Democracies Die When Elections Don’t Matter

Is our democracy at risk? Many recent discussions have focused on that issue with questions about the meaning of “democracy.” This set me off looking for a definition, but it turns out that the concept is not entirely straightforward. I found not a single definition, but varying ones.

One dictionary said democracy was “government by the people, especially rule of the majority; government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” Another source said: “a system of government by the whole population of all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” A third source: “the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves.”

          These definitions raised all sorts of questions in my mind. Democracy is government by “the people,” but what is the definition of “the people”? Is it the same as “the eligible members of a state”? The whole population cannot vote in an election; Ten-year-olds don’t get to cast a ballot. Isn’t it important to define what the “eligible members of a state” ought to be for a democracy? If the franchise is restricted to a tiny part of the society, but the leaders are picked by majority vote of that small group, is it a democracy? I guess it is, at least according to one definition, but not in my mind.

          One democracy definition emphasized majority rule, but I have heard of the “tyranny of the majority,” and wondered if we would consider a country democratic that horrendously oppressed or denied access to the ballot to all those not in the majority. (“No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of minorities.” Franklin D. Roosevelt.) And, if a system selects representatives with a plurality but not a majority, is it not democratic or is it a lesser form of democracy?

          One democracy definition said “free elections.” That is not a self-evident phrase. I was not sure how I would define it, or if it could be defined except by negative examples.

          Even though I felt as if I would know a democracy when I saw it, I was not sure that it could be defined. Part of the problem is that the definitions, like most definitions, were binary—something was either this or not this. Something was not “sort of” this or a “better or more complete version” of that.

          The third definition included a component the others did not when it said a democracy was a system of government based on the belief of equality among people. It seems to me that one facet of a better democracy is that the ability to vote is widespread, indicating equality among the people, and that all voters’ votes count the same, again indicating equality among the people. The elected representatives of the society are then chosen by determining who had the most votes cast in an election where all the voters have equal access to cast ballots and all votes carry equal weight.

          I also noticed an important absence in all the definitions. They had agreed that a representative democracy had the electorate picking people to represent them in government. But the definitions do not say that the people or the electorate choose the form of government in which their representatives will govern. But surely, the structure of the government has something to do with democracy. And “democratic” countries can be structured in ways that seem to make them more or less democratic. The U.S. Constitution contains many non-democratic features which assure that all votes do not have equal weight. One example: Because each state selects two Senators the votes in small states count more in constituting the Senate than votes in large states.

          But even so, I think that most people believe that in a democracy elections matter. We, the People, no matter how we define the People, should be able to change those who represent us through our elections, and therefore voting is important. Of course, that is frequently not true in our country. Our presidential elections are an example.

          I vote in New York, but it is clear long before the voting who will win the presidential race in my state. The result will be the same whether I or ten thousand others vote or not. The election is a mere formality and voting in a New York presidential race does not really matter. Instead, the relative handful of “swing” state voters actually control who will be president. Their votes count a lot more than mine, and a basic principle of democracy is undercut.

But now there are movements to make many more elections mere formalities, and they present basic threats to our democracy.

(continued Dec. 20.)

74 Million Votes

We should be celebrating the fact that 154 million people voted in the presidential election. This is far more than in any other election—136.7 million voted in 2016—and the percentage of eligible voters who voted in November was reported to be the largest in a century. We should be thrilled that so many people got involved and demonstrated civic engagement. We should be rejoicing because these numbers indicate our democracy is strong. 

Do you feel that joy? Yeah, me neither. Instead, there have been probably more discussions of the weakness of our democracy than celebrations of the just-demonstrated strengths of our system. Much of this reaction has been fueled by the cries of voter fraud and resultant suits and pressures led by the president. It is astonishing how many people believe such claims based on “proof” that wouldn’t make it into a Marvel comic book. 

Even if the fraud conspiracies are baseless and laughable, they harm us. Democracy requires not just a good election, but a trust that elections have been honest and fair. That trust is being undermined. Indeed, undermining that trust seems to be the goal of many. But let’s hold off on the funeral bunting for democracy. It is natural when a side loses to look for causes other than its own merits for the loss—the referees, bad weather, sickness, or injury. (This is generally true, but not for Bears, Jets, and Mets fans. They know it is always the team’s fault.) Of course, it is different and more dangerous this time because it is the president seeking to undermine our elections. Still let’s not yet assume that Trump and the Trumpistas have the power to shift in a few years what has survived for centuries. Let’s wait a bit. There is a danger to our democracy, yes, but perhaps it will dissipate after January 20 if Trump leaves office peacefully. (Or perhaps we are not supposed to say that conditional clause out loud.) 

There is, however, another more subtle danger to democracy coming out of the election. Perhaps you have some friends like I do who should have been ecstatic as the result of the election, or at least happy, or at least relieved. Their guy had won the election, or if Joe Biden was not really their guy, Donald Trump, their real concern, had lost. But they can’t surrender to the good feeling. They keep asking, “How did Trump get 74 million votes?” They say that they can’t grasp how so many people could vote against their own and the country’s interest. How can democracy survive, they feel, if so many people vote so wrong?  

This attitude, too, is a danger to democracy. If I view your vote as so wrong as to be irrational, I am in an important sense dismissing its legitimacy. Instead, I should concede that it is hubris for me to “know” how you should vote. Instead, it should be clear to me that some people assess what is in their and the national interest differently from how I would. Of course, since these people did not win, I can dismiss them and claim that they are incomprehensible without seeking to understand them. In that case, I, too, like the president, am acting as an autocrat that will subvert democracy. 

But my friends asking about those 74 million votes may feel a deeper dismay than is warranted. Trump did get eleven million more votes than he did in 2016, but, of course, Biden got fourteen million more votes than Clinton did four years ago. Trump also got a higher percentage of the vote this time around, but it wasn’t much more. He got 47.2% of the total vote in 2020 and 46.1% in 2016. Biden, however, got the majority with 51.1% while Clinton got only a 48.2% share four years ago.  

We can say that both Trump and the Democrats did better. The third parties, however, did worse. In 2016 they got 5.7% of the total vote; this year only 1.7%. Thus, that third-party share dropped 4%. Trump’s share increased by 1.1% while the Democrat’s proportion increased 2.9%. Almost three out of four of those third-party votes went to Biden. Trump did not make much of a foray into new territory. 

My friends, however, believe that Trump has worked a dramatic change in the country. Perhaps. But consider 2012. Obama got 51.2% of the vote, and Romney received 47.2%. Those are precisely the same percentages obtained by Biden and Trump. Perhaps what we are seeing is not a Trump-driven radical transformation of the country, but the powerful, enduring effects of partisanship. Looked at this way, Trump is just the most recent – and most toxic — manifestation of that divide, not something truly new.