There are real boundaries beyond which our society and system of government can and will break down. There is a minimum level of solidarity required for a nation to survive with citizens rather than subjects, and a minimum level of social stability required for it to function. We can fall too far and merely avoiding disintegrating society is not enough. We must do far better, for ourselves, for the world, and for the future.
Part 1: How the American Democratic Republic Works
As others have already noted, our civil rights, government representation, and social solidarity are degrading. Understanding the mechanics of our republic and their weaknesses is necessary to understand how this degradation is occurring. Note, however, that alternative mechanics have their own different weaknesses. Replacing these mechanics is not a guarantee of revitalization although there might be opportunities for improvement.
The Voting System
The United States of America is a democratic republic. By district, representatives of the people are selected by the majority of eligible voters.
The United States almost exclusively uses first-past-the-pole voting – a winner-takes-all, plurality voting method. In combination with single-member districts, this results in a two-party system because only parties approximately as popular as the most popular party are competitively electable. If one party has about 50% popularity, then it is impossible for two more parties to also be realistically competitive.
The Democratic and Republican parties are not conspiring to keep out additional parties. “Elites” are not conspiring to have exactly two parties. Political patrons are not the source of the two-party system. A two-party system is merely the expected practical result of the current voting system.
In some districts, it’s not even Democratic and Republican, but sometimes Libertarian and Republican, or Democratic and Green that are the top two parties – and thus are the only competitive parties capable of possibly winning election in that district at the time. If one party is sufficiently popular in a district, then no other party has a practical chance of winning.
Votes for third party candidates and independents aren’t necessarily “wasted”, but votes for candidates other than the two most likely to win are “wasted” as much as “extra” votes for the winner or any votes for the loser are “wasted” (insofar as they are more likely to be for a losing candidate). Such votes only communicate support for some value, policy, or proposal rather than deciding the winner of the election.
Only winners make policy.
– Democracy vs. Republic | Difference and Comparison
– First-past-the-post voting | Wikipedia
– Plurality voting | Wikipedia
– Political Parties: The American Two-Party System | SparkNotes
– Two-party system | Wikipedia
– Wasted vote | Wikipedia
Single-Member Districts (The U.S. is not Europe)
In Europe (or more specifically, in multi-member districts whose elections award proportional representation), people get to vote for whichever political parties they think best represent their interests. The elected representatives are then sent to the capital and must “form a government” – i.e. agree on which collection of political parties will cooperate to form a governing majority willing and able to vote together in order to accomplish governance. This process involves negotiation and usually involves the party with the most representatives, but not a majority of all representatives, agreeing to one or a few demands from a smaller party that is still large enough to form a majority coalition with the largest party. When these negotiations fail, American news headlines read [European Country] “fails to form a government” or “failed to form a governing coalition”.
What would be fully formed political parties in Europe are instead sub-party political units in the United States. American major parties’ compositions and coalitions change over time, but at any one time they tend to be led by a specific core constituency. These sub-party constituencies jostle for influence inside the major political parties, and through history they have occasionally withdrawn from one major party to support the other. For example, 1980-2016 saw the libertarian business sub-party (lower taxes, less regulation, smaller government) lead a coalition with the evangelical Christians and the “law and order” sub-parties.
In the United States, the voters instead of the representatives are expected to negotiate among themselves to come up with a workable governing coalition of interests, preferences, values, and policies. If you want your values and agenda to be represented in government, and for your policy preferences to be enacted, then you need to work to put your values and agenda into a winning (i.e. majority) platform at the level of government in which you are interested. If you do not like this situation, then you need to change the voting system.
The Primary and Caucus System
The specific platform and policies a party takes to the general election is decided through the pre-election primary and caucus system. In this system, candidates of the same party, each with a different emphasis on various issues, compete to represent the entire party in the general election. Depending on state law, sometimes all voters are allowed to vote in open primaries, sometimes voters are only allowed to vote in the primary election or caucus for the party for which they are currently registered, and sometimes party members vote in caucuses for delegates to a convention where the delegates then vote for a candidate for the general election.
The kinds of candidates brought to the general election by this system depend on the circumstances. Moderate candidates benefit from swing voters and competitive districts (where multiple parties have a reasonable chance of winning). Extreme candidates benefit from polarization, ideologues, and primary voters who are more concerned with signaling their identity than in winning the general election.
