Americans often praise themselves for being the first democracy in the Western world. They look back to their founding fathers, and all of the admiration their young country initially received, and think: “Ah, yes. We did that,” taking nationalism to a whole new level. Today, this image of the great “first democracy” seems to blind Americans to the reality that the US is much less democratic than they were two centuries ago.
Picking and choosing
Very few Western countries idolize their founders the way the US does. Their history romanticizes figures like Washington and Jefferson, all while ignoring all their flaws.
In recent years, people have pointed out how hypocritical the founders were (how can you say that all men were created equal, yet still allow slaves?), and some will point out how strongly Washington opposed the two-party system that still stands today (we’ll get back to that).
I want to focus on Jefferson’s argument that the United States’ constitution should be re-written every 20 years. That’s right, not only revised, but completely re-written. He thought that keeping the same constitution for too long would make the people feel detached from their government, which would turn into a tyrannical figure.
However, if you were to mention that idea to more conservative Americans today, usually the very people who praise Jefferson, you’ll probably be labeled as an extremist and shooed out of the conversation.
Coming back to the two-party system, or the illusion of choice, Washington was very against this system. It was put into place around 1792, and, while there have been different duos of parties, the system has never really changed. There are third party candidates at almost every election, but they rarely get elected.
Many frustrated voters today complain that they need to choose “the lesser of two evils”. This feeling is directly tied to the two-party system. It has created a world in which politicians only have to appeal to moderate “swing” voters, as they can often safely assume that more extreme voters will give them their vote by default.
There is no party further to the left or to the right to whom they might lose those votes, and we end up in an endless stalemate in which politicians are afraid to say anything too extreme for fear of losing moderate supporters.
These past elections have brought to light many flaws in the way that elections are run. One of these is the electoral colleges and the way they are divided after the elections. Put simply, every state has a number of colleges proportional to their population, and these are given to a presidential nominee after the election.
The nominee who has the most colleges wins. However, electoral colleges are not divided by the percentage of votes for each nominee. Most states (apart from Maine and Nebraska) operate on a “winner takes all” principle: whoever wins the majority gets all the colleges. This means that up to 49% of the votes can be discarded.
Whether the race is close in one state or a landslide, the winner gets the same number of colleges. How is it democratic to dismiss such a large percentage of the population’s votes?
In their defense…
All this being said, the US is still doing a few things more democratically than Canada. The fact that many issues are dealt with by the state governments instead of the federal one is one of them; this brings politics closer to the people, and it means decisions are truly modeled after the specifics of each state.
American ballots also include more local referendums than Canadian ones. People don’t just vote for the president: they vote for the senator, the mayor, the school board, law proposals…
This is very close to direct democracy, and, while it may be more complicated, it makes the people involved in the political decisions of their community, which is exactly what democracy is.
So, what could they do?
There are a few things the US could do to update the way their country is run and to be more democratic. As Jefferson wisely advised, re-writing the constitution to fit the current times would make it a lot more relevant. This would, of course, be a very tedious task, but it would be worth it.
Dividing the electoral colleges according to the percentage of votes would solve two problems at once. It would follow the “one person, one vote” principle that democracy relies on, and it would give third-party candidates a chance to win colleges and get more attention on the national level.
American democracy was created a long time ago, and it was meant to fit the times and the interests of those who created it. However, times have changed, and so have people; the US needs to evolve into a new way of doing things. By staying stuck in the past, American democracy has lost the very things that made it a democracy.
By Marieke Glorieux-Stryckman