The 2020 U.S. presidential election shone a light on the paper-thin façade of American democracy. Though traditionally very willing to intercede in international affairs in the name of democracy, in 2020, North America’s own democratic crisis played out before the whole world. But this democratic breakdown cannot be blamed on one celebrity politician and his cult of personality. The legitimacy of U.S. democracy has always been dubious, at best.
The issue is three-fold, and we will consider each factor in turn. In brief: at the nation’s very inception, the Founding Fathers deliberately avoided using the term ‘democracy’, writing oligarchic precedence into the U.S. Constitution. Second, as a result of this the U.S. has legally failed to operate as a democracy, especially through widespread structural electoral exclusion and voter suppression. The third layer is that democratic elements are further undermined, practically and deliberately, as public discourse is manipulated by misinformation and echo chambers. In short, the U.S. was never designed to be a democracy, nor has it ever functioned as one.
The fact that roughly six-in-ten Americans believe they have a functioning democracy appears almost incredible in the light of the Founding Fathers’ aversion to it. This is reflected in the words of Elbridge Gerry, one of the Constitution’s signatories, “Democracy… [was] the worst… of all political evils.” The Founders believed democracy was self-destructive, as it prioritises limited interests at the expense of the common good, and so exacerbates factionalism. As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper Ten: “Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
In response to this danger, the Federalist Papers birthed the idea of a U.S. republic, whereby the democratic tyranny of the majority would be curtailed. A republic seeks to protect minorities from being eclipsed by the majority, which is the tendency of a pure democracy. The Founders sought to avoid such a marginalisation of minority opinions by checking the people’s right to self-govern. Whilst this republican ideal, like democracy, places popular sovereignty subject to the ‘will of the people’, the vital difference between the two systems lies in the way that a republic manifests this will less directly. In the U.S. republic, the will of the people is instantiated through a range of mediators, including the Electoral College system for presidential selection, and legislatures who interpret this will on the people’s behalf.
For all these reasons, although the U.S. Constitution undeniably has democratic elements, these cannot be viewed as proof of its inherent democratic nature. Rather, the U.S. is a subpar democracy, where the will of the whole people cannot be determined because of the silencing of a significant proportion of the population. Instead, a Congressional elite amplifies the voices of the wealthy and already powerful. We might even call this an oligarchy.
If democracy is a system of governance by the people, usually through elected representatives, oligarchy is governance by a small group of people, with the rest excluded from the electoral system. As we shall see, the U.S. structurally disenfranchises many people.
Despite two-thirds of the eligible population voting in the 2020 election – the highest in over a century – inclusion is dependent upon more than the voter-turnout of a limited electorate. The NYU Brennan Centre for Justice argues that voter suppression has been widespread for over two decades, imposing “barriers in front of the ballot box” through strict voter ID laws.
This directly disadvantages many minority groups. For lower-income citizens the price of document fees, travel expenses, and waiting times may be prohibitive, costing between $75 and $175. The less mobile are disadvantaged too; some people must travel 170 miles to the nearest government ID office. It also works to the detriment of minority groups such as African Americans, 25 percent of whom lack government-issued ID compared to 8 percent of white voters. African Americans are also asked for their ID more frequently.
Since the 2010 election, 15 states have mandated strict voter ID laws, serving to disenfranchise 600,000 in Texas alone. In the face of 11 percent of Americans (equalling 21 million people) lacking photo IDs, the claim that ID laws protect democratic legitimacy against fraud appears paradoxical and deceptive. The opposite seems to be the case: ID laws stem from an intention of limiting inclusion and thus serve to prevent, rather than bolster, democracy.
The façade of U.S. democracy is further undermined through the disenfranchisement of felons, applied indiscriminately to murderers, rapists, drug launderers, and those convicted of driving under the influence. This disenfranchises an additional 4.7 million people, and in three states bars them from voting for life. Again, this disproportionately affects a thirteenth of African Americans compared to one in 56 non-black voters.
In a country with widely recognised structural racism within the criminal justice system, this undermines the democratic principle of the will of the people as innocent people are caught up within this systemic exclusion.
The Sentencing Project finds that “African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely.” They are more likely to be convicted, and more likely to receive longer prison sentences. Even those with a misdemeanour but no felony are barred from voting in several states.
