Has the United States Ever Been a Democracy?

Has the United States Ever Been a Democracy?

Popular Rule

Has the United States ever been a democracy?


In the early years of the United States, almost no one called the country’s highly unusual experiment in popular sovereignty a “democracy.” Even with most of the population excluded from the franchise by reason of race, gender, or wealth, the term suggested an effort to put into practice something that was dangerous, unstable—in short, a mess. Only around the start of Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the late 1820s did the concept of democracy—redefined to mean a representative version of popular rule constrained by a constitution—catch on and begin its meteoric ascent. It took even longer for individualized voting in the form of the secret ballot to become the norm across the United States, finally establishing the particular form of representative democracy that we know today.

This backstory is still largely unknown to many Americans. Certainly, it is missing from our dominant public narrative. That’s because, for at least the past century, a representative democracy rooted in regular mass elections conducted by secret ballot has been widely understood to be pretty much the only legitimate form political life can take—in this country and in much of the world. And in the United States, questioning the applicability of the term “democracy” to this model long ago became taboo.

Now, for better or for worse, that agreement is coming undone. In just the last few years, a good number of people on the right, including some Republican senators, have openly wondered whether “democracy,” with its emphasis on one person, one vote, is actually the right way to describe American political life, past or present. (“Republic,” with its less overtly egalitarian connotations, has become their preferred alternative.) Meanwhile, a growing number of people on the left have asked, for very different reasons, whether the United States has ever really been a democracy. Pointing out that the country is rife with restrictions on voting and unrepresentative and oligarchic institutions, they have argued that the United States is still actually far less subject to the rule of the people than most Americans like to think.

Jedediah Purdy, a law professor and the author of a number of books on American culture, land, property, and the environment (among other topics), throws his hat into the ring in favor of this latter position in his new book, Two Cheers for Politics. Blending history, political theory, and commentary on current events, Purdy offers a catalog of the many ways that the United States continues to fail to qualify as a robust democracy. He also puts forth an eloquent and high-minded defense of why “we” (meaning, perhaps, all Americans, or those of us on the left, or maybe just readers of serious tomes on democratic theory like this one) should aspire to build one.

In Two Cheers, Purdy doesn’t pay much heed to the standard anti-Trump argument that citizens should be on high alert for all the ways that American democracy has lately been sliding into demagoguery, authoritarianism, or fascism lite. Nor is he especially concerned about extreme partisanship. Instead, his book targets the post-Trump centrist and liberal call for a return to business as usual, as if the United States had a functioning democracy that was briefly interrupted by Donald Trump’s four years in office. For Purdy, the more profound and deep-seated problem of our times is actually how little democracy we have long had. What he proposes as a cure is more democracy, despite its potential unpleasantness and risks. Convinced of the transformative potential of mass voting, Purdy believes it is time for this country to finally, and fully, embrace majority rule.

The myriad challenges to democratic or quasi-democratic government faced by countries all over the world these days, or even what aspects of our own crisis stem from sources that are global versus those that are peculiarly American, do not much interest Purdy. Though he refers to various canonical European thinkers here and there, from Thomas Hobbes to Benjamin Constant to Friedrich Hayek, and to the occasional world-historical event or trend, he has his sights set almost exclusively on the United States. As befits his legal training and vocation, he sees much of the current crisis of American democracy as rooted in this nation’s Constitution. In his view, its design flaws, now experienced as “antidemocratic anachronisms,” are many.

Two issues especially stand out. Though it was drafted by a group of 18th-century men eager to translate the idea of popular sovereignty into institutional form, the Constitution is, according to Purdy, fundamentally and deliberately anti-majoritarian. The Electoral College (whose antidemocratic effects have been amplified in the context of mass suffrage) and the Senate (whose antidemocratic effects have been amplified by a demographic landscape that is wildly uneven in terms of its distribution) are, unsurprisingly, Exhibits A and B. Moreover, the Constitution, Purdy insists, is at its core “antipolitical”: By putting up so many roadblocks to legislation, and especially by being so difficult to amend, it constantly thwarts efforts to get anything done. As Purdy explains, in characteristically grand language, “The Constitution called on popular sovereignty for its authority but baffled, inhibited, even imprisoned its sovereign.” As a result, the Constitution has become the “enemy of the democracy that it supposedly sustains.”

