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America Is Not a Democracy

The movement to save democracy from threats is too quick to overlook the problems that have been present since the founding.

(Illustration by Daniel Zender)

Democrats have spent much—some might say all—of the last two presidential elections warning about the threats to democracy embodied by Donald Trump. The 2024 election is already being pitched not as a choice about taxes or health care or social policy, but a final test of whether we will have a republic or a dictatorship.

Trump is a more than worthy subject of concern for anyone hoping for democracy in 2025. Last time he was president, he actively resisted the peaceful transfer of power, a hallmark of despots the world over. To the extent he and his authoritarian-friendly advisers learned anything from the first term, it was how to neutralize obstacles to expanding power. His musing about being a “dictator on day one” is really not loose talk. The plans emanating from Team Trump to destroy the civil service, hire government lawyers to rubber-stamp unconstitutional actions and prosecute personal enemies, and even deploy troops on American soil are truly alarming.

But something troubles me about that term, “threat to democracy.” It has become a catchall phrase for resistance to conservative extremism, and specifically Trump. Yet the deficiencies in American democracy go back to the very founding, and the long arc of history hasn’t come close to correcting all of them. The larger crisis we now face is not solely attributable to an individual with malign intent for our government; it’s more about the system of government itself.

Exactly what part of democracy are we trying to save? Is it our democratic legislature, gerrymandered and malapportioned beyond recognition, with supermajority thresholds that deny rule even by that corrupted majority? Is it our democratic presidency, which Trump legally took over after losing the popular vote in 2016, and George W. Bush in the same fashion 16 years earlier? Is it our democratic judiciary, morphed into a super-legislature and habitually twisting the Constitution to advantage those with power, money, and influence?

Are we worried about a democracy that can be so easily purchased, where corporate lobbyists either win whatever they want on Capitol Hill, or win by regulatory change or international trade treaty whatever they don’t? Has this government, where the most important modification of our democracy’s original sin, the second-class citizenship of Black people, is now being steadily reversed by state legislatures and the courts, earned our support? Is there despair over losing something that has produced unequal opportunity, unequal justice, and the conversion of economic power into political power? Where can we find this democracy we need to fight to preserve?

No democracy perfectly distills the will of the people. But America is uniquely terrible at achieving democratic outcomes. It’s worth focusing our energies to repair that, because the alternative really is too grim to contemplate. But there are only a few options here. We can defend “democracy” as an amorphous concept that this country has almost never lived up to. We can uncover escape hatches, short-term circumventions of the rules, either to disqualify Trump and the threat he represents, or to take action on policy challenges. We know the names of these band-aids: budget reconciliation, the Electoral Count Reform Act, the 14th Amendment.

But we don’t deserve to live as political Houdini figures, trying constantly to work our way out of shackles imposed on us by our own system of government. If a political movement is going to style itself as the savior of democracy, it should also speak plainly about the myriad deficiencies in our democracy, and what it would actually take to fix them.

AMERICAN DEMOCRACY ISN’T VERY SUCCESSFUL not despite being the world’s oldest, but because of that fact. The Founding Fathers—primarily aristocrats, land speculators, and slaveholders—had noble aspirations but limited belief in true democracy. They distrusted agglomerations of power, whether in a monarch, political parties, or the people. As historian Terry Bouton has written, Founders like Alexander Hamilton and Elbridge Gerry detested an “excess of democracy” that could lead to a dangerous outbreak of economic equality.

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They thus devised a system built for a small, agrarian country, intended to make addressing social challenges extremely difficult. Presidents don’t get to form the government, and the legislature responsible for enacting the laws is elected at different times. The framers wanted the House, Senate, and presidency to compete with one another, to curb each other’s power, and in that competition to disable the desires of the people, even if they constituted a majority. Montesquieu, the French philosopher who inspired the founders to build a system of checks and balances, hoped a government so conceived “should naturally form a state of repose or inaction."

The biggest tell of how misaligned this approach is for the modern world is that, when we periodically overthrow perceived enemies and install what we call democracies in other countries, we almost never use the core aspects of our own system. The federal government of Iraq has a figurehead president and a parliament, with the prime minister as the head of government. Democracies installed after World War II in Germany and Japan and Italy were given a similar framework.

In a parliamentary structure, the head of government runs the legislature. Coalitions can collapse, but then snap elections are held for a new majority that can adopt its platform. America can have divided government indefinitely; since 1980, the presidency and both houses of Congress have been in the same hands for only 12 years and six months (from January to June 2001, after which a party switch flipped the Senate), with the other 31 and a half years divided. Both Congress and the president can claim popular mandates to thwart the other, leading to unsatisfying stasis at best and perpetual crisis at worst.

