One of the last things this country needs is yet another impassioned call for election reform. Another invective against Citizens United or another stern warning about restrictive voter-ID laws would be redundant. And we certainly don’t need to be reminded of the absurdity of the Electoral College or the corruptness of gerrymandering. Another essay of that sort would be akin to a doctor telling her terminally ill patient to watch the cholesterol.
No, the time is long past for such calls: Our democracy is in big trouble.
For nearly 200 years, we have defined the democratic character of our system through elections. We are an election-crazed nation, but momentous shifts—some building slowly over the last few decades and others emerging quickly—have distorted how elections are conducted and the impact they have on public policy.
Elections for federal office, in particular, no longer reflect the common good and too often produce results incompatible with our structure of government. Legal or behavioral changes will not save the patient. It’s time to embrace other avenues of political engagement.
The democratic character of American government has been an ongoing debate since its inception. Democratic impulses played a role in the drive for independence, to be sure, and the framers of our Constitution understood that the document would only be ratified if it reflected many of these principles. There was an explicit rejection of hereditary rule, and the Bill of Rights codified essential liberties—the basic ingredients of democratic engagement.
But these men also worried mightily about the “excesses of democracy” and sought to create a framework that would check popular impulses. James Madison’s rationale for a large, extended republic, the foremost issue during the ratification debate, was that it would curb popular factions and “enlarge and refine” the general will.
It is important to note, too, that neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights protected voting rights. States were left to define eligibility for themselves; some used property clauses; others, literacy qualifications and poll taxes; and still others employed religious tests. Subsequent amendments to the Constitution defined categories of citizens who could not be barred from the voting booth and outlawed the poll tax, but other qualifications, such as residency and identification requirements, were left up to the states.
We should not be surprised, then, that questions of popular sovereignty cast a shadow over the Republic during the early years. There were specific policy questions that defined the early conflicts between the Federalists and the Republicans, but the rancor of the late 1790s was very much grounded in a dispute over democratic principles. The Republicans rightfully denounced John Adams’s support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, for example, as a violation of what they thought they had put their lives on the line for in 1776. It is no stretch to argue that the election of 1800 was waged over whether the uprising against the crown would be viewed as a “revolution” or merely a “war for independence.”
Jefferson and the revolution camp won the day, but the debate over the democratic character of the system was far from settled. Few working-class citizens had any connection to government. During the next three decades, turnout among eligible voters hovered around 25 percent. As a percentage of the overall population, turnout during this time never got above 3 percent.
And then things changed.
It is hard to overstate the breadth of the changes ushered in with the arrival of Jacksonian democracy. The so-called corrupt bargain of 1824 brought John Quincy Adams to the White House even though Andrew Jackson had won more popular and Electoral College votes. The backlash against the perceived elitism was immediate. As noted by political historian Joel Silbey, “The entire texture and structure of the political world shifted markedly. A new political universe [had arrived].”
The nucleus of the transformation was local political organizations. Like mushrooms after a summer rain, vibrant local party committees sprang up in every hamlet, town, and city. They were a pragmatic tool for getting out the vote and building long-term partisan loyalties.
Voter turnout soared to astonishing levels, often above 80 percent. Rallies, demonstrations, and parades were common. State and municipal contests were especially raucous affairs. Electoral politics became integral to social life in America, and steadfast party loyalty, further fueled by a dogmatic partisan press, became ubiquitous.
During this period, elections came to define our democratic character. Religious, property, and literacy qualifications for voting melted away and soon all white male citizens were allowed to vote. By 1836, all states—with the exception of South Carolina—had moved toward direct voting for presidential electors. The number of state and municipal elected posts skyrocketed. Citizens were called upon to pick governors, judges, auditors, attorneys general, school boards, coroners, and officials for all manner of posts. Today, there are a whopping 520,000 elected posts in the United States.
So began our obsession with elections. Disenfranchised groups, such as women and African Americans, set their sights on voting rights as a requisite of equality and liberty. “Suffrage,” noted Susan B. Anthony, “is the pivotal right.” Few seemed to notice the irony that elections themselves rarely brought the changes the groups sought. As noted by the late political scientist Howard Reiter, “the civil rights movement resorted to almost every form of political participation besides voting to overthrow the old system in the South.”