Then there’s the fact that we’ve been saddled with a court system that was structured from the get-go to protect us from an excess of democracy, indeed even—in the case of the Supreme Court as of late—to replace the people and their representatives as our sovereign authority. This part of Purdy’s argument is so self-evident these days that it practically writes itself. In the months since this book was completed, nine unelected people awarded lifetime sinecures—six of them nominated and backed by the numerically less popular party on a national level—have just deprived American women, and especially poor ones, of their full and equal rights as citizens without any mass mandate for doing so. (It is worth noting as an aside that while Purdy has a lot to say about race and class, he mostly ignores how misogyny and regressive notions of gender, family, and sexuality have been and continue to be used to antidemocratic effect in the US and around the world, from the original social-contract theories that he celebrates to the abortion debate.)

Meanwhile, our judges, in Purdy’s telling, have had the gall to call on various traditions of judicial interpretation that likewise help them to do more of the same: bypass the people’s will. Originalists might pride themselves on honoring the terms of the founders’ original (and in many ways obsolete) compact, itself rooted in popular authorship and adoption processes. But they then turn their collective back on the concurrent democratic principle that a people must constantly renew and offer present-day consent for self-rule to work. The so-called living constitutionalists, more often liberals and progressives, make the inverse mistake. They do reinterpret the founding text for today’s demographics, technology, political realities, and sense of the world, but they can’t help but substitute their own independent, ahistorical judgments for the original democratic act that the text embodies.

Finally, consider the champions of judicial expertise, who don’t even pretend to seek legitimacy in some vision of “the people.” In much of the legal world today, Purdy argues, professionalism and credentialism, derived from a rigged form of institutional competition shielded from any connection to popular preferences, have replaced real politics almost entirely, if not the political character of the decisions rendered. In fact, he insists, something similar has happened in many aspects of our common lives. A professor at Duke University and, previously, Columbia, a legal professional, and a New York Times and New Yorker contributor, Purdy is a member in good standing of the meritocratic elite—a cohort, he argues, that continues to play a central role in rendering American democracy largely moot. It is hard to know from Two Cheers how to make sense of that tension.

The Constitution, the courts, and the meritocratic elite are not, however, the only things responsible for our democratic deficit, Purdy notes. There is also the matter of voting. While historians routinely cite all the landmarks in the painfully slow expansion of the suffrage rolls since the nation’s founding—first to poor white men, and later, to Black men, to white women, and finally to Black, Asian-American and Indigenous people of both sexes—it is worth being reminded how many subcategories of people in the United States are still formally denied the vote. Purdy pays particular attention to the disenfranchisement of the incarcerated, of those with past felony convictions, and of noncitizen legal residents like green card holders. He might have added most adolescents, since there is an important debate going on right now about the minimum voting age, and also those residing in US territories or municipalities, from Puerto Rico to Washington, D.C., who are systematically denied full representation at the federal level. But his larger point is what matters here: Neither in theory nor in practice is the United States governed by universal suffrage.

And increasingly, Purdy notes, the limited suffrage we do have is under threat. A Republican Party that can’t command actual majorities for its policies is finding new ways to restrict legal voting in practice, especially by people of color and poor people. Those efforts include requiring an ID card for permission to fill out a ballot, limiting polling places in heavily minority neighborhoods, extreme gerrymandering of voting districts, and (perhaps most alarming) proposing state legislatures as the alternative to ordinary voters altogether. These are the latest versions of the literacy tests, poll taxes, goon squads engaged in Election Day surveillance, and other tried-and-true mechanisms for depressing turnout. After reading Purdy’s book, we should all be worried about the upcoming nexus of an antidemocratic Supreme Court and, in Moore v. Harper, a case that will test the recent antidemocratic theory that a state legislature can regulate federal elections without any interference from state courts, including potentially throwing out the results when a contest is declared tainted and awarding the state’s electors to the candidate it chooses.

But in reading Two Cheers, one senses at times that Purdy is not all that interested un particular historical examples or even specific policy questions or legal cases. His brief against the contemporary United States as a democracy rests on two additional, and considerably more abstract, facets of our political culture. Both are linked to what he calls “the most dangerous political fantasy,” namely “the antipolitical conceit that we can do without politics” altogether.

The more familiar argument, at least among those who are hostile to what is often called “neoliberalism” (though Purdy smartly avoids the term), is that faith in markets as the solution to all our problems has been undermining our political life for at least the last 50 years. Free market thinking, advanced by mainstream economists claiming to follow in the tradition of Adam Smith, has hollowed out democracy, Purdy contends, with the false promise that markets will naturally “reconcile conflicting desires” without coercion and friction. That is, they will if government only gets out of the way.