The current situation in the United States is unfortunately the latter for a couple reasons. First, turnout in primary elections is relatively low. This is problematic because ideologically polarized voters are far more motivated and more likely to participate. Second, almost everyone has a distorted view of the prevalence of their viewpoint. Voters tend to believe that the candidate most in tune with their viewpoint has the best chance of winning. So partisans in primaries and caucuses promote extreme candidates and blame general election losses on candidates’ insufficient partisanship, instead of insufficient moderation. Even if the general electorate might prefer a moderate candidate, apathy toward the primaries and caucuses results in polarized candidates advancing to the general election.
The primary and caucus system exacerbates the effects of single-member districts on the candidate selection and election process. So does the fact that voters are typically barred from voting in primaries or participating in caucuses except for those of the party for which they are registered. Closed primaries and caucuses prevent voters from voting against the least desirable candidates in other parties while also voting for their most preferred candidate from their own party.
When there are districts instead of proportional representation, the district boundaries must be decided upon. And where there is a decision to be made, there is the opportunity to influence the outcome and result of the decision. Thus gerrymandering: the manipulation of electoral constituency boundaries so as to favor a desired outcome.
When successful, gerrymandering functionally eliminates the general election by ensuring that only the gerrymandered party’s candidate can realistically get elected. This effectively disenfranchises everyone not registered as members of that party.
Preventing gerrymandering is a chicken-and-egg problem. Only the current majority party has the political power to avoid gerrymandering, but they would be the beneficiary of gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering exacerbates the effects of the primary and caucus system on the candidate selection and election process by reducing the competitiveness of districts (the likelihood that more than one party has a realistic chance of winning a given district).
Low Voter Choice in General Election Voting
All of these factors lead to the glaring systemic weakness of limited voter choice in the United States. When it comes time to actually vote in the general election, most of the politics and opportunity for citizen-led change has already passed and voters are effectively left at best with a choice of supporting A, supporting B, or protest (and living with the systemic choice of everyone else in all cases), and even that choice only practically exists for those living in competitive districts.
Polarization and Political Self-Segregation
But low choice is itself further exacerbated if the voters themselves are polarized and extreme in their views, values, and preferences. Gerrymandering isn’t even necessary to create uncompetitive, single-party districts if people choose where to live based on their personal politics.
Fewer voters in the United States hold a mix of conservative Republican and progressive Democratic values now than in the past. Counties in the United States are increasingly partisan – very red or very blue, and less purple. The current trend is that polarization and partisanship are continuing to increase.
Polarization is our principal challenge because nothing about the mechanics threatens the stability of our collective society or the unity of our nation. Self-segregation is the outward manifestation of our failing solidarity. I believe that democratic mechanics cannot survive in an environment of different peoples who desire to be separate and believe others’ differences to be so objectionable that they must be forcibly corrected. Ultimately, this is about us, who we choose to be, what we choose to value, and how we interact with others.
– Purple America Has All But Disappeared | FiveThirtyEight [2017/03/08]
– In polarized era, fewer Americans hold a mix of conservative and liberal views | Pew Research Center [2017/10/23]
– Ending Gerrymandering Won’t Fix What Ails America | FiveThirtyEight [2018/01/26]
Part 2: Sustaining the American Experiment
The American Democratic Republic and the constitution on which it stands is worth preserving.
Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most. That people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil; and I want you to remember this, that love… true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.
The American Democratic Republic will survive only so long as enough Americans want the American Experiment to continue more than they want anything else.
A republican, or free government, can only exist where the body of the people are virtuous, and where property is pretty equally divided; in such a government the people are the sovereign and their sense or opinion is the criterion of every public measure; for when this ceases to be the case, the nature of the government is changed, and an aristocracy, monarchy or despotism will rise on its ruin.
No system, no matter how simple or complex, can continue to exist and operate outside of its performance parameters, including governments. All system designs, including governments, rely on implicit and explicit assumptions and expectations about the operating conditions and environment.
The design foundation of the United States of America is the U.S. Constitution, specifying government of the people, by the people, and for the people of the United States of America. The phrasing is Lincoln’s, and it refers to the Constitution’s guarantee of a Republican form of government, the voting rights of citizens, and the preamble. That foundation has been built upon by American history and culture, expressing additional assumptions about and expectations of the government and its people, documented in the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, Presidential speeches, Supreme Court decisions, and other expressions of American progress.
