A recent comment and tangent to an earlier thread about the Middle East has lead to a request for a new thread on the nature and quality of American democracy. One anonymous commenter argued that the US "Never has, never will be a democracy." This commenter started by implying that anyone who disagreed with this view was suffering from a "delusion." I hesitate to engage such statement but US West would like to discuss it and I respect her so here is my first pass at starting just such a conversation.
First, I think it is important to understand that whether a country is a democracy or not is about the process used to determine policies not about policy outcomes. This is consistent with most of the political science research on the nature of democracy. A good example of this kind of literature is Polyarchy by Robert Dahl. It’s an old book but the definition of “polyarchy” (the term Dahl coins for regimes that are close enough to the democratic ideal as makes little difference), or something very much like it has become the standard working definition of democracy in political science. Dahl’s definition is about process not outcomes. He does not say “democracies have income disparity measures between this and this level” or “anything other than minimal flat taxation is undemocratic” or “democracies have this level of welfare spending” or “democracies have this level of unionization.” Rather he focuses on whether there are free and competitive elections and freedom of the press, speech, association etc. But this view goes far beyond the personal views of Robert Dahl. The process not outcomes definition is the standard in the field.
Second, given the standard definition of democracy, we can say that the United States is clearly a representative democracy (Dahl would call it a “Polyarchy” but that’s just semantic preference on his part really). We enjoy free, competitive elections. We also enjoy a range of rights that support the free competitive nature of those elections namely: freedom of association, freedom of the press, freedom of speech etc. We also enjoy a relatively stable rule of law with an independent judiciary and the right to due process before our life, liberty or property is taken away by the state (with some relatively isolated exceptions which we have complained about on this blog before). Any assertions that the United States is not a democracy are either based exaggerated definitions of democracy that make it an ideal that is impossible to attain (and so not a practical basis for reasoned discussion) or based on erroneous or highly selective use of evidence.
For example, debating about the degree of income inequality in the country, or the level of unionization etc really amounts to a debate about policy outcomes. Framing such a debate in terms of “my view represents democracy and the opposing view does not” is not really productive either for reasoned policy debate or a reasoned discussion of what democracy is.
All that said, there are useful questions about how our processes could be reformed (I might say "improved"). For example, money plays a big role in our elections because of the nature of our campaign finance laws. A reasoned person could argue that the representative quality of our democracy would be improved by instituting something like public financing for campaigns. Another example, commonly raised, is that our primary and secondary electoral rules distort representation. Specifically, some people would prefer that the US adopt a more proportional electoral system such as proportional representation, the single transferable vote or alternative list method for counting votes and assigning seats in the legislature. Others focus on how district shapes are assigned. Still other reform advocates suggest that voting should be made mandatory. But none of these dimensions of possible reform are of the order that we would expect to see if we were to claim that the US is not a democracy.