"The Democracy Reform Paradox", Amanda Taub & Max Fisher

President Trump floated the idea of delaying the election in a tweet on Thursday, risking the erosion of the most important ingredient in a democracy — the belief that the results will be fundamentally fair.Doug Mills/The New York Times

Here’s something telling: When American technocrats and diplomats go abroad to help new democracies establish themselves or struggling ones to reform, one of their top pieces of advice is to set up a system that looks very little like their own.

They typically encourage parliamentary systems, like that of Germany (itself a postwar, American-led project), rather than an American-style presidential model. They suggest one legislative house, rather than two. And they tend to encourage a style of election known as proportional representation, in which each party receives a share of seats proportional to its share of the national vote, rather than having each seat be determined by a separate, winner-take-all election. This fosters multiparty, rather than two-party, systems. And one more thing: No Electoral College.

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America’s democracy is so historic and important precisely because it was also the world’s first modern democracy. Its founders had little in the way of case studies or firsthand knowledge to draw from. In retrospect, they showed remarkable wisdom and foresight. But 200 years of real-world experience, drawn from dozens of democracies around the world, have produced some useful lessons.

For decades, American democracy experts have flown abroad urging other countries to follow those lessons, or contributing to those lessons’ accumulation. Now, many of them are raising the alarm at home, calling — in some cases with urgency — for something they have studied or overseen in many other contexts: democracy reform.

The United States has overseen or encouraged democracy reform abroad many times, guiding countries as they retooled the rules and structures of their political system to function more effectively and safely. It’s a common response to disputed elections, civil unrest or a general sense that a democracy is no longer sufficiently achieving its goals of stability, cohesion, and fair representation.

Expert surveys and opinion polls show that scholars and voters broadly agree that all of these problems are not only present but severe in the United States. The Bright Line Watch, a project by leading experts to monitor the health of the American system, warns in its mission statement, “One of the greatest threats to democracy is the idea that it is unassailable.”

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So why is there no consensus push in the United States for this sort of corrective, as there might be in almost any other democracy? Even Britain regularly tweaks its system, most recently attempting to alter its voting rules in 2011.

Consider what events and trends are drawing such alarm among scholars. One is that the representative bodies are growing less representative. Institutions like the Senate and the Electoral College have always made American democracy unusually undemocratic. Rural voters are granted more power than their urban peers. A state that favors a presidential candidate by one vote is treated the same as a state that favors her by one million and one, effectively disenfranchising those million incremental voters.

“If you look at the Constitution, you see that it was drafted by people who were not little-‘d’ democrats,” Sanford Levinson, a constitutional legal scholar at the University of Texas, told The New Yorker in 2013. In a still-influential 2006 book, “Our Undemocratic Constitution,” Mr. Levinson had argued that the country’s founders, operating in a world where political representation still felt radical and untested, had imposed “almost insurmountable barriers in the way of any acceptable notion of democracy.”

For generations, the electoral imbalances imposed by those institutions more or less balanced one another out; no one party consistently benefited. But in recent years, the party electorates have changed such that those imbalances all favor the Republican Party. The Senate now heavily favors, in a way that it did not before, a minority of voters controlling a majority of the seats. The presidency going to the popular vote loser has gone from an extreme aberration — only three times between founding and 1996 — to a regular occurrence.

Mr. Levinson, like other legal scholars, has also had harsh words for the American system’s practice of lifetime judicial appointments. Other countries have broadly moved away from this practice, in large part because it proves so destabilizing. The stakes are just too high, inviting politicization and meddling — a lesson learned many times over in Latin America before, in recent years, many Americans took notice as well.

At the same time, an unprecedented spike in ruthless partisan conflict is eroding the democratic norms that are meant to constrain political behavior. Faith in the integrity of elections is plummeting. Polarization is skyrocketing, leading more and more Americans to believe that the other party poses such a grave threat that extreme steps are justified to keep them from power. Four years before militias appeared on an unusually high number of American streets this summer, scholars who study civil conflict warned me that the United States showed all the warning signs.

Only the severity of these trends is new. Since the 1990s and early 2000s, a wide spectrum of experts have warned that the American system was showing signs of trouble. Constitutional scholars said that the bill was coming due for horse trading compromises the framers had made among one another 200 years earlier. Political scientists said those founders’ had built cracks into the system that had been slowly widening ever since.

Theoretically workable ideas for American democracy reform are hardly in short supply. Lee Drutman, a Johns Hopkins University and New America Foundation scholar who has warned that the two-party system creates a “doom loop” of self-reinforcing backsliding, has laid out detailed plans for breaking the two-party hold. A number of legal scholars, most recently Ryan Doerfler of the University of Chicago and Samuel Moyn of Yale, have produced one roadmap or another for reforming judicial appointments without destabilizing the courts. Two Democratic presidential candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, ran in part on democracy reform plans.

So why didn’t things change? The 1990s were the golden years of American democracy reform programs abroad. Why none at home?

For one, deep change would be politically unthinkable. Partly as a result of Cold War-era jingoism, perhaps no other country so romanticizes its own system, which presidential candidates from both parties routinely endorse as the greatest in history. Even France, the rare country whose civic nationalism reaches American-lever fervor, is willing to tweak its system. The French Republic is now in its fifth iteration, while America’s is still on 1.0.

For another, there is no plausibly objective outside broker who can mediate reforms. It’s often the United States that helps play this role in other countries. And the United States, as a superpower and the engineer of many of the international order’s governing bodies, has long insulated itself from their influence.

But perhaps the greatest impediment is the very two-party system that many consider part of the problem. Almost any reform would benefit one party over another. The worsening partisan distrust and spirit of zero-sum competition makes that difficult to overcome. There is little raw political incentive, for example, for Republicans to accept moving Supreme Court justices to set term limits. Though this is a widely popular reform among experts, it would have to be implemented by Democratic lawmakers, risking the appearance of a raw power play that might further erode popular faith in democracy.

The result is what you might call the democracy reform paradox: The flaws in democracy that require reforming also make implementing those reforms difficult, if not impossible. And the more that the need for reform grows, the harder it will be to implement.

Quote of the Day

From a 2019 study on the recent, global rise of autocratization, which refers to a country backsliding from democracy toward authoritarianism, by the political scientists Anna Lührmann and Staffan I. Lindberg of the University of Gothenburg:

About a third of all autocratization episodes started under a democratic dispensation. Almost all of the latter led to the country turning into an autocracy. This should give us great pause about spectre of the current third wave of autocratization. Very few episodes of autocratization starting in democracies have ever been stopped before countries become autocracies.

What We’re Reading

  • Senators are likelier to interrupt female nominees to the Supreme Court than male nominees. They are also likelier to question female nominees’ competence. This is according to new research by the legal scholars Christina L. Boyd, Paul M. Collins Jr. and Lori A. Ringhand.
  • You often hear about countries coming under Russian or Chinese influence as the United States steps back from global diplomacy. But it doesn’t always last. Ido Vack of the New Statesman examines the Czech Republic’s turn away from Beijing and what it says about China’s role in the world.
  • A fascinating new study finds that online fact-checking videos make people less likely to believe false information on social media, but not less likely to share it. It is further evidence that people share things on social media regardless of whether or not they believe they are true. The study was led by Alexander Bor of Aarhus University in Denmark.

How are we doing?

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