What Are the Real Threats to American Democracy?

A perennial political question is the strength of democracy in the United States.  Lately, some commentators believe that American democracy is under siege.

However, I think that democracy is generally strong and thriving even though there are a few threats on the horizon.  Consider:

  • Trump’s presidency is not the problem. Scholars at the Kofi Annan Foundation  say that “Trump’s presidency illustrated the resilience of a document (the U.S. Constitution) drafted over two centuries ago, as well as the vital importance of unwritten norms and customs.  His plan (to overturn the 2020 election) was frustrated at every turn by the courts and a decentralized electoral system operated by honest Americans of both parties…”
  • Polarization is not the problem. Yes, our country is highly polarized politically and not only at the national level.  As of November 2020, only one state (Minnesota) has a divided legislature.  In 31 states (counting Nebraska with a Republican-dominated unicameral), both legislative chambers are Republican while 18 states have both legislative chambers controlled by Democrats.  This degree of state polarization emphasizes the decentralized nature of our republican form of government which adds a strong guardrail for protecting democracy.
  • HR1 is clearly unconstitutional.  The “For the People” Act, already passed by the House of Representatives, would be an unprecedented takeover of U.S. election laws by the federal government.  If enacted, it would destroy the Constitution’s careful balance of federal and state powers.  The Constitution authorizes state legislatures to establish the “times, places and manner” of congressional elections, while providing that “Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.”  In other words, the authority of Congress is limited to “time, place and manner.”  “Prescribing voting qualifications forms no part of the power to be conferred upon the national government by the constitution’s Election Clause,” wrote Justice Scalia in 2013.
  • America’s Welfare State is on Borrowed Time.  Our borrowed benefits syndrome – the government provides large numbers of voters with immediate personal benefits that greatly exceed what it charges in taxes, billing the difference to future generations – is deeply corrupting of democracy.  It absolves citizens of recognizing their dependence on one another and politicians of accountability for managing the conflicts and constraints of today’s society.  Instead, it encourages the fantasy that there are enough “rich” people whose fairs share will pay for the benefits which the government wants to give us.

Conclusion.  Yes, there are some clear threats to our democratic form of government.  But the U.S. Constitution and our political party system are still serving us very well.  We have allowed the welfare state to become too large and out-of-control.  Too many citizens have become dependent on government giveaways that are not being paid for with current tax revenue.  Our out-of-control national debt is likely to lead to a new fiscal crisis in the relatively near future which will be so jarring that it might weaken democratic norms.  Do we have the collective political will to turn this potential problem around before it erupts?

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