Modern American democracy is often messy, increasingly polarized, sometimes stupefying, and surprisingly decentralized. Our Congress functions (or doesn’t) mainly along party lines under rules set in a Constitution more than 200 years old which does not recognize political parties, and indeed was designed to stifle their emergence. Divided government in times of polarized parties has undermined accountability as each side can blame the other for policy failures, and we lurch from one potential government shutdown to another thanks in part to polarization and in part to internal fighting within the Republican Party. Much power devolves to the state and local level, where we often see one-party rule rather than the partisan stalemate of Congress.
State one-partyism extends even to the rules for conducting elections, where a majority of states use partisan election officials to set the rules of the game and to carry out our elections, and where state legislatures draw their own legislative districts only mildly constrained by Supreme Court one-person, one-vote requirements. Our campaign finance system is careening toward deregulation, with a series of Supreme Court decisions and partially enforceable congressional measures leading to the creation of political organizations, some of which can shield their donors’ identities, allowing the wealthiest of Americans to translate their vast economic power into political power. Money spent to influence elections is complemented by money spent to influence public policy through lobbying, creating a system in which those with great wealth and organizational ability have a much better chance of having their preferences enacted in law and having their preferred candidates elected, than average Americans have.
It is no wonder that the reform impulse in American politics is strong. States with the initiative process have experimented with top-two primaries in which the top two vote getters, regardless of party, go to a runoff, and redistricting reform featuring either citizen commissions or substantive limits on legislative self-dealing. The National Popular Vote movement seeks an end run around the antiquated rules of the Electoral College, which violate modern accepted principles of one-person, one-vote by giving small states outsized power relative to their populations.
Reformers push a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and other cases which hamstring the government’s ability to control money in politics. Good government groups regularly clamor for redistricting reform (often joined by the political party on the losing side of redistricting in each state), expansion of voting rights for former felons and others, and the end of corruption and patronage. Some even call for constitutional conventions with citizen participants chosen by lottery.
But as Bruce Cain argues in his terrific new book, the never-ending efforts at reform present tradeoffs, and attempts to achieve either pure majoritarianism or government meritocracy can have unintended and unwanted consequences. Further, many reform efforts are oversold as a cure for all that ails American democracy. Cain argues for a Goldilocks-like pluralist reform agenda which recognizes that busy citizens lack interest in governing and capacity to make complex decisions. Instead, politics is conducted through intermediaries across the range of local, state, and national governing arenas. Pluralism “prioritizes aggregation, consensus, and fluid coalitions as a means of good democratic governance.” (p. 11)