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Is Democracy the Problem?

The U.S. political system is indeed beset by a high degree of polarization and a low sense of common purpose. Should we blame democracy itself, or should we blame ourselves for the pathologies of our own politics?

published by
American Interest
 on January 16, 2019

Source: American Interest

In trying to explain the dispiriting descent of U.S. politics and governance into pervasive paralysis, conflict and sheer mediocrity, it is hard not to wonder if many of our ills result from intrinsic shortcomings of the democratic model itself—democracy design flaws, if you will. This outlook is gaining appeal not just because of what is happening at home, but because so many other democracies are encountering similar problems while authoritarianism appears to be enjoying a global surge of self-confidence.  As a result, not only are doubts about the value and wisdom of democracy getting a much wider hearing than they were a decade or two ago, so too are voices arguing that authoritarian regimes might be more capable and effective.

Democracy’s doubters tend to accuse democracy of suffering from at least five significant design flaws:

  • Short-termism: Due to their electoral cycles, democracies struggle to focus on long-term problems and usually remain mired in short-term policy approaches.
  • Pain aversion: To the limited extent they do manage to look to the long term, democratic politicians are averse to imposing near-term pain for long-term gain because of their need to keep voters happy for the next election.
  • Elite capture: By opening up decision-making power to competition among politicians who are constantly in need of money for elections, democratic systems are prone to becoming captured by the wealthy.
  • Division and conflict: Competitive elections foment or exacerbate destructive societal divisions, generating conflict and undercutting a strong sense of national unity and purpose.
  • Voter ignorance: Relying on ordinary citizens to choose leaders and make judgments among them based on policy performance condemns democracies to leadership and policy choices that reflect chronic voter ignorance and irrationality.

Certainly, these are all serious issues in the United States. Successive U.S. Administrations have proven woefully unable to focus sustained attention on a raft of major long-term challenges—whether it is infrastructure decay, the role of entitlement spending in the U.S. budget, or climate change—and unwilling to craft reforms that inflict short-term pain for the sake of long-term gain. The disproportionate influence of wealthy individuals and corporations in the U.S. legislative process is a well-known reality. With respect to political competition producing divisions and conflict, the U.S. political system is indeed beset by a high degree of polarization and a correspondingly low sense of common purpose. And looking at the state of U.S. political leadership today, it would be hard not to see voter ignorance and irrationality as major concerns.

But should we blame democracy itself, or should we blame ourselves for the pathologies of our own politics? In other words, are these problems in fact endemic to democracies? And are authoritarian governments largely able to avoid them, as some enthusiasts of authoritarianism claim?

The comparative empirical research on these questions is complex and does not always yield definite results. But at least some insights are available. They highlight that while many democratic systems do struggle with these issues, America’s political challenges in these domains are significantly of America’s own making. Moreover, most authoritarian systems do no better in these areas.


Although it is easy to understand why electoral cycles might incline or even condemn democracies to short-termism, in fact the empirical record is mixed with regard to how consistently democracies suffer from it, and how much autocracies escape it.

Climate change starkly demonstrates the challenge of finding the political will to take serious near-term steps to address a long-term problem. Western democracies are obviously struggling to respond adequately. Yet this does not appear to be a shortcoming particular to democracies. A recent systematic study comparing the climate change policies of democracies to those of autocracies found that democracies have done slightly better overall. It is established democracies, such as Germany and the Nordic countries, that have taken the most significant measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. China has of course attracted attention in the past few years for its engagement on climate change, but it has come relatively late to the issue, and is unusual among authoritarian governments in doing so.

The strong resistance of the current U.S. Administration and many senior Republican senators and representatives to address the issue at the Federal level is not primarily a result of endemic democratic short-termism. It reflects some distinctive features of U.S. politics—above all, the ideological aversion on the part of many American conservatives to any increased regulatory role of the Federal government. Where this ideological aversion is not dominant—as in California, for instance—a democratically elected government is able to take at least some serious measures to address climate change at the state level.

Comparing how countries provide public goods offers another way to examine the relative balance of short-term versus longer-term considerations. The short-term tack usually entails providing popular but economically inefficient subsidies on essential goods like fuel, while long-term approaches emphasize investments in areas like public education and infrastructure. Democracies tend to resort less to subsidies than non-democracies and to invest more in public goods overall. In developing countries, democratization tends to lead to greater spending on education, especially primary education, which is a good long-term investment.

