Flawed Democracy: The Case for Urgent Government Reform

Editor's note:This article is Part I of a new series by Alex de Ramon looking at the current state of our government and suggesting needed structural reforms to solve the many issues plaguing our democracy. Read the next part II here and part III here.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the US has been downgraded to a “flawed democracy” status for the first time. This ranking means that a country has free and fair elections, as well as basic respect for civil liberties, but it suffers from low levels of participation and other governance problems. While one might be inclined to point the finger towards President Trump, the reason for the downgrade actually reflects a long-term trend: declining trust in governmental institutions, elected representatives, and political parties. Our trust in our government has been declining for decades: some would argue that major events such as Watergate and the Vietnam war were the catalysts for the delegitimization of our government. Today’s parallels (government shutdowns, the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing economic stagnation, and the Iraq War) have only exacerbated this trend.

There is clearly much room to worry here. Record numbers of Americans have little to no faith in our government, and it is doubtful that Trump will be able to provide the kind of dramatic turnaround that would be needed to restore this faith. His campaign, as well as the surprising popularity of Bernie Sanders’ efforts, proved that many Americans think that “the system” is broken. If I remember correctly, after all, the pundits all predicted that the 2016 election would be a show-down between the two largest political dynasties in our time; instead, we almost ended up with a “democratic socialist” against a reality-TV star billionaire with an at-best tangential connection to conservatism. In this light, I believe that we should seriously consider that our system of government really is broken.

What would be the causes of this breakdown in our government? While this process has clearly been slow and hard to discern, it is hard to argue that our government is somehow more efficient or works better than it did some decades ago. Increased polarization and partisanship has ground our government, especially Congress, to a halt and tends to frustrate all attempts to get things done. Democrats are now called “obstructionists” in their attempts to placate their electoral bases as members of the opposition party, while Republicans largely refused to work with Obama at all. Scandals and the abundance of rhetoric about how politicians only work for themselves, and most importantly the idea that only an “outsider” can fix what is wrong, have had lasting effects on how we perceive our government. Individually, the average American is dejected about politics and sees elections as “the lesser of two evils”, if they bother to vote at all.

While we can speculate about the causes of these changes in how our government works and how it is thereby perceived, the obvious conclusion is that there is a deep structural rot at the heart of our democracy. We are proud of our Constitution and the wisdom of our Founding Fathers, but what if the problems we face today could be solved or at least ameliorated by taking a fresh look at our entire governmental structure? After