This same faith in markets, Purdy adds, has also helped business leaders and elite institutions build on earlier forms of “racial capitalism” and entrench ever-greater inequality in our political as well as social life. By this accounting, Trump, with his sales-pitch-style lies and kleptocratic habit of treating the presidency as a family cash machine, is just a late-stage manifestation of this considerably larger and longer trend. So are, Purdy suggests, decisions like Citizens United, which has for the past decade allowed money to flow ever so smoothly and discreetly from corporate headquarters into public servants’ coffers and thus has profoundly reshaped our politics around the interests and needs of the wealthy.

Purdy arguably overstates the degree to which elites and would-be elites prided themselves, at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, on being “postideological” and pretending that no more was at stake in political life than “marginal disagreements over the shape of good governance” in keeping with capitalist imperatives. Political opinion during the years of Bill Clinton’s presidency was hardly consensual, even on economic questions—as a number of new books on the rise of a distinctive post-Reagan right, led by figures like Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich, remind us. There is no doubt, though, that a “market-first” political economy, as Purdy puts it, was embraced to a considerable degree by both sides of the aisle and remains the root cause of many of our troubles today.

More original is Purdy’s claim that a focus on norms, culture, and customs, not to mention an “endless conversation” style of governing that he associates with former president Barack Obama, has simultaneously played a critical role in depleting real politics and establishing “an arbitrary limit to collective choice.” The villain in this part of the story is not an economist but a philosopher: Alexis de Tocqueville, who saw the success of American democracy in the 19th century as stemming in large part from shared mores, or what he described as preexisting habits of feeling and judgment derived from a common (read: white, patriarchal, lawyerly, and Christian) culture. In Tocqueville’s wake, Purdy argues, others—not least today, in response to Trump—have championed “democratic norms” again in the hope of limiting the scope and intensity of real political conflict, if not replacing democratic agonism entirely. But for Purdy, the very idea of a common culture, shared and ordinary, is actually a piece of convenient ideology, much like free market thinking, that is conservative at its core insofar as it disguises the fact that politics is primarily a contest over who gets what.

Indeed, the idea of shared mores also works to further solidify the cohesiveness and power of a financial and racial elite, Purdy points out. At a time when so much of the pundit class is eager to find ways to restore “a perduring American consensus” or to reignite a common set of political signs, symbols, and rituals, Purdy isn’t especially anxious about us not getting along. On the contrary, he thinks we need to duke it out—to fully engage on equal terms in the struggle over material distribution that is political life—if we want to make any headway on our most pressing concerns. (Here, Bernie Sanders gets a passing shout-out for bucking the dominant trend and offering the rare “ideas-based campaign” that is a vehicle for making demands previously long outside the political mainstream.) Purdy’s position is that “democracy does not take care of itself, any more than the economy, society, or the environment does. If we need democracy to address crises in all those areas, we also need to tend democracy’s own crises.” And like Hannah Arendt on lying, Purdy insists that a little norm-breaking along the way isn’t always so bad. It’s also a way to make things happen. Again, it is difficult to disagree at this moment.

So what would Purdy have us do? How fully should we upset the apple cart? Despite largely rejecting what he calls “solutionism,” Purdy offers up a grab bag of strategies, probably none of which are likely to be instituted anytime soon. Occasional but regular constitutional conventions allowing citizens to redefine and update the document’s terms (an idea now, ironically, also advocated by much of the antidemocratic right). Single primaries open to all candidates and all voters across party lines so that candidates closer to the majority opinion have a chance of winning in a general election. A democratized economy that is less horribly skewed in terms of the concentration of wealth at the top (though just how evenly the spoils should be divided is not spelled out). Checks on the self-serving sorting mechanisms used by elites, such as school admission tests that purport to measure worthiness rather than means. The cultivation of a new kind of patriotism consonant with pluralism.

Mainly, though, Purdy sees a better politics hinging on an expansion of the definition of “the people” to the point that ballot access is open to “everyone who is here,” the nation being for him the “here” that consistently matters. Purdy has considerable faith that if we just let the whole population vote—which is to say, institute real majority rule—good things will follow. His heroes in this story appear to be Hobbes, “an alchemist of political imagination” for first arguing that laws come from the people and that politics is a way to make collective choices, and W.E.B. Du Bois, for insisting that truly universal suffrage is essential to shaping a just economy as well as political life. In the end, Two Cheers for Politics is a panegyric not to individual rights (though Purdy sees them as crucial to the protection of minorities) or to the rule of law (though he stresses the importance of the peaceful transfer of power) but rather to what he calls “a collective decision among equals about how to live together”—or, really, hard-fought battles over values and policies, followed by mass elections.

