Democracy is supposed to protect the rights of all citizens, promote morality, and foster economic growth. But in the US, political infighting and money politics render these goals impossible to achieve. As a result, most Americans believe democracy is not working very well or not at all. In fact, the most common response to the question “Do you think democracy in America is working well?” is “No.”
To understand why Americans are disillusioned with their government and pessimistic about American-style democracy, it helps to look at its history. In the 1790s, US President William Penn conceived of the state as a compact among statesmen whereby they pledged their loyalty to one another and agreed that the “government should be a government of laws, not men.” This concept was a major milestone in the evolution of democracy.
But in the long run, it was a flawed idea. In time, as the industrial process accelerated, it surpassed the capabilities of a law-based system. The Founders understood this and sought to coordinate the industrial and civil processes through a government that was responsive to their needs.
The result was the Constitution, which provided for a more loosely structured federal government with more power left to the states and the people. But as the federal government expanded to handle more and more complex tasks, it outgrew this model. Today, the nation is a constitutional republic with a president and Supreme Court that are elected by the people and an electoral college that gives most of the power to the individual states. These structures are problematic for democracy because they distort the functions of checks and balances.
They also create a large gap between the US and other democracies. Most importantly, the winner-takes-all electoral system exacerbates inequality between the states. This means that voters in “deep blue” and “deep red” states have a much smaller say in presidential elections than do those in “swing” states. In addition, the system allows for an influx of big money into campaigns and the election process, allowing candidates to focus on securing their financial backers rather than promoting public interest.
Then there’s corruption. With most government services financed by taxpayer dollars, there’s always a temptation for those in charge of these programs to divert funds into their own pockets or favor certain groups over others. These problems are magnified when political parties, corporations, and special interests have a stronghold over the election process.
While most Americans are disillusioned with their politics and pessimistic about American-style democratic governance, many people outside the US have a positive view of democracy and the value of advancing economic prosperity for all. These views should be kept in mind when the US attempts to impose its own self-styled democratic model on other nations, especially Latin America and the Caribbean, where people are aware that any such effort would be self-defeating and humiliating for both themselves and their country. As a result, they have little faith in the US’s ability to spread democracy abroad.