The idea that most authoritarian governments generally engage in savvy long-term economic planning and policymaking is an illusion. Many authoritarian systems, dominated by strongmen with grandiose ideas and unchecked by strong accountability mechanisms, pursue ill-conceived white elephant projects, like Egypt’s plan to build a new capital city on the banks of the Nile or Saudi Arabia’s to construct an enormous luxury resort along the Red Sea. China’s investment in long-term infrastructural systems is impressive, but some of this spending emerges less from long-term planning than from rent-seeking by corrupt local officials who have similarly created empty cities and highways to nowhere.

Moreover, many authoritarian regimes are in fact subject to electoral cycles and myopic thinking, even though their elections are uncompetitive or semi-competitive at best. From Russia and Turkey to Venezuela and Zimbabwe, it has become strikingly common for authoritarian leaders to seek to legitimate their rule via elections. Such dictatorships suffer from many of the symptoms of short-termism and boost government spending by two percent on average during election years. Remarkably, these results hold even when no opposition is contesting the election, since autocratic leaders frequently feel pressure to demonstrate their popularity to fend off challengers from within the ruling elite.

Pain aversion

The tendency of U.S. politicians to avoid any fiscal or other such economic reforms that involve near-term belt-tightening has become a major problem for the fiscal health of the United States. Quite a few politicians talk a good game about the need for budget austerity, but when push comes to shove reveal themselves to be deficit doves. Of course, the United States is hardly alone among democracies in its chronic inability to inflict short-term pain for long-term gain. Many peer democracies, including Belgium, France, Italy, and Japan, have in recent decades struggled to cut budgets and reduce high levels of public debt. The issue bedevils some developing democracies as well. India under its current Prime Minister, for example, has been allowing deficits to expand in worrisome ways.

But not all democracies are pain averse. Last decade, Germany and Sweden imposed significant economic reforms that involved various amounts of near-term pain for the sake of putting their economies on a better long-term footing. After the 2008-09 financial crisis, British voters elected a conservative government that promised and then implemented tough across-the-board budget cuts, of a breadth and depth almost unthinkable in the United States. Political economists thus highlight that it is not democracy but rather particular features of U.S. politics—such as intensifying polarization and the economic overconfidence that having the world’s reserve currency brings—that have fueled America’s relative fiscal irresponsibility.

In fact, studies of the imposition of austerity plans in the developing world during the 1990s and 2000s have concluded that democracies generally did better than autocracies at putting such plans into effect. The example of Poland, with its harsh but effective austerity plan in the 1990s as it moved away from communist rule, is a positive example on the democratic side. Of course, some especially harsh autocratic governments have also proven able to impose tough austerity measures, relying on their capacity to repress objections to their doing so. In the 1980s, for example, Romania’s communist strongman, Nicolae Ceauşescu, forced the country into an extremely punishing process of paying down external debt for the stated goal of improving the country’s long-term economic health.

But many authoritarians chronically avoid obviously needed reforms out of the fear that the near-term pain those measures would produce might unsettle their hold on power. Egypt, for example, avoided cutting or removing subsidies on food, fuel, and other basic goods for decades under Hosni Mubarak. The Venezuelan government under Hugo Chávez and then his successor Nicolás Maduro has not dared to impose a desperately needed tax on gasoline, which costs less than $1 for a full tank (Maduro’s recent new gasoline policy seeks to crack down on smugglers rather than actually cut subsidies). Even China, which has long suppressed consumer benefits for the sake of long-term growth, struggles with this issue in myriad ways, including keeping numerous “zombie” firms afloat through various economic breaks rather than facing the anger that would be produced by cutting them off.

Elite capture

The United States clearly has a problem with elite capture of political power. Multiparty competition American-style has come to involve enormous amounts of money flowing into the system from wealthy individuals and corporations aimed at safeguarding their interests. Political representatives at the national level are far wealthier than average Americans. Many legislative and executive policies manifestly reflect the interests of the wealthy more than the poor, including numerous tax benefits specifically designed to help certain groups of wealthy individuals and powerful corporations.

The distorting and often corrupting role of money is almost always an issue in democracies, but certain legal and economic policy choices specific to the United States are aggravating this problem. These include tax breaks and other policies that contribute to high levels of inequality, especially the rapid expansion in recent years of a class of superrich citizens; a campaign financing system that allows enormous amounts of funding through political action committees; and lobbying rules and practices that open up the legislature to private interests to a remarkable degree.

