Global Democracy

Democracy rules

As this article shows even one of the world’s most autocratic and corrupt leaders wants popular voting to give authority to his party’s rule. Might makes right, but it doesn’t create the appearance of justification for political power and it is inherently unstable.

If he thought about it creatively, Putin could consider adapting the American electoral college system to his purposes. In the United States the people don’t pick the president by vote. They are only told that they do.

Instead they pick electors, who, under the 10th Circuit’s decision in Baca v. Colorado Department of State, can choose anyone they want for president. Political parties nominate electors by opaque processes. It is reasonable to suppose that every elector has made or received sizable political donations in order to be noticed by the nominators. They are quintessential apparatchiks.

Perhaps to avoid embarrassment or to convince voters falsely that they are choosing the president, many states do not reveal the names of electors on the ballot. Even where they are identified the only voters sure to know them are their family members.

The electors from different states do not deliberate. They do not even meet with each other. Yet they are described as attending an electoral college. This college has no courses, instructors, or degrees. But the description persuades some otherwise reasonable people that this nonexistent institution effects a ratiocinative process for choosing the nation’s leader.

Just as mind-boggling is the way many people, including judges, think that history should command the country to perpetuate this process. In brief, it is thought by many that the writers of the Constitution wisely designed a system unchangeable for the ages when they imagined white men from 13 eastern seaboard states would travel by horseback for about four to five weeks to Philadelphia (or later, Washington) in order to negotiate on which slaveholder or slavery-tolerating person a majority of them would accept for president.

Electors are also described as representing the interests of thinly populated states (most in French territory at the time of writing the Constitution, so not contemplated as stakeholders by the framers). But it’s a good bet not one elector knows soy from sorghum and that all or almost all live in cities or suburbs. At any rate, we know that not a single elector has a published farm policy or a “small state” policy.

To top it off, the media collaborates enthusiastically with politicians in convincing the American people that their votes matter and that the system serves the best interests of the whole country.

How could Putin not win his elections with this method?

And if Russians could be convinced as easily as are many Americans that they actually had voted in a fair and meaningful way then he would have the legitimacy he craves for his exercise of autocratic control.

Just a thought.

This is what a non-democracy looks like

As this story shows, the British are finding out how frustrating is the system that chooses a national leader without a democratic process. In the United States only about 20% of the voters effectively matter in the choice of the president because of the electoral college system.

According to Nate Cohn, Donald Trump could lose the national vote by 5 percent and still probably win the electoral college by winning a plurality among that 20% who occupy the swing states.

The British system risks the dissolution of the United Kingdom. The American system threatens the unity of the country and the survival of the republic.

U.K. Voters’ Frustration High as 99% Are Sidelined in Prime Minister Election

More democracy means more money

According to this study, democracy improved GDP per capita by 10%. As everyone knows, the United States does not choose the president through a democratic process—or more precisely, it is democratic voting separately in a handful of states that determine who becomes president. If the candidates had to win a national democratic vote, each person getting equal weight in the voting regardless of state of residence, then we can guess that the American GDP would be nearly $2 trillion higher. 

The causation would run through many pathways, including more efficient advertising of policy positions, more efficient delivery of government services, more responsiveness to felt needs of most people, and more confidence in the future of the country. 


You cannot preach temperance from a barstool. A country cannot promote democracy globally without embracing it at home. 

As Professor Tooze writes, our country risks losing its birthright as the modern birthplace of equal rights — of which no one is more important than the right to vote with equal weight for all elected officials. 

This is why presidential candidates should have to compete to win the most votes cast by all Americans.

Electoral college determines foreign policy

The United States foreign policy with respect to South America and Central America is inconsistent, inadequate, and frequently anti-democratic. When it comes to Venezuela now, one can make a strong argument for the promotion of a fair popular vote in that country as a way to elect the leader. 

How did this happen? Do we certainly have an outbreak of common sense in our foreign policy? Skeptics might note that nothing about American policy as to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador seems focused on the well-being of the people in those countries. 

Immigrants from those countries have little or no impact on the results in any swing state in the election coming up in 2020. 

But Venezuelan immigrants who may vote in swing state Florida conceivably could determine the allocation of its electoral votes. So Venezuela now gets attention while the other countries are ignored. Once again the pernicious Electoral College is at work, undermining America’s dream for most people in the country and most people in the world.