In the last nine national elections, America has changed at least one house of Congress or the presidency every time except for 2012. More than half of those elections were landslides: 2006, 2008, 2010, 2014, and 2018. Legislative action in those two decades in no way matches these successive Democratic and Republican mandates. Bipartisan fetishism aside, there are real differences of opinion in America, which should be settled through elections. But voters keep electing a new party to fulfill promises that are blocked by the structure of the political system and its status quo bias.

Political scientist Juan Linz’s 1990 essay “The Perils of Presidentialism” makes the case that governments with separately elected presidents are notoriously unstable. American democracy sidestepped these showdowns for decades, Linz explained, due to ideological flexibility among the parties. Anyone pining for these “good old days,” of course, is pining for the racism that was the principal reason for this temporary condition. Southern segregationists with historical ties to Democrats stuck with the party for much of the 20th century, with liberal Republicans anchored to that party’s radical past. This gave Democrats and Republicans separate liberal and conservative wings, creating pressure for cross-partisan dealmaking.

After Lyndon Johnson signed civil rights legislation and wrote off the Solid South, politicians gradually sorted into polarized ideological camps, and this brought inevitable, inescapable gridlock. That conflict is built into our system of government, not the character of its politicians.

America combines its presidential framework with first-past-the-post voting, where election winners take all the power, rather than a proportional system of power-sharing. Political scientists have observed something called Duverger’s law, which says that a first-past-the-post system with a single ballot (rather than a runoff) inevitably favors two parties, while two-ballot or proportional representation systems favor multiple parties. That’s why third-party voters in the U.S. are routinely demonized as spoilers, even “the biggest threat, I think, to democracy,” as Barack Obama campaign manager Jim Messina recently said.

While we see democracies with both presidential and parliamentary systems, and democracies with first-past-the-post and proportional representation, America’s variant is exceedingly rare. Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, looked at 78 relatively stable democracies around the world, and found just four with presidents and majoritarian legislatures: the U.S., Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Our system is not replicated because it’s not effective.

THE FOUNDERS WANTED LITTLE TO DO with democratic self-government, and instead vested presidential electors, chosen by whatever manner a state legislature saw fit, with the power to exercise independent judgment. (In the original conception, all electors were faithless.)

Things have gradually moved in the direction of making electors pro forma tribunes of the popular will. But that creates 51 parallel and improperly weighted elections in the states and the District of Columbia, giving residents of smaller states more control over who wins the presidency. Today, California has 18 times as many electoral votes as Wyoming, but 66.3 times the population.

It’s actually worse than that. Since college, I’ve lived in Illinois and California during every presidential election, and have been disenfranchised every single time. The machinist from Alabama or the teacher from South Carolina has also had their vote essentially extinguished. All four of those states have voted for the same party in the presidential race since 1992. This year, conventional wisdom suggests that there will be no more than six true swing states (along with two swing congressional districts in Nebraska and Maine, the only two states that apportion some electors based on the district vote). The other 45 elections are already committed to the Democratic or Republican nominee.

Within those swing states, you can pinpoint the tiny universe of voters who will pick the most powerful ruler in the free world for the next four years. Campaign strategists put the number consistently at around 400,000 voters, out of 150 million expected to vote in the next election. So about 99.8 percent of all voters are rendered relatively unimportant. This has huge consequences for democratic legitimacy, because swing voters do not always match the broader electorate. In two of the last six elections, the elected president did not get the most popular votes. The second-place vote-getter almost won a third time in 2020, and could easily win again in 2024.

In the last nine national elections, America has changed at least one house of Congress or the presidency every time except for 2012.

The rules for choosing Congress are as anti-democratic as the rules for choosing a president. The 17th Amendment (1913) at least made U.S. senators popularly elected rather than installed by state legislatures. But the awarding of equal numbers of seats by state continues to make a mockery of democracy. A series of Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s determined that districts in state and federal legislatures needed to have equal populations, to follow a “one person, one vote” standard inherent in the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. Under this standard, the Senate is blatantly unconstitutional, despite being embedded in the Constitution.

Meanwhile, the House’s balance of power is today increasingly determined not by the popular mood but by arbitrary district lines. Only a tiny fraction of House seats are even competitive, with most pre-arranged for Democrats or Republicans. And in an age of greater mapping technology, redistricting has led to a titanic clash of raw political power. As David Daley ably documented in his book Ratf**ked, $30 million in corporate contributions tossed into state legislative races in 2010 definitively changed who had the power to draw district lines, and therefore the country’s legislative output, for close to a decade.

