Foreign Policy Blogs

Democracy at home

Democracy at home

The U.S. is one of the longest-standing continuous democracies on the planet. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get better. Photo: AP

This blog has looked at democracy and democracy promotion (or in some cases suppression) around the world. My aim is to look at how democracy works, and could work better.

I’ve covered elections far and wide, and while my focus is global it only seems right that I say something about one of the defining aspects of democracy in my home country: The people’s ability to freely and fairly elect their leaders. Plus if they don’t like the job those people do, they can be replaced with other people without fear of reprisal.

Despite its noble purpose, there are certainly aspects of U.S. democracy that could stand to be improved. Just look at the $6 billion the two presidential candidates spent on advertising, a ludicrous sum that could have been put to better use in about 6 billion different ways. Campaign spending has spiraled out of control; one of the most sorely needed election reforms in my opinion is the implementation of strict (and small) limits on campaign donations from corporations and individuals alike. This should (hopefully) help mitigate the system of politicians being beholden to certain interests because of their contributions. Think about how much more good could be done if candidates spent less time raising money and more time working on substantive plans to help people.

The evolution of the U.S. political system has resulted in extreme partisanship, where politicians say and do things because they believe their ideology dictates certain stances and actions. Nothing gets done because neither side will budge from its position. Being moderate, or — perish the thought — actually agreeing with the other side should not be seen as weakness.

And then there’s the electoral college system. It might have made sense in 1787, but is an anachronism in the 21st century. The electoral college marginalizes individual votes, and the winner-take-all setup essentially nullifies certain blocs of votes. This also has the effect of tying the result of a national election to the outcome of just a handful of swing states. Every vote in this democracy is supposed to be worth the same, but the electoral college makes this hard (in some ways virtually impossible) to achieve.

To my surprise a proposal exists to adapt the electoral college to accurately reflect all individual votes (aka the “popular vote” — ironically, I read about it in an Australian publication) without requiring a constitutional amendment. Such a change would significantly impact how campaigns are run and elections operate but its chances of being seriously considered are, unfortunately, next to nil.

Democracy in the U.S. has been around a long time, and has operated virtually the same over its entire existence. Americans should consider reviewing it and decide where changes would make it better. (Creating a meaningful multi/more than two party system perhaps? Term limits for Congress? Limit the campaign timeframe? Outlaw attack ads?)

Yet for all its flaws, the U.S. election system does accomplish its goal: The people choose who governs them. No democracy is perfect. As much as I and other may complain about the U.S. political process, I continue to firmly believe that democracy is the best choice we have. It is worth the struggle to maintain, promote and improve.



Scott Bleiweis

Scott Bleiweis writes on international relations topics for FPA. He has a M.A. in democracy studies and conflict resolution from the University of Denver, and a B.A. in Politics/International Studies from Brandeis University. Scott was formerly a Fulbright education scholar in Bulgaria (views in this blog are his own, and do not represent those of the Fulbright organization or U.S. government).

Scott supports Winston Churchill's characterization of the complex form of government known as democracy: “Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”