Widespread electoral exclusion is further exacerbated through partisan gerrymandering, the process of redistributing electoral constituency boundaries to favour a political party or class. This deliberately devalues the votes of those with opposing views. If democracy should equally weigh and apply the will of the people, then it would appear that the practice of gerrymandering falls short of this standard.
In the U.S., gerrymandering occurs once every decade. This has shifted an average of 59 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, across the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections. While 20 shifted in favour of the Democrats, 39 moved towards the Republicans, resulting in a net increase of 19 seats in favour of the Republican Party.
Such partisan gerrymandering frequently disadvantages minority ethnic groups. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers had illegally racially gerrymandered in manipulating lines between two North Carolina congressional districts, as it “packed black voters into fewer districts to dilute their voting power.” This does meet the standards of the Voting Rights Act, which sometimes necessitates that black voters are focussed enough in certain districts to be able to “elect their preferred candidate.” The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the decision had been made for far more manipulative reasons.
If we understand electoral democracy as the process wherein the application of the people’s will is legitimised, it is a wonder that the two-party system can be considered democratic. Parties function as political and legal agents of different ideologies, and thus without electoral representation, those with less centrist ideologies are disenfranchised.
On an international scale, the Democratic Party appears politically reductive, as in global terms it is positioned as relatively conservative, despite incorporating people with a wide range of more left-wing ideologies. Noam Chomsky argues that the U.S. electoral system consists of “basically one party - the business party. It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations of the same policies.” A 2016 study finds that Democrats agree with Chomsky, with 46 percent feeling that neither party reflected their own opinions.
Indeed, in 2020, not only did Joe Biden pick up many conservative Republican votes, but Jill Biden also called her husband a “moderate.” The U.S.’s reductive two-party system disenfranchises the left-wing, marginalising them from electoral democracy and encouraging them to voice their opinions through less legitimate means.
The importance of money within politics additionally supports the U.S. oligarchy. The plutocratic governing class can be perhaps most clearly seen in the recent presidential elections. Of the nine presidential candidates over the past two decades, all were at least millionaires. The ‘poorest’ was Al Gore in 2000, with a net worth of $1.7 million. The wealthiest was Donald Trump in 2016 with a net worth of $3 billion. Both John Kerry in 2004 and Mitt Romney in 2012 possessed over $100 million.
We see the same unrepresentative level of wealth reflected in Congress. In the 116th Congress leadership teams (across both the Democratic and Republican parties, the House of Representatives and the Senate), half (9/18) of the politicians were millionaires, with the richest having a net worth of $115 million. This, compared with the median net worth of U.S. citizens being $52.7 thousand, highlights the stark difference between the people and the ruling elite.
In his 1913 autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt recounted the emergence of “the most vulgar… tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy”. This came despite being at a “stage where for our people what was most needed was a true democracy.” These words perhaps appear as pertinent as ever.
By all these means and more, the U.S. continues to perpetuate the legal exclusion of many voters. When democracy is inherently dependent upon inclusion, such systemic faults cannot be overlooked.
However, the U.S. also falls short of modern democratic standards more practically. In order for the people to be able to consent and their will be ascertained, discourse surrounding elections must be reliable.
First, information surrounding the elections should be accurate. In 2019 Barack Obama claimed that the U.S. was “the only advanced democracy that deliberately discourages people from voting.” In the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, and Florida, the 2020 Trump Campaign advertised misinformation about the election date, claiming “Election Day is Today,” seven days before polling day. 200,000 people saw the advertisement before it was taken down. However the issue pre-dated Trump: in 2012 Latino voters were deliberately targeted by online trolls with misinformation about the election.
Thus, deliberate misinformation about political issues should be prohibited. Over the past decade there has been a clear shift in political discourse from the public realm to privatised social media. We see this in the daily average number of tweets from the U.S President was 34.8 between July 2020 and January 2021. As political discourse is increasingly privatised, it becomes subject to manipulation by media moguls. This problem is exacerbated because many of these platforming companies are transnational corporations, meaning they frequently transcend domestic law.
Many Republicans have eschewed first CNN, and now, increasingly, even long-time favourite Fox News, in favour of more extreme platforms where conspiracy theories abound. In 2020 Trump criticised “Fake News Media for doing everything possible to make us look bad.” Nonetheless, 90 percent of Republicans also believe that social media sites censor viewpoints, up 5 percent from 2018. The majority of democrats think likewise.
