The U.S. political system is beset by a high degree of polarization and a low sense of common purpose. Should we blame democracy itself, or should we blame ourselves for the pathologies of our own politics? This question is explored in Is Democracy the Problem? , a recent essay by Thomas Carothers, who is a leading authority on international support for democracy, human rights, governance, the rule of law, and civil society.
In trying to explain the dispiriting descent of U.S. politics and governance into pervasive paralysis, conflict and sheer mediocrity, it is hard not to wonder if many of our ills result from intrinsic shortcomings of the democratic model itself—-democracy design flaws, if you will. This outlook is gaining appeal not just because of what is happening at home, but because so many other democracies are encountering similar problems while authoritarianism appears to be enjoying a global surge of self-confidence. As a result, not only are doubts about the value and wisdom of democracy getting a much wider hearing than they were a decade or two ago, so too are voices arguing that authoritarian regimes might be more capable and effective.
Democracy’s doubters tend to accuse democracy of suffering from at least five significant design flaws:
Short-termism: Due to their electoral cycles, democracies struggle to focus on long-term problems and usually remain mired in short-term policy approaches.
Pain aversion: To the limited extent they do manage to look to the long term, democratic politicians are averse to imposing near-term pain for long-term gain because of their need to keep voters happy for the next election.
Elite capture: By opening up decision-making power to competition among politicians who are constantly in need of money for elections, democratic systems are prone to becoming captured by the wealthy.
Division and conflict: Competitive elections foment or exacerbate destructive societal divisions, generating conflict and undercutting a strong sense of national unity and purpose.
Voter ignorance: Relying on ordinary citizens to choose leaders and make judgments among them based on policy performance condemns democracies to leadership and policy choices that reflect chronic voter ignorance and irrationality.
Certainly, these are all serious issues in the United States. Successive U.S. Administrations have proven woefully unable to focus sustained attention on a raft of major long-term challenges—whether it is infrastructure decay, the role of entitlement spending in the U.S. budget, or climate change—and unwilling to craft reforms that inflict short-term pain for the sake of long-term gain. The disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals and corporations in the U.S. legislative process is a well-known reality. With respect to political competition producing divisions and conflict, the U.S. political system is indeed beset by a high degree of polarization and a correspondingly low sense of common purpose. And looking at the state of U.S. political leadership today, it would be hard not to see voter ignorance and irrationality as major concerns.
But should we blame democracy itself, or should we blame ourselves for the pathologies of our own politics? In other words, are these problems in fact endemic to democracies? And are authoritarian governments largely able to avoid them, as some enthusiasts of authoritarianism claim?
The comparative empirical research on these questions is complex and does not always yield definite results. But at least some insights are available. They highlight that while many democratic systems do struggle with these issues, America’s political challenges in these domains are significantly of America’s own making. Moreover, most authoritarian systems do no better in these areas.
Although the analysis by Mr. Carothers mainly focuses on political dynamics at the federal level, the concerns he raises are equally valid at the state and local level: to the extent that short-termism, pain aversion, elite capture, division and conflict, and voter ignorance limit the effectiveness of democratic collective decision making at the local level, local democratic systems will fail to yield the results that are best all Americans.
Read the full essay at: https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/01/16/is-democracy-problem-pub-78137