Is the United States doomed to become the latest global victim of a dangerous strongman, a la Venezuela under Hugo Chavez? That's what economics reporter turned left-wing columnist Eduardo Porter thinks in Wednesday’s New York Times: “How Dysfunction Threatens U.S. Democracy.” What led to this dramatic conclusion? Trump’s election.
Porter made a rare Times admission of the “authoritarian” nature of the Communist rule of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, only to bash Trump as a similar threat to democracy.
Is American democracy broken?
There are precedents around the world for the kind of political jolt the United States experienced in November. They usually include a political firebrand who promises to sweep away a system rigged to serve the powerful rather than the interests of ordinary people. They usually end badly, when the popular champion decides to read electoral victory as an invitation to bend the institutions of democracy to the force of his will.
Most Americans, I’m sure, never expected to worry about that sort of thing in the United States. And yet concern is decidedly in the air. Did a combination of globalization, demographic change, cultural revolutions and whatever else just upend America’s consensus in support of liberal market democracy? Did American democracy just succumb to the strongman’s promise?
I’m skeptical that the United States is about to careen down the path taken by, say, Venezuela, governed by the whim of President Nicolás Maduro -- the handpicked successor of the populist champion Hugo Chávez, who was elected in the late 1990s on a promise to sweep away an entrenched ruling class and proceeded to battle any democratic institution that stood in his way.
Still, the embrace by millions of American voters of a billionaire authoritarian who argues that the “system” has been rigged to serve a cosmopolitan ruling class against the interests of ordinary people does suggest that American democracy has a unique credibility problem.
“What makes the United States so distinctive?” wrote Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, in a somewhat prescient article a few months before the election. “One reason may be that in recent years U.S. democracy has become appallingly dysfunctional.”
Working Americans have suffered disproportionately from the economic shocks of our time. Income inequality in the United States far exceeds anything seen in other advanced nations. Families from the middle on down have suffered stagnant or declining incomes for years. And the nation’s threadbare social safety net remains the weakest in the industrialized world, providing only the most meager insurance to working families undercut by globalization and technological change.
Porter saw the specter of perceived electoral illegitimacy as the problem – though strangely dismissed the danger of vote fraud, while using a stacked survey to make America’s electoral system look bad – what’s campaign finance regulation doing there?
The Electoral Integrity Project, run by Professor Norris and colleagues from Harvard and the University of Sydney in Australia, surveys thousands of election experts to assess the quality of hundreds of elections around the world. They are asked to rate how well district boundaries are drawn, whether voter registration procedures are adequate, and the effectiveness of campaign finance regulation, among other things.
Based on the average evaluations of the elections in 2012 and 2014, the United States’ electoral integrity was ranked 52nd among the 153 countries in the survey -- behind all the rich Western democracies and also countries like Costa Rica and Uruguay, the Baltic states, and Cape Verde and Benin in Africa.
Porter predictably bashed America’s federalist system. Yet for someone so concerned about electoral integrity, Porter has a convenient blind spot when it comes to Republican concerns about vote fraud.
Independent studies have found almost no instances of voter fraud in American elections. Still, Republicans consistently assert that it remains a clear and present danger. A consequence is that the number of states requesting or requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls has increased to 32, from 14 in 2000, making it more difficult for poorer, less educated voters to cast their ballots.
The difficult question, though, is whether the American political system can overcome political gridlock to fix itself. Here’s hoping it can be done before the United States takes another turn down the path blazed by Venezuela.