Voting became the main action in the American political drama. The simple act of raising a hand, checking a box, pushing a lever, hitting a button, or touching a video screen was thought to carry profound implications for citizens, government, and society. Elections implied equality, the right to express preferences and to direct the course of policy. Characteristics that too often shaped one’s standing in society, such as race, gender, affluence, education, and social connections, evaporated in the voting booth. Everyone had a seat at the table of what H.G. Wells dubbed our “democratic feast.”
While wide segments of the population often scorned the outcome of a particular election, few challenged the legitimacy of these contests. The tried-and-true American response to social discontent became the extension of the ballot. As noted by political scientist Gerald Pomper, women’s protests led to their being granted the right to vote, but not to the end of sexual discrimination. Antiwar sentiments fueled the enfranchisement of 18-year-olds, even as war raged on. Elections became the perceived panacea for all economic, political, and social problems.
Soon we began to export this theory abroad. Iraq would leap toward a democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein, some reasoned, simply by holding competitive elections. At the very least, it would signify a “turning point” and a “commitment to democracy,” as George W. Bush argued in January 2005. It did not seem to matter that other core democratic freedoms and institutions were yet to be established: Elections themselves were synonymous with democracy.
Two broad transformations have recently broken the popular equation of elections with democracy in the United States. First, the ability of elections to reconfigure policy to meet the needs of the public has nearly evaporated. Second, a host of forces have merged to create an electoral environment that produces outcomes incompatible with our structure of government.
Fundamentally, elections function as safety valves. As public policy falters, new leaders are chosen to right the ship. Herbert Hoover and the Republicans failed to respond to the crushing weight of the Great Depression, so the electorate brought a new president and a new party to power. Ronald Reagan was propelled to office to restore America’s standing in the world. Small-scale adjustments happen in most elections, and occasionally so-called realignments dramatically change the policy agenda for a generation.
When disenfranchised groups demand a seat at the table, the right to vote usually tempers their passions—at least for a while. It would be decades after the passage of the 19th Amendment before feminists would aim their sights on reproductive rights, equal pay, and greater opportunities. But even here, the force of their claims was muted after they had been granted access to the ballot box. Procedural equality has always trumped substantive equality.
Martin Luther King Jr. was deemed a hero when his focus was on voting rights. But when he opposed the war in Vietnam and began to organize a Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968, he was derided as a radical.
Yet the viability of the safety-valve function has always rested on a modest level of upward mobility. The social pressures built up by unacceptable policies or restrictive laws or customs were tempered by abundant resources and a large middle class. Roosevelt understood the urgency of immediate, drastic action in 1933; the pressure was extraordinary. But one reason there has never been a truly mainstream leftist party in the United States is because each generation of Americans has imagined their children would enjoy a better future.
Today, no reconfiguration of policies can redeem the fading American dream. The pressure of economic dislocation cannot be alleviated by bringing new personnel to office. Automation, global economic forces, the relocation of labor overseas, and much else has shaken confidence in the future. As Nicholas Eberstadt points out in a recent essay, “For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around them—and broke down very badly.” While some elites may hold that the economy remains sound, “this is patent nonsense,” Eberstadt says.
It is no wonder that there is growing distrust of nearly every major social or political institution. Americans are incredulous about government, corporate America, the news media, labor unions, religion, and now even the courts. They are not sure where to vent their frustration, but they know the American dream is fading.
There is no clearer evidence of the shrinking utility of elections than the success of Donald Trump. Many knew his behavior and personality were abhorrent, but in a desperate move to “make American great again,” and in the privacy of the voting booth, they held their noses and voted him into power. Actually, Trump’s outrageousness and ideological ambiguity were perfect features in 2016 because they rekindled faith in elections—at least for some Americans. Many Trump supporters likely held that elections can still make things better, but exceptional times call for exceptional candidates. This also helps us understand the broad rejection of establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and the surprising surge of Bernie Sanders.
