Issue Brief – Democracy

“Democracy’s weakening has exacerbated our country’s inability to contend with any problem. A functioning democracy requires both responsive institutions and an active citizenry. Various institutional failures have made it difficult for our government to translate public opinion into policy. High levels of political polarization and a lack of common purpose is weakening our civic culture. But our political system has not addressed our democracy’s problems.”

The Problem of Our Polarized Civil Society

Our civic fabric is fraying, creating an electorate caught in separate echo chambers. In 2020, majorities of both Biden and Trump supporters say they either have “just a few” or no friends who support the other candidate. Social media and geographic sorting have exacerbated these trends towards hyper partisanship. Even more worrisome, according YouGov, Nationscape and the Voter Study Group, more than 1 in 3 Americans who identify as Democrat or Republican now believe that violence could be justified to advance their parties’ political goals, a significant uptick since 2017 when just eight percent of both Republicans and Democrats felt the same. 

The Problem of Unresponsive Institutions 

Over 70% of Americans disapprove of the way Congress does its job. Much of the blame can be attributed to Congress’s failure to substantively address many of the policy issues with which the public is concerned. Regrettably, public opinion often has minimal impact on the likelihood that Congress will pass a law. In contrast, the interests of a powerful few have a disproportionate influence on U.S. government policy. What is more, incivility has become the norm, and there is little interparty deliberation when crafting policy, resulting in frequent threats of government shutdowns

Like Congress, an independent judiciary serves a vital role in our democracy. But an independent judiciary is not guaranteed and relies on the perseverance of good political norms. Concerningly, in recent years, we have seen a fracturing of our political norms, such as aggressively polarized judicial nomination fights, threats to impeach judges for political purposes, and growing claims of partisan bias following unpopular judicial decisions. These actions have successfully increased the public’s cynicism toward the judiciary and could leave lasting damage to the third branch of government.

Over time, the Executive Branch has grown in dominance, which has further contributed to citizen disengagement; there are fewer opportunities for individuals to participate or give input, an over-reliance on one person to “fix all our problems”, and an outsized focus on presidential elections over congressional, state, and local elections. Political power exercised by vetoes and executive orders creates a “winner-take-all” outcome, but democracy is not a winner-take-all game.

Shared Values on our Democracy:

– Our elections should honor the sovereignty of the American people. Our elections should be free from foreign interference, and wealthy interests should not influence our elections.

– Our democracy depends on a vibrant civil society, one in which we have free-flowing ideas, civil dialogues across divides, and a citizenry that is informed and holds its government accountable. Our national motto is, “E pluribus unum”: Out of many, one. We ought to adhere to this motto and find unity in our shared humanity. 

– We can rediscover ways to emphasize the values that our Founding Fathers articulated in both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

– While preserving our history, our democratic institutions should also innovate to address uniquely 21st-century problems.

– Our country’s progress on all other issues relies upon a functioning and responsive democracy, so addressing our weakening democracy should be a top priority for all Americans.

Bipartisan Policy Starting Points

– Prioritize opportunities to heal our social fabric through strengthening civic education, creating opportunities for honest conversation, and empowering citizens to be engaged and active.

– Eliminate barriers to voting so fulfilling one’s civic duty of voting is easier, not harder.

– Reduce political polarization by considering innovative voting processes (e.g., proportional representation, ranked-choice voting, approval voting) and redistricting processes to make electoral choices less binary.

– Explore potential limits on campaign spending so our elections are no longer as expensive as they are, and wealthy interests do not impede the preferences of the majority of the American public. 

– Identify potential reforms and strategies to mitigate the polarization of the federal judiciary.

– Consider the repercussions of unchecked Executive power and ways to rebalance our separation of powers system.

Authored by:

Maria Yuan

Founder, IssueVoter

Anthony Marcum

Fellow, R Street Institute