Only More Democracy Can Save Democracy

To counter the threat of authoritarianism, the left must focus on expanding voting rights.

The Trump presidency is rightly viewed as a severe crisis of America’s political structure. A man who would be manifestly incapable of executing the daily responsibilities of a small-town mayor sits in command of the world’s largest military and oversees its most important economy. This is the result of an election in which he received fewer votes than his opponent. The U.S. Constitution, once a sort of national cult object, now appears increasingly anachronistic and perhaps even on its last legs.

An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics
by Greg Sargent
Custom House, 256 pp.


Naturally enough, the situation has sparked an intense debate about what should be done whenever Trump finally leaves office. One solid, workmanlike argument is presented by the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent in his new book, An Uncivil War. The basic idea is that the United States faces a crisis of authoritarianism, and rebuilding democracy is the way to confront that crisis. It’s a worthy start on a post-Trump agenda.

Sargent rightly attributes the current crisis to a combination of dysfunctional electoral institutions and a Republican Party that’s increasingly comfortable with cheating. There’s the Senate, which provides hideously disproportionate influence to depopulated small states. The twenty-five smallest states (which skew white, rural, and conservative) comprise just 16 percent of the total population. The filibuster—a completely accidental institution—allows representatives of just 10 percent of the population to block most legislation.

Then there’s the Electoral College, which for purely historical reasons allows popular vote losers to win the presidency. Trump, who lost the popular vote by 2.1 percentage points, is the second Republican in less than two decades to lose his way to the White House. In theory, it’s possible to lose the popular vote in a two-candidate election by nearly four to one and still win the presidency. That’s unlikely, to be sure, but a stark indication of just how nutty the system is.

The current state of the House of Representatives, meanwhile, illustrates what happens when institutional design flaws meet a political party that doesn’t value democracy as such. Virtually alone among wealthy nations, the United States allows victorious political parties to control the district boundary-drawing process. Unsurprisingly, there is a long and disgraceful history of both parties drawing those boundaries to entrench their own power. The typical strategy is “packing and cracking” various demographic blocs—either sweeping a whole group, most often African Americans, into one district to concentrate and thus waste their votes, or splitting them up among many districts—to give a victorious party a handicap in the next election. But, as Sargent explains, the wave of Republican gerrymandering that followed the 2010 census took this form of gamesmanship to new and disturbing heights. The GOP is estimated to have about a six-point handicap for the upcoming midterms, raising the uncomfortable possibility of Democrats winning a very substantial victory in terms of votes but Republicans maintaining control of the House.

Then there are the various efforts to suppress Democratic votes directly. These include strategies like requiring voter IDs, reducing voting hours, closing polling places in liberal districts, and purging voter rolls. Sargent carefully considers conservative claims that such practices are attempts to secure the electoral process against in-person voter fraud, and rightly dismisses them. “Generally speaking, efforts to make it harder to vote are almost always pushed by Republicans,” he concludes.

Finally, there’s the right-wing propaganda machine. Because the heart of the Republican legislative agenda—in a nutshell, further accelerating the upward transfer of wealth—is broadly unpopular, the party’s support depends heavily on misinformation and cultural grievance. Enter Fox News. The network, together with extreme right-wing websites and talk radio, has created an iron dome of propaganda around the brains of conservative base voters, who are all but impervious to uncomfortable truths about their politicians or co-partisans. 

So what is to be done? One might conclude that the answer is to match cheating with cheating—rig elections by disenfranchising anyone with a Fox News subscription or NRA membership, for instance. But Sargent rightly argues that this is a lousy strategy for liberals and the left. Instead, they should focus on expanding democratic rights in general, for two reasons.

First, democracy is morally right. Sargent looks askance at democracy “skeptics” like Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, who make a strained case that voters are totally incapable of thinking rationally. Average voters may often make poor decisions or behave irrationally. (So do political elites.) But inarguably correct mass decisions are made routinely, as when 94 percent of African Americans voted against Barry Goldwater in 1964 because he opposed the Civil Rights Act. More importantly, democratic consent is the bedrock of the American political system, as it is for any republic. Expanding democratic rights is a lot more likely to lead to stability over time.

Second, expanding voting rights necessarily reaches into left-leaning demographics. Compared to the average voter, the average nonvoter is poorer, browner, and, crucially, younger. Unsurprisingly, these nonvoters express heavily left-leaning sentiments in polls. That’s why Republicans view voter suppression as a winning strategy almost by definition, and it’s why pushing for more voting increases the probability of Democratic Party victories and progressive policy in general. 

Thus Sargent considers a wide variety of reforms to improve American democracy: rolling back felon disenfranchisement (which in Florida keeps nearly a quarter of the African American population from voting), abolishing the filibuster, implementing automatic voter registration, shifting to nonpartisan district boundaries (or multimember districts), granting statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and generally pressing the sort of aggressive procedural attack that Republicans have done—while at the same time trying to make the system genuinely more fair. “I believe [reformers] should strive for a complicated equilibrium, in which they do not unilaterally disarm in the face of Republican hardball, but also do all they can to make the system more rewarding for fair play,”
he writes.

It’s a wise conclusion. But it does bring up one partial blind spot. Sargent is concerned about the possibility of overreach on the part of liberals and the left, to the point that he’s wishy-washy about the most aggressive reforms. But he underestimates the possibility that failing to be aggressive enough is an equal or greater danger. He frets about what future Republican majorities might do if the Senate gets rid of the filibuster, for instance, but doesn’t take stock of how the filibuster handicapped the size of the Recovery Act in 2009, setting Democrats up for a devastating defeat in the 2010 midterms when unemployment was nearly 10 percent. 

Ultimately, if more democracy is truly the answer, then Democrats will have to have the courage of their convictions—trusting that voters will reward them for passing appropriate policy that isn’t watered down to appeal to nonexistent deficit hawks, and punish Republicans for pursuing cartoonish ends like greater inequality and faster climate change. 

In other cases, Sargent doesn’t consider the full range of radical policy. For instance, he celebrates the moderate vote-boosting potential of automatic voter registration—but not the far superior performance of mandatory voting, which is settled policy in Australia and other countries. Universal vote by mail (perhaps more realistic than mandatory voting, but also more powerful than automatic registration alone) gets only a passing mention. If the state of American democracy is really so dire—and it most certainly is—that sort of aggressive policy is worth considering.

However, these are minor faults. Overall, this is a careful and worthy examination of the peril we face, and of the suite of procedural tools that might keep our ancient, backfiring constitutional system from total collapse. It is especially important for centrists and liberals who might otherwise be convinced that simply returning to the pre-Trump status quo is all we need. That attitude is a dangerous one. There are a great many howling emergencies afflicting the United States—climate change, a dysfunctional health care system, severe and rising inequality, and many others—that have nothing to do with Trump and that require bold, turbocharged policy responses. Ultimately, democracy only works if the government can meaningfully address big problems: witness the Weimar Republic, brought down by far-right extremism fueled by unemployment that ultimately reached 30 percent. Similarly, failing to address trade-enabled deindustrialization certainly helped Trump in critical Rust Belt states.

A modern parliamentary system of the sort practiced by almost every peer nation is probably out of the question. But simply bringing the constitutional order up to the standard of, say, the mid-twentieth century would be an enormous improvement. If Democrats can win several consecutive elections under a more democratic system—as Franklin Roosevelt did in his day—it might just convince Republicans to tone down their increasingly hysterical radicalism. It’s hard to imagine another way out of our current political morass.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at The Week. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The Nation.