A democracy or not? That’s the question some Americans are asking about their country.
Amid the commotion caused by a fly landing on Mike Pence’s hair during the US Vice Presidential debate, a top Republican senator tweeted “democracy isn’t the objective” of America’s political system.
The Senator for Utah, Mike Lee, declared on Twitter, that “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
That statement raised more than a few eyebrows but Senator Lee had not finished. For the sake of clarity he added “our form of government is not a democracy,” going on to say that “The word 'democracy' appears nowhere in the Constitution.”
The word “democracy” appears nowhere in the Constitution, perhaps because our form of government is not a democracy. It’s a constitutional republic. To me it matters. It should matter to anyone who worries about the excessive accumulation of power in the hands of the few.— Mike Lee (@SenMikeLee) October 8, 2020
Lee’s comments follow Donald Trump’s insistence that he would not commit to a peaceful transfer of power until the results were announced, leaving the door open to refusing to accept the outcome unless he is declared victor.
But is the US system a real democracy?
The question was the subject of an article by two Yale University professors who discussed the notion of the robustness of American democracy in the face of authoritarianism.
They found that “only a small fraction of Americans prioritize democratic principles in their electoral choices” and that the “public’s viability as a democratic check to be strikingly limited.”
When Senator Lee argued that the US is not a democracy, he is doing it in the context of increasing polarisation of American society. As political polarisation increased, the authors from Yale found that citizens were more likely to tolerate anti-democratic statements.
Strikingly a recent article in the Atlantic, “What if Trump refuses to concede,” argued that the US is in danger of sleepwalking into a form of authoritarianism.
“The worst case is that he uses his power to prevent a decisive outcome against him” the authors warned adding that “If Trump sheds all restraint, and if his Republican allies play the parts he assigns them, he could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress.”
This increasing polarisation in US politics makes several eventualities possible and it is this that is worrying many constitutional professors in the US.
One argued that very “few people have actual answers to what happens if the machinery of democracy is used to prevent a legitimate resolution to the election.”
US presidents are elected through an archaic system called the electoral college which is made up of 538 individuals. Each represents one vote, with a candidate needing to win 270 to secure the presidency.
Generally, states award all their electoral college votes to whoever won the poll of ordinary voters in the state. So if Donald Trump wins 50.1 percent of the popular vote in Florida the state gives all the 29 electoral college votes that it has to him.
The catch is that the convention says that the state should follow the will of ordinary voters. However, there is nothing stopping a state from deciding against this very thing.
US presidents are not directly elected by the people. In 2016, Trump won 304 electoral votes but lost the popular one by a margin of 2,868,692 against Hillary Clinton.
That was the second time in twenty years in which a Republican had won the presidency but lost the popular vote. The last time that happened is when Bush lost it by half a million votes running against Al Gore
The propensity of the US system to produce electoral outcomes that encourage minority rule has many questioning whether the system is broken as a means of reflecting the will of the people.
A majority of Americans believe that the candidate with the most votes should win the election. But politicians and policymakers have sought to shirk away from reforming the system.
As American politicians dither on whether the system should be reformed, a great number of people increasingly believe their voice does not matter.