It sounds hyperbolic to say that American democracy is broken, but an honest glance at the country — at our institutions and the broader political culture — makes it hard to conclude otherwise.
As things stand, one of our two major political parties is committed to suppressing as many votes as possible, and the leader of that party, the president of the United States, has said outright that he won’t accept the legitimacy of the election process if he doesn’t win.
If, under those conditions, Trump either wins the election or loses and throws the country into a bitter, protracted fight over the results, it doesn’t seem all that alarmist to suggest the US will have descended into what political scientists sometimes call a “weak democracy” or even “competitive authoritarianism.”
But I really don’t want to be overly alarmist, so I reached out to Pippa Norris, a political scientist at Harvard University and one of the leading authorities on global democracy. I wanted to know her honest assessment of the state of American democracy, why she thinks the upcoming election is a true turning point for the country, and what the US will have to do moving forward to undo the damage done in the past several years.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
If American democracy was a patient, how would you describe its condition?
I’d say the patient has not been well for a long time. The patient is obese and doesn’t exercise.
You like to say that democracy is not an “all or nothing” process — it’s more like a continuum with peaks and valleys and lots of movement over time. Would you say that the biggest weakness in the American system right now is this combination of the intractability of our Constitution and the fact that one of our major parties, the Republican Party, is basically invested in an anti-democratic, countermajoritarian agenda?
It’s true that we’re facing an existential crisis in part because the Republican Party has put all of their appeals into a shrinking sector of the electorate — mostly white, mostly older. And they’re using their power to change the rules of the game to favor their own party. That’s all true.
The point about the intractability of the Constitution is also true. There’s something called the Comparative Constitutions Project. They look at the longevity of constitutions and how much change is ideal and how much change is dysfunctional. So you don’t want a constitution that changes all the time because that leads to instability and you need to have rules of the game that everybody can agree upon. But you also can’t have a constitution that’s fundamentally unchangeable.
America is just off the charts in terms of the rarity of changes. It’s not just that we have so few changes; it’s the combination of institutional arrangements that make change almost impossible. America’s Constitution really doesn’t change, and we don’t look abroad for constitutional innovations.
Can you give me an example of a good constitutional innovation from around the world?
Almost every new democracy or country going through a transition always sets up a central and effective independent election management system. Now, they’ve all got different degrees of independence. But nevertheless, if there’s an election dispute, there’s an independent executive to say what the results are and to provide a mechanism for handling legal disputes that isn’t tainted by politicized courts.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Supreme Court. It can be an election court, often common in Latin America. Or there may be other mechanisms which provide informal resolutions. America has all these decentralized forms of electoral administration, which means that just one local area, which had one local problem in its ballot or its count or its regulations, could really derail the whole of the presidential election, particularly if it’s Broward County in Florida or somewhere else in Georgia or somewhere else in Michigan or wherever it is.
The point is that other countries around the world have developed ways of dealing with these issues and America just hasn’t learned or adapted.
Is the Republican Party, in its current manifestation, the biggest obstacle to making the sorts of changes we need to make?
It is. I’ve done a global party survey in December 2019, asking over 2,000 experts where they place mainstream political parties worldwide on a range of issues, from taxes to health care to environmental policy. And the US results are quite remarkable. If we’re just looking at OECD [post-industrial] countries and trying to measure whether parties favor or oppose checks and balances on the executive, if they’re committed to basic pluralistic values, and if they respect or undermine liberal democratic principles, what you find is that the GOP is surprisingly extremist.
The position of the GOP on these issues is close to parties like Golden Dawn in Greece [a neo-fascist party], Fidesz in Hungary, or the Law and Justice party in Poland. These are illiberal parties cutting back on the freedom of press and stamping out democratic freedoms in their countries. And these are the only parties in the developed world that really compare to the Republican Party in terms of their commitment to what we’d call authoritarian values.
So in a two-party system, you would expect a party like the GOP to naturally position itself somewhere around the center of the ideological spectrum to appeal to the median voter and to maximize its vote in general elections, like the Democratic Party tends to do. And the Democratic Party, for what it’s worth, basically scores the same as most of the standard middle-of-the-road European center-left parties.
But what’s happened is that the GOP has now gradually moved much, much further away from that center, a process that Trump has accelerated. Now, the problem is that you’d expect them to change course if they lose badly in the election, because that’s where most American voters are located in a normal curve.
The problem is that primary voters and donors are often more extreme than ordinary Americans. Seats are often uncompetitive, due to gerrymandering. And it often takes more than one heavy electoral defeat to get a party to shift course. You can think of them a bit like ocean liners. They’re sailing along in one direction. Under new leadership, they may try and move to port or to starboard, but it takes time to turn around, partly because after defeat, the incumbents who are reelected can blame Trump’s leadership and events like Covid-19, rather than their core policy appeals.
