Is American democracy suffering from an overload of politics?


The polls tell us that roughly a third of all U.S. citizens believe — wrongly — that U.S. president-elect Joe Biden’s victory was achieved through fraud.

That finding is more alarming than surprising. Trust in the federal government dipped below 30 per cent among Americans at the beginning of this century and has only declined since then.

Canadians, meanwhile, have much more trust in their governments and public institutions. So what explains the difference?

Political scientists on both sides of the border say the current U.S. crisis of trust is partly the consequence of a system that permits partisanship to run wild in the name of unfettered democracy.

An independent election authority, a non-politicized judiciary and a non-partisan media might all be pillars Americans could cling to to keep from being sucked deeper into a vortex of mistrust and dysfunction.

But there are no such handholds, say experts — since the bodies that administer elections, the media that report on them and even the judges that may ultimately decide them are now all associated with one party or the other. So are the prosecutors who might bring charges in cases of malfeasance or fraud.

“The solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy,” said American philosopher John Dewey. But a lack of institutions that all Americans can agree to trust is showing the limits of that notion.

Constitutional experts say Canada has always had a lot less raw democracy than the United States — but may do a better job of actually implementing voters’ wishes.

Top-down or bottom-up

“Authority flows in two diametrically opposed directions” in the two countries, said constitutional expert Philippe Lagasse of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.

“In the United States, since its founding, sovereignty, authority, politics have very much flowed from the bottom up. That seemed to be a far more democratic system, and it’s seen as one where people have more influence over certain decisions and you’re able to have referenda, binding term limits, election of different office-holders.

“Whereas our system is much more top-down. We have, federally, one body that’s elected, the House of Commons, and every other office effectively is appointed or contractual.”

Americans can vote for everyone from the president to local sheriffs and dog-catchers. Canadians can only vote for their local representative. 

Consequently, says Lagasse, “in the United States, large numbers of offices that would be neutral — or should be neutral — are elected offices. We rely on apolitical office-holders to make these decisions.”

A supporter of President Donald Trump holds a sign during a rally in front of City Hall in Dallas, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020. (LM Otero / Associated Press)

3,000 systems

No one personifies that apolitical role in Canada more than the chief electoral officer, who is empowered to spend whatever it takes to conduct elections and only has to account for the budget afterwards.

Jean-Pierre Kingsley served as Canada’s chief electoral officer for 17 years.

“Their system was set up by their Founding Fathers, whom they revere, and it’s very difficult for Americans to change this system,” said Kingsley. “They thought that by diffusing authority throughout the land, they would be able to prevent any kind of fooling around with the system.

“The effect of that is that you get 50 different laws, but you also get 3,000 different election authorities, because the elections are run at the county level.”

Kingsley said the system provided more opportunities for politicians and parties to put their fingers on the scale during elections — as southern states did through a century of Jim Crow voter suppression tactics following the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment that gave African-Americans the vote.

“The appointment of the officials that are responsible is done through the political network, and we see this being used by the president right now,” he said. “If the electoral authorities were appointed by Democrats, he’s making comments about that.”

Awash in money

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that candidates and outside groups spent $18.4 billion Cdn on this U.S. election cycle.

The total spent by parties on Canada’s election last November was somewhere in the range of $75 million. So the U.S., with nine times Canada’s population, has nearly 250 times as much election money sloshing around.

The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2009 case of Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission gutted a 2002 law that sought to reform campaign finance, using the argument that campaign money is protected political speech.

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned that the decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation … A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”

“If the system doesn’t control the money, then the money controls the system,” said Kingsley.

Supporters of President Donald Trump cheer as his motorcade drives past a rally of supporters near the White House, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) (Evan Vucci/The Associated Press)

Billions for ads, peanuts for elections

Spending limits for parties and candidates in Canada are imposed by the bureaucrats at Elections Canada, based on a standard mathematical formula.

Kingsley points to the billions of dollars spent by candidates, Super PACs and outside groups in the U.S. and contrasts it with the often miserly budgets given to local authorities who have to administer an election during a pandemic.

“They’re caught having to go and ask for additional money and so on,” he said. “If the lines are long, the lines are long. They can’t afford to open more polls. People just have to wait in line for five, six or 10 hours.”