Unfortunately, as disruptive as the years ahead may be, the forces that brought us Trump’s presidency cannot be tamed. And the frustration of those who supported him is bound only to get worse.
The second major transformation has been an array of social, economic, and political adjustments that have altered the election process. By themselves, each shift might not be enough to cripple the system, but collectively they have distorted the process. Let’s briefly consider two of these changes: geographic and information sorting.
The go-to explanation for gridlock in Congress is often partisan gerrymandering. But a growing pool of evidence suggests a more significant transformation is the real culprit. Whether springing from lifestyle preferences, partisan interests, or some mix of factors, American communities have become more ideologically homogenized in recent years.
Bill Bishop, in The Big Sort (2008), was the first to chart the steady, systematic transformation of voting patterns. In 1976, for example, he found that less than one-quarter of counties in the United States produced a landslide presidential outcome (in which the winner received more than 60 percent of the vote). By 2004, that figure had jumped to over one-half.
In the 2016 presidential election, a stunning 71 percent of counties had a landslide outcome. Even though the overall outcome was close, there was a blowout in nearly three-quarters of the roughly 3,200 counties. Hillary Clinton won 199 counties by 60 percent or more, and Donald Trump won a staggering 2,035 by that margin.
But maybe the Internet has extended our “neighborhood” beyond the confines of physical geography, as suggested by some scholars. Unfortunately, the promise of the Internet to broaden perspectives and associations has fallen victim to the filtration of sources, arguments, and facts according to partisan prerogative. Voters do not explore new ideas and perspectives online, but share, like, and retweet concordant ones. We fence ourselves in and we fence others out.
There is much literature on voter-information processing, much of it unflattering. It is not at all clear that voters have ever absorbed a broad range of information or shifted though competing evidence. It is likely that elites have always been able to manipulate mass opinion, to some degree. Heuristics, especially party identification, are used to sort and filter. But in the past, cognitive cues, rational or otherwise, structured our reception of at least modestly objective news. There was a degree of accepted facts and authorities. Today’s voters confront an avalanche of information pre-primed to lead them in sharply divergent partisan directions.
A stunning, potentially game-changing development emerged during the 2016 campaign and in the early weeks of the Trump administration: alternative facts. The barrier for evidence has evaporated. New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo put it this way: “We are roiled by preconceptions and biases, and we usually do what feels easiest—we gorge on information that confirms our ideas, and we shun what does not.” We are left with little consensus or authority.
But what does geographic and information sorting have to do with governance? Everything. Madison reasoned that through balances and shared powers the system would enforce moderation and incremental change. It would be a stable, safe system, albeit a slow-moving one. Compromise was possible because there was a vibrant center in most states and in enough congressional districts.
Today, few elected officials value moderation, because the electorate they are responsible to is not itself moderate. They don’t worry about the next general election, but they do fret mightily about offending their base and triggering a challenge in the ever-looming primary contest. To their base, any whiff of compromise becomes sedition, and legislators are, above all, rational actors, clued in to their own self-interest.
Even worse, social psychologists tell us that like-minded groups enforce conformity and foster extremism. The more we gather in our ideological bubbles, the more we reject negotiation. It is not a surprise that one of the final vestiges of forced moderation, the Senate filibuster, is on the endangered species list, having just been taken off the table in debates considering the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees.
In the system as it was designed, moderation and incremental change disappointed the ideological zealots, but the electoral process yielded a functioning government. Now all that is gone.
There are a host of additional changes one could describe. For example, in a well-meaning drive to democratize the nomination process, binding primaries and caucuses have eliminated the screening role played by party elites. There are sharp generational differences regarding the utility of elections, with young citizens abandoning the process in droves—preferring instead to spend their social capital on volunteer community projects. And it does not help that the key institution to bring new citizens into the electoral process in meaningful ways, the local party committee, has nearly disappeared.
If elections no longer fuel the democratic process in the United States, are there other viable pathways of participation? Two mechanisms come to mind: online activism and group mobilization.
