An Election Day reflection: Can democracies do better at providing stable, problem-solving governance?
Democracies still vastly outperform autocracies. But it's hard to escape the conclusion that they are underperforming.
Democrats say that democracy is on the ballot this election. I think they have a legitimate issue, although one they have not made well or carefully.
Donald Trump attempted a coup, staying in office despite losing the election. Republican officials and officeholders were generally complicit or supportive.
Raising doubts about adverse election results is nothing new in American politics or the exclusive province of one of our major political parties. But election denialism among Democrats has never metastasized into an attempt to seize power despite being on the short end of the vote count. That was one of the most nefarious acts in American history, and something voters properly weigh in measuring Republican candidates this election cycle, particularly in Arizona.
The extent to which they have done so will be known shortly. But that’s not the motivation for this Election Day reflection. Instead, there is a broader question appropriately pondered this day: Can democracies do better in producing stable, problem-solving governance?
Britain is on its third prime minister in two months. Israel just completed its fifth national election, including the determination of its head of government, in less than four years.
Democracies are supposed to be flexible, allowing the body politic to periodically and peaceably change management and policy direction. However, the multiparty systems that predominate among democratic countries have become excessively fragile and have increasing difficulty in governing on tough but important issues.
Few multiparty democracies have runoff systems. Instead, a government is negotiated among the parties, none of which attracted a majority of the votes. Fringe parties, necessary to cobble together a parliamentary majority, gain disproportionate and unearned influence over the issues that matter most to them. And they can bring down a government in a moment’s pique.
These systems also don’t really offer voters clear and understandable choices. The recent Danish election illustrates the point. The party of the current prime minister, Mette Fredriksen, came in first with about 28% of the vote. The remainder of the votes were spread across several parties.
According to the Economist, Fredriksen could form either a left-wing coalition or a centrist one. That’s a big difference in how Danes will be governed for as long as this coalition government lasts. But that choice wasn’t cleanly or clearly presented to them in the election.
The two-party system in the United States arguably has produced more stable governance and clearer election choices, as voters toggle between Democrats or Republicans, mostly driven by dissatisfaction with whichever party happens to be in charge. But, of late, the United States isn’t any better at problem-solving governance.
Virtually all developed democracies face a growing labor shortage due to declining native birth rates. There are only three policy options: accept a smaller economy on a per-capita basis and make the necessary adjustments in government spending and taxation; improve labor productivity so economic growth can be maintained with relatively fewer workers; or import workers through a generous immigration system. Although this issue has huge consequences for the futures of these countries, there is little serious discussion about the options in their politics.
In the United States, the federal government is back to chronic annual trillion dollar deficits. Each year, the federal government purchases roughly $250 billion of capital goods that will last for generations, and therefore are reasonably debt-financed. That means that the federal government is borrowing, and is projected to continue borrowing, over $750 billion a year to cover day-to-day operating expenses, which is unsustainable. Yet the last significant American politician pushing to address this was Paul Ryan, who left the scene more than three years ago.
When First Lady Jill Biden was in town, she chastised Republicans for allegedly “putting Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block.” The Medicare hospitalization trust fund is projected to go into deficit in 2028, after which dedicated payroll taxes are expected to cover just 90% of expenses. The Social Security trust fund is projected to go into deficit in 2034, with dedicated payroll taxes expected to cover less than 80% of scheduled benefits.
These are not distant, next-generation problems. They will affect tens of millions of Americans. In a country with a serious governing class, there would be intense discussion and debate over what to do about these pending precipices.
So, what do Democrats propose to do to cope with the impending deficits in Social Security and Medicare? Nothing. Instead they demagogue the issue for short-term political advantage.
I don’t mean to be alarmist. Democracy continues to earn Winston Churchill’s wry observation that it is the worst system of governance except for all the others. Democracies still outperform autocracies, by orders of magnitude, in living standards, quality of life, preservation and protection of individual autonomy, government responsiveness, and peaceably transfers of power.
Still, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that democracies are underperforming, that they could do better at providing stable, problem-solving governance.
I have my own thoughts about some of the reasons. I think democratic governments have taken on too much, and too much of what government isn’t particularly good at. And I have reached the conclusion that a major obstacle to better governance is the official role political parties play in choosing the nominees for elected office.
I don’t offer these thoughts as the definitive or complete answer. But I do offer the question as one to which we need to be devoting much more consideration and attention.
Reach Robb at email@example.com.