American Democracy is Broken

Bloom Briefing 59: The Census Lays Bare the Structural Issues with American Government

The US Census Bureau released the results of the 2020 census last month.  The new population totals are used, among other things, to allocate congressional representation for the coming decade.  Those results look this:

Current Structural Issues with American Democracy

As happens every decade, the new totals will produce some wildly unequal representation.  In 2022, Delaware’s one representative will represent 990,000 people, while Montana’s two representatives will each represent 543,000.  New York missed out on retaining its 27th representative by a mere 86 people, the smallest deficit to an additional seat since the current format was adopted in 1940.

Because the allocation of representatives also determines the number of electoral college votes for each state, the decennial census also surfaces concerns about the fairness of electing presidents.  Starting with the next presidential election, in Wyoming, every roughly 190,000 people will get one electoral college vote.  In California, that number will be 733,000.  That means presidential votes in Wyoming are three times more powerful than presidential votes in California.

These structural inequalities in the level of representation are but one major issue facing American democracy.  Another major challenge is negative political polarization.  The electoral system in the US makes it nearly impossible for someone outside of one of the two major political parties to get elected.  And when they do, they functionally behave as if they are a member of one of the two parties (e.g., “independents” Bernie Sanders and Angus King). 

Not only does negative political polarization functionally prevent third-party candidates, it has also been driving the two parties further apart, in terms of both which issues are most important and what to do about them.  The greater the distance between the parties, the easier it becomes to vote for a candidate you don’t support because the alternative is helping the extremist[1] on “the other side.”

The third major structural issue in American democracy is money and the homogeneity of political parties.  Because the Supreme Court has decided that money is speech and corporations are people, it is outrageously expensive to win large-scale elections.  Candidates have to raise massive sums of money to even be competitive, and this in turn makes them more reliant on the fundraising of the political party to which they’re affiliated.  Because candidates are more reliant on their party to help them fundraise, they are less likely to break ranks with their party, decreasing intra-party ideological diversity.

There are plenty of major structural issues with democracy, but the other I think rises to the level of a fundamental problem is non-competitive elections.  This partly has to do with the clustering of partisans, but, to a greater extent, has to do with the incentives elected officials have to create districts that ensure they continue to get reelected. 

Potential Solutions to the Structural Issues with American Democracy

Against these set of issues, smart people (many of them political scientists or theorists) have suggested myriad potential reforms.  They tend to fall into one of four categories: 

  • Increase the number of representatives.  By the end of this decade, assuming no new states are admitted, the House of Representatives will have had 435 members for the last 100 years. 

  • Change the way primary and/or general elections are conducted.  There are a range of proposals in this bucket, including ranked-choice voting, swapping primary and general elections, open primaries with runoff elections, and more.  Each of these addresses one or more of the challenges outlined above.

  • Reform the way voters are grouped.  Many people focus this on independent redistricting commissions, but multi-member districts and proportional representation may be better at addressing some of the root cause problems.

  • Limit the way elections are funded.  In the wake of Citizens United, it’s unclear what Supreme-Court-sanctioned campaign finance reform might look like, but there is no shortage of proposals out there.

Over the coming months, I’ll write about a variety of those proposals.  The goal will be to understand which problems they each help solve and where they leave the current structural problems unaddressed.

Reader Input Request

Is there one democratic reform idea you’re particular passionate about?  Let me know!  What should I read to understand why that idea is great? Alternatively, what questions do you have about democratic reform that I might be able to answer? Feel free to leave a comment (see button below) or respond to this email.

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Additional Reading:

On his Substack, Good Faith, Ben Dreyfuss wrote about why opinions are bad bases for friendships.  It’s an interesting and thoughtful piece.

On her Substack, Culture Study, Anne Helen Peterson interviewed Rebecca Lea Potts about Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna Gaines, and what the subtle ways the show reflects deeper ideological values and commitments. It’s everything good cultural criticism should be.

[1] This move towards extremism is asymmetrical.  Republicans have radicalized at a much faster rate than Democrats.