Global Democracy

Maybe Not

From conservative economist John Cochrane, comes this:

“Democracy, and US democracy in particular, serves one great purpose—to guard against tyranny. That's what the US colonists were upset about, not the fine points of tariff treaties. US and UK Democracy, when paired with the complex web of checks and balances and rule of law protections and constitutions and so forth, has been pretty good at throwing the bums out before they get too big for their britches. At least it has done so better than any other system.”

But maybe not when every vote does not count: in the not-yet-reformed American system of choosing the president, the candidates do not need or bother to campaign for every vote, and under these circumstances a passionate minority of voters can keep someone in office even when the majority would rather have someone else.


How To Defend Democracy

In How to Save a Constitutional Democracy (University of Chicago, 2018), political scientist Tom Ginsburg and law professor Aziz Huq examine the constitutional mechanisms that populist leaders have universally exploited to undermine democracies. The authors unearth the structural causes of atrophying constitutional democracies using case studies from around the globe. Many recent books have sounded the alarm by decrying the growth of anti-democratic movements globally and, potentially, within the United States. Ginsburg and Huq go further: not only do they explicate the many causes of democratic decline, but they go on to propose serious structural reforms and improvements upon existing constitutional safeguards.

 How to Save a Constitutional Democracy also serves as a stern reminder that the United States may not be immune to such threats. On October 28th Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy elected neo-fascist presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. For anyone concerned with the rising threat of autocracy abroad, a “how-to” volume on defending democracy is both timely and essential.

 As this blog noted in its coverage of the backslide toward authoritarianism in Poland, one democratic safeguard is paramount among many: all constitutional democracies, including the United States, should conduct elections in a way that all votes matter. The U.S. Elections Project’s analysis of the 2016 presidential election found that “147 million voters, two-thirds of the electorate, were relegated to the sidelines” because of the nearly ubiquitous winner-take-all system practiced by the states.

If the profound imbalance in presidential voting power is allowed to continue, citizens will increasingly lose faith in the system, vote less, and the foundations of our democracy itself will weaken. After all, a constitutional democracy is only as strong as the participation of the People, entrusted to preserve equality through self-governance.


Sliding Away from Democracy: the Case of Poland

Anne Applebaum has published in Atlantic this chilling piece about the Polish move away from democracy. The underlying thesis: some, many perhaps, in Poland think the country is better off if it "is ruled by people who deserve to rule." The fundamental claim for democracy is that all citizens collectively should decide by a majority vote, or at least a healthy plurality, who "deserves to rule." Step one down the dismal Polish slide toward authoritarian illiberal autocracy is for citizens not to vote. The easiest way to convince people not to vote is to adopt a system in which their votes don't matter. So, to make a big story really short, Poland and the United States need to make sure that every citizen's vote really matters -- matters to the decision about who rules, matters so much that the candidates for president want and need to win most votes, matters in determining the winner, matters as much as everyone else's vote (because unequal voting power means someone's vote doesn't matter as much, and maybe doesn't matter at all). 

The United States should make sure that all votes for president matter in all these senses, and the winner of the presidential election should commit to persuading Poland and every other country of the world that following the example of this reform will make every country better off.

Allowing Democratic Decline Means Stifling Economic Growth

We should be concerned about the decline of democracy around the world for many reasons, and one of them is the harm that abandoning democracy would inflict on national economies.

That stands to reason given a new study published by the University of Chicago (Acemoglu, Naidu, et. al). The study, entitled “Democracy Does Cause Growth” concludes that “democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20% in the long run”.

In short, democracy leads to growth and prosperity. The global trend in movements against democratic governance is therefore a great threat, not only to the erosion of freedom and civil liberties, but also the economic well-being of all citizens.

On the other side of things, is it possible that making our democratic institutions more robust— for example by implementing the National Popular Vote— could cause an increase in GDP or even prevent a future recession?

National Popular Vote Would Help Protect Nation From Influence of Russian Disinformation

Professor Josh Douglas, an election law and voting rights expert and professor at the University of Kentucky, had this to say about the Electoral College: it creates a highly exploitable vulnerability in our presidential elections that could alter the results; under the U.S. Electoral College system and its current political demographics, "eight to 10 states will typically 'decide' a presidential election."

The reach of Russian interference, consisting of highly targeted social media disinformation campaigns in the United States, poses a national security threat and a threat to democracy in general. There is even strong evidence, uncovered by journalist Casey Michel that Russia has been backing the Texas secessionist movement for years through covert operations, including during the 2016 election.

