportional and majoritarian. A combination of gerrymandering (the manipulation of congressional districts to intentionally favor one party) and restrictions on the population within a district’s voting rights inflate the power of Republican voters.

The Electoral College has also overpowered Republican voters. A democratic structure should inherently reward the candidate with the most votes, if not the majority. Trump did not. Geography (the distribution of party support in different states like in the Senate), and the districting system of the House mean that Republican voters tend to have more influence that Democrat voters. For example, one vote in Wyoming equals around seven in California due to how the Senate and House advantage Wyoming for having a smaller population. If the House were truly the democratic institution that it’s billed as and if the presidency and Senate were democratic institutions, the undemocratic candidate, as defined by Levitsky and Ziblatt, does not win nor does a congress enabling the undemocratic candidate emerge.

Authoritarians seem to understand this intuitively, and their actions clearly demonstrate the flaws in the logic of seeing democracy as the problem. If democracy were genuinely the problem, we should expect that authoritarians who rise through democratic systems would move to expand democracy. Yet, as Ozan O. Varol discusses, one of the aspiring authoritarian’s most potent and common strategies is to restrict democracy, particularly when a swirl of not fully democratic elections delivers them power, like Trump and PiS.

Several cases confirm this tendency. Trump and the Republicans have advocated for laws burdening voter registration for racial minorities and the poor, typically Democrat demographics. PiS has begun changing the bureaucracy that oversees elections to gain more party control over it, with the goal of increasing their reelection odds. Similar scenarios have played out in Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela. Military coups and rule in Egypt and Thailand suggest that military rule is also not the answer. Conversely, Germany and the Netherlands have held off authoritarians insurgencies despite allowing them some role in governance. There, democracy is the saving mechanism.

As democracy undergoes one of its greatest crises, we have lost the plot on how to address it. We should confront the issue that we have too little democracy, not too much. For an American who opposes President Trump (and other citizens of other countries who oppose their own analogous politician and party), the idea that democracy enabled this person is often a quick but misleading conclusion. Democracy did not enable Trump or PiS; severely flawed structures masquerading as democracy did. Minority coalitions elected Trump and the Republicans along with PiS. That is, plainly, not democracy, and authoritarians clearly disagree that democracy is their enabler. The solution to this crisis of democracy is more democracy, not less.

*Image in public domain.

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