The Electoral College Puts Democracy at Risk

Our democracy is gravely at risk from foreign meddling.  As Michael Chertoff and Anders Fogh Rasmussen explain their article, “The Unhackable Election: What It Takes to Defend Democracy” in Foreign Affairs:

Because the Internet and automation enable aggressors to act anonymously on a large scale, technology has significantly reduced the costs and risks of election meddling.

In some cases, foreign meddlers have tried to directly boost whichever candidate or party was most likely to adopt a soft stance on Russia. However, in most cases, their strategy is simply to discredit the entire democratic process. In the 2016 U.S. presidential primaries, for example, Russian operatives supported both the Republican candidate Donald Trump and the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, with the goal of radicalizing the political debate.

Nor is the threat limited to Russia:

In August, John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, announced that there was a “sufficient national security concern about Chinese meddling, Iranian meddling, and North Korean meddling” and said that the U.S. government was working to crack down on it. That same month, Twitter suspended 284 fake accounts with apparent links to Iran, and Facebook discovered 76 fake Instagram accounts originating in Iran. 

The article discusses many approaches to the threat, including the technical and human aspects of cyberdefense; cooperation between the government and private sectors; updating our voting systems; and public education campaigns.  It does not, however, mention something that makes elections in the United States particularly vulnerable to foreign interference: the Electoral College.

To shift the result of our elections, a malevolent foreign power does not need to reach everyone—just a few people in the small number of states that decide elections.  If the president were elected by the national popular vote, coordinating a disinformation campaign would be more complicated, more expensive, and less successful.  

Chile’s Democracy Died for Other Reasons

Harvard professors Levitsky & Ziblatt assert: “Politics without guardrails killed Chilean democracy.” They then describe Salvador Allende as participating in an erosion of democratic norms, but somehow, they leave out the well-documented American support for the overthrow of this popularly elected figure. They create the impression that the “military seized power” because the political parties had destroyed democratic institutions. Henry Kissinger, former Harvard professor, had a lot to do with this outcome. See pp 115-17 of “How Democracies Die.”

The more general point is that military interventions, secret or otherwise, are self-evidently lethal for democracies. The military is of course not a democratic institution, and should never be involved in domestic politics. It should not be a prop, or a political football.

Another reason to have a national vote always elect the president is that the military composes an appropriate share of the national vote, whereas it may constitute an unnaturally large fraction of the vote in certain states, thus exercising disproportional influence on representation in the Electoral College.

Gatekeepers of a Small Tent

Harvard Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt write in “How Democracies Die”: “Although mass responses to extremist appeals matter, what matters more is whether political elites, and especially parties, serve as filters. Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers.” Page 20.

First, when it comes to democracy, better to trust the people rather than the professionals who occupy powerful positions in political parties. Asking the foxes to guard the chicken house is a bad idea.

Second, if parties are to be gatekeepers, then they should both insist that the president must win a national popular plurality. Only then will the parties need to build big tents that include the many factions necessary to win a national vote. If they are going to guard a gate, for the sake of democracy it needs to be a gate to a big tent.

Lessons from Venezuela

At page 4 of “How Democracies Die” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline Hugo Chavez’s rise to autocratic power in sad, broken Venezuela. They note that in 2012 he was re-elected in a contest that was “free but not fair.” Yet they fail to acknowledge that the American presidential selection system also is “free” without being “fair.” There is nothing fair about a system that conducts a national vote in which the candidates ignore more than 80% of the population, and the winner does not need a national plurality.

The Majority of Countries are Now Democratic

From the Pew Research Center:

“As of the end of 2016, 97 out of 167 countries (58%) with populations of at least 500,000 were democracies, and only 21 (13%) were autocracies, both post-World War II records . . . Broadly speaking, the share of democracies among the world’s governments has been on an upward trend since the mid-1970s.”

Legitimacy Comes From Voters

This isn’t totally right: “Questioning Trump’s legitimacy is basically the birtherism of the left,” said Christopher Buskirk, publisher of American Greatness, a conservative website. “Illegitimacy is just where both left and right are going these days when they lose elections. We don’t have a shared consensus on what the institutions of government should do, and that makes it harder for partisans to accept the outcome of elections.”

Legitimacy in every country that holds elections to pick its political leader comes from high participation in voting, with all votes counted equally, and the winner being the one who gets the most votes.  

That’s why President Trump is right to favor a national vote to choose the president.

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.