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  • Writer's pictureJennifer N. Victor

Democracy is failing. Here’s what to do about it.

Read the room. Forget about Biden and Trump for just a moment. Look around and take stock of what’s happening. Regardless of which candidate wins, democracy is failing in the United States.

Millions of people enthusiastically supported a candidate who openly supports white supremacy and regularly engages in anti-democratic behavior. By sowing distrust in science, journalism, and one another, Trumpism is anti-democratic. Moreover, many who are attracted to this movement appear to be attracted to it precisely for its anti-democratic nature. Seeing Donald Trump as an anti-elitist (he’s not), defender of the downtrodden (he doesn’t), champion of America (nope), only resonates if you only focus on white people.

The conditions that brought us to this moment were exacerbated by, but not caused by, Donald Trump. We can blame systemic racial injustice on which partisans have capitalized for the entire history of the United States, extreme income and wealth inequality (especially across racial groups), laws that dis-empower political parties (campaign finance), and laws that have allowed the media environment to become increasingly segregated and homogenized.

Addressing these deep, structural problems requires significant work. We must take steps to shore up democracy where it is failing. We do this by addressing the sources of polarization through policy change, and enacting reforms to democratic institutions that will strengthen them.

To address polarization through policy change, we must begin by addressing racial inequality and income inequality. Broadly, we need criminal justice reforms that end the usage of the criminal justice to maintain systematic control over African American men (see Michelle Alexander’s work in this area). We need reforms to local zoning laws and lending policies that bring more people of color into homeownership—still the primary way Americans build wealth and pass it on through generations (see Richard Rothstein’s work and the always accessible Michelle Singletary). We need changes to tax law that redistribute wealth from the highest 1 percent to the bottom 50 percent (see Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson).

Next, we need policy changes that will strengthen political parties so that extremist political actors have less control over them. We need to overturn Citizens United through legislation that regulates in-kind, indirect, unlimited campaign contributions to federal candidates. We need to devise a way to adopt campaign spending limits, despite the 1976 Buckley decision that says they’re unconstitutional (see Raymond LaRaja and Brian Schaffner’s work).

We need to discuss regulating social media companies so they are governed like newspapers not public utilities. Social media companies should follow the same professional journalist norms and ethics that responsible content providers already do. In addition, we should consider bringing back the fairness doctrine, repealed in 1987, that required broadcasters to present multiple points of view in public presentations. Also, we need to reconsider media ownership rules and the 1984 Cable Act that deregulated the cable industry, which lead to mega-media companies, with homogeneous content and contributed to the decline of local journalism (see Dannagal Young’s research in this area).

Shoring up democratic institutions is harder, but also necessary. Millions of Americans feel unrepresented by their government, candidates, and parties. America’s political institutions that are designed to check and balance power to prevent tyranny, have been co-opted by partisans to hold on to power in national institutions where majorities are under-represented. We could talk about fundamental changes to the United States Senate and the Electoral College, but I prefer to focus on more realistic reforms that can be achieved without amending the Constitution.

First, reinforce voting rights. Pass the John Lewis Voting Reinforcement Act. The Voting Rights of 1965 was among the most democracy expanding pieces of legislation ever enacted in the US, but its foundations have been undercut by a series of court cases over the past 25 years. Protecting, expanding, and easing voter participation is perhaps the surest path to shoring up democracy. This reform has the happy coincidence of being both a policy proposal and an achievable institutional reform that any democracy defender can support. We should also have serious discourse about partisan gerrymandering and reforms that put redistricting control permanently in the hands of those without a dog in the fight.

Second, increase the citizen-representative connection. This can be a three-part process that begins with expanding the size of the House of Representatives. The number of seats in the House of Representatives was set into law in 1911 when the US had fewer than 100 million residents. Today, the typical member of the House of Representatives has about 750,000 constituents. It’s too many. A reform that expands the number of seats in the House could also consider giving full representation to millions of American citizens, particularly in Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. The 2020 elections revealed that a majority of Puerto Ricans favor statehood.

Expanding representation through the House would complement reforms to move the United States to a multi-party democracy, which would provide a better institutional fit for a country as populous and diverse as the United States. To accomplish this, we should consider making each House district larger and electing multiple representatives through a ranked-choice ballot system (see more on these ideas from Lee Drutman here and here).

Surely some of these ideas are short-sighted. They almost certainly would have unintended consequences that could produce negative outcomes (more parties could mean more gridlock, not less). But if we don’t start having these conversations about how to use policy and institutional changes to reinforce democracy, we’re going to lose it. Losing democracy means the loss of fundamental freedoms and basic human rights for millions of people. Democracy is a messy and flawed system of self-governance, but no one has invented a better one that has the potential to provide the most freedom and the most protections to the most people.

I’m writing this before we even know who has won the presidential election. This is not about who has won. This is about what this election experience has taught us about what the country is and where it’s going. We need a course correction or justice and freedom will be lost for millions, with the most vulnerable populations succumbing first.

I am a democracy defender and I’m here to fight. Join me. Create a “Democracy Squad” for your community where participants build a movement to support these discussions, advocate for reforms, and promote democratic values. The alternatives are dire.

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