Collectively, this corpus of evidence shows that the design of the American government relies strongly upon the cooperativeness of its people and the trustworthiness of the statesmen selected to be their representatives. This government design relies upon its participants – citizens, voters and representatives – to debate with each other instead of fighting when there is disagreement, and to voluntarily act in the best interests of the nation and all of its people rather than acting in self-interest at the expense of their neighbors and fellow citizens. Furthermore, effective functioning of the government requires that we honor both the spirit and the letter of the rules of the Constitution, and participate fairly in the conduct of elections and governance.
If these expectations are not met, if citizens vote to punish rather than to accommodate their neighbors, if politicians seek partisan success ahead of the concerns of the entire community, if special interests confuse their agendas with the best interests of the nation, then this form of government will fail.
The American Experiment
I say to you that our goal is freedom, and I believe we are going to get there because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom.
What is the essence of America? The essence of America is finding and maintaining that perfect, delicate balance between freedom “to” and freedom “from.”
The American Experiment is a unique, transformative concept of society: the idea that a nation can be built on a unified yet multifaceted culture based on ideas, laws, and trust, rather than on religious or ethnic identity and feudal loyalty. The American Experiment began with the creation of These United States of America, established itself and its shared values in the world as The United States of America, and the experiment continues by broadening the answer to “Who is an American?”, expanding to include ever more of those with American values, merits, and virtues.
The Making of Americans
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
In my view, America is more than just a country; it is a set of ideals and a system of governance to support Americans’ liberties and our common good. Being American is about more than merely being a citizen of the United States; it is about choosing to live American values. Being American is belief and action, not just accident of birth. Americans are American by choice, by belief, and by deed rather than by birthright. This has been the case since the beginning; the founding fathers were born British, but chose to be Americans.
American values, merits, and virtues are readily identified in its founding documents and the supplemental material created throughout its history. A small sample of relevant quotes is included in Appendix 1.
Collectively, this corpus of evidence shows that being American demands a multitude of values, merits, and actions. Chief among them are personal integrity; care, responsibility, and respect for others; and working toward freedom and justice for all.
Few manage to live up to this calling perfectly, but the important fact is that many try. Being American is about striving to live up to whom we know we should be – every failure of any American is a reminder to all Americans to do better.
I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvres to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another, for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.
If we do not learn to sacrifice small differences of opinion, we can never act together. Every man cannot have his way in all things. If his own opinion prevails at some times, he should acquiesce on seeing that of others preponderate at others. Without this mutual disposition we are disjointed individuals, but not a society.
The partisan rejects the design of the United States of America, treating it as an obstruction rather than as a foundation. Partisans frequently call themselves “true Americans”, but they care more about imposing their values on other people than about upholding the rule-of-law and defending the rights and civil liberties of fellow citizens.
There is not one source of partisans. Every cause has zealots.
Some partisans will loudly voice values you agree with and energetically support your preferred policies. But they are revealed as extreme partisans when they advocate not just for themselves, but against American institutions. The health and independence of American institutions are necessary prerequisites to our system of checks and balances. The integrity and effectiveness of American institutions is necessary for the institutions’ credibility.
In the past, extreme partisans believed in monarchy over self determination, they demanded slavery over inalienable rights, they preferred isolation to a world safe for democracy, they became enamored of authoritarians – fascists and communists –, and they denied the truth that all men are created equal. Even now, they endeavor to change America to fit their own image over the objections of those who defend the American experiment.
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
The work of maintaining America is not the same as its defense by the armed services or its operation by the public services. The work of maintaining America is found in the day-to-day lives of its citizens and the politics of their interactions with each other. The maintenance is performed through the innumerable actions, large and small, of Americans trying their best to live up to American ideals.
America is maintained through voluntary cooperation – whether that is showing up to vote, supporting a non-profit, or assisting a neighbor with chores or errands. Voluntary cooperation is inhibited when people resort to conflict rather than debate, treat compromise as capitulation, or treat disagreement as war to be won rather than an opportunity to contribute to the search for truth.
