Democratic systems of government are supposed to reflect the interests of ordinary citizens, and not some shadowy political elite.
This week we're thinking about Democracy in Crisis. Now if we're talking about American Democracy, then our title is pretty optimistic, since it presupposes there is an American democracy to be in crisis. If you told me the passenger pigeon was in crisis, that would also be optimistic, since the passenger pigeon went extinct a century or so ago.
Why isn't it crazy to think that American democracy has gone extinct? Consider the 2014 election, where the Democrats won a considerable majority of the votes for the House of Representatives, but the Republicans took over the House. The issue there is gerrymandering -- electoral districts whose borders have been manipulated to favor one patty. That's a problem -- but does it mean we don't have a democracy?
Well think a little further back to the election of 2000, when Al Gore got more votes but George Bush became President. You may think that's just the whining of a dyspeptic depressed and desperate democrat with a small "d", rather than a philosopher worried about democracy with a capital "D". But the problem is larger than the impotence and incompetence of the Democrats, or the ignorance and venality of the Republicans (not to betray any bias here). The problem is the very structure of our supposedly democratic institutions.
Democracy is supposed to mean majority rule. But even in the House and Senate, the majority doesn't rule. In the last term, when the democrats were the Senate majority, they couldn't get approval for the President's appointments, because of the filibuster. Even in the House, bills that would have easily passed weren't allowed to come to a vote, unless a majority of the Republican caucus favored them.
According to the Constitution, the President is supposed to have a veto, which can only be overridden by a supermajority. But in reality, every Senator has a veto that can only be overridden by a supermajority voting for cloture. And the majority leader in the House has a veto that no one can override. We have don't have a demo-cracy -- we have a veto-cracy.
But does all that mean American democracy has gone the way of the dodo or the passenger pigeon? Even that may be an optimistic question -- at least the passenger pigeon and the dodo existed for a while. Did we ever have a Democracy in America? Not in the beginning, when the majority -- women plus African-Americans -- didn't have the vote. The Senate was intentionally un-democratic, and it's gotten worse. As Californians, our influence on the Senate is statistically insignificant compared to someone from Delaware or Alaska.
The Founding Fathers did build in a feature that allowed for change: constitutional amendment. Amendments enfranchised African-Americans -- in theory, at least -- and eventually women, too. There probably won't be an amendment to abolish the Senate any time soon, but it certainly doesn't seem hopeless to think of getting rid of gerrymandering with an amendment. Or even limiting the filibuster. Or having direct elections for the presidency. Or overturning Citizens United. Of course you'd have to convince me that the Koch brothers and the other rich people who buy our elections are in favor of those amendments. The Supreme Court's Ruling in the Citizens United effectively disenfranchised the non-rich.
The system more or less sucks from top to bottom. Even if an intelligent honest politician sneaks into office, he or she has to spend all of their time raising money for the next election. We've set things up to discourage competent people from seeking office, and then handed out vetoes to the charlatans who sell their souls and get elected.
So are there any grounds for optimism in this crisis? Our guest, Francis Fukuyama, was famously optimistic about democracy at the end of the 20th century. Tune in to hear what has to say about the danger of decay in democratic political systems.