Redistricting battles no longer end with the first map. In 2024, Maryland, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, and New York will likely use different congressional district lines than in 2022, due to changes in the political orientation of state supreme courts, rulings at the federal level, or unresolved court fights. There is also active litigation in Florida, Utah, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee, and possibly Wisconsin. That’s over one-quarter of the country’s states potentially redoing redistricting after maps were already set. Somehow, none of these skirmishes address the fact that the approximately 678,972 residents of Washington, D.C., nearly half of them Black, are offered no voting representation in Congress, just because.

Currently, all of these defects in the constitutional order wire Washington for Republicans, because the party controls more small states, wastes fewer votes in presidential elections, and maximizes its redistricting advantage. Democrats control 11 of the 12 Senate seats in true swing states, yet still need three seats in Republican Ohio, Montana, and West Virginia to hang onto the barest 51-seat majority. Similarly, the party often needs large popular-vote majorities to take the presidency.

But minor geographic voting shifts or Democratic gerrymandering victories could flip that script. Texas flipping to a purple or blue state could lock Republicans out of the White House. So nobody truly benefits from a misshapen electoral system, least of all the people.

EVEN IF OUR GOVERNMENT WERE REDESIGNED to resemble the preferences of the people voting, we still wouldn’t have much democracy in America.

For one, you cannot presume that public preferences are reflected in ballots cast. From the beginning of the republic, factions have limited the universe of voters to those most inclined to agree with them. Black people didn’t obtain access to this democracy we revere until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and that law has been under legal attack ever since. John Roberts’s Supreme Court, declaring racism over, gave states the opportunity to suppress votes without Justice Department interference in the Shelby County ruling in 2013. A federal appeals court went further recently when it ended private litigation challenges under the VRA.

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Voter suppression comes in so many forms that Black people aren’t the only ones caught up in the dragnet. Five states prohibit student IDs to be used for voting, and some students are prevented from voting in the locations where they attend college. A lack of physical voting machines in poorer areas can cause long lines at the polls. Many states, to be sure, are expanding access to the ballot. But that is creating inequality in voting rights by state, where your chance to participate in our democracy is bounded by your residence.

Once lawmakers do reach Congress, the situation is arguably bleaker. The Founders designed the Senate as a cooling saucer for the hot passions of the larger and more democratic House of Representatives. That saucer has been frozen over by the filibuster, an accident of history that makes it so that 41 senators representing a small fraction of the population can block all legislative action. While historically employed rarely, mainly to shut down civil rights legislation, the filibuster has in recent decades become a catchall for a minority of the Senate to impose its will. “In the Senate today, perhaps alone among the legislative bodies of the world,” writes Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in his recent book Filibustered!, “the power to bring a policy bill to a vote by simple majority does not exist."

Filibustering lawmakers no longer need to speak to wield the minority veto; they can just lodge an objection to shut things down. Even relatively uncontroversial votes can take days, regardless of support, as long as one senator is determined enough to oppose it. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) blocked hundreds of perfunctory military promotions for months over Pentagon abortion policy; confirming each promotion separately would grind the Senate to a halt. Lawmakers in the minority know this, so they take every opportunity to run out the clock.

You can fill a book with issue areas where public opinion roundly supports action but Congress doesn’t act. Minority vetoes are partially to blame, as is distorted representation. But there’s also the problem of who lawmakers see as their constituents: the wealthy and powerful.

The classic text on this comes from Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, two researchers who found in 2014 that the preferences of “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests” mattered far more for policy outcomes than ordinary citizens or coalitions of public-interest groups. There have been rebuttals to their data over the years, but reality is on Gilens and Page’s side. In a recent interview, Page said, “When they say democracy may be failing, I would disagree. I think it hasn’t been tried!”

Between 71 and 98 percent of U.S. federal elections over the past 20 years were determined by which candidate had the most campaign money. This was enabled by a judiciary that allowed corporations to be considered people for purposes of equal protection under the law, a constitutional provision intended to safeguard the rights of Black former slaves. Corporations later obtained what amount to free speech rights in the Citizens United case, part of a decades-long approach, as writer Corey Robin has explained, to reorient the practices of “the businessman and the banker” as speech.

