MA in Unemployment, yet on the degree it says "International Relations." Equally fascinated and disturbed by how we choose to live.
Many US citizens like to pride themselves on living in what they consider to be the “greatest democracy in the world.” To the rest of the world, this is obviously a nonsensical claim, on many levels. For one thing, the US doesn’t even get close to being the “greatest democracy” in comparative rankings of democracies like The Economist’s Democracy Index (21st in 2016) and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World (45th in 2017). Alternatively, if “greatness” refers to country size, Canada clearly takes the cake, and if it refers to population size, India gets the top spot.
That’s all fine and dandy, but I would take things a step further. For while these are all interesting points, they still imply that the US is at least a proper democracy and I respectfully disagree with that statement. I do so for at least three reasons, which I discuss below.
Before I go on, I want to emphasize that none of my claims have anything to do with the way in which the strongman-shenanigans of Donald J. Trump currently seem to be gradually turning the US government into a kind of colossal, warmongering family enterprise. Hopefully, that Tweet-fueled train wreck of an administration will burn out before long. But even if it does, the US will still not be a proper democracy in my book. Let me tell you why.
1. The candidate with the most votes … loses?
When people describe the US as a democracy, they mean a representative democracy. While it may be difficult for people, especially political scientists, to agree on the exact set of conditions which must be fulfilled in a given country so that it qualifies as a “representative democracy”, most people would probably agree that the country should be governed by representatives of the people, in the sense that people elect representatives among themselves by some kind of principle of majority voting (the candidate that gets a majority of all votes wins) or at least plurality voting (whoever gets more votes than any other candidate wins). However, as the world witnessed with the bizarre 2016 election of one Donald J. Trump, the US electoral system does not actually meet this elementary condition. After all, Trump “won” the election, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, who got over 3 million (!) more votes than he did.
That such a ridiculously undemocratic election outcome is possible in the US, has to do with the rather bizarre way in which American voters elect their representatives. I could go into detail here, but I don’t really want to, and believe me, you really don’t want me to, so in order to spare us both a torturously boring lecture, I will focus only on presidential elections in my explanation, while ignoring many peculiarities of the US electoral system.
The oversimplified but unfortunately still slightly confusing truth is that US voters do not directly elect their president. Rather, they elect members of a body named the Electoral College (EC), who then vote for a presidential candidate on behalf of the voters. EC members are elected on a state-by-state basis in such a manner that, generally speaking, the candidate who gets more votes than any other candidate in a certain state, wins all the EC members for that state, rather than the candidate’s fair share based on the vote share in her or his state. Although the political scientist in me recognizes this as a "winner-takes-all" plurality system, the world citizen in me recognizes this as undemocratic hogwash.
If you wish to fully appreciate this hogwash, please check out the table below which describes the results of a hypothetical presidential election where candidates A, B and C are running in two states; state Q, which contributes 50 EC members and state Z which is good for 30 of them.
As you can see, according to proportional representation, candidate C should be the clear winner across state Q and Z with 37 Electoral College members, ahead of runner-up A (22 members) and last place candidate B (21 members). This is in stark contrast to the US system, under which B would actually be the winner with 50 EC members, almost double the amount of runner-up C, while A would be left empty-handed. So the candidate with the least amount of votes can actually come out on top!
The extreme disproportionality of the above result might of course be rectified if the entire US is taken into account, but it could just as well be amplified across the other states. The point is not that the US system always produces (highly) disproportionate results, but that it can, and it has. Trump’s 2016 election actually marked the fifth (!) time that a winning US presidential candidate lost the popular vote. This also happened in 1824, 1876, 1888 and more recently in 2000, when Al Gore failed to win the presidency despite ensuring the support of over half a million more voters than his main rival George W. Bush.
2. Mo' money mo' … power?
For a representative democracy to work, people must have a more or less equal input into the electoral process by which they choose their representatives. This does not only mean that peoples’ votes at the ballot box need to count equally, but also that no individual or group should be able to influence the outcome of elections for public office significantly more than any other individual or group. This last condition certainly does not reflect the situation in the United States of America, where the almighty dollar reigns and money really is power, because corporations are people.
Yes, really. Due to a long-standing American tradition of “corporate personhood”, corporations are to a very significant extent recognized as legal “persons” in the US. Not just as legal entities, but as persons who enjoy certain rights and freedom under the US constitution, including freedom of speech and religion, just like flesh-and-blood-human-being kind of persons.
If you think that is ludicrous, you are judging too soon, for the reality is way beyond ludicrous, it’s downright idiotic. In the 2010 landmark law case “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission”, the US Supreme Court decided that, in accordance with the First Amendment, corporations (and other legal persons who aren’t actual persons, such as interest groups) have the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising for or against candidates for public office. According to the court, such political activities would fall under the freedom of speech corporations enjoy – they are people after all, right? – if they simply make sure not to directly coordinate their political communications with any of the candidates in question. So if corporation Y wants candidate F to beat candidate G in a given election, they can spend all their capital on ad campaigns praising candidate F while trashing candidate G, as long as they don’t do so in cooperation with candidate F.
