The United States of America may be the world’s oldest democratic republic. But it has only more recently adopted modern democratic norms. Universal suffrage was only achieved with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (and even now, millions of U.S. citizens are still denied the right to vote). There are substantial remaining defects of U.S. democracy. Although these do not disqualify the USA from membership in the family of democratic nations, they do violate both international democratic standards and the democratic principles that most Americans believe in. These are some of the key problems (which will be discussed in greater depth in future posts):
- voter turnout in U.S. national elections is lower than in almost every other established democracy;
- the same two political parties have dominated political life for more than 150 years, in part because of discrimination against other parties;
- despite approval rates of Congress in opinion polls around 15%, 95% of incumbents in the U.S. House were re-elected in the last election;
- the U.S. Senate is the most malapportioned national legislative body with significant power in the world;
- the Presidency, which has become the most important part of the U.S. national government, is decided not by popular vote but by a convoluted system that is not understood by the public and has never worked as intended, leading to serious distortions of democratic norms in the selection process as well as in determining the winner;
- the U.S. is the only country in the world where members of legislatures draw their own district boundaries;
- the overlapping responsibilities of the House, the Senate, the President, and the Supreme Court in passing legislation means that is exceedingly difficult for a majority of voters to exercise its will, frustrating popularity sovereignty and reducing accountability;
- extra-constitutional veto points such as the Senate’s filibuster rule and the unnecessary debt ceiling create opportunities for obstruction and extortion by a minority;
- the President, originally intended as a kind of errand boy for Congress, has become the most powerful element of the government, and has exerted extra-constitutional authority such as undeclared wars and selective vetoes (in the form of signing statements).
- in part because the Constitution is so difficult to amend, the Supreme Court has become an unelected super-legislature exhibiting obvious partisan beliefs.
- more than a third of state legislative seats are uncontested (in Georgia, 80% of state legislative seats have only one major party candidate).
Paul Schimek, Ph.D., the author of this website, has a longstanding interest in voting and electoral systems. He worked to register voters in the deep south (of New England) and in New York City in the absence of the mail-in registration forms that were later required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. He has previously taught at M.I.T. and currently teaches at Harvard GSD.