Shadow-banning is the practise of social media platforms decreasing the promotion or reach of a post without announcing it. In September 2020 it emerged that TikTok had shadow-banned LGBTQ+ hashtags despite TikTok claiming to support LGBTQ+ Pride in June 2020. It similarly shadow-banned some posts about U.S. political protests.
Although freedom of press implies that news companies retain the right to determine their own acceptable lexicon, the problem is the lack of transparency around their actions. While these powerful bodies remain unchecked, their plutocratic manipulation of political discourse undermines the people’s consent.
Similarly, claims of democratic legitimacy are practically undermined through the increasing emergence, and implications, of echo chambers.
For example, since the 2017 emergence of the QAnon conspiracy theory in the U.S., there has been an increase in partisan theories such as the QAnon belief in a paedophile ring of Democrat politicians, philanthropists, and Hollywood celebrities, only saveable by the Messiah-figure Trump. It remains entirely unsubstantiated, but is widely propagated through the help of social media and more legitimate news organisations such as Fox News. Through this, the conspiracy builds a façade of legitimacy.
With the emergence of COVID-19, QAnon has sharply increased in popularity. In March 2020, the global membership of QAnon Facebook groups increased by 120 percent, and membership of the 20 top QAnon groups increased by 800 percent between March and September 2020.
Without accurate information surrounding elections - both with regard to accurate facts about political issues and the election process itself - the people’s informed choice is undermined. Democracy’s dependence upon popular consent necessitates both an independent media to relate facts truthfully, and confidence that it does. Without this the U.S. is reduced to the oligarchic principle of governance by the elite; in this case, the educated and wealthy elite.
Despite this grim picture of the state of U.S. non-democracy, hope can be found within two bills currently in Congress. If we view two of the greatest roadblocks to democracy as exclusion and misinformation, it is notable that both are removed via the John Lewis Bill and the For the People Act.
The John Lewis Voting Advancement Rights Act seeks to provide “provide the public with the legal tools to block official acts of discrimination.” This is vital to democratic inclusion. If passed, it would reinstate the principle of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. Without this, states with a history of racial discrimination are able to redraw (or gerrymander) legislative districts in a racially discriminatory way for the first time since 1965.
Additionally, the act provides for public notification of voting changes, to make it easier to gain a court-order against voting changes, and for neutral federal observers to ensure free and fair elections. All of these would be a major step forwards towards democracy.
To fully instate democracy, however, the act will be of limited benefit. Half of U.S. states have passed voting rights restrictions in the past ten years; but the act’s proposed restrictions on gerrymandering will only apply to states with a history of racial discrimination. Neither does the act cover felon disenfranchisement. And nor does it cover the automatic registration of people to vote, early voting, or election day becoming a national holiday.
Some of these objectives are covered by the For the People Act, also currently in Congress. Very practically, this act seeks to enable same-day voter registration, make election day a federal holiday, make online voter registration available, and promote voting access to those with disabilities. It also aims to reform campaign financing by ensuring the transparency of private donations, make it harder for a party to accept foreign donations, and restore suffrage to felons who have completed prison terms.
However, the success of this act in Congress would still fall far short of the democratic ideal. The U.S. should seek to reduce big money in politics, making it more financially accessible. Voter ID laws must be scrapped, and the two-party system must be expanded. Domestic policy around social media algorithms should be tightened to require greater transparency. Less formally, the value of truth-seeking discourse should be highlighted in schools, equipping a generation to tackle misinformation. Only with these changes can the will and consent of the comprehensive people be electorally assessed and implemented.
Moving forward, the healing nation should make the pursuit of democracy an urgent priority. On the other side of a tumultuous election, with a moderate leader inaugurated, there must be space for partisanship to be laid aside. Although Trump’s presidency highlighted the many shortcomings of U.S. ‘democracy,’ he did not create them, and it does the United States’ democratic ideal a disservice to pretend he did. No matter how politically convenient it may be to blame Trump for the innumerable democratic deficiencies in the U.S., there is scope for an inquiry beyond that centred around the individuals in office. The U.S. has a structural problem and its solution will require a structural shift.
U.S. oligarchy did not start with Donald Trump, and it most certainly has not ended with him. Republican or Democrat, the responsibility for democracy lies with the incumbent president. Before Joe Biden can reinstate democracy, he must instate it first.