Sounds fair? Sure, except that in reality this has turned elections into corporate mud-slinging ****shows, because corporations and wealthy interest groups have begun campaigning for their preferred candidates through virtually unregulated political donation piggybanks, known as Super PACs. I’m way too lazy to go into all the tedious details about what Super PACs are, and how they have come to dominate the puppet theaters known to Americans as “democratic elections”, so I kindly refer you to the 3-minute video below which does all the explaining for me.
Also, I recommend you to watch some episodes from the 2011 season of Stephen Colbert’s old show, the Colbert Report. Why? Well, for starters because that was a great show. But more specifically, because during that season, Colbert exposed how laughably easy it was for him to legally start his own Super Pac to receive unlimited financial donations and subsequently run for public office after putting his friend and business partner Jon Stewart in charge of the Super PAC. Hahaha, hilarious. Wait… did you say legally?
To recap, due to a crazy US Supreme Court decision of 2010 and a general history of structural political insanity in the US both before and since then, corporations and interest groups are considered people who have the right not only to express their political views, but also to put their money where their mouth is (corporations have mouths of course, they are people after all), by spending unlimited amounts of money on elections for public office, including presidential elections. Therefore, the Monopoly men behind big corporations and wealthy interest groups (for they are mostly old, white men) can finance ad campaigns promoting their candidate of choice and/or criticizing certain rival candidates. In practice, this means that a very small, elite minority of rich guys can influence election campaigns and therefore election outcomes to a shockingly large extent.
Another messed up consequence of this legal arrangement is that presidential or other political candidates can easily feel themselves indebted to the wealthy supporters who helped them get elected, and therefore have an incentive to adjust their policies according to the preferences of their benefactors. If this all sounds a lot like an oligarchic system, that’s only because that is exactly what the US system resembles, an oligarchy behind a democratic facade.
3. Voters choose representatives, who in turn… choose their voters?
In a representative democracy you would also expect all citizens to be able to elect their representatives – okay, maybe not exactly all of them, but let’s say at least all of the (more or less) sane adults among them. Furthermore, you would think that those representatives simply serve the people for a limited term before handing their power back to the people so that (more or less) all of them can once again decide which representatives they wish to serve them for a limited term. By now it shouldn’t surprise you that this is not how things go in America.
In the US, certain representatives apparently considered such an arrangement between them and their voters too one-sided. Accordingly, they came up with an interesting variant to democratic governance which is based on a kind of “reciprocity” between voters and their representatives. Reciprocity, that sounds pretty neat, right? Well, it may be neat, but it sure ain’t democratic, because it means that voters do not just determine who their representatives will be, but those representatives in turn determine who can – and maybe more importantly, who cannot – vote for them in future elections. They do so in at least two ways.
The first of these involves voter suppression. Sadly enough, it is very easy to find instances of US politicians implementing laws and practices that make it difficult or outright impossible for certain people to vote. For example, Republicans have long favored overly strict voter ID laws, such as those introduced under the oxymoronically titled “Help America Vote Act” that was signed into law by Republican president George W. Bush in 2002. It is not a coincidence that these regulations have in practice mainly discouraged voting among certain minorities, elderly people and poor people, all of whom tended to vote for the Democratic Party. It is no wonder then that in the US, voter turnout tends to be way lower than in many established democracies, with only about 55.7% of eligible voters casting their vote in 2016.
The second way in which US representatives “select” their voters is through Gerrymandering. Yes, that is an actual word. I did not make it up. FYI, if I was going to make up a word like that, I would have gone for something way cooler, like Jerry-Maguiring.
“Show me the money!” Never gets old.
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Anyway, Gerrymandering refers to the widespread practice of US lawmakers redrawing the borders of voting districts for political purposes on the basis of knowledge about the geographical distribution of voters in their state or city. Since the US political system is basically a two-party system with the Democratic Party pitted against the Republican Party, people holding public office in each party have a strong interest in redrawing the electoral maps to maximize the number of voting districts where their party has a good chance of winning. Consequently, Democratic lawmakers have been using Gerrymandering tactics in order to turn traditionally red (Republican) districts blue (Democrat), while Republican lawmakers have been trying to achieve the opposite. Gerrymandering involves basically two strategies for repainting the electoral map, namely cracking and packing. Again, I am not making these words up.
Cracking means thinly spreading out voting strongholds of one party over as many districts as possible, in order to prevent that party from having the upper hand in any of those districts, whereas packing means cramming together as many voting strongholds of one party into one and the same district, in order to prevent that party from dominating any other districts. The images below are a visualization of the undeniably undemocratic impact Gerrymandering can have in a hypothetical area which is to be divided up into five voting districts and which encompasses 15 predominantly Democratic neighborhoods and 10 mainly Republican ones
Gerrymandering can clearly lead to some messed up outcomes if you believe in proportionate representation. In that sense it is closely related to the earlier mentioned fact that in US elections, the candidate with the most votes can lose. It is not only the flaws of the electoral system that can open the door to the White House for presidential candidates who fail to win the popular vote, Gerrymandering certainly plays a part in that as well. If you want to learn even more about Gerrymandering, please check out John Oliver’s take on this outrageous practice.