With creative interpretations and invented doctrines, the Supreme Court has reorganized itself into a second legislature, rendering an additional veto over laws it doesn’t like. The key strategists behind this new order like to use the term “originalism,” linking their perversion of democracy’s present to the inadequate structures of the past.

Every action the government takes is now viewed through the lens of potential infringement on corporate rights, pulverizing the will of policymakers, who regulate and enforce with an eye toward not getting sued. And corporations are in the room where it happens. Government lobbying cost over $1 billion in just the first three months of 2023. When the Dodd-Frank Act passed—with the tailwind of a world-historic financial crisis enabling a muted reform to barely gain enough votes—lobbyists from the financial services industry called it “halftime,” and set about to shape the rules derived from the law in their interest, mostly successfully.

There have certainly been moments in American history when concentrations of economic power were seen as dangerous; we’re living through the resurrection of one of those moments right now. But the relinquishing of antitrust enforcement over nearly half a century prior has given large corporations far too much political power in our democracy. Indeed, the very act of concentrating business sectors leads to a loss of basic, inalienable rights: the liberty to pursue your talents or discover new inventions without being muscled out by an economic leviathan.

When success in American politics hinges so overtly on wealth and influence, can the word “democracy” truly be used?

OUR SCLEROTIC GOVERNMENT NATURALLY LEADS the politically engaged to seek work-arounds to get things done. For example, the budget reconciliation process, intended to facilitate spending decisions, has been turned into a one-time “get out of the filibuster free” card, allowing governing majorities to pass bills along party lines. Reconciliation bills must have a budgetary impact, putting an entire segment of policy ideas into a more insurmountable category of legislating.

Many would count me as guilty of an “end run around democracy” mindset. In 2019, we featured in these pages the Day One Agenda, a series of options to use executive action to implement existing laws in ways that would solve pressing problems in the country. I definitely cop to having a lot of frustration over policy gridlock and congressional abdication of lawmaking. And I do see the constitutional role of the executive branch, to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” as perfectly consistent with making sure that those existing laws are carried out with maximum impact.

However, I recognize that the line between creative statutory interpretation for the public good and measures to simply arrogate power to the executive can often be razor-thin. Last December, at a time when Joe Biden was presenting his re-election campaign as a battle to preserve democracy, his State Department twice prevented lawmakers from their statutory responsibility to review military sales. Both cases involved shipments to Israel, and the administration cited emergency exceptions in the Arms Export Control Act. But these were clearly employed to evade legal scrutiny that bars the U.S. from providing weapons to countries that violate international law and human rights.

The emergency trigger was last used in the Middle East in 2019 by the Trump administration, to hand over weapons to Saudi Arabia for its proxy war in Yemen, which as in Gaza led to untold civilian casualties. No president has a monopoly on expansions of executive power; you could go back to Lincoln suspending habeas corpus or FDR rounding up American citizens of Japanese descent or successive presidents making war in Vietnam without a congressional declaration to find some really juicy tramplings of constitutional law. War powers are violated routinely, statutes are ignored or twisted with regularity, and implementation rarely follows the straight line that legislative intent might dictate.

Between 71 and 98 percent of U.S. federal elections over the past 20 years were determined by which candidate had the most campaign money.

But you cannot solely blame individual actors for lifting up the rug in search of a trapdoor to flee the escape room that is American democracy. If our government made any sense at all, you wouldn’t need budget reconciliation to simply hold a majority vote. I certainly wouldn’t pound the drum for executive action so much if it weren’t practically the only way to have a successful presidency in the modern era.

Government by random leverage plays is not a sustainable solution to our ills. First of all, it enables escalating aggrandizements of power, using the ever-popular “they started it” rationale. Constitutional hardball, as Harvard Law’s Mark Tushnet calls it, leads to chronic shattering of norms and conventions, especially when combined with modern political polarization.

We’re seeing this play out in real time. Donald Trump has taken to describing Joe Biden and his allies, actually, as the true “threat to democracy,” for attempting to hold him accountable. The conservative reaction to the judicial project to throw Trump off the ballot, per the 14th Amendment’s disqualification for citizens who “have engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States, is that it risks a democratic breakdown. The series of criminal indictments Trump has faced, meanwhile, has led him to announce that he will appoint a special prosecutor to “go after” Biden and others if he returns to office.

