Needed: A Stronger & More Effective Democracy

A strong and effective democracy does many things well, so let’s look at ours and assess how well we are doing at the most important things. Key elements of a vital, well-functioning democracy include:

1. Incorporating and reflecting citizens' interests, needs, and values, and allowing the majority's will to decide most contested questions.

2. Upholding the rule of law, protecting freedom and civil liberties for all, and ensuring equal rights and opportunities for women and minorities.

3. Preventing elites from taking control and steering laws and rules to enrich themselves at the expense of the interests of the majority.

4. Ensuring fair markets and robust competition by blocking monopolies and the unfair exploitation of market power.

5. Managing the economy to provide economic opportunity for all.

6. Constituting an effective and efficient government, passing budgets, collecting taxes, passing and enforcing laws, issuing and enforcing regulations, providing facilities and services best provided in the public sector or that would not otherwise be provided.

7. Protecting public health and safety, both in the immediate and in the long term.

8. Promoting smarter better informed democratic decisions through robust civics and history education, supporting objective, accurate, and high-quality news media, and providing opportunities for extensive civic and community engagement.

9. Helping to identify and assist society's many governmental and non-governmental sectors to identify and respond to threats and identify and take advantage of opportunities.

Defending Democracy Against Internal Threats

Since humans appear to have inherent authoritarian and autocratic tendencies that interfere with these core functions, a well-functioning democracy must guard against abuses by:

1. Providing accountability and transparency in decision making.

2. Ensuring free and fair elections.

3. Protecting a free press and the free flow of information.

4. Providing checks and balances preventing the excessive concentration of power.

5. Promoting devolution of power to local governments.

6. Ensuring an independent judiciary.

7. Guaranteeing civilian control of the military and the police.

The Current State of Our Democracy

So, relative to the basic functions of democracy, how are we doing? How do we stack up?

1. Citizens' interests, needs, and values – The majority's will: On issue after issue, from health care to guns to climate to fair taxes, our elected representatives often ignore policies supported with 60 or 70 percent public opinion margins, and instead enact measures supported by, and in the interests of, corporations and elites. A famous 2014 study covering nearly 1800 policy issues concluded that "economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence…. Majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts."

2. Upholding the rule of law, protecting freedom and civil liberties for all, and ensuring equal rights and opportunities for women and minorities: While our democracy maintains the rule of law for most middle-class middle-aged white men most of the time, because the law is interpreted and enforced by people, the "rule of men" is too often the reality. Selective investigation and selective prosecution sometimes enable racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, or class discrimination. Sentencing disparities compound these injustices. Laws prohibiting police misconduct may go unenforced, and the rich and powerful too often get away with things ordinary citizens would not. Tax loopholes are more the rule than the exception, and white-collar crimes, including tax evasion, often go unpunished. The rule of law certainly implies or even requires equal justice under the law, but equal justice is an ideal for which we often fall short. Former President Trump’s misuse of the pardon power, together with his attempts to use the Justice Department to cover up his misconduct and help him try to steal the 2020 election, are the most recent and most egregious examples of the failure of the rule of law.

3. Preventing elites from enriching themselves at our expense: The wealthiest 3 men in America have more money than the poorest half of America. At the same time, the richest 1% make 84 times as much income as the bottom 20%. These disparities grow relentlessly, while many Americans cannot afford health care or a college education or decent housing. Our democracy is clearly not working in this regard.

4. Ensuring fair markets and robust competition: The rise of concentrated market power or monopoly power across the US economy has in recent decades produced price increases far larger than related increases in production costs. Markups across the US economy rose from an average of 18% above marginal costs in 1980 to an average of 67% above marginal costs in 2017. Growth in price setting power has been well documented for pharmaceuticals, in digital markets, and in telecommunications, agriculture, airlines, and many other industries.

5. Providing economic opportunity for all: There is just no way around it. Our democracy is doing a poor job for the bottom 50% of US workers. Many of them do not earn a living wage or receive adequate benefits. That means they struggle to get by and can’t cope with medical or personal emergencies. Class mobility, which used to be assumed in America, has declined in recent decades, and data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York show a growing number of US college graduates are underemployed or stuck in low-wage jobs. Millions of Americans are just one missed paycheck away from poverty, without enough money to cope with a sudden disruption in income. Similar estimates apply to being just one paycheck away from homelessness. Some 40% of workers are experiencing unpredictable working hours, and this means unpredictable income, difficulties scheduling childcare, and general insecurity and anxiety. Likewise, about 40% of US workers are in the gig economy, and their problems include low pay and poor working conditions.

