Why is democracy not working well in America? Why do so many Americans feel politically frustrated and powerless? Why does our government fail to respond to the concerns of the public and too often cater to special interests instead? Why are the governments of other countries more effective in addressing problems like poverty, global warming, and the cost of healthcare? How can we fix our political problems?
Diving into this website will answer all of these pressing questions. It details seventeen different ways that our democracy is failing, exposes the political and economic interests that benefit from these problems, reveals why other countries are better at doing democracy, and identifies the political reforms we need to adopt.
The inspiration for this project came from my many years teaching American Politics courses at Mount Holyoke College. Most of my students had an intuitive sense that American democracy was broken – that ordinary people are not heard by government, and that special interests often win out over the public interest. But they usually had only a vague idea of why this was this case. To help students better understand the causes of our democratic malaise, I would introduce them to two helpful analytic techniques: institutional analysis and comparative analysis. These two analytic approaches strongly inform this website’s exploration of what is wrong with American democracy and how we can fix it.
Institutional Analysis. When confronted with our democratic failures, most people tend to blame the usual suspects: sleazy politicians. But in reality, the causes of our political problems go much deeper and are primarily institutional– built into the very design and workings of our legislative institutions, election institutions, party systems, and so on. For instance, Americans often complain about the gridlock that afflicts Congress and blame inflexible politicians for being unwilling to compromise. But much of the problem is actually built into our separation of powers system of government, where there are so many opportunities to block legislation that it becomes immensely easier to stop a bill than to pass one. Or take another problem like the dominance of monied interests in our political system. The problem is not only that wealthy individuals and corporations are trying to buy political power, but that we have political institutions that make it easy for them to do so. For example, we have a campaign finance system that relies almost entirely on private money instead of public money. Importantly, thinking institutionally not only gives us a better understanding of our problems, but also enables us to identify the kinds of institutional reforms that are necessary to address them.
Comparative Analysis. Most Americans, like most of my students, tend to look at democracy solely through the lens of the United States. But when we start comparing U.S. political institutions with those in other major Western countries, we soon discover that these nations not only do democracy differently, but often do it much better. They do not appoint Supreme Court Justices for life. Their legislatures are not immobilized by gridlock. Their election systems make gerrymandering impossible. And they do not have two-party systems, but multi-party systems that better represent all voters. Their more democratic systems are one of the main reasons these countries are doing a better job of addressing public concerns like affordable health care, economic inequality, global warming, and affordable higher education.
If these other Western countries can make their governments more democratic and responsive to the public, why can’t we do that?
Our lack of awareness of how democracy is working better elsewhere also feeds political cynicism. If there is only one way to do democracy – the U.S. way – then it is hard to see a way out of our problems. On the other hand, understanding that most other developed countries don’t suffer from the same institutional failures of democracy can foster some hope for change. If these other countries can make their governments more democratic and responsive to the public, why can’t we do that? Why shouldn’t we have term limits for Supreme Court Justices like they do. And why shouldn’t we have election campaigns that rely more on public funds instead of special interest donations?
This website, by looking critically at American political institutions and comparing them to those in other advanced democracies, makes it clear that we have become a second-rate democracy – that our government is less representative and less responsive to the general public than it could be. It is my hope, however, that the information and analysis in this web project will contribute to the ongoing efforts to reform our institutions – so that we might actually have, in Lincoln’s words, “government of, by, and for the people.”
About Douglas J. Amy
I am a Professor Emeritus of Politics at Mount Holyoke College. I taught American Politics there for over 30 years. One of my main areas of research was alternative voting systems, and I have been making the case for using ranked-choice voting and proportional representation in the United States. My books include Real Choices/New Voices: How Proportional Representation Elections Could Revitalize American Democracy, which won the George H. Hallett Award from the American Political Science Association. My most recent work was a web project called Government Is Good: An Unapologetic Defense of a Vital Institution – governmentisgood.com. It critiques the right-wing’s demonizing of government and explains government’s crucial role in improving Americans’ lives and promoting the public good. That site has attracted several million visitors and has been used in many classrooms.