All that inconvenience has an effect. The turnout in the recent U.S. election was 66 per cent — the highest turnout in a century but still below the average turnout for federal elections in Canada.

Lines on a map

Jonathan Rodden, a political scientist at Stanford University in California, is an expert on gerrymandering — the practice of drawing election maps to favour one side over another.

“I draw a lot on comparisons with Canada in my work,” said Rodden, “to think about what might we get if we had a Canadian-style commission, as opposed to what we get when we have districts drawn up by self-interested incumbent politicians.”

He notes that in both Canada and the U.S., urban voters skew progressive and rural voters skew conservative. But in the U.S., political parties use redistricting as a wedge to drive those two solitudes even further apart and give themselves an advantage.

He said Pennsylvania — ground zero for the recent post-election chaos — is a classic example of a GOP gerrymander, in which the goal is “to stuff as many Democrats as possible into as few districts as possible.”

The Democrats have played similar games in states like Maryland and Illinois (though less effectively).

Strange bedfellows

Rodden said Cincinnati is an example of a city where gerrymandering has combined with racial politics to produce an outcome that appears intended to deprive African-American voters of electoral clout. Ohio Republicans split the city in two and attached each part to a suburban hinterland, he said, producing two GOP-leaning districts and effectively nullifying Cincinnati’s heavily black Democratic majority.

And Republicans have sometimes found allies among incumbent Democrats who want to create districts they can’t lose, Rodden said.

“There can be strange incumbent bedfellows in that process,” he said.

Rodden said U.S. voters tend to dislike seeing state legislators draw up federal election boundaries and have voted to replace the partisan system with bipartisan or citizen commissions on several occasions when the topic has come up through ballot initiatives.

Canada already has an independent body drawing electoral boundaries.

“Our system is less susceptible to partisan influence in the drawing of those boundaries,” said Lagasse, “and this is in keeping with the Canadian tradition of neutrality of the civil service.”

Powers that aren’t separate enough

The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court again revealed the all-too-narrow wall that separates the American judiciary from the other two branches of government.

Like many nominees, Barrett — widely seen as arch-conservative — spent much of her confirmation hearing sidestepping questions about her political views. The 6-3 partisan split on the U.S. Supreme Court is hardly a state secret.

In a recent speech to the Federalist Society, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito waded even further into politics while discussing his dissent in the ruling that legalized gay marriage.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, shown with other justices at the White House on July 23, 2019. (Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press)

Nowadays, he claimed, “you can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Until very recently, that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now it’s considered bigotry.”

(Of course, the First Amendment protects Americans’ rights to say anything they want about marriage.)

Alito also used his speech to attack five senators, all Democrats.

So it’s not hard to see why many Democrats doubt that a Justice Alito would rule impartially on the outcome of the 2020 election, should he be called on to do so.

Meanwhile, the attorneys-general who run the justice system in individual states are even deeper in the political fray. For proof, just take a look at the “Lawless Liberals” ads run by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA).

“If hurricanes Kamala and Joseph make landfall, the Republican attorneys general, as the nation’s ‘insurance policy,’ will defend America from complete annihilation,” said RAGA executive director Adam Piper.

Canadian judicial appointments are much less controversial — but this is one area where some experts say Canada is slipping toward a more partisan approach.

The federal government is currently defending its nomination process in court from allegations that it gives politicians too much discretion — a concern voiced just two weeks ago by the Canadian Bar Association.

But Canada’s system of appointments is still a far cry from what’s in place in the U.S., where 90 per cent of state judges must run for office.

“Some might see that as less grassroots, but there’s wider public trust [in Canada] that these office-holders view their jobs in terms of the public interest, as opposed to advancing the perspectives of a particular subset of the population,” said Lagasse.

“This effort to constantly devolve decisions down to the grassroots seems more democratic, but it ultimately ends up having nefarious effects on your politics. It allows smaller groups of people to take hold of nominations of candidates. And similarly, this decision to replace the vast majority of the executive branch with every change of chief executive does not bring stability to the system.

“But primarily — and paradoxically — this constant effort to devolve power has actually left people dissatisfied. Strangely enough, in our system, we centralize power but we end up with governments that can do things, that can provide for people, and it creates more public trust.”



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