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How Democratic is American Democracy?

  • brendagiven
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Illustration: Mitch Blunt, The Guardian

America’s democratic system has evolved over several hundred years to favor people as the ultimate authority over government, majority rule and minority rights, along with social equality, not too much or too little government, checks and balances to prevent too much concentration of power and the rule of law.

At least those are our aspirations. The founders described the goal of our democratic system, as the “balanced center” between anarchy and political oppression. It’s a constantly moving target, with many competing factions, that create never ending tensions, between what the people want and what’s practical, good governance. Plus, the intensifying role of globalization and technology add a layer of complexity the founders could never have imagined.

We all probably underappreciate government, since we don’t have firsthand experience. However, it’s painfully clear to most Americans that today’s government neither represents what the people want nor provides good governance. We’ve lost confidence in a degrading democratic system where power has all but slipped out of the people’s hands and government has become dysfunctional, unable to carry out its most basic responsibilities.

Increasingly, public policy doesn’t reflect the preferences of Americans, who favor tightly regulated campaign contributions, congressional term limits, tax incentives for green energy, citizenship for dreamers, higher taxes for the wealthy, more affordable healthcare, a higher minimum wage, stricter gun control and free public colleges, among other things.

Legislators are controlled by monied special interests who literally write public policy (there are more than 20 lobbyists for every member of Congress). In the 19thcentury, lobbying was a felony in many states. As late as the 1960’s, major corporations did not lobby for their own interests, for fear of public reprisal. Today, large corporations spend $34 for every dollar spent lobbying for unions or the public interest.

Big money has transformed the work and lives of our representatives. Parties instruct freshman legislators to spend 4 hours a day calling donors. Congress spends so much time with lobbyists and donors they long ago came to share their views over those of constituents. As a result, many of the reforms Americans want are effectively off-limits.

Presidential power has swelled largely unchecked. In the last 50 years, beginning with John Kennedy, executive departments and independent agencies have grown organically to keep pace with growing demands, and presidents have “stretched” the limits of the office, esp. in foreign affairs and war making (resulting in several very unpopular conflicts).

There are now 15 executive departments along with literally hundreds of independent federal agencies and commissions (no one really knows how many), who make thousands of policies on their own, mostly free of democratic debate or legislative oversight.

Importantly, it’s been largely ignored that power has been shifting to independent agencies like the CIA, EPA, FTC, SEC, etc. In 2007, Congress enacted 138 public laws as compared to 2,926 regulations enacted by federal agencies.

These agencies have little accountability to the people or Congress, despite dealing with technically complicated and politically controversial issues. And they are typically led by technocrats from industry seeking to increase their influence and line their pockets, aka the infamous “revolving door” between government and industry.

The judiciary has become politicized and now plays an outsized role in settling major political conflicts, with many of their decisions amplifying the undemocratic elements of our system and undermining public trust. Citizen United, for example, very unpopular with 78% of Americans, serves to make it easier for monied interests to override the preferences of the population indefinitely.

Gerrymandering allows politicians to select their voters rather than the voters to choose their representatives. The process, streamlined by technology, spreads opposition voters thinly across many districts to dilute their power or concentrates them in fewer districts to reduce the number of seats they can win. It encourages long-term incumbency and intensifies polarization, since politicians only need to appeal to their base rather than to a wider electorate, and often results in minority over majority rule.

Washington is obsessed with partisan point scoring, rather than getting things done for the good of the Country. The United States has become a byword for gridlock. Congress can’t make even the simplest decisions or pass a budget to keep the government open. The common good in a pluralist democracy is not possible without good faith collaboration.

American democracy, once a beacon of hope around the world, is in trouble. All three branches of government are wrecking the world’s flagship democracy. Washington does not represent the will of the people and is poor at governing. The current system is not sustainable. Americans are fed up with the corruption, disregard for the electorate and partisan gridlock. Change is inevitable.

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Author: brendagiven

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