Is Democracy Failing in the U.S.? By Gretchen Helmke, Mary Kroeger & Jack Paine

Photo by Ryan Inzana

Gretchen Helmke

Mary Kroeger

Jack Paine

The idea that American democracy is in crisis is widely accepted among scholars and pundits. Serious allegations of unfair voting practices (such as voter suppression and gerrymandering), abuses of executive power, and mounting concerns about the legitimacy of elections are normal rather than extraordinary events.

 

To understand the strategies that politicians use to win elections, we ask the following questions in a new working paper. Rather than think about anti-democratic tactics as surprising, we might instead think of playing by democratic rules as somewhat remarkable. If politicians and their political parties generally want to stay in power, why would they ever forgo using dirty tactics to win elections?

 

One possibility is that they fear retaliation by the other party. That is, Republicans might forgo using anti-democratic tactics because they fear this will create a tit-for-tat spiral with Democrats—Republicans disenfranchise some Democratic-leaning groups, Democrats respond by disenfranchising some Republican-leaning groups, etc. The threat by one party to punish the other may therefore facilitate democracy by deterrence. But why does deterrence uphold democratic norms in some circumstances but not others? And why is it failing currently in the United States?

 

In a working paper by Gretchen Helmke (University of Rochester), Mary Kroeger (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), and Jack Paine (University of Rochester), we suggest that three factors are crucially important for understanding democracy by deterrence. We explain what these are and show how they can help to understand current U.S. politics.

 

The first is scope. In the United States, there are well-established norms of adhering to judicial interpretations of a written constitution. Consequently, a military coup or outright refusing to hold scheduled elections is nearly inconceivable. Yet, despite certain hard legal bounds in the U.S. Constitution, there is still considerable legal scope to tilt the electoral playing field. Unlike most developed democracies, there is no national elections commission, and state politicians have considerable scope to determine who can vote and to draw boundaries for congressional districts. But this is only one of three conditions. Under what circumstances will politicians exploit this scope in the federal constitutions to undermine free and fair electoral competition?

 

The second condition is asymmetric legal bounds. Just because there are limits on legally permissible actions does not mean that they affect both parties equally—that is, one side might enjoy more scope to tilt the rules that the other. This can cause deterrence to fail. To see why, deterrence can sustain democratic norms by causing a party to uphold democratic rules because they fear punishment by the other side. But suppose that Republicans enjoy wide legal scope to tilt elections in their favor whereas Democrats have limited legal scope. Then deterrence will break down because Republicans do not fear punishment by Democrats. The third condition explains why this is important for several key facets of U.S. elections.

 

The final condition is partisan sorting. The importance of sorting becomes apparent when we consider different ways that, implicitly, the U.S. Constitution favors some groups over others. One example is the wide prerogative that states enjoy to determine voting rights. Despite various federal amendments that have expanded voting rights, the struggle over voting rights continues through practices such as disenfranchising ex-felons, requiring photo identification to cast a ballot, and purging voter rolls. All of these are, at least usually, legally viable tactics—but, empirically, they are also closely tied with race. Black and Hispanic voters in particular face greater hurdles than white voters when politicians impose restrictions along these dimensions. Thus, if race is highly correlated with party identification—i.e., high partisan sorting—the party that disproportionately receives support from white voters will enjoy greater legal scope to disenfranchise supporters of the opposing party. This is an important distinction between Republican and Democratic supporters in the contemporary United States. By contrast, if race was not highly correlated with partisan support, then the Republican party would perceive fewer gains from using these tactics. That would be a more favorable circumstance for upholding democracy by deterrence.

 

As another example why partisan sorting is important, consider the wide prerogative that state politicians have over drawing districts for the U.S. House (as well as for state legislatures). Once again, there are large asymmetries between which demographic groups politicians can most effectively discriminate against—and extreme partisan sorting means that these asymmetries create differential opportunities to punish supporters of each party. Districts must be equally sized, contiguous (i.e., no gaps between members of the same district), and not artificially disperse areas with concentrated minority populations across multiple districts. However, there is no requirement that the percentage of seats held by each party in a state corresponds in any way to the percentage of votes that each party receives. Urban voters are overwhelmingly sorted into the Democratic party.

 

This makes it relatively straightforward for Republican politicians to concentrate large numbers of Democratic voters into a small number of districts that are almost entirely Democratic. In turn, rural Republican voters “waste” fewer votes than Democrats, which enables them to elect more Republican representatives than they could if seats were proportional to vote share. By contrast, the constraints against drawing unfair districts considerably limit the legally permissible actions that Democratic politicians can take when they draw the lines, given the urban concentration of their supporters. As with voter suppression, there is a failure of deterrence—Republicans can pursue this strategy with impunity, and Democrats are largely powerless to retaliate. Once again, if the possibilities for anti-democratic tilting were more symmetric between the two parties, deterrence would be more likely to uphold democratic norms.

 

We also consider other examples in the paper: presidential power, stepping down after losing elections, and the possibility of adding D.C. and Puerto Rico as states. In each case, the permissiveness of the legal bounds and the asymmetries (or lack thereof) for each party to punish the other helps to explain which aspects of American democratic are robust and which are faltering. Abuses of presidential power are considerably more symmetric between the two parties. The temptations to expand presidential power by incumbents, Democratic or Republican, are very high. Article II of the Constitution is famously vague, and the incumbent party reaps large short-term benefits from flexing presidential power. Meanwhile, the symmetric incentives that both parties once faced to conceding electoral losses are increasingly transforming into symmetric incentives to challenge electoral losses, a troubling development. Finally, the Democratic-controlled U.S. House recently passed a measure to add D.C. as a state. Adding states is a tactic that Democrats can use to their advantage without much fear of retaliation because the most viable new candidates for statehood would vote Democrat—although, unlike the other examples, these measures would facilitate rather than undermine voting rights.

 

Unfortunately, reducing legal scope for anti-democratic tilting and fixing the latent asymmetries in the U.S. Constitution is very difficult. The hurdles for passing federal amendments are immense, and current Supreme Court is hostile to voting rights and fair districting. However, we cannot begin to understand the maladies in contemporary U.S. politics without understanding how deterrence can uphold democracy, and why deterrence is failing in many facets of American politics.

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