The current state of democracy in the United States is a topic that has been increasingly discussed, especially over the last three years. Schedler’s model of democracy points the US democracy at the stage of avoiding economic breakdown, characterized by anti-system actors that pose a threat to democracy, resembling the radical figurehead currently in power (Schedler, 1998: 4). This paper will introduce several defects in the quality of democracy in the US and examine whether they put the country below the threshold of polyarchy. In addition, introducing a constitutional change that will address the major defect to the democracy. However, before identifying the defects, it is important to understand the criteria that the US is being assessed upon. According to Dahl, democracy is a sense of equality among citizens to decide how a government should function (Dahl, 1998: 38). He lays out several institutions that must be present to deem a regime as democratic. James McGuire summarized Dahl’s criteria as fair, periodic, and inclusive elections, basic civil and political rights, and authority for elected officials. Overall, the United States possesses each of these criteria, however, there are areas for improvement among them.
One of the major defects in the quality of democracy is regarding the citizens that encompass the democracy. Singh expresses the importance of voter turnout in elections as it judges the legitimacy of figures of power. With very high rates of voter turnout, it is clear that the people of power possess much more legitimacy than states with lower rates of turnout. This is because, in states with lower voter turnout, there is always the question of what would have happened if everyone had voted, would the results have been different (Singh, 2018: 15)? In the United States, only 56% of Americans voted in the 2016 election. The US has a high proportion of registered voters voting, however, a much lower proportion of those in the total voting-age population voting (Desilver, 2018: 1,3). This statistic would make sense if it was a slight difference, however, the number is much greater, and therefore leads us to believe that there is an issue in the difficulty of registering to vote.
Next, social polarization between parties is a reason for the defects in the quality of democracy in the US. The presence of two “catch-all” parties fosters a lot of political competition, which can be considered as good, until it goes too far. “In so doing, they sorted voters into rival and increasingly hostile partisan camps, strengthening partisan identities as well as forms of “negative partisanship” marked by their antipathy for one side or the other” (Roberts, 2019: 137). This phenomenon can be demonstrated in an experiment where Brennen presented subjects two versions of social welfare policy, one very generous, and one stringent. When judging the policy as is, respondents picked the ones consistent with their own values. However, if the policies were attributed to either of the parties, the participants blindly sided with their respective parties (Brennan, 2016: 40). This is evidence that social polarization is extending to a level that is not healthy for the development of the US democracy as people are beginning to make decisions solely based on their party affiliation.
Lastly, one of the defects to the quality of democracy that is especially important to understand in the current state of government is how the Republican party is dismantling institutions. For example, hits to the legislature and judiciary allow Trump and the Republican party to harness more power, which can cause issues in the quality of democracy. In terms of legislature gains, “Electoral victories of autocrats are converted into dominant legislative majorities that acquiesce to the concentration of executive power.” (Kaufman & Haggard, 2019: 418 ) On the other hand, for the judiciary, in only one term, Trump has appointed two questionable Supreme Court justices that support his agenda. Although there is the separation of powers, the centralized Republican party can use this advantage across multiple institutions to coordinate between them for their own agenda.
Do these Defects drop the US below Polyarchy
Although these defects exist and affect the US democracy, they do not necessarily drop the US below the threshold of polyarchy. In terms of Dahl’s criteria pointed out earlier, the US still possesses all of these factors. As for the more intricate issues to the quality of democracy, the article titled ‘Why the US Democracy will Survive Trump’ lays out the reasons for which the US proves more resilient than the damage that Trump caused in the country. Firstly, the main reason would be the existence of checks and balances so that one branch of government is not holding complete power. In addition, Trump does not have complete support from his party, therefore, confirmation from the Congress is much more difficult than just a rubber stamp. Madrid wrote, “The United States’ new chief executive must deal with two established parties: one that adamantly opposes him, and another that has only reluctantly embraced him and that he does not control.” (Madrid & Weyland, 2019: 155) This quote explains the struggle that Trump has in controlling his party, meaning he can’t cause too much damage to the democracy.
To add on, Trump does not possess much support among the electorate. Not only did he lose the popular vote when he was first elected, but his approval ratings are only around 40%. This can hinder Trump’s power in gaining votes for the next election. With checks and balances hindering his power, as well as little support from both his party and the electorate, Trump’s damage to the quality of democracy doesn’t seem to be extreme enough to bring the US below a minimum democracy.
Though the US democracy is not yet at the threshold, we are slowly approaching and there is definitely a need for change so that we don’t backslide any further. The biggest threat to democracy is regarding polarization and the dismantling of regime level checks and balances. One change that can improve this aspect could be to apply a further check on the president through requiring term limits for those serving on the Supreme Court. This is an important proposal because, in the current system, parties don’t have any incentive to hire a qualified judge, but instead the youngest and most partisan nominee that can gain Senate’s votes (Peters, 2018). This results in a partisan battle at nearly every appointment.
In terms of specifics, a limit of 10 years would allow judges to still have an impact and establish a legacy while reducing the political stakes at risk. ‘Fix the Courts’ is an organization that supports a term limit on justices while providing balances that allow this branch of government to still hold significant power. They propose that after their term, justices may continue as fully functioning senior justices by sitting on lower courts. (Roth, 2018). This constitutional change would have several benefits to the quality of democracy,
A major benefit would be reducing polarization. The public would learn to accept greater variability in rulings, as people are no longer serving indefinitely. It would allow for better reflection of the public’s views as the court justices will be cycled through more quickly and allow for representation of more current viewpoints. Polarization is exacerbated when one power is in control for too long, and the other begins to get frustrated with their lack of representation. With a greater rotation of justices, one party can’t continue to build power for a long time.
In addition, one of the major problems for democracy that was highlighted in Roberts article was regarding the consolidation of power across institutions. With this change of introducing term limits, this issue would be eradicated. The rotation of power will make it more difficult for a single president to exercise control over every branch of the government. The judiciary will eventually become more independent, therefore more difficult for a president to incorporate their power from. This change will clearly provide this benefit of reducing colluding among institutions, as well as reduce political polarization.
This policy could be seen as being quite conflictual to pass due to who is currently in power. The Republicans currently hold an advantage in nearly every branch, which could pose an issue in getting this constitutional change passed. These figures were all elected to power because of the system currently in place, so it could be argued that they would never agree to a policy that could strip them of power. However, in a 2017 poll, 66% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans support the idea of 10-year term limits (Peters, 2018) The Democrat representatives in the Senate would also likely support this change to supreme court limits, as it would likely allow more democratic leaning justices to be appointed. Depending on the next few elections, if a Democrat comes into power they could also decide to support this policy as it would prevent a situation similar to what we currently have where the Republicans have the power across every institution. Although it would be difficult to pass, there are many benefits that imposing term limits for Supreme Court justices would bring for the US democracy that are worth the hardships.
In conclusion, the United States has several issues that affect the quality of democracy including voter tendencies, the effect of polarization, and the current government dismantling institutions. However, in terms of the basic foundations for a polyarchy, the country is still considered a democracy. As we are approaching the threshold for a minimum democracy, one change that would greatly improve the quality of democracy would be to enact term limits for Supreme Court justices at about 10-year limits. This would not only reduce polarization but also eliminate consolidation of power between the branches of government. Though this change could be difficult to enact, it is likely to improve democracy and reduce backsliding enough to be worth the challenge.