October 30, 2018 / 2:11 PM / in a month

Commentary: Is the U.S. still a real democracy?

A voter registration sign appears during a registration drive by voting rights group New Project Georgia in Austell, Georgia, U.S. February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

Voters in established democracies are accustomed to going to the polls to choose between parties with competing visions, programs or ideologies. For those who live in countries where freedoms are limited, however, the choice at the ballot box often is not about candidates or issues but about free and fair elections – and even the right to vote. Is the United States heading in that direction?

As Americans prepare to make their choices in the Nov. 6 pivotal midterms, there are substantive issues like climate change and immigration policies that separate the two main parties. But to an extent that is unprecedented in the post-Civil Rights era, the issue of democracy itself has unmistakably crept on to the U.S. ballot.

In consolidated democracies, including many in Europe and North America, democracy is about choosing an economic program, determining a country’s foreign policy direction or deciding a set of positions on domestic issues like marriage equality or approaches to policing. However, in countries that are not quite democratic, either because the democracy is not yet fully formed or because democracy is eroding, elections are different. In countries in the former Soviet Union, Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, elections frequently pit incumbent parties seeking to limit freedoms of speech and assembly and prevent fair elections against an opposition party or bloc whose primary campaign program is essentially democracy itself.

In 2018, American elections are beginning to look disturbingly like those in less democratic countries. For example, in the race for governor of Georgia, one candidate, Republican Brian Kemp, who as secretary of state is charged with administering Georgia’s elections, has sought to disenfranchise tens of thousands of mostly African-American voters. In Kansas, the Republican candidate for governor, Kris Kobach, gained national notoriety when President Donald Trump appointed him to lead a commission on voter fraud, a problem that very rarely occurs in the United States. Kobach has spent much of his career advocating restrictions on voting rights that would have the effect of making it more difficult for people, particularly those who are not white, to vote. In several other states, such as Iowa, Missouri and North Carolina, Republicans have enacted legislation in the last two years that makes it more difficult for people to cast their ballots.

In addition to the two parties taking different positions on voting rights, Republican-controlled state governments in Oklahoma and Louisiana have passed laws that either increase the penalties for protesting or otherwise curtail activities that are protected by First Amendment rights to assembly and speech. Several other states have similar legislation pending. This occurs in the context of a Republican president who has proposed limiting the right to protest and has frequently described the media as “enemies of the people.”

One area for potential optimism is that the debate over democracy in the United States is surprisingly robust, and increasingly public. Advocates for greater democracy call for repealing laws that erect barriers to voting and for more liberal interpretations of the First Amendment. Others argue that the Constitution was meant to limit democracy, that there is nothing in that document about making it easy for people to vote and that America is a republic not a democracy.  The discussion has gotten uglier since the election of Trump – who, after George W. Bush in 2000, is the second Republican this century to win the presidency without winning the popular vote – and the bitterness over Brett Kavanaugh being confirmed to the Supreme Court by senators representing a minority of Americans, thus laying bare the undemocratic nature of giving all states two senators each, regardless of dramatic differences in population. This is not good for the stability and legitimacy of the U.S. government, but may slowly help make the country more democratic.

It is now likely that the next time the Democrats get national power they will seek structural changes to address what some are calling a crisis of democratic legitimacy in the United States. Some of the proposals aimed at addressing this include expanding the number of Supreme Court judges or granting statehood for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, thus allowing their diverse populations to elect their own senators and reducing the racial inequality that is – at least for now due to the number of small heavily white states – baked into the U.S. Senate. These are partisan positions, but they reflect the growing awareness among Democrats that the democratic deficits in American political structures all seem to favor Republicans.

Much of this will not be resolved in the midterm elections. The way the Senate is constituted, the process for confirming Supreme Court justices and electing presidents is not on the ballot. Nonetheless, those who want a truly democratic America are beginning to realize that these structures will need to change – and that the national debate about democracy is increasingly become part of U.S. politics.

About the Author

Lincoln Mitchell is a writer and scholar based in New York and San Francisco. He teaches in Columbia University’s Political Science Department. @LincolnMitchell

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.

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