There’s nothing new about Trump or his allies spinning attacks back onto their accusers. He is depicting for his voters a politics that is fully self-serving, where the rules matter if they benefit him and don’t matter if they don’t. The problem is that even legal constitutional work-arounds can often resemble this anything-goes world that Trump wants to operate in, to justify his own illiberal conduct. It can lead to public confusion or even anger. Which democratic principle is a president willing to subvert? Why is speeding weapons to pulverize civilians in Gaza worth cutting statutory corners, but not ensuring that all Americans have quality and affordable health care?

The observation that laws only apply some of the time breeds cynicism and alienation. Americans no longer believe that working hard and playing fair allows people to prosper. That learned helplessness is reinforced by a political system where outcomes are unconnected to majoritarian wishes. America has slipped behind peer nations on a host of economic metrics because its government is not equipped to keep up. And when the public feels consistently ignored by their government, they lose trust and search for answers in demagogues with simple answers and familiar scapegoats, people like … Donald Trump.

It is true that even Western democracies with superior governmental structures are suffering from crises of legitimacy, rising nationalism, and the ascent of right-wing populists. Global hyper-capitalism and neoliberal accommodation surely plays a role here. But America casts a long shadow, and handing over policy to big business was a function of the handcuffs our government places on itself. Some people may recoil at putting the nation’s founding documents at the center of our problems. But I don’t think it’s avoidable, given the evidence.

A remarkable poll result last December showed that majorities of Republicans and Democrats believe democracy is at stake in the 2024 election, for entirely different reasons. Trump actually leads in some polling on measures like “protecting the Constitution.” I would argue that straining to overcome the sundry obstacles the Founders put in place looks too much like subverting democracy for inattentive people to discern the difference. And the chronic inability to overcome those hurdles means that the primary threat to democracy is the Constitution itself.

THE INABILITY FOR PRESIDENTS AND PARTIES to enact their platform when they win is a primary cause of so much frustration within the political system. The bind we’re in is that the kind of reforms we need, so that people can believe that political participation means something, don’t map onto a Constitution that locks the people out. As law professors Ryan Doerfler and Samuel Moyn have described, a politics that asks an inadequate higher law to settle disputes “inevitably orient[s] us to the past and misdirect[s] the present into a dispute over what people agreed on once upon a time, not on what the present and future demand for and from those who live now.”

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I’d prefer a parliamentary system, with the president demoted to a ministerial role. A House with proportional representation that gives a portion of representatives in a particular district or state to candidates who attain a certain percentage of votes would inspire parties to compete on the basis of attracting voters rather than demeaning rivals as a waste of a vote. It would also make gerrymandering irrelevant. My top solution for the Senate is to not have one; a second-best option would see it transformed into something like the House of Lords, without the power to veto legislation, just to amend with approval from the House.

This setup, which serves much of the rest of the industrialized world just fine, would allow multiple parties to vie for power, form governing coalitions, and transform America into a functioning democracy. Most of it is incompatible with the current rulebook, where the president and the Senate’s powers are clear and unbending. The Senate’s membership, per the Constitution, also must be equal by state. And in their wisdom, the Founders made their creation almost impossible to amend. (Lowering that barrier somewhat might be the most democratic reform of them all.)

It’s tempting to say that we need a constitutional convention to completely rewrite the nation’s governmental order. But that’s a dicey scenario. In the meantime, we can also move toward the better democracy we need by trying democracy for a change.

Abolishing the Electoral College, supported by the public by a 2-1 margin, is one piece of low-hanging fruit. The National Popular Vote compact would allow states, as is their constitutional right, to band together and deliver their electoral votes to the popular-vote winner. States with 205 electoral votes have already signed this into law; the final 65 electoral votes will be difficult to find but not insurmountable.

A popular-vote election for president would force broader appeals and create imperatives among parties to expand rather than suppress voting rights. (Enforcing Section 2 of the 14th Amendment, which as written can strip representatives and electoral votes from states that disenfranchise voters, would also realign incentives.) Perhaps more important, it would signal that the people have the power to throw off the constitutional straitjacket.

If we don’t end the Senate, we can consign the filibuster to the dustbin of history, so a majority of senators can pass legislation they favor. The Senate can also be made more democratic by extending representation to voters who are currently completely shut out, like those of Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and other territories, to at least give American citizens the unequal representation they deserve.

Increasing the House’s membership so that one representative doesn’t speak for such a large constituency is an option. Congress has the authority to set the number of House members, but the 435-member House has not changed since 1913; at the time, there were a bit more than 200,000 constituents for every House member, and today there are 761,169. This could also reduce the bite of gerrymandering, as smaller districts offer fewer opportunities for distortion. Congress could also require independent redistricting commissions to stop the endless tit-for-tat of gerrymandering.

