Monday, January 13, 2020

Is the United States of America a Democracy

Annamaria on Monday

Is the USA a democracy?

That is the question.

The answer is - Well, sort of.

I will explain, but before I do, let me establish one salient fact: the American Revolution was the first, and in a sense the only armed-revolt to banish a monarchy or dictatorship and establish a viable, stable democratic government.  The French, the Russian, the Chinese, and the Cuban Revolutions - to name only the most famous - all devolved into bloodbaths and/or dictatorships. One document made the difference for America, the only one I hold sacred: The United States Constitution.

However, when it comes to democratic principles, the political geniuses that created that splendid document had to, right off the bat, make a compromise with straight up democracy.  They created the Electoral College.  Here's why:

The political entities they began with were the thirteen original colonies. The founding fathers knew, from European history, that many little countries crowed together on a continent could lead to endless conflict and out and out war.  To avoid that, they needed to create a strong union of states.  Problem was that the northern colonies were economically advanced and had many more citizens than the agrarian ones in the south.  If nation-wide popular voting decided who would be president, the north's favorite candidate would always win.  The citizenry had just shed their blood to get rid of dominance by a government that never considered their needs.  In fear of replacing old oppression with a new form, the southern states would never ratify a constitution that meant the north would always govern them.

The Electoral College gave the lower population states more of say in Presidential elections.  The Constitution was therefore adopted and led the way to an imperfect, but solid union that has lasted more than two centuries.  We may think it is obsolete now, but it served a critical purpose at the nation's birth.

Once the American democracy was up and running it rumbled and bumped along and pretty much worked until the mid 19th Century when the question of slavery once again pitted the north against the south.  War and dreadful recriminations ensued, and if you ask me the country is still trying to get over that.  But since the Union prevailed, we have been one country.

Recently, left against right, passionate desires to hold the line against progressive ideas, or to push the nation toward them faster than it wants to go has opened old and new wounds.  Unfortunately, in an effort to stem the tide of change and to maintain a strangle hold on power, the two big political parties (I have to say the Republicans much more than the Democrats) are manipulating the democratic process.  Here are some of their favorite ways.

Gerrymandering voting districts

If you know that people of a certain class, race, or religious affiliation will largely vote for your party or against it - and you control the state government - all you have to do it redraw the districts so that the majority in almost all of them will be your supporters.  With 21st Century megadata bases at their disposal, politicians have enough information to draw political districts that look like this:

Voter suppression 

On trumped up (pun intended) charges of voter fraud, some states are taking all sorts of nefarious steps to keep out voters whose votes they don't want to count.  The dominant party can then keep those pesky blacks, immigrants, inner-city liberals, and aged hippies off the voter records or away from the polls.

Making money the only thing that counts 

Given that, these days, elections seem to be won through television advertising (adverts-lying), a party can insure its power by pandering to very wealthy donors.  Viz - promising to make sure they will not have to pay taxes will go a long way in securing that their dollars will go to your party, rather than - say - paying teachers and firemen or paving roads and repairing bridges.

These tactics have skewed electoral results and polluted American democracy.  That's for sure.


You all know by now what an optimist I am.  All this tampering with the democratic process seems scary. But these are acts of desperation, by people who know that if they let democracy fairly decide, they will lose.  True.  But they can't keep this up forever, and time is on the side of free and fair elections.  

Being a progressive, I find hope in the young.  If only voters 18-29 were counted in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have won by a landslide.  By the 2024 presidential election, Georgia will no longer be a predominantly white state.  When it comes to political parties, North Carolina is already close to purple.  And so on.  And so forth.

The future cannot be stopped.  Time is on my side. 


  1. Thanks for this analysis, Annamaria. It certainly helps non US people (like myself). I have to say that all the things you mention are common to democratic systems. In fact, the whole constituency first-past-the-post system can be criticised as heavily favoring the two main parties. Unfortunately, true proportional representation leads to the sort of situations we see in Italy and Israel - the never ending election. There's a lot to be said for the Australian system of preference voting, but the usual argument is that "it's too complicated for people to understand". Huh? It's not worth learning a system to elect the people who are going to govern you?

  2. Thank you, Michael. Three years ago when I was in Italy during Trump’s inauguration, I had to explain - in Italian! - why Hillary got more votes but wasn’t elected. This year even more people want to know how and especially why, the American system works the way it does. I thought it might be timely to explain. New York City, by the way, is adopting preference voting for some elections starting this year. It’s an experiment to see how it will work. I am sorry to have to add that quite a number of Americans have no idea where our system came from and why.

  3. I'm on your side, too, AmA! :-) And, Michael, I'm in love with preference voting and hoping that it spreads quickly. It could well be the greatest democratic advancement in 200 years.

    1. Having you on my side has always made me feel safer and happier in these precincts, EvKa.

  4. Two questions: Why do all states not use the same system when allocating electoral college votes??? And is it true that part of the idea was, because the framers didn't think farmers in outlying areas knew enough about politics, that the Electoral College system allowed better informed people to vote for the president??? Your always-confused-about-the-system friend.

    1. Stan, Response to Q1: States rights were a big issue in the arguments at the Constitutional conferences in those early days. Letting the states decide the allocation question was part of that negotiation.
      To Q2:Yes! Well sort of. At the beginning, the citizens of the states voted for “Electors” to represent them and vote for the candidate they thought best. A lot of which had to do with difficulties of traveling in those times and letting the decision by made in easily manageable ways.
      Some people - in 2016 - hoped that the electors would not put Trump into office. I myself feared a breakout of violence if that had actually come to pass. It was, at any rate, highly unlikely.

  5. A welcome analysis, Sis. As I see it, organized voter suppression efforts at the state level are more serious a threat to our democracy than Russian/Chinese/North Korean/Iranian election meddling.