Our democracy is under threat, and the threat did not begin with Donald Trump. Trump’s assault on our democratic norms and institutions is deeply disturbing and dangerous, to be sure. He claims with no proof that he lost the popular vote in the last election because of voter fraud. He has spoken little about Russian tampering with American elections, or about efforts in this country to establish rigid voter-registration requirements, often racist in intent. Like autocrats around the world, he has disdained the rule of law, firing the FBI Director James Comey, and threatening to fire the Special Counsel Robert Mueller. All this has been done with impunity in full view of the public. He has also appointed people to cabinet positions and other agencies who say they want to undermine the institutions they run, and they are doing so: Betsy DeVos at the Department of Education, Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Mick Mulvaney at the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Trump has contempt for America’s immigrant legacy, and his administration has separated families seeking asylum in this country. He has spitefully overturned Barack Obama’s executive actions, including trying to end protection for undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors. The list goes on, of course. Let me add one more item: his constant lies about serious issues as documented by the Washington Post and other media outlets is a direct assault on a key foundation of true democracy, open and reasoned discourse.
But there are other threats to our democracy that are less immediately visible though just as grave. In Democracy in America: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It, Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens show that for a generation our lawmakers have not been responsive to the will of the majority. Their conclusion, based on surveys and statistical analysis, is “that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no influence at all on the making of federal government policy.”
Page and Gilens attracted attention a few years ago for an earlier academic paper that showed the excessive power of money on public policy and argued that the United States was fast becoming an oligarchy. This book is an expansion of that thesis. Prior research by political scientists had largely concluded that policies usually do follow the wishes of the public. But Page and Gilens used statistical techniques to separate the views of wealthy interest groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, and the American Medical Association. Their research shows that if 20 percent of middle-class Americans want a policy, they will get it about one third of the time. If 80 percent of the middle class want a policy, they will also still get it only about one third of the time. Americans with income that puts them in the top 20 percent have much more influence on policy, according to Page and Gilens’s analysis. If 80 percent of the well-off prefer a policy, it will become law more than half the time. The authors find that, when it comes to certain important issues, the concerns of the wealthy are very different from the concerns of everyone else. Fortunately, the views of average Americans coincide with those of the truly powerful just often enough to mollify the masses and prevent revolt. The authors call this “democracy by coincidence,” and they insist it is not good enough.
We all learned as children that the beauty of democracy is that it gives everyone an equal voice: the vote of a poor citizen counts as much as that of a rich one. It follows that the votes of two citizens, rich or poor, should count for more than the vote of one millionaire. But majorities favor gun control, environmental protections, higher taxes for the rich, and the expansion of Social Security; and Washington has ignored them. Page and Gilens present evidence that this problem is structural and persistent. Before reading their book, I believed that a generation of stagnating median wages for all and falling median wages for men were the main source of bitterness that put Trump over the top in the Electoral College. But the research of Page and Gilens suggests to me that frustration over the failure of our supposedly democratic government to respond to the general will may have been a key to the 2016 election. Many Americans are losing faith in the benefits of democratic procedures. And democracy seems increasingly under threat in other rich countries of the West.
Page and Gilens believe that the answer to American travails is “more democracy,” which they define as “policy responsiveness to ordinary citizens—that is, popular control of government. Or simply ‘majority rule.’” In my view, they are correct. This is a particularly important argument at a moment when dictatorial powers like China are impressing the world with their economic growth. Trump would apparently like less democracy, and is jealous of strong men like Putin and Erdogan.