"Democracy Reform in America?", Max Fisher & Amanda Taub

A voter in February preparing her ballot during early voting for the California presidential primary election at an L.A. County Mobile Vote Center outside Universal Studios Hollywood.Mario Tama/Getty Images

If God created war to teach Americans geography, as Mark Twain wrote in 1869’s “The Innocent Abroad,” then the last few years may have served to teach Americans about democracy. And the next few might have a new lesson in store: democratic design.

As readers of this newsletter know, American democracy has some imperfections built into it. Presidential models are unusually prone to instability and abuses of power. So are countries with lifetime judicial appointments. First-past-the-post elections tend to create two-party systems, which are more polarized, dysfunctional and vulnerable to extremist takeover than the multiparty systems typically produced by proportional representation. And majoritarian systems, which grant one-party control over entire branches of government, “are ill-advised for countries with deep ethnic, regional, religious or other emotional and polarizing divisions,” as the political scientist Larry Diamond wrote in his 1999 book on democratic consolidation.

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And then there are uniquely American features. Like a Senate and Electoral College that grant disproportionate power to voters from rural states and swing states, opening a rapidly widening gap between the aggregate intent of the electorate and the resulting government.

The last few years have been a crash course in those systemic flaws, which experts consider to be part of why every objective metric indicates the quality of American democracy as declining.

Whatever happens with today’s election, the coming weeks, months and possibly years seem likely to highlight another American quirk — a belief in the sacredness of the rules of our system.

If you grew up in the United States, you were probably taught a kind of civic nationalism, in which the American system is not just a means to an end, but is itself a monument to the glories of liberty and freedom. If you watch political debates or rallies, you will reliably hear leaders extol the exceptional virtue of that system, which is often described as not just the world’s greatest but as literally ordained by God. In such a system, the rules, as written, are often treated as beyond reproach; to question them is seen as questioning America itself.

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That belief may soon be tested. Democrats see the rules as incomplete or out-of-date in ways that, they argue, systematically weaken not just their party but the system as a whole. Since taking the House in 2018, after which the party immediately passed a bill that would reform those rules, the party has made clear it sees democracy reform as the defining issue of our time.

Virtually every prominent scholar of democracy has also urged systemic reform as well, arguing that gaps, loopholes, and imperfections in those rules have become a crisis in their own right. A group of 80 such scholars, referring to President Trump, said in an open letter this week that, “The danger to democracy did not arrive with his presidency and goes well beyond 3 November 2020.” Many of them have called for reconsidering the rules for how Americans vote; how our votes are counted (or not counted); how our elections are financed; how Congressional districts are drawn; how power works in the Senate; and how federal judges are appointed.

But the rules of the system have in fact been tweaked and overhauled many times since the country’s founding. And the founders, whose intent is today considered sacrosanct, made extensive provisions to overturn their initial choices. What’s more, many democracies around the world, including those measured as healthier than America’s, continuously update their rules to better deliver on democracy’s promise.

In the United States, it was not until the 1960s that it became seen as unpatriotic and politically extreme to revisit those rules. The last supporters of segregation, mostly in the Senate, opposed changes that would have curbed the special privileges granted white southerners under 18th- and 19th-century compromises meant to avert the physical breakup of the union.

In 1969, for example, shortly after Gallup found that 80 percent of Americans supported replacing the Electoral College with a national popular vote, and the House voted overwhelmingly to do just that, a handful of southern Senators killed the measure. The Electoral College ensured that then-unified white majorities in their states would determine all of their states’ votes for president, effectively blocking Black minorities from having a say in presidential contests.

Changing the system became seen as impossible. On top of this, decades of Cold War-era jingoism cast that system as unassailable, the shining city on a hill, something only a dangerous radical would question.

But the rules of democracy are not the same as democracy itself. That was something the founders themselves emphasized in contextualizing those rules as simply a means to an end — prosperous, stable and liberal democracy.

And those rules were never designed to function in total isolation. They were meant to fit within an architecture of democratic norms. That the Senate would confirm or reject Supreme Court nominees solely based on their judicial fitness, for instance. Or that state lawmakers would draw Congressional boundaries without regard for partisan self-interest. Or that presidents would serve all citizens, not just those in states whose votes they have a chance at winning.

All of these norms rely on politicians subverting their own self-interest; all of them are absolutely crucial for democracy to function; and, strikingly, virtually none of them are mandated or even written into law.

Those norms, though they have always waxed and waned, appear to be collapsing. And they are being replaced with new norms, in which partisan actors exploit the letter of those rules for their own gain. Something similar happened in Cold-War-era South America, whose democracies were once considered as robust as those of Europe. A wave of populist leaders exploited the rules to entrench themselves in power and marginalize their perceived opponents, plunging much of the continent into a generation of chaos. South America is still emerging from the populist era in fits and starts. But, where it has succeeded, it has been through deep democracy reform, scholars generally argue.

If root-and-branch democracy reform for the United States feels strange or wrong, it’s worth asking yourself why. It’s not because American democracy is innately superior: metrics like V-Dem, Polity, and Freedom House all rate it as functioning worse than self-reforming systems in Europe and Latin America. Nor is it because there is something sacred about the rules, which were regularly retooled from the moment of the country’s founding up through World War II. Don’t confuse that pang of status quo bias — the feeling that, if something has been unchanged for a while, changing it would be bad — for the best interests of American democracy.

Quote of the Day

Rick Hasen, a law professor and scholar of election law:

Our election system is so great that we are little more than 5 days before voting starts and we almost know what the rules are going to be.

What We’re Reading

  • Banning toxic communities from social platforms reduces those groups’ influence and recruitment, per a new study led by Manoel Horta Ribeiro. But the communities (QAnon, for example) also tend to become more extreme, as their most hard-core members take over. The lesson: The longer that platforms like Facebook wait to ban extremist communities, the worse.
  • Aila Matanock and Paul Staniland, who typically study political violence in places like Pakistan and Guatemala, apply their research abroad to understand the risk of postelection violence in the United States.
  • According to a new article by many of the luminaries of political science, the proper phrase to describe American partisan polarization is no longer “polarization” as we have understood it, but “political sectarianism.” The overriding mission of political sectarians is not to achieve certain policies or ideals, they write, but “dominating the abhorrent supporters of the opposing party.”

How are we doing?

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