By now it should be pretty much clear that the United States of America is not exactly the “greatest democracy” on earth, as it doesn’t qualify as a proper democracy at all. So it makes sense that The Economist classified this modest little country as a “flawed” democracy in its 2016 Democracy Index (the most recent one to date), while reserving the label “full democracy” for a handful of European countries, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay – yes, the South-American country with 3 u’s in its name outperformed the US, that must sting a little.
So the next time an American president takes the stage at the United Nations to brag about his/her magnificent "democracy" while bashing all the evil authoritarian states out there, the representative of all actual, full democracies should just tell the POTUS to pipe down and leave all that boasting about “democracy” to the experts. Or maybe they really shouldn’t, the US having a ton of nukes and being led by a trigger-happy narcissist and all… Wait a minute, now that I think about it… I got it all wrong. Of course America is a full democracy. In fact, it is the best, most glorious democracy that ever was and ever will be. USA! USA! USA!
Ruth Coffee from Zionsville, Indiana on June 11, 2018:
Can't disagree with any of that. Meanwhile, many of us just have to deal with the embarrassment caused by idiotic statements about how we are "the best".
jscage on May 08, 2018:
Thank you Za'atar for this synopsis of "American Democracy". There are many in America, such as myself, who are well aware of how farcical the notion of "greatest democracy" is; and furthermore, aware of how significantly worse it's becoming. And you would have to be from the Netherlands, too... Which is quite embarrassing for myself, considering how recently you all have gotten a glimpse into the American psyche via our - let's say - "troubled" ambassador (whom amazingly still has a job).
On a serious note.... America is seriously in trouble! No exaggerations, no stretches of the imagination - this country is at the precipice of its demise (if you lived here, you'd understand). And unfortunately, few Americans ever read legislation, nor care to understand civics - it's all 'argue and debate' with no substance. And that's just the way our oligarchs like it. Enjoy your beautiful country - I covet the notion; because, see, over here, it's NOT the Netherlands, you don't have to answer questions... Peace.
Za'atar Vasarnamis (author) from Netherlands on May 29, 2017:
@John Welford Thank you for your comment. I agree with you and I think that in order to improve the US system it is necessary to introduce reforms which will put independent commissioners in charge of determining the shape and size of electoral districts, similar to the UK system. But the problem is of course that such reforms would have to be implemented by US lawmakers, who have no interest in limiting their own power...
John Welford from Barlestone, Leicestershire on May 29, 2017:
In the UK the shape of constituencies is judged by independent commissioners whose criteria have nothing to do with political advantage. As a result we get genuinely marginal electoral districts that can determine who wins and loses general elections. Winning candidates cannot secure their re-election in the way American candidates do, Surely the UK system is far healthier than the US one?
Za'atar Vasarnamis (author) from Netherlands on May 22, 2017:
Thanks for your reply. However, I think that whether or not the US was established as a Republic is completely unrelated to whether it can be considered a proper democracy or not. I have heard this argument before, but I think it is based on a false dichotomy. Republics can be full representative democracies as well, like Finland and Uruguay for example. I would recommend reading the following article which deals with this question and which I personally found quite insightful: http://bit.ly/ARepublic
Za'atar Vasarnamis (author) from Netherlands on May 22, 2017:
Thanks for your comment Kathleen! I am not an American citizen myself and I had not actually heard about the National Popular Vote Movement yet. I really hope that it can lead to some rather necessary changes, but I am quite skeptical, as the current electoral system also benefits the people already in power. For example, the Republic Party is facing Demographic trends that might prevent it from ever winning the presidency again if the system is changed so that future presidents will be elected by popular vote rather than the EC. Therefore I'm afraid the current congress will not be willing to change anything, and I don't have much faith in the Supreme Court either.
RTalloni on May 21, 2017:
Though it is commonly denied, the United States of America was established as a Republic and it remains so. In the past all school children had some idea of this when they learned the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. It is not a Democracy, but today could be called a democratic Republic, which has a curious definition suiting the purposes of some. That said, issues you mention, such as gerrymandering, are not problems exclusive to America, but are widespread among nations large and small. Money does mean power, and power corrupts, but by reading the Founders writings you will find that they discussed many warnings for the future citizens of the USA. Sadly, we have seen those warnings ignored.
Kathleen Cochran from Atlanta, Georgia on May 21, 2017:
Interesting hub with a non-traditional point of view. I agree with so much of it without being happy that I do.
If we don't do something about gerrymandering nothing else will improve. But the inmates are in charge of the asylum on that one. We are going to have to challenge and fight through the courts to get congress to change the rules they benefit from, I'm afraid. But the National Popular Vote Movement could prevent another candidate with 3 million more votes ever to be labeled a loser. That can be accomplished through your state legislature if you put enough pressure on them to sign up for it.