Some other democracies such as Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden do more to limit the flow of money in politics, avoid the dominance of wealthy people in legislatures, and craft national economic policies that limit inequality and represent interests more equally across different economic classes, especially in the fields of health care and education. Thus while the competitive pluralism intrinsic to democracy does naturally tend to pull money into politics, it is also true that some democracies are capable of taking measures to avoid or at least blunt elite capture. And of course some key institutions in democracy, including alternation of power in response to voter choices, respect for a free press, and independent rule of law also help fight against it.

The idea of sober, disinterested authoritarian politicians unswayed by money and devoted to a fair representation of interests is an appealing trope put forward by authoritarianism’s adherents, but is largely a myth. Only a few authoritarian regimes, notably Singapore, achieve anything close to it. Elite capture is in fact a defining feature of many authoritarian regimes. Russia is a textbook case. So too are Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf monarchies, and the Central Asian autocracies, among many others. The lack of public accountability mechanisms, and the centralization of power that obviates checks and balances, make authoritarian regimes intrinsically vulnerable to capture by entrenched interests.

Fostering divisions

The tendency of competitive democratic politics to entrench and sometimes intensify basic divisions within a society is something that genuinely puzzles many observers from China, Russia, and other non-democracies. They often scratch their heads over why Americans think it makes sense to have a political system that seems to sharpen societal divisions rather than emphasizing consensus and unity.

It is easy to invoke the standard answer—that competitive pluralism helps ensure that diverse interests in a society are well-represented by the government and encourages different groups and perspectives to forge productive compromises and hold each other accountable. But it is hard to offer that answer without acknowledging that polarization is indeed a serious problem in American democracy, one that has reached a fever pitch in recent years, fostering legislative gridlock, reducing public trust in the judiciary and other key institutions, and fueling social tensions and anger.

It is not hard to see how democratic electoral competition can pull a country into polarization. Competing parties often have incentives to accentuate differences between them rather than to emphasize common ground, to caricature and even demonize their opponents, and more generally to appeal more to emotion than reason in their quest for votes. And the past several years have seen a marked rise in polarizing political dynamics in democracies in different parts of the world. In Europe, angry populists are drawing harsh lines in the sand against well-established parties. In India, the ruling party has played up Hindu nationalism in ways that aggravate divides within the society. Brazil has just been through its most polarizing election in many years.

Yet polarization is not an inevitable feature of democracies. Most European democracies enjoyed multiple decades of relatively unpolarized political life in the second half of the 20th century, and considerable common political ground among competing parties. Canada proved able to navigate the potentially polarizing divide in the society between English and French speakers through democratic means. Indonesia’s democratic progress of the last two decades was built on overcoming the many regional, ethnic, and religious divisions in the society rather than aggravating them. Where polarization is rising in democracies, it is usually not a product of the political system itself, but public anger over poor socioeconomic performance, or deep divisions over social changes like immigration. In the United States, specific institutional features that are not intrinsic to democracy but rather particular to this country—like primary elections and a first-past-the-post electoral system that discourages the emergence of small or new parties—have incentivized movement away from the center. Thus, blaming democracy for polarization is too blunt and unfocused a charge.

With respect to authoritarian regimes, some do give an impression of purposeful unity and consensus. Over the last ten years, for example, many Russians have genuinely favored the tremendous centralization of power around President Vladimir Putin and his wielding of that power in various nationalistic endeavors. And many Chinese feel comfortable with a political system that emphasizes unity and consensus. But even to the extent that some authoritarian governments achieve such unity, the costs are high in human terms—the repression necessary to maintain it involves torture, imprisonment, expulsion, and other brutal measures, as well as a deadening of society through the suppression of ideas, voices, and associations. The Uighurs of China experience authoritarian consensus in a very different way than many other Chinese.

Moreover, numerous autocracies also face serious internal conflict and divisions. When one particular group in society imposes order by suppressing the views and interests of other groups, whether ethnic, religious, or tribal, autocracies often generate substantial conflict. The eruption of internal conflict in Uzbekistan in the mid-2000s, the Shi‘a protests in Bahrain of 2011, and the eruption of protests in Hong Kong in recent years all highlight this fact. Iran has been roiled by significant protests, reflecting serious societal divisions that its authoritarian system is not able to resolve. The most severe cases of countries collapsing into all-out civil war in recent years, such as Syria and Yemen, have been those in which authoritarian leaders fight tooth and nail to subjugate groups they have long excluded politically. And of course, autocratic regimes frequently scapegoat unpopular minorities and direct campaigns against them for political purposes. The worst examples of internal ethnic, religious, or political violence—such as the genocides in Cambodia, Myanmar, Nazi Germany, and Rwanda—have occurred in undemocratic countries.