Oddly, however, despite noting that what passes for democracy has grown exceptionally fragile and even potentially explosive in this moment, Purdy avoids the big, tough questions about majority rule. What about popular ignorance or lack of information? Consider the example of voters in my home state of Pennsylvania choosing judges from long lists of names they do not recognize for esoteric kinds of courts they have never heard of, not to mention ballot measures and referendums. If few of us have the time, inclination, or knowledge to understand who’s who or what’s what on our ballots, we cannot avoid—despite participating in the act of voting—ending up with decisions that are mainly a product of chance and in no way reflective of real majority sentiments. Then we are left with democracy in form only.

Purdy also has little to say about the lies and propaganda that riddle various forms of media today, aided by our legal and economic system. In the current cultural climate, is there not a risk that we will end up with deceived voters, who through no fault of their own, will make profound mistakes deciding what would constitute the common good? Would we really want more democracy at the moment when it comes to, say, crafting public health policy or what’s taught in our nation’s schools? There is a reason that referendums, for example, are often a very bad idea, even if they entail an ostensibly democratic style of decision-making.

But there is an even bigger threat that comes with too much faith in elections. What if “the people” knowingly and deliberately vote our democracy out—or, at a minimum, reinstall someone like Trump, who has already made it clear that neither real popular sovereignty, nor the division of powers, nor even respect for individual rights is important for him? It is hard to understand why Purdy is so convinced that a larger—or, really, any—electorate won’t sometimes choose to give away its power, not to mention use its collective voice in ways that make social and economic inequality even worse. Viktor Orbán’s self-proclaimed “illiberal” democracy in Hungary is a case in point. And if a legitimate election does result in the undoing of representative democracy in a liberal vein, what is the recourse? In the late stages of the French Revolution, its remaining defenders staged a series of undemocratic coups, ostensibly to “save the republic,” after elections produced results too far to the left or the right. Now, when an increasing number of Americans at both ends of the political spectrum are convinced that democracy is not what we live under in any case, I wonder how many of our fellow citizens would choose to safeguard our constitutional order—or whatever remains of it—by undemocratic means, including violence, or simply let it go.

All of which means that those of us on the left eager to see a more fully realized democratic country need to turn our attention to the ways we can stabilize our chaotic experiment in popular rule as well as expand it. For anything like democracy to be feasible, several low-level shared commitments—all of which are hard to come by in our pluralist, polarized, media-saturated environment—are, in fact, required. One is that there are some basic rules about procedure that must be followed in politics, as in a sports contest or chess match. Another is that truth matters, especially at the level of the fact, and is distinguishable from falsehood, even if we are going to fight over questions of interpretation. Yet another is that we have some minimal solidarity with others, seeing their fate as a matter of common concern, even when we might despise their opinions. Perhaps, too, our current system necessitates accepting that political life sometimes requires compromise, a term that Purdy never introduces but is probably essential, for example, to the problem of the surfeit of privately owned guns that threatens democracy in a different way. These commitments are all less lofty than “democratic norms.” But without this very minimal (and currently wobbly) foundation, it’s not clear that any kind of democracy can work or even continue as an aspiration. Nor is it clear why anyone will continue to put much faith in the opportunity to vote.

Some political theorists have already given up on democracy, arguing that we’d be better off with everything from randomly choosing leaders through lotteries to the installation of quasi-enlightened monarchs as public managers. Others, by contrast, have gone considerably farther than Purdy in calling for an expansion of democracy, suggesting, for instance, that voting be made compulsory, as in Australia and Brazil, if we really want to expand sovereignty to the whole population, or even that we forgo the link between citizenship and specific nation-states in favor of more universal arrangements.

Purdy aims, however, to keep at least one foot on the ground as he dares to imagine a better future. The “two cheers” of his title are still suggestive of the idealism and, in this depressing and cynical age, the surprising can-do spirit that Purdy brings to thinking about politics. A complex if elegantly written manifesto, this is a book intended to make you stop grousing on Twitter about everything that’s been lost and instead get you excited to return to the fray, to participate once more in the struggle that is real political life—even if, we might also observe, it is not at all certain that things will head his, or our, way anytime soon.

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