Opinion | The false choice defining the current debate over U.S. democracy – The Washington Post
Otto von Bismarck once remarked that “politics is the art of the possible.” Several decades later, the economist J.K. Galbraith updated the quote for the American context: “Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.”
That choice — between the disastrous and the unpalatable — defines the current state of the debate over U.S. democracy. As Republicans continue their efforts to subvert elections, limit voting rights, even hatch a plot to put the losing candidate in a presidential election into power, it’s clear that we’ve reached a break-the-glass-moment. Democracy in the United States is dying. To protect it, we need sweeping reforms.
And yet, almost all the discussion of democratic reform in the United States fixates on around-the-edges tinkering. We try to make it modestly easier to vote with a few ballot drop-off boxes here and there. Or to consider weakening the filibuster, or tweaking another arcane legislative rule. Or to provide a bit more funding to local election officials.
Don’t get me wrong: these are good ideas. But they’re half-measures, a bit like trying to get the Titanic to hit the iceberg at a slightly lower speed rather than avoiding it altogether. While Democrats try to ensure it’s convenient to vote, Trumpian Republicans are plotting to install authoritarian conspiracy theorists as election officials.
So, why don’t we ever discuss reforms that would actually protect democracy for the long haul? The answer is predictable: It all comes back to the art of the possible. Why bother discussing something that isn’t going to happen? Let the political philosophers in ivory towers discuss events that will only happen when pigs fly.
That mode of thinking, while understandable, is poisoning our political debate. We’re stuck with a choice between our current authoritarian trajectory or passing some minor changes that will just make democracy decay more slowly. “Help democracy die a slower death” isn’t exactly an inspiring political slogan.
Scholars who study democratic breakdown, like myself, can point to a laundry list of reforms that would stabilize U.S. democracy and diminish the risk of American autocracy. After all, most other democracies aren’t facing the same existential risks to their systems that we are, so we can learn from them.
In most functioning democracies, politicians don’t draw their own district maps. Their campaigns aren’t driven by effectively unlimited cash flowing in from special interests. Prominent media outlets aren’t headlined by conspiracy theorists or white nationalists. Citizens get a voice proportionate to population size. The judiciary isn’t politicized and senior judges don’t serve for life. Elections are managed by nonpartisan technical experts, not elected partisans. Central pillars of the U.S. system are fundamentally undemocratic.
There is, however, no mystery over what would fix U.S. democracy. Other countries have confronted similar issues — and solved them. We could follow suit by borrowing their best ideas, such as replicating Canada’s nonpartisan election management system, and setting out stricter campaign finance limits. We could adopt media impartiality rules, like the British, or implement elements of proportionality in our elections, like the Germans. And that’s just the low-hanging fruit.
Other innovative reforms would also be effective. They include implementing open primaries with ranked-choice voting to dampen the voices of political extremists, passing a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote, or drawing electoral districts to maximize competitiveness, thereby fostering political compromise and consensus.
More unconventional thinking would help, too. Given the population disparities between Wyoming and California, Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University, told me that she favors the concept of major cities also being represented by senators. Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, has long advocated reducing polarization by using proportional representation to elect the House of Representatives, drawing on the Australian model. Neither is likely any time soon. Both are worth discussing.
Passing any legislation in the current political climate is a challenge. Democrats are already struggling to get everyone from their own caucus to accept sweeping domestic spending bills — bills that only need Democratic support to pass. Reforming the system itself will take substantial bipartisan support, and not just at the national level. State-level reforms are essential too. That means that, currently, most meaningful democratic reforms are dead on arrival.
But if we trap ourselves in the politics of the currently possible by limiting the discussion to what Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) or Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) might vote for, then we are prone to misidentifying and underestimating the democratic rot in our system. Around-the-edges solutions may be the only pragmatic options, but across-the-board reforms are needed. Tinkering won’t save us.
Democrats should therefore launch two parallel tracks to save U.S. democracy. They should focus on passing what they can now, with urgency. But they should also convene a major commission, with broad citizen involvement, that explores long-term democratic reforms that are necessary — even if unlikely. Otherwise, we’re headed for democratic breakdown and the specter of U.S. authoritarianism. And that would be not just unpalatable, but disastrous.