Defending democracy is inherently difficult. Reminding ourselves why the job is so problematic helps point the way towards a more effective defense.
Our democracy does need defending and strengthening. The share of Americans who said they trust our federal legislative branch a fair amount or more fell by 36 percentage points between 1972 and 2017. The share of Americans who said they trust the executive branch declined by 28 percentage points over the same period. Between 2010 and 2017, the USA slipped in the democracy indices constructed by Freedom House. We lost ground in all three indices for political rights and two of the four indices for civil liberties. In addition, some Americans are also worried that the behavior of the current president and his cabinet risks further weakening our democracy.
How is it that we have let things slip? Judge Learned Hand observed that even the best constitutions would not survive if citizens are not willing to defend them. Barry Weingast, an American political scientist and economist, suggests coordination difficulties are the problem rather than willingness. He argued that politicians are more likely to overstep their boundaries when they sense the citizens are divided. We can avoid this, he said, if we create a united and credible front capable of punishing behavior and actions that harm citizens. To do that, we need to agree on a set of limits to political behavior and actions along with credibly costly consequences, and we need a system of incentives to ensure enough of us will apply our agreed consequences to all politicians who act against the common good.
Weingast tells us that reaching agreement on binding political limits and consequences is an inherently difficult three-part coordination problem. First, we do not all share the same concerns and values. For example, even though many people would agree that political bribery is unacceptable, a federal judge who had been impeached for accepting a bribe in exchange for granting a mild penalty was later elected to the US House of Representatives. Concerns change over time too. For example, after a decades-long effort, enough of a consensus emerged that racially-driven voter suppression could no longer be tolerated. This situation led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The act was repeatedly challenged, however, and by 2013, portions were overturned by the US Supreme Court. Several states quickly revised their voter registration laws in ways that were more restrictive than before.
The cure for this first problem is to undertake the hard work of negotiation and CIVIC EDUCATION aimed at keeping fresh our consensus on limits on political actions, even if they are not everyone’s ideal limits. We know it is possible: the founding fathers negotiated the constitution that we have today not only directly but also through protracted debates throughout society in each of the colonies. Our constitution contains critical limits on political behavior along with applicable consequences including prosecutions and impeachment. It does not matter, however, if we renegotiate the constitution itself so long as a solid consensus is achieved in some form. The probability of that happening might be increased with the right kind of leadership or perhaps as a result of some major event or revelation.
The second part of Weingast’s coordination problem has to do with unity. It is difficult to ensure enough legislators will take concerted action when an executive office holder misbehaves because a good portion of them come from the same party as the executive. For example, before the resignation of Richard Nixon, very few Republican legislators were willing to consider impeachment. It made sense for them to try to defend Nixon and, in so doing, defend their party’s brand. Similarly, it is difficult to devise incentives for voters to hold accountable a coalition of legislators that fails to punish an errant executive – because a lot of us benefit. We do not like it when our political enemies use dirty tricks, but we often remain silent when leaders in our own party use them.
The remedy for this second problem is to convince enough people that they will be better off over time by punishing all errant politicians, rather than turning a blind eye to their favorite politicians’ misdeeds. Getting enough people to stand up for what is right might seem challenging, but the evidence shows that Americans have done so over and over: every year one can read stories of at least one politician who was removed from office for bribery, extortion, vote rigging and other crimes. For example, a state politician was found guilty in 2012 of bribing citizens for their votes. In another example, a US representative was found guilty in 2013 of conspiracy, extortion, money laundering, and making false statements to insurance regulators.
High stakes politics can lead to a third coordination problem. In fact, the political stakes have been raised along racial lines by the 2013 Supreme Court ruling vacating portions of the Voting Rights Act. The increased polarization of party politics along racial lines further exacerbates the situation. Politicians or blocks of voters who believe losing political power is a threat to their way of life will be willing to fight harder, nastier, and possibly outside of constitutional boundaries to resist punishment for any constitutional infractions.
The response to this third problem is to find ways to reduce high political stakes. Part of the answer might be to direct people’s attention away from polarized issues and towards cross-cutting issues such as old-age security where solutions would benefit almost everyone. Another part of the answer might be to work with all concerned to ensure there will be no agenda to disenfranchise entire parties or voting blocks – to clearly establish that the only concern should be to punish the bad actors within a party or block rather than the party or block itself.
To summarize, there are good reasons why defending democracy is so difficult. It is inherently difficult for any large population to agree on what is politically tolerable and not, to find ways to stand united, and to make sure the stakes of political competition are not too high. The evidence shows that we can and do find ways to overcomes these challenges. The recent slippages in trust and democracy scores should only motivate us to work even harder.