The problem with contemporary democracies such as the United States and Great Britain is not an excess of democracy, as D.J. Tice muses (“What ails us? Perhaps too much democracy,” Jan. 27), but instead a deficiency.
The real problem is how, as many political scientists point out, excessive concentrations of wealth are undermining democratic institutions across the world, including in the U.S. and the U.K.
Today, as was true back in the 1960s, when waves of protests challenged political orders across Europe and the United States, critics contended there was too much democracy and there was a need to rein the people in. The call then as now was for stronger political parties, limits on forums for people to express their preferences, and strong leadership.
One can agree with Tice that democracy needs a fix and that strengthening its mediating institutions, as opposed to going the route of direct democracy, is the solution.
However, in reality there is a democratic deficit across the world, not an excess. Consider annual reports from Freedom House, the leading organization that has been assessing the state of democracy across the world since the 1970s. Quoting from its “Freedom in the World 2018: Democracy in Crisis”: “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets — including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law — came under attack around the world. Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”
Statistics like this hardly describe democratic excess.
But what are the causes of democratic decline and the withering of its basic institutions? There is no singular cause, but arguably standing behind them is how the global increase in economic inequality has challenged democracy. Thomas Piketty’s 2013 “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” notes the powerful retreat from economic equality from the 1970s to the present. Other studies similarly substantiate Piketty.
A 2011 Congressional Budget Office report found that the after-tax income gap between the top 1 percent of the U.S. population and everyone else (after calculating in transfer payments and welfare) more than tripled since 1979. After-tax income for the top 1 percent increased by 275 percent between 1973 and 2007; for the bottom quintile it was up merely 18 percent, while for the middle three quintiles it increased by not quite 40 percent.
An April 2013 Pew Research Center report documents how, since the crash of 2008, the “mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent.”
A 2019 Oxfam International Report recently headlined that the “The top 26 billionaires own $1.4 trillion — as much as 3.8 billion other people.”
Esteemed political scientists have long noted that economic inequality damages democratic institutions, affecting political participation and support for its basic institutions.
Back in 1960, E.E. Schattschneider wrote in “The Semisovereign People” that the U.S. was a large aristocracy, where the wealth and income skewed power in the hands of the affluent. Since then, works by influential political scientists — including Charles Lindlom’s “Politics and Markets” (1977), Robert Dahl’s “Democracy and its Critics” (1991), Larry Bartels’ “Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age” (2008), Jacob Hacker’s “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer, and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class” (2011), Martin Gilens’ “Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America” (2012) and Kay Lehman Schlozman, Sidney Verba and Henry Brady’s “The Unheavenly Chorus: Unequal Political Voice and the Broken Promise of American Democracy” (2013), among scores of others — have found that the U.S. political system is more responsive to the more affluent than to majorities and that the policy preferences of the former are more likely to be enacted or supported than those held by the latter.
The conclusion of some of the best empirical political science is that, as the gap between the rich and poor has increased, so has the democratic deficit. The public, rightly so, has become more skeptical of democratic institutions because they have been weakened, not by an excess of democracy but by economic forces that have damaged them.
President Donald Trump and Brexit are perhaps a symptom of a legitimate concern of how average voters feel estranged from a political system that no longer represents them or serves their interests.
Long ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis challenged America by declaring: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
What really ails democracy is not its excess from populism but from insufficient attention to legitimate democratic demands to rein in the excesses of economic power and wealth that threaten it.
David Schultz is professor of political science at Hamline University.