Courtney: The case for democracy

How we can build a democracy before we lose our democracy.


by Zach Courtney

When people ask how I identify politically, it’s a tough question to answer. I have multiple identities. I’m an advocate for universal healthcare, expanding public education to include preschool, eradicating (or at least cutting) child poverty and implementing bold climate change policy. Call me what you want.

I don’t identify as a Democrat — a member of the Democratic Party — because I have too many issues with the party today, but I do identify as a small “d” democrat. I have faith in democracy. Because of this, it should be no surprise that I have doubts and worries about the future of our democracy. I’m not alone, either; recent NPR/Ipsos polling indicates that 64% of Americans think American democracy is “in crisis and at risk of failing.”

Research indicates that 31% of Americans want a “strong incumbent leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections.” So this begs the question: why should we even care if American democracy is at risk?

I could go on and on about why we should value and desire democracy. I’ll just give a few reasons why we should, otherwise this column would be too long.

  1. War is bad. We should avoid war— at home and abroad— if at all possible. A great way to do this is by championing democracy; research shows that democracies, quite simply, don’t go to war with each other.
  2. Though authoritarian leaders will falsely claim otherwise, history shows that democracies have higher rates of economic growth than other countries.
  3. The most basic way to determine how successful a country and their government has been is by how long their people live. If a country is successful, their people will live long, healthy lives. Research shows that citizens of democratic countries live longer than citizens of other countries.
  4. I believe that all are created equal, so all should have power in their government by voting and making their voices heard. Just on principle alone, the people as a whole — not just a dictator or the wealthy — should have a say in the laws that govern their country.

So, if democracy is as peachy as I claim it to be, why do almost a third of Americans basically want to scrap our current system for a dictatorship? In short, they don’t approve of our current system because it isn’t a democracy. If I were to use a term to classify our political system, I would call it a representative democracy. Still, the United States’ democracy is lacking in some areas as well. The Senate and Electoral College are intentionally not democratic. Studies have shown that legislation that passes through Congress is correlated with the preferences of the wealthy, not the average American. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has long argued that the United States is on the verge of being an oligarchy; I agree. There is a bit of a paradox here; for those of us that value democracy, we need to build a better one before we lose what we have right now to autocracy or oligarchy.

That’s right — my headline and subhead were written for right here at home, not some country halfway around the world.

A few side notes before I get to my main proposals for fixing our democracy:

  1. I’ve already written columns on the benefits of ranked-choice voting and abolishing the filibuster, so I won’t spend too much time on those proposals, but they would do a lot of good as far as making our democracy more representative and responsive.
  2. Bolstering journalism and public education (two proposals I’ve also discussed previously) would make our electorate more educated, which would be great for our democracy.
  3. Many on the left propose abolishing the Electoral College and the Senate altogether. Not to say I’m opposed to these proposals, I just think they aren’t worthwhile discussions; they would require constitutional amendments that would need small states to vote against their own self-interests.

So, what steps can we take to build our democracy before we lose our democracy?

We should make drastic changes to the House. Many discuss the anti-democratic nature of the Senate, but fail to discuss that the House isn’t very democratic, either. Instead of the voters choosing their House representatives, gerrymandering has made it so politicians are choosing their voters. At the very least, we need to ban partisan gerrymandering through the Freedom to Vote Act. More drastic proposals like multi-member districts and proportional representation should be considered, too. We could and should expand the House to 930 seats so individual districts have closer to equal representation.

  1. We should pass a constitutional amendment that would overturn the disastrous Citizens United v. FEC decision that allows corporations to pour unlimited amounts of money into political campaigns. This has allowed our democracy (rule by the people) to increasingly look like an oligarchy (rule by the wealthy).
  2. If a constitutional amendment is unattainable, a bill that gives each American $100 to donate to candidates — dubbed “Democracy Dollars” by Andrew Yang — would go a long way towards making our democracy more democratic. If money is speech, as Citizens United says, Democracy Dollars would give everyone a voice.

I know this was a long column. Nothing is important if we lose our democracy, and I wanted to make sure I got this column right. It has a lot of links that might seem boring to read, but I encourage everyone to read them. They’re written by people who are much smarter than I am (though that doesn’t say much). As I said in my column “A republic, if we can keep it,” our democracy can be preserved if 1) we want it to be and 2) we do everything we can to ensure it is preserved.

Though the policies I propose both in other columns and here are good, they are far from exhaustive. Most importantly, though, we need to do something before it is too late. Americans are losing faith in our democracy in part because they don’t think it is working well for them. In short — they’re right. It isn’t working well for them because we don’t live in a democracy — yet. If we build one through some of my pro-democracy measures, then our democracy will be here to stay.