Could social-media-based involvement spur a broader array of political activities in ways that compensate for the waning utility of elections? Social-media engagement has mockingly been dubbed slacktivism and armchair activism. Several years ago, Malcom Gladwell took a swat at any relationship between social-networking sites and broad democratic engagement. Contrary to the hopes of the “evangelists of social media,” he argued that new modes of communication have not drawn young citizens into the political fray. “Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.”
Empirical work connecting token acts of support online and subsequent cost-intensive behaviors has yielded muddled findings at best. Sociologist Shelley Boulianne, for example, recently conducted a meta-analysis on the relationship between social-network engagement and broader political involvement. She finds that contrary to popular belief, there is little hard evidence to suggest social-media activism increases voting or other forms of real-world engagement. But the jury is still out.
Which brings us to interest mobilization, the very mechanism often used to help secure the right to vote. One of the defining characteristics of contemporary politics is the breadth of individual political engagement. Americans are attentive readers of the news, ready to engage on issues that affect them or capture their concern. For example, according to the American National Election Study (ANES), the percentage of Americans saying they attended a political meeting has more than doubled in the last two decades. A 2014 Pew Research study found that 40 percent of liberals and conservatives remain mobilized during non-election periods.
It is hard to dispute the influence that Tea Party activists had during Barak Obama’s administration, particularly his first term. Who could have anticipated rancor over raising the debt ceiling? And what about the steady drumbeat for the repeal of Obamacare, a program many on the left saw as unnecessarily conservative? How many Americans had ever heard of sequestration prior to the Tea Party, and could anyone have predicted John Boehner’s troubles would come from the right?
The Tea Party movement was certainly not purely organic. Jane Mayer’s Dark Money (2016) and Jeff Nesbit’s Poison Tea (2016), among others, detail ties between the Koch brothers and what seemed to be a grassroots movement. Genuine anger and fear mobilized many Tea Party followers, but the Kochs and some 450 wealthy donors spent a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars building a national network of umbrella organizations. Those efforts helped create the Tea Party, whose activists drove much of the policy agenda during Obama’s presidency, even though they did not control the White House.
It seems progressives have gotten the memo. Beginning with huge demonstrations the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration and continuing at numerous venues, particularly the town-hall meetings of federal legislators, the left has sprung to life. Conceivably, they too have realized that the latent power of the “unorganized” is not exercised at the ballot box, but rather by withholding, striking, blocking, and delaying—tactics that threaten a system centered on order, routine, and anticipated outcomes. As with the Tea Party, it’s likely that this mobilization arises from both real anxieties and the efforts of professional groups. As the Tea Party shows, some of the smartest money spent on politics during the last two decades has been on group mobilization after the polls were closed. That’s when the really consequential work of democracy actually happens.
One of the grand canards of our politics is that voting defines activism. We will sometimes hear that if you don’t vote, you should keep quiet. Non-voters lose the “privilege” to air concerns. Whether this silly notion grew naturally like a weed in the garden or was planted as yet another hegemonic tool can be debated another day.
The truth is that effective political activism in a democracy can move along an array of pathways. Many of the most portentous changes in our government and society occurred despite repeated expressions of the majority’s will. Wise activists understand the power of the courts to thwart recalcitrant, poll-driven elected officials. Demonstrations, sit-ins, protests, boycotts, lobbying, and an endless variety of civic actions have helped paved the way toward a more perfect union.
Trusting that elections alone will redeem our faith in government also poses a grave risk. According to ANES data, the percentage of Americans who believe that elections can make officials pay attention to voters’ concerns has dropped from about 65 percent in the mid-1960s to around 25 percent in recent years. Legitimacy is critical in any system, but it is foundational in a democracy. Without it, disappointment and cynicism quickly morph into anguish and outrage.
Elections have consequences. It matters that Donald Trump is in the White House and that the GOP controls both chambers of Congress. We will all continue to pay close attention to this dimension of politics if for no other reason than that they are “narrative”-driving spectacles, guaranteed to rack up viewers, ratings, and hits.
But elections matter less than we think and less than at other points in our history. They have become the show horse, when what we need is a workhorse. The true spirit of our democracy is in the clash of numerous and diverse groups. That struggle is much more important than whatever happens every two or four years on isolated days in early November.