6. Constituting an effective and efficient government: The level of public confidence in our democracy and the government it designs and creates is very low. According to a Pew Research Center 2022 Report, only two-in-ten Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always (2%) or most of the time (19%). The most recent report shows modest declines from the already very low confidence levels of the last decade. There is a sharp partisan split in these numbers, with 29% of Democrats and Democratic leaning voters expressing these confidence levels, but only 9% of Republicans and Republican leaning voters doing so.

7. Protecting public health and safety: The US data on life expectancy has shown dramatic declines. According to an August 2023 New York Times article, life expectancy in the United States in recent years "took an unprecedented turn for the worse, placing it not among its wealthy peers, but below Kosovo, Albania, Sri Lanka, and Algeria…. The loss is jaw-dropping by another measure," the Times article continues: "Before the pandemic, roughly a half million more people in America died each year than would have died, on average, in wealthy peer countries. In each of the first two years of the pandemic, the number surpassed one million." Our democracy’s performance in protecting public safety is remarkably inadequate. The same Times article cited above reports that "there are 22 times as many gun-related homicides in the United States as in the countries of the European Union." In 2020, the Times article continued, "the European Union reported 5,800 total overdose deaths in a population of about 440 million (while) the United States, with a population of 330 million, reported 68,000."

Although there have recently been attempts to improve our performance, we are still failing at many of the most basic health and safety issues, the mundane things, such as providing adequate health care for everyone, keeping our bridges from collapsing and killing people, or keeping the mentally deranged from buying machine guns and using them to randomly murder us, dozens and sometimes hundreds at a time.

8. Promoting smarter better informed democratic decisions: This is a story of inattention, distraction, and decline. As described more fully in Our Democracy is a Neglected Commons, essential civics knowledge is at an all-time low, while US history education has been declining for a decade. Hedge funds are buying and gutting local newspapers, the consolidation of broadcast media is translating to less local news but more right-wing slant, and just six giant corporations reportedly now control some 90% of the media in America. Americans who get their news on social media are less engaged and less knowledgeable, while at the same time, social media amplifies polarization by design. The good news in this arena is that civic and community organizations appear to be thriving, but even here, the good news is diminished by a partisan sorting that reduces the benefits of discussion between those holding different opinions.

9. Helping identify and respond to threats and opportunities: Most critically, and while there has been some important progress under President Biden, our democracy and government are failing to adequately protect us from threats including climate change, pandemics, and a rogues’ gallery of "black swan" dangers. While the Biden administration is working to head us in a better direction, the most recent global Climate Change Performance Index still ranks US performance as "very low" for greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, and energy use.

As for opportunities, too many of our elected officials behave as if a course of action that doesn't directly and immediately put money in the pockets of some constituency isn't even worth considering. Then they compound their short-sightedness by worshiping the invisible hand of a market made stupid and blind by a rigged system of predatory and monopoly pricing, subsidies, targeted tax breaks, and other special favors won by lobbyists, often in return for campaign contributions. As a result of this stacking of the deck, this legal in-plain-sight corruption, we leave opportunities to benefit the whole of society lying abandoned, while catering obsequiously to the desires of the rich and powerful.

By the above functional standards, our democratic governance needs significant strengthening. Under the Biden Administration, performance on some of these measures seems to be improving, but much more must be done before our democracy can be considered strong and effective.

Considering the facts cited above, the question of why so many Americans have so little confidence in their government answers itself. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? With the functional shortcomings of our democracy so clearly in view, it is a miracle that there remains as much trust and support as there is for the government and the governance that our system creates. If we were wise, we would see this trust as a precious resource, and do everything in our power to nurture and strengthen our democracy... before all trust is gone.

The articles Making Democracy Work: A "Wicked" Problem and An Ambitious Strategy for Success delve into discussions of how to go about strengthening our democratic system and building on the recent progress of the Biden Administration.

Published: September 2023
To Link Or Republish >>

Return To Strengthening Democracy Articles Home >>