Whoever you voted for in the recent election, most people agree it was one of the most negative elections in their lifetime. People on both sides of the ballot used words like “disgusted”, “exhausted”, and “embittered” to describe their state of mind come November 8.
The candidate who won the electoral college lost the national popular vote. Hundreds of thousands of people have come out to protest that the winner is “not my president.” As a result of the election, virtually all levels of government will be controlled by Republicans, yet Democrats represent roughly 50% of the electorate.
And if that’s not enough, people’s trust in the media and the factual accuracy of the information they read is at an all-time low.
It seems to me Democracy 1.0 ain’t working out so well.
Actually, most Americans call the American system of government “democracy”, but even that term is loaded with nuance. Technically, the USA is a “federal presidential constitutional republic,” owing to the fact that it is a federation of states, that the people elect a president in a fair and free election, that the rights of all citizens are guaranteed by a founding constitution, and that the people do not directly vote on government matters (usually considered impractical), but rather elect representatives who do that for them.
For the rest of this blog post, I’ll just use the term “democracy 1.0” to mean all the above since it’s simpler and more in line with how people use the term in everyday conversation.
So is democracy 1.0 failing us? I think it is in some profound and interesting ways, and the point of writing this post is to explore how.
Problem #1: Non-Representation by Gerrymandering
“[It is] by their votes [that] the people exercise their sovereignty.” –Thomas Jefferson
In an ideal democracy, there would be a real and palpable sense that your vote counts, and the system would guarantee that all votes are treated equally.
But it just doesn’t work that way today. First, there’s the issue of gerrymandering. Here’s the US House of Representatives breakdown after the election:
And according to Gallup, here are the percentages of registered Democrats vs. Republicans:
Also, 42% of registered voters identify as independent. Yet Republicans control 55% of the US House of Representatives seats?
Actually, my description of the problem hardly captures just how flagrant this is. To see all the gory details, check out this Rolling Stone article from November 2013. Here’s a basic summary:
- In Pennsylvania, Democrats took 51% of the House votes, but won just 5 of the 18 House seats. Results like these took place all across the country.
- It was due to a specific redistricting strategy organized by the Republican party as part of the “Redistricting Majority Project.”
- That project’s explicit goal was to “keep or win Republican control of state legislatures with the largest impact on congressional redistricting.”
To be fair, Democrats have been guilty of gerrymandering, too, but a detailed analysis shows that Republicans took it to an extreme and benefitted substantially more.
Either way, it’s a disgusting, undemocratic process and it should be illegal.
Problem #2: Non-Representation by the Electoral College
Every district in the USA has a representative in the House of Representatives. Every state gets two senators. It seems that gives a district representation and a state representation.
But what about electing the President? It seems to me that a straight popular vote most accurately reflects the will of the people. But instead, we lumber on with the outdated electoral college system.
The history here is pretty interesting. Basically, at the Constitutional Convention way back in 1787, delegates were debating how the President should be elected. The obvious option here was to just take a popular vote, but the big elephant in the room was that all the Southern states had slaves, so does that mean that the slaves get to vote, too?
Well, the compromise that solved the problem was that states would designate their own “electors” who would then place a vote for the President themselves. This way, the slaves wouldn’t have to be explicitly denied the right to vote. (source)
I honestly can’t think of a better example of an anachronism. Unfortunately, only a constitutional amendment can change the Electoral College, and that requires the Senate and House of Representatives to each pass a 2/3 vote, and 3/4 of all state legislatures to pass it.
But who would be politically motivated enough to pass a law to replace the electoral college? Especially after their party’s leader benefited from it? Exactly, nobody.
Problem #3: Rampant Misinformation
So far I’ve talked about how representation in the USA has been distorted, but of course votes still drive all elections. So let’s talk briefly about how people vote.
This topic is worthy of a Ph.D. dissertation, which I will not be indulging in here, so I’ll focus on what I found to be the most unfortunate aspect of voter behavior in this last election: misinformation.
On many days, I’d read the New York Times followed by Fox News and would get two completely different pictures of the election, the candidates, the scandals, and the issues. Both media sources were guilty of bias on many levels.
For example, it took the New York Times several days to report when Donna Brazile, the former Democratic National Committee chairperson, was found to have leaked debate questions to the Hillary Clinton campaign. In fact, I found out about it from a Facebook friend complaining that it was suppressed by many media sources.
But there are suggestions (albeit unverified) that Trump got debate questions, too. Notably this was revealed in the New York Times, and as far as I can tell, not covered at all in Fox News.
Also, if you google search all the articles on this topic, you’ll see just how varied the quality (and accuracy) of the reporting is, depending on the slant of the publication.
The truth is that a regular voter doesn’t have the time to sort through all stories across multiple publications and piece together an “objective” view of the day’s news stories. I suppose that’s what Google News aims to do, but most people don’t read Google News.
Also, it makes me realize there are three fundamental challenges here:
- Which articles get front page coverage?
- Which articles get written at all?
- For a given article, what’s fact and what’s interpretation?
The news media is funded some by subscriptions, but mostly by ads. Ads pay based on eyeballs. Eyeballs are driven by clicks. Clicks are driven by sensational headlines. So right away, there’s a bias to hyperbolize just about everything.
Then there’s the bias of the newspaper editors in selecting the articles that get top-page coverage. And for the articles themselves, even the New York Times, which is still my favorite news source, often has articles with a weak factual basis.
It’d be amazing if there were some kind of next-generation media source that presented news in a modern way. There could be “story seeds” submitted by bystanders, readers, or editors. Some seeds could grow into articles. Articles could be written in a standardized way that links facts back to original sources (e.g. recordings of interviews; video footage) and calls on multiple perspectives from both left-leaning and right-leaning analysts, all explicitly labeled as such.
But that kind of amazing news tool doesn’t exist. Instead, I mostly see New York Time headlines, and ones in my Facebook feed that are mostly consistent with my existing beliefs.
This kind of paradigm for media means that people are going to be less fluid when thinking about which party’s politics they support, and more likely to get their existing beliefs reinforced on a regular basis.
There are other problems with democracy, too. For example, there is huge misinformation when it comes to voting on local propositions. There’s dark money funding political campaigns. And perhaps worst of all, most people I meet are far more interested in proclaiming their own views than learning why someone else feels the way they do.
So, yeah, democracy 1.0 is messy, but it’s also flawed in a bunch of ways it doesn’t have to be. I don’t know what the solution is, and I’m sorry to write one of the complaint posts without offering any solution, but it’s satisfying to outline the problems so that someday we can fix them.