Second Rate Democracy

Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than other Major Western Countries and How We Can Do Better

A web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor Emeritus of Politics, Mount Holyoke College

Seventeen Ways America is Less Democratic than other Major Western Countries and How We Can Do Better

A web project of Douglas J. Amy, Professor Emeritus of Politics, Mount Holyoke College

Second-Rate Democracy: Introduction

The United States is the country that democracy left behind. At its founding, the U.S. was on the cutting edge of democracy. Our Constitution rejected rule by kings and pioneered democratic innovations like civil liberties. But in the 200 years since, democratic institutions have continued to evolve – with improvements in legislatures, elections, the judiciary, party systems, and so on. Other Western nations, with more modern constitutions, have taken advantage of these institutional advances and made their democracies fairer, more representative, and more accountable to their citizens. We haven’t followed suit and we’ve become a second-rate democracy, with a government mired in gridlock, dominated by monied interests, and unresponsive to the public.

Most Americans have a sense that our political system is broken, but few realize that democracy is working much better in most other Western countries. Or that these other developed democracies have rejected many of the basic institutional characteristics that define the U.S political system.  Consider the following:

  • Besides Denmark, no other advanced democracy follows the U.S. example and appoints Supreme Court justices for life – all now have mandatory term limits or age limits for justices.
  • None use an Electoral College that allows a minority of voters to choose its chief executive.
  • Most use different voting systems that make gerrymandering impossible and create more representative multi-party legislatures.
  • None have anything like our misrepresentative Senate that gives the 40 million voters in the 22 smallest states forty-four seats, while giving 40 million Californians two seats.
  • Nearly all have rejected our conflict-prone separation-of-powers model of government and have chosen instead a more cooperative parliamentary system that avoids the legislative gridlock that plagues our government.
  • And all rely much more on public money, not private money from rich organizations and individuals, to fund their election campaigns.

Americans like to brag that we have the oldest constitution and the oldest political system. But that’s like bragging that your phone has the oldest operating system. Democracy has moved on and improved, but we have not.

In short, compared to other leading Western countries, our political system has become outmoded and less democratic than it could be. Americans like to brag that we have the oldest constitution and the oldest political system in the world. But this is like bragging that your phone has the oldest operating system. Democracy has moved on and improved, but we have not. The results are deeply disturbing.  In a now famous study of twenty years of congressional policymaking, Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens found that “the average citizen exerts little or no influence on federal government policy … they are drowned out by the affluent and organized interest groups – especially by business groups and corporations.” Their troubling conclusion: “if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

But why should Americans care about this lack of democracy?  Because every day we suffer from the results of our undemocratic system in terms of inferior government services and unaddressed societal problems. Falling behind in democracy has meant that the U.S. has fallen behind other major countries in responding to public demands to tackle the pressing challenges of our age.  For instance, the governments in most other leading Western democracies do a much better job of reducing poverty, providing retirement security, enacting climate change controls, delivering affordable and universal health care, enacting reasonable controls of firearms, encouraging economic mobility, offering affordable higher education, investing in vital infrastructure, creating more affordable housing, reducing economic inequality, and raising minimum wages.

Polls cited by Page and Gilens show a majority of  Americans want to see our government do more in all these areas. For example, 75% want the government to reduce greenhouse gasses, 70% want stricter assault weapon laws, 64% want the federal government to make higher education more available and affordable, and 75% want a higher minimum wage. But our government has thwarted the will of the people and has consistently failed to enact policies the public wants – an indication that something is deeply wrong with our democracy. And it is unlikely that we will get the policies we want unless we first improve our second-rate democracy.

Countries where the quality of democracy is high also tend to have citizens who are more satisfied in general with their lives.

Given all this, it is not surprising that a 2020 global survey found that the U.S. now ranks 34th in public satisfaction with our democracy, trailing most other advanced Western democracies and even some countries in Africa and Latin America. Over half of Americans are now “unsatisfied” with our democracy, and we are classified as a “democracy in malaise” – just one step above a “democracy in crisis.”  And studies have found that the degree to which people are satisfied with their democracy is one of the factors affecting their feelings of general wellbeing: “Countries where the quality of democracy is high also tend to have citizens who are more satisfied in general with their lives.”

This website details how widespread the democratic failures are in this country. The articles here identify seventeen different ways our political system functions less democratically than it could.  Each of these articles: (1) examines how the workings of an important part of the U.S. political system violate essential democratic standards and values; (2) reveals the political and economic interests who benefit from these malfunctioning political institutions; (3) considers how other major democracies have lessened or avoided these problems; (4) identifies what political reforms should be adopted in the U.S.; and (5) evaluates how likely it is that these reforms will take place.

Other countries are doing better at democracy in large part because they have different political institutions.

Many Americans tend to blame the “usual suspects” for our misfiring democracy: uncaring politicians and political parties out of touch with the public. But these articles show that most of the problem here is institutional: located in the organization and procedures of our basic political institutions. Other countries are doing better at democracy in large part because they have very different political institutions – ones designed to respond better to the public.  If we want more democracy in the United States, we have to take a more critical look at our own institutions and be willing to learn important lessons from how other democracies now operate.

The path to reforming American politics does not require us to think up entirely new institutional arrangements.  We can learn a lot from the democratic practices that we already know are working well in other Western societies – such as public financing of elections, proportional representation voting, and term limits for justices.  Some of what they do would not translate well to the U.S. – for example, we are not becoming a parliamentary system any time soon!  And there is no sugar coating it: enacting institutional reforms in our political system is a very difficult task that can only be accomplished with help of large and active citizen movements.  Nevertheless, it is hopeful to know that democracy is working differently and better in other countries. It reminds us that it is certainly possible to have a political system that is more democratic, more representative, and more responsive to the general public.

read the methodology:  How to Evaluate a Country’s Democracy.


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