The 2016 presidential election brought the issue of Russian meddling to the fore, as the Russians brazenly exploited social media in efforts designed to exacerbate partisan divisions and the political polarization in the American public.

The implications of our Electoral College system and of the winner-take-all method of apportioning states electors from each state, make the consequences of hacking elections, even on a small scale, potentially disastrous. They could in fact tip national presidential elections in whatever way the Russians decide. Senior Trump administration officials informed the public on August 2nd that Russia plans to interfere in this year’s midterm elections in November, as well as in the 2020 presidential election.

Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), the Vice-Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has said, “a change in a national election doesn't require penetration into 50 states ... arguably, you could pick two or three states, and two or three jurisdictions, and alter an election."

Professor Douglas agreed, "the unique nature of the Electoral College, with the effect of making only a few states matter, means that it is presumably easier for a foreign actor to target just those states."

If we were to change the system to a National Popular Vote, the effects of hacking by foreign governments would likely have little effect. It would be very difficult for any actors, even with the backing of a nation state, to subvert an election in which every vote mattered.

Democracy East and West

The United States and India are the world’s two largest democracies. They are populous and diverse. This national unity through cultural diversity is what the two nations have been known for. There is another bond between them.

Emerging as a democracy one-and-a-half centuries after America, India has looked to the United States as the model of a democratic republic with a global leadership role. Both democracies are grounded in the principles of the rule of law, separation of powers and judicial integrity.

Similarly, the US Constitution has been a founding document for other nations, for example in South American countries, though quite a few there have slipped away from democracy at times. Democracies around the world are now backsliding—in the case of Hungary, where one party gained the majority in the last election and then imposed restrictions on other parties to prevent them from standing a chance in future elections. These examples teach us that, once lost, democracy may be very hard to regain, and reform— including election reforms— must therefore be fought for before it is in danger of extinction.

India and the United States are also going through, in parallel, a period of deep division and extreme polarization. In both Indian and American politics and government, there is a high and rising risk of eroding democratic principles and norms. The recent political trends in both countries, it seems to me as an Indian who has gone to law school, traveled in and cares about America, are less about the traditional left-right divide and more about the bitter clash between narrow xenophobic populism and a more generous appreciation of their countries’ roles in the global community. Politicians have exploited this clash and the electorate is not only splintered but also confused, unaware of the issues, fearful and distrustful.

I do not presume to have a prescription for how the United States can fix itself, but I do know that it is important to India and the rest of the world that it do so in a way consistent with the principles of democracy, [transparency], freedom of the press and an independent and non-partisan judiciary. India must also undertake reforms that advance these values, protecting its institutions and civil society from the threat of democracy declining. Nations can and should be models for each other. Now, more than ever, it is important for like-minded countries, like the United States, India and others, to uphold and pursue the values we share consistent with our own distinctive cultures.


Capt. Loveleen Kaur Mann is a former JAG officer of the Indian Army. She is a fourth generation Sikh soldier and belongs to Panjab, India. During her corporate stints, she has had the opportunity to work with colleagues of religious diversity including in Kashmir. She is an alumna of Georgetown University Law Center, Washington DC. Her interests include skydiving and exploring new cultures and places, having travelled 34 US states.

Politico: “The Electoral College Is a National Security Threat”

By design, the Electoral College was intended to protect presidential elections from foreign attack. "Alexander Hamilton wrote that the Electoral College could shield the United States ‘from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils,’” write Matthew Olsen and Benjamin Haas in Politico. Times have changed! Unlike the original electoral college, electors in 48 states are now awarded to the candidate who wins the plurality of votes cast in that state. The closest states are therefore the most valued by the campaigns. They are also the most vulnerable to interference, exactly what Hamilton most feared. Olsen and Haas continue, “In the social media age, the Electoral College system provides ripe microtargeting grounds for foreign actors who intend to sabotage presidential elections via information and disinformation campaigns, as well as by hacking our voting infrastructure.” Is there an answer to this unintended consequence?” What’s the answer then?

According to Olsen and Haas, counting every vote equally: “What if the national popular vote determined the president instead of the Electoral College? No voter would be more electorally powerful than another. It would be more difficult for a foreign entity to sway many millions of voters scattered across the country than concentrated groups of tens of thousands of voters in just a few states.”