But Congress could also adopt proportional representation in the House, through Article I, Section 4, authority from the Constitution to decide the “time, places and manner” of its own elections. It could create multimember districts and minimum thresholds for representation. An aggressive Congress could even vote through changes to its internal structure, making the Senate more of an advisory body and putting a proportionally elected House in the lead.

What if the Supreme Court, in its self-appointed role as super-legislator, decides that these changes remove our democracy from its previous character and therefore must be nullified? Many Court reforms have been discussed, from 18-year term limits that allow presidents to nominate a justice every two years, to expansion of the Court’s membership. But Congress doesn’t need to let the Court even have a say in this matter. Bringing the judiciary’s power to review policy decisions in line with other democracies by stripping jurisdictions and restoring congressional prerogatives is an option the legislative branch is increasingly using, and it could rebalance the coequal branches and reverse judicial power grabs.

We can and should make voting easier, through automatic voter registration, expanded early vote and vote by mail, and universal voting that requires every citizen to vote. But a transformative democracy agenda would also enable political participation outside of Election Day. Having representatives who are closer to the people and able to actually do their job would give the public a greater chance of being heard by their leaders.

None of this will be easy. The same high veto points that alienate people from this democracy will provide tremendous obstacles to overhauling it. But as Perry Bacon Jr. has written in The Washington Post, being specific about the actual democracy we want, rather than an abstract idea that doesn’t match America’s reality, is more honest and more likely to inspire support. Voters in 2022 and 2023 reacted to specific revocations of rights, like the right to an abortion. They were not inspired by a generic rights agenda. The way to save democracy is to promise to give people one in the future.

WE KNOW IT’S POSSIBLE TO FASHION an agenda like this, because it’s already been done. In December 2012, the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the NAACP launched the Democracy Initiative, a plan to challenge the “democracy blocks” that stymied popular reforms. It was fitting for this to come out of the labor movement. After a decisive Democratic victory in the 2008 elections, unions had a majority of votes in Congress in favor of reforming U.S. labor law, but could not get them through a supermajority Senate. This roadblock is the primary reason private-sector unionization has fallen from 35 percent to 6 percent since the 1950s.

The coalition highlighted three key areas of reform: changing Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster, limiting money in politics, and enhancing voting rights. They actually notched some partial victories. The Senate changed its rules in 2013 to allow for a majority vote for executive branch and judicial nominees. Voter participation has gradually risen in some locations, in part due to new pandemic-era rules to maximize participation, which states like Michigan have retained.

The inability for presidents and parties to enact their platform when they win is a primary cause of so much frustration within the political system.

Larry Cohen, CWA’s former president, has used his perch as a Democratic National Committee member to ban superdelegates, party regulars who get a personal vote in presidential nominating races. But that ban only lasted until 2020 and will need to be relitigated at the 2024 convention. Cohen also believes that Democrats could ban dark money in primaries, which are organized privately by the parties and could proceed under party rules. (An attempt to even discuss this at the DNC last year was squashed.)

Cohen thinks the reform movement needs to build, because people are losing faith. “That’s what [former Sen.] Tom Harkin said so well,” Cohen told me. “He repeatedly said, ‘People are cynical in this country because we don’t have a democracy.’”

The truth is that a few unions and membership-based organizations don’t have the strength to carry home the more prodigious project of fundamental transformation. It needs to come from a head of state, a product of the democracy we have who lays out the steps to improve it.

Joe Biden’s first speech of his re-election campaign was held about 15 miles from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where the Continental Army sheltered for a long winter in 1777 to regroup in its battle with the British. He eloquently laid out his likely opponent’s contempt for basic tenets of democracy: his failure to honor the outcome of elections or respect the Constitution, his threats of violence against political opponents, his vows to use political office as a platform for revenge.

“Today, I make this sacred pledge to you: the defense, protection, and preservation of American democracy will remain, as it has been, the central cause of my presidency,” Biden told the audience.

This presumes that American democracy was bumping along just fine until Trump descended that gilded escalator in Trump Tower in 2015. It’s next to impossible for someone with 50 years inside the system to admit that democracy has always been under threat in this country. But failing to speak that truth helped bring us to this point. If defending American democracy is indeed Biden’s central cause, he shouldn’t be so shy about pointing out its insufficiencies.

David Dayen is the Prospect’s executive editor. His work has appeared in The Intercept, The New Republic, HuffPost, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and more. His most recent book is ‘Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power.’

This article appears in the February 2024 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

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