American Democracy: An Uphill Battle to Overcome the Most Advantaged Americans

The United States was designed as a representative democracy with a highly limited electorate, not universal suffrage.  Over the course of its history, the United States has become significantly more democratic, expanding the franchise to include people of color, women, 18 year olds, and providing for direct election of Senators, eliminating poll taxes, and overall improving the integrity and efficiency of American elections. As it has become more demographically diverse and more economically unequal over the last generation, however, many Americans have come to feel economically and culturally threatened, and resentful of elites in both parties who they see, with some justice, as not respecting their values and interests.

The Republican Party, which has long had only minority support in the U.S. as a whole, has positioned itself as the champion of these resentful Americans, and shamefully has launched phony attacks on the integrity of U.S. elections with mounting intensity over the last generation. Currently, many (by no means all) Republicans are seeking to take control of the American electoral process so that they can place and keep their party in power in many local and state governments and, through them, the national government, even when they lose the popular vote.  Those efforts are my biggest worry about American democracy. Because most Americans genuinely support democracy, including many Republicans, it is more likely than not that those efforts will fail—but it is a very serious struggle, with no guarantees of the outcome.

The United States government today is, unfortunately, dominated by the influence of the wealthiest and best educated Americans, who too often put their own interests ahead of the people as a whole.  It is, however, still a genuinely competitive democratic system, in which the people can exercise power—but it is almost always an uphill battle to overcome the disproportionate influence of the most advantaged Americans.

Unfortunately, former President Trump, an amoral demagogue who cares only about his own celebrity status, has persuaded tens of millions of voters of the “Big Lie” that American elections are conducted fraudulently when Trump Republicans lose.  Many Republican politicians who know better are going along with this.  This, again, is a very great danger of American democracy.

As I stated above, many more traditionalist Americans feel threatened by demographic and cultural changes in their country, and many are also suffering from economic policies that have benefited elites but heightened economic inequality and hardship for millions of others. The resulting discontents fuel populist movements on the Left as well as the Right.  American elites need to reduce their own privileges and push hard for policies that are far more broadly beneficial or, in the effort to curb them; Americans may embrace autocratic, not democratic, government.

America does need to give priority to its domestic problems, but it has the capacity to do so and also to champion democracy in the world.  There are many defensible definitions of democracy, and many indefensible ones.  I claim no special authority to define democracy, and do not believe anyone can do so.  For me, it is a system in which, first, the government and all members of a people recognize all other members of that people as having worth and interests that deserve concern and respect, and second, a government with institutions which allow the majority of the people ultimately to decide who will hold governing power, based on free debate over the candidates and the policies they have supported and propose to support.

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