America is maintained through respectful interaction – whether that is charitably engaging with political issues, tolerating other people’s preferences and choices about what makes a good life well lived, or being polite to grumpy cashiers. Respectful interaction is obstructed when people deliberately misinform others, manipulatively argue against misrepresented positions, insult and denigrate opponents, or fail to recognize the rights of others and honor their choice to live differently.
America is maintained by upholding the spirit as well as the letter of the law – not just being a law-abiding individual, but actively self-regulating to save society the effort of regulation, and knowing when peaceful, civil disobedience is called for. The rule of law is corroded when people fail to abide by established process and uphold the validity of the outcome, especially including accepted methods of altering our processes. Peacefully accepting the results of our elections, and the rights and powers of those elected, is central to rule of law in a democratic republic.
America is maintained by acting with integrity and trust – integrity worthy of trust by fellow Americans, and trust of fellow Americans’ integrity – whether that is investing to create real value rather than profiting at the expense of other people, preparing healthy food and eating food provided by others, manufacturing safe products and maintaining safe workplaces, or avoiding collisions while driving and trusting other motorists to do the same. Trust and integrity are undermined when people pursue profits that result in harm to society, seek power to the detriment of community, or otherwise create externalized costs borne by society at large and/or by future generations. Trust is a two-way street and must be given as well as earned.
America is maintained by pursuing values, not policies, and by honestly evaluating results – whether that is pursuing freedom by tolerating speech, pursuing justice with juries, or providing for the common defense with the military. Based on experience, these policies have been given practical legal limits in society’s best interest – prohibiting false advertising, guaranteeing legal representation to defendants, and restricting domestic use of the military. American governance is hobbled when policies are pursued without remembering the values they were intended to serve, and when programs are not monitored for results or programs are not revisited when results are poor.
America is maintained by Americans acting in the best interests of society even when they are discontent with their own lives, when they are disgruntled with their fellow citizens, or see opportunity for themselves at others’ expense.
The system needs all of these things and more to keep working. There are many more ways to break the system than to keep it working.
Why America Matters
Despite all of America’s specific problems, it is the oldest democracy in the world. With the exception of Canada, it has the deepest experience with trying to make a multiethnic democracy work. If the forces that are pulling us apart are strong enough to make democracy fail in this country, I fear that similar reasons will also prove strong enough to make democracy fail in most other countries in the world.
America’s values and behavior matter to the world. Ideologies do not rise and fall directly by chance. Their successes and failures are observed, and ideologies are adopted, amended, or abandoned accordingly. It matters how America goes about achieving success. It matters that America honestly and transparently commits itself to the philosophy by which it has achieved so much.
The example of a successful democracy is the greatest fear of autocracies around the world. Examples of successful government by the people bolster ideologies of freedom and equality while undermining ideologies of authoritarianism, theocracy, ethnic domination, social hierarchy and control. The reverse is also true. Sophisticated governments understand the consequences. This is why Russia has tried to undermine and divide America. This is why China argues that it offers a “new type of political party system”. When America fails to live up to its ideals, it undermines the resolve in other nations to also pursue those ideals and behave in the best interest of humanity.
America must seek to improve in principle and in practice because it is the moral thing to do. We must avoid authoritarianism and its offer of false social stability. India should be inspired by America, not China; Europe should lean towards America, not Russia; Africa should find a role model in America, not the Middle East. With good reason, they will not do so if American society cannot lead by example – more efficient and effective government, more ethical justice, fairer opportunity, more charitable care, a more trustworthy public. When America vigorously pursues its ideals and improvement at home, everyone benefits – we current Americans get a better system for ourselves, non-Americans get an example of what works better, and the future inherits the better system.
The Best Option
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
This philosophy of liberty and equality, of inalienable rights to life, freedom, pursuit of happiness, secular representative democratic government, international cooperation, and rule of law for everyone is the only known foundation for multicultural peace – internal peace against civil war, and external peace against international war. Historically common alternative attempts at “peace” involved brutally enforced conformity and genocide. The rights of minorities are the precious sacrament by which peace is bought for all. The majority should always remember that it is composed of minorities itself and that every nation is a minority of Earth.