Voter ignorance

One of the most basic design elements of democracy is the mechanism of performance accountability that is supposed to come from citizens voting. In simple terms, it is assumed that voters know what they want, are capable of identifying what policies will help them get what they want, and vote for candidates who pursue such policies and deliver results. Yet in Democracy for Realists, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels offer a comprehensive critique of this view, which they bruisingly label the “folk theory” of democracy. They demonstrate that U.S. voter behavior is determined primarily by partisan identities that voters assume, based on various sociocultural factors, especially race, faith, and peer groups. In other words, voters’ policy preferences are shaped by their partisan identity, rather than independent thought on any particular issue. They also find that most voters are far too ignorant of political actors and policies to accurately associate specific policy choices with particular parties or candidates. Partisan loyalties are relatively fixed, but voters are enormously inconsistent on specific issues.

They also argue that voting based on past policy performance (like economic performance) does not provide any kind of clear check on governmental behavior. Voters are too ignorant of the overall facts, such as underlying economic conditions, and too swayed by extremely specific and often minor factors (like gas prices) to exert such control in a regular and rational fashion. Even if a large share of voters did possess significant amounts of economic knowledge, assessing responsibility or causality for economic performance is extremely complicated, something about which even the most well-trained experts can strongly disagree.

Achen’s and Bartels’s work, which draws not just on their own research but many dozens of specific studies by other researchers, is focused on the United States. There is no similar comprehensive study of this set of issues that looks comparatively across democracies. There are, however, some comparative studies of civic literacy of citizens in different democracies. While they show that the United States does tend to fall on the lower end of wealthy established democracies when it comes to civic literacy and voter ignorance, they indicate that significant levels of voter ignorance are a reality in most democracies. In other words, the shortcomings of voting as a mechanism for enforcing governance accountability are a design issue that all democracies face.

Yet contending views on this point exist. In their recent book, Democracy in America?, Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens take serious issue with it. They contend that while individual voters do lack fully informed opinions about most issues, the collective or aggregate policy preferences of all Americans are not so problematic. The aggregation process leads to collective policy preferences that are reasonably stable over time and that in fact reflect a certain amount of deliberative process, “because individuals form their opinions through a collective social process that brings deliberation and information to bear on the issues of the day.” They argue that the expressed preferences of Americans deserve much more respect from policymakers than they currently get in the largely captured American political system and that voter majority rule “tends to produce public policies that benefit the largest number of people and promote the common good.”

Furthermore, the evidence for the idea of government by technocratic decision-making, that isolating policy decisions from citizens’ control broadly produces better policies than incorporating citizen input through elections, is scarce. So too is the evidence for the notion that not allowing citizens to choose their leaders but relying instead on force, family lineage, or other such factors will produce better leaders than elections. Adherents of this view tend to focus on the very small number of authoritarian leaders who have governed well, and to ignore the very large number who have not. They compare the best of authoritarians, like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, to the worst of elected leaders in established democracies, like Silvio Berlusconi. But a more systematic look at authoritarian leaders and their policymaking during the last 50 years reveals an enormous number of cruel, ignorant leaders exerting their power in ineffective and unhelpful ways for the majority of their citizens. And the technocratic model requires a high level of state capacity—to allocate resources and implement policies in a well-calibrated fashion—that most countries saddled with dictatorial leaders lack.

Facing ourselves

Given the dispiriting state of U.S. democracy, it is hard not to give in to the temptation to blame the democratic model itself and start to imagine that non-democratic alternatives might do better in delivering basic governance. But this is misguided thinking. Chronic short-termism, an unwillingness to accept short-term pain for long-term gain, undue policy influence of the wealthy, a startlingly high level of division and conflict within the society, and voter ignorance and irrationality all do appear in many democracies. They are not, however, inevitable characteristics of democratic governance.  They can be limited, sometimes greatly, through smart policies and good leadership. Feeling the weight of these issues now, Americans should not lose sight of the fact that some other democracies have been doing better on these fronts and take seriously the need to overcome our country’s longstanding avoidance of learning from the domestic political experiences of other countries. Nor should Americans slip into thinking that authoritarians naturally or usually avoid these problems. Many authoritarian governments struggle with the same issues as much or more than the United States and other democracies do.

In short, Americans concerned about the state of U.S. democracy need to focus less on what they might believe to be shortcomings of democracy itself, and more on what specific and often distinctive elements of the U.S. political system are exacerbating these issues. Blame for our current political predicament belongs much less with the idea or model of democracy than with ourselves.

This was originally published in the American Interest.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.