It may take a couple of electoral shocks for the GOP to learn the lessons, reverse course, and begin to nominate more moderate Lincoln Republicans and mainstream appeals.
Is it still accurate to call the US a liberal democracy?
Well, remember, I like to think of democracy as a continuum. What that suggests is that you can slide up or down as things improve or deteriorate.
So we could, for example, be closer to what’s called an “electoral democracy,” meaning that elections still work but many other institutions don’t. The judiciary may be undermined or press freedoms may be undermined. These are the kinds of things you see in countries in which democracy is backsliding. When this happens, strongman rulers come to power and they basically reinforce their position through amending or changing constitutions. That’s a very common strategy to make sure that they get elected time and time again.
America is still a liberal democracy insofar as we still have the formal institutions you’d expect to find in a liberal democracy. And there’s still freedom of speech and assembly. There’s still the expectation that the loser of an election will step aside. But the US is sliding toward electoral democracy. Whether it gets even worse depends on what happens this November.
You say, rather ominously, that everything turns on what happens in November. If Trump wins, if the GOP’s countermajoritarian strategy is rewarded, what then?
We’ve got at least these two scenarios. Number one, there’s a landslide and the Democrats win so overwhelmingly that the system essentially staggers back to where it was and, hopefully, Biden brings in some much-needed reforms. If confidence in elections returns, if there is basically a change in the Senate, as well as in the presidency, then you could see America returning to the system that was there with Obama — deeply imperfect, but working.
If there’s a narrow result and the Electoral College is very narrow, and it is one where Biden gets the edge, then there’s going to be so many disputes and confidence is going to go down. We’ve already seen the cracks in places like Michigan, where, let’s be honest, domestic terrorists were plotting to kidnap the governor, and we can expect to see more of this extralegal violence as social trust and tolerance keeps eroding. That’s hard to get your head around, but it’s real and it’s absolutely on the table.
If Trump returns to office, then things are going to get worse. We know that when authoritarian populists come in the first term, they’re just trying out ideas, seeing what works and what doesn’t. But they’re almost always more moderate. The second term is when it’s much more problematic. And the worst case would be something like Hungary, where illiberal populists have destroyed the foundations of the electoral system in ways most people don’t really understand. It all happened right in front of people’s eyes, but not enough attention was paid early on — and now it’s too late.
If Trump loses, what’s the path to democratic restoration look like?
We need reforms — lots of reforms. Corruption and the role of money in politics is a core problem. We haven’t heard much about this lately because more attention has been paid to issues like voter suppression, with good reasons, but it’s a fundamental issue standing in the way of nearly everything else.
We have to restore the integrity of the Department of Justice. If you don’t have an umpire you can trust, then where can you go? We need impartiality and independence. There are two meanings of the “rule of law” and they often get misunderstood. When Trump says “rule of law,” what he really means is the power of the law to control the system, as opposed to the power of the law to check the executive and the legislative branch in effective, independent, impartial ways. It’s clear which one we need.
It will sound nuts, but I really think we need a bipartisan commission to start a conversation among moderate Republicans and Democrats and progressives about the larger problems of American democracy beyond voter suppression and beyond gerrymandering and beyond corruption in politics. When there’s a real crisis in governance, you have to get out of single party and you have to forge a new consensus. Many countries, including Britain, have done things like this and it’s important. You can think of it like a democratic audit, one that engages the public in a real dialogue.
Again, I know this sounds silly, but when the problems run this deep, all of civic society has to be engaged in this enormous rebuilding effort. We all have to ask, “What are the key issues in America?” and frame them in ways that cut through the conventional Republican-Democrat frame.
What gives you the most hope about our political future?
The mobilization has been fantastic. A lot of the mobilization has gone in dangerous directions, as we just saw in Michigan. But on the other side, we have all this energy dedicated to improving the country in big and small ways. If you look at the number of women running for office, if you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, if you look at how many people have taken to the streets to call for change — that’s all exciting and necessary. We need that energy. It tells us the country isn’t asleep at the wheel any longer, that people are waking up.
Democracy is on the ballot in this election — everybody knows it. And people are mobilized either for or against it. As long as this energy can be contained and positively channeled, there’s hope for real, lasting change. We just have to avoid violence. Plenty of countries have disputed elections, but we have to manage that conflict without violence. Once that line is crossed, it’s hard to go back.
I’ll just end by saying that a crisis is an opportunity. Just like Covid is an opportunity to rethink the nature of work, so the crisis which America’s going through is an opportunity to rethink how we’re running our liberal democracy and explore the possibilities of serious and moderate reforms, and maybe learn from other countries. Our problems won’t disappear, but with effective reforms and a renewed commitment to change, there is at least hope.