It is essential to the world that the American experiment succeeds, because the world is made of many different cultures, religions and ethnic identities. As technology makes the world smaller, these cultures will inevitably come into conflict, as they have throughout human history. If we hope to have a world without war and without mutual annihilation, then we need a working model for how to live together peacefully. The American Democratic Republic is that model, and we cannot allow it to fail.
A Warning of the Alternative, and a Plea
We all have more at stake in the rules of the game than we do in the outcomes of the game. When that changes, that’s when you begin to lose democracy.
If the American Democratic Republic fails, I am pessimistic that whatever comes next will embody the values with which this nation was founded. This nation broadcast hope for all people when it denounced tyranny, rejected slavery, delivered the world from Fascism, defended the world against totalitarianism, rebuilt its enemies into friends and allies, and accepted people of every race, creed, and origin as Americans, equal to all who came before them.
Our execution has not been perfect, and our human pursuit of our ideals has been even less so. We must aim to do much better in the future, but no other values or system of government has brought so much peace and prosperity to the world as American democracy.
If we cannot live and let live, if we fail at the hard work of compromising such that we and our fellow citizens may freely choose how to pursue happiness differently, then society will enter into a vicious downward spiral of violence and retaliation which makes liberty, equality, and democracy impossible to sustain.
We must govern without repression. We must win without destroying the opposition. We must not abuse power by gerrymandering, disenfranchising the opposition, harassing opponents through selective law enforcement, or subverting the judicial system through partisan processes. This is what it means to “play fair by the spirit of the rules” in a democracy.
“Being peaceful” is less noteworthy when the powerful majority does it, but it is not less important. “Being peaceful in the face of incentives not to be” is the foundation of civilization.
The point here is not to convince national leaders of anything. My hope is to convince normal Americans to behave better than could be expected, because we need to behave better than can be expected. Be respectful. Be skeptical and don’t share outrageous nonsense. Forgive neighbors, your fellow Americans, who read other news and watch other media, even though we now have trouble agreeing on a shared, objective reality. Trust each other and each others’ intentions to be good. This will be especially challenging in the face of a plague of bad information from media companies who have failed to live up to their newfound responsibilities, and weaponized mistrust wielded by foreign adversaries and domestic partisans.
If we do not make our way back to being better Americans, then others among us will follow the darker path to cycles of repression and rebellion – partisan oppression of voting rights and against fair and equal representation in government; protests in the form of strikes, sabotage, and arson; suppression of media, discourse, and speech; riots and bombings; massacres and brutality by law enforcement; assassinations, local uprisings, and revolts; use of the military against civilians. It is a tragically well-traveled road in human history. The United States of America is not immune – see Appendix 2. People have been acting like they do not remember history. Understand that offending, insulting, disrespecting, and repressing people eventually escalates to violence.
We can and we must do better.
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.
Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.
I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.
Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves
our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. … that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
We must dare to be great; and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage.
Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars, but remember to keep your feet on the ground.
There is no good reason why we should fear the future, but there is every reason why we should face it seriously, neither hiding from ourselves the gravity of the problems before us nor fearing to approach these problems with the unbending, unflinching purpose to solve them aright.
the only thing we have to fear is fear itself
No democracy can long survive which does not accept as fundamental to its very existence the recognition of the rights of its minorities.
Let us not be afraid to help each other — let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.
It isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.
A mature person is one who does not think only in absolutes, who is able to be objective even when deeply stirred emotionally, who has learned that there is both good and bad in all people and all things, and who walks humbly and deals charitably with the circumstances of life, knowing that in this world no one is all-knowing and therefore all of us need both love and charity.
Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Arson: by anti-abortion activists/terrorists
Bombings: The Weathermen [1969-1977], Army of God
Domestic use of the military: Kent State [1970/05/04] and Jackson State [1970/05/15] shootings
Fanaticism: John Brown at Harpers Ferry [1859/10/16-18]
Massacres by law enforcement: Boston massacre [1770/03/05], Ludlow massacre (A.K.A. Colorado Coalfield War) [1914/04/20]
Oppression: Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
Repression: Little Rock Nine [1957/09/24], Integration of University of Mississippi [1962/09/30]
Uprisings: Nat Turner’s slave revolt [1831/08/21-23]
Violent unrest: Great Railroad Strike of 1877, “Bleeding Kansas” Border Ruffians vs. Jayhawkers [1854-1861]