BRANDING: Is US democracy the best brand for the world?
Randall Frost

When the United States emerged from the British colonial system 200 years ago, it pretty much stood alone as a symbol of modern democracy. But today more than 20 countries have been steadily democratic for at least 50 years, and many of these countries-having had the benefit of America's experience to draw upon, are arguably more democratic than the U.S. In How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (Yale, 2002), for example, the eminent U.S. political scientist Robert A. Dahl ranked his country near the bottom or in the middle on fourteen of fifteen measures of democratic effectiveness when compared with other established democracies. 

So just how robust is U.S. democracy and should it be a model for emerging democracies? Studies have found that sizeable numbers of Americans have lost trust in their government, or feel that their political system does not represent them in any meaningful way. A poll conducted in 2002, for example, found that only 33 percent of Americans thought their government was run for the benefit of all, as opposed to the benefit of special interests. 

In 1996, millions of U.S. voters opted not to go to the polls because they didn't like their choices or because they felt their choices didn't matter. The uncast ballots that year dwarfed Bill Clinton's margin of victory. The nationwide turnout of eligible voters in the next U.S. Presidential election, four years later, was only 50 percent - half of those eligible to vote did not bother to cast ballots.  And while voter turnout was up slightly in 2004 at 60 percent - it was still far short of the 80 percent typical of most other established democratic countries. 

In his classic work, The Semisovereign People: A Realist's View of Democracy in America (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960), the late E. E. Schattschneider defined democracy as a "competitive political system in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process." According to Schattschneider, democratic governments can be judged on how well they refer questions to the public for decision or guidance, including how they refer the questions to the public, how the alternatives are defined, and how well they recognize the limitations of the public.

Schattschneider interpreted massive nonvoting as evidence that the struggle for democracy was still being fought. Obviously when roughly half the eligible voters in a democracy see no reason to vote, there is something very wrong with that country's electoral system. The abstention of so many voters from active participation in political affairs effectively leaves a country governed by invisible forces. 

Schattschneider may have been on to more than he imagined. In the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, for example, the political pie was cut up to leave only third-party candidates with well-articulated and/or dissenting positions on such salient issues as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rescinding the Patriot Act or ending the war in Iraq. Since many Americans wouldn't vote for third-party candidates who did not appear to have any reasonable prospect of winning the election (people didn't want to "throw away" their votes), only those who had a strong investment in those issues that hadn't been "gerrymandered" out of the presidential campaign were left with a lot of motivation to vote. Everyone else - approximately 40 percent of the U.S. electorate, was effectively disenfranchised. 

The fact is that even though the U.S. holds more elections than any other country, there are many issues that Americans do not get a chance to vote on. Some conflicts cannot be dealt with in the political arena because neither of the country's two major political parties could survive the ensuing battle. But domination of the political parties by special or regional interests is also a factor.  Instead of facing conflict head-on, the two major parties may choose instead to manipulate the political battle lines by excluding selected issues - and voters, from the debate.

In the U.S., where there is a tendency to have two candidates tripping over each other to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, a few political scientists have suggested a switch to some type of proportional representation might increase the ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans. Unlike the winner-take-all system most often used in the U.S., proportional representation would create a close correspondence between the proportion of total votes cast for a candidate and the number of electoral votes the candidate receives: a candidate that won 51 percent of the popular vote in a state, for example, would receive 51 percent of the state's electoral votes, rather than all of them as is currently the case in most states. Because proportional representation usually results in a multiparty system, minority interests would presumably also get a better hearing under such an arrangement. Cross-national studies have in fact found that proportional representation is accompanied by greater satisfaction with democracy and greater likelihood to vote.  

But proportional representation is only one of numerous proposals on the table. A few observers who have considered possible reforms to the U.S. electoral system believe that proportional representation would work best with a parliamentary system in which the president shares power with a government that is responsible to the legislature (not to the president). Says Professor Tatu Vanhanen of the University of Helsinki, "The introduction of a parliamentary system would lead to better policies and would hamper the making of great political mistakes."     

Dr. Bolivar Lamounier, research director of the São Paulo Institute of Economic, Social, & Political Studies (IDESP) in Brazil, likes mixed parliamentary systems in which voters cast two ballots, one for a district candidate on a winner-take-all basis and a second one for a seat filled by proportional representation. Such systems have been successfully put in practice by Germany and New Zealand.      

Although Professor Shaun Bowler of the University of California at Irvine feels that the it might be possible to make politicians more responsive to their constituents without actually changing the U.S. Constitution, individual ad hoc legislative reforms could end up conflicting with each other.  Noting that the U.S. Constitution has been amended many times, Bowler says, "It's not that constitutional change is unthinkable… it's just a constitution…. In a cross-national sense people write them and rip them up all the time all over the world and the one in the U.S. bears no recognition to the founding document."   But unlike the constitutional amendments that were supported by major social movements in the past, there is currently not a lot of popular support in the U.S. for constitutional change.  

When the Framers of the U.S. Constitution assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 to come up with the first modern democratic government, they had few models upon which to draw. There is no way they could have foreseen many of the limitations inherent in the system of government they devised. But two hundred years later, much more is known about effective democratic governance than the Framers could ever have imagined, and there seems little if any reason not to integrate some of these insights into the American democratic system.

In the absence of a "magic bullet" that would fix the problem of major voter disenfranchisement once and for all, some political scientists prefer to wait for a crisis that will better define the problem.  Unfortunately roughly half of America's eligible voters are in the meantime left at risk of becoming the most subversive members of their society because they have no stake in the political game or because they think the system is loaded against them. The pity of it is that the situation seems avoidable. As the consumer marketplace has shown, people will express their preferences when given a choice between distinctive brands. 

What those who do vote quarrel about is of course of no interest to those who do not - the political pie would have to be sliced up differently for the non-voter to want a piece. But non-voting Americans are not the only losers when the pie is sliced to leave large numbers of eligible voters without any choice. The effect of large-scale voter disenfranchisement is to create a one-party system that places political power in the hands of those with the greatest economic power, causing votes to lose value.   

In the wisdom of his later years, Thomas Jefferson wrote, "Time indeed changes manners and notions, and so far we must expect institutions to bend to them. But time produces also corruption of principles, and against this it is the duty of good citizens to be ever on the watch…." While Americans can rightfully take pride in their country having been the birthplace of modern democracy, over-complacency about the limitations of their democratic institutions could ultimately leave the American brand of democracy moribund and uncompetitive with other brands.  

Randall Frost, a freelance writer based in California, is the author of The Globalization of Trade. His work has also appeared in Worth, The New England Financial Journal, Brandchannel, CBSHealthWatch and a variety of educational publications.