This semester, one of my college students proposed an interesting topic for his paper. As a recent immigrant from Pakistan, he wanted to write an essay that argued “Pakistan is not a democracy.” I approved the topic because the student was clearly invested in it, and because it is a topic that matters. In class one day, as I was demonstrating strategies for proving definitional claims, we used his topic as an example in class. As we worked together to define the essential characteristics that all democracies share, it became clear that Pakistan did not match those characteristics. But I was troubled by my growing realization that, by any rigorous and accurate definition of democracy, the contemporary United States don’t match either.
I have long been a critic of American governance. And I have long been a critic of democracy. But until this year, I had still operated under the assumption that the United States, despite various forms of corruption and turmoil, remained a democracy. Sadly, I no longer believe this to be the case. Skeptical readers might scoff at this assertion. After all, we have elections. We don’t have a king. How could anyone say that we don’t live in a democracy? Some readers will remind me that America is an indirect democracy or a “democratic republic,” insisting that each citizen isn’t intended to wield real political power. These distinctions aside, I argue that the United States doesn’t qualify as any kind of democracy, if the term is rigorously defined.
Most Americans think they know what democracy is: as long as there are “free and fair elections” with no barriers to seeking a position of power (requirements of lineage, property ownership, wealth, or intelligence), they assume a nation qualifies as a democracy. But in truth, democracy is much more than that. Many say that democracy means “the rule of the people,” and they’re right. But what does “the rule of the people” mean in modern practice? It doesn’t necessarily mean “elections.”
For example, a democracy could be established where each adult citizen has to serve some time in public office. Periodically throughout American history, there have been calls to dramatically expand the number of seats in the House of Representatives. What if we expanded the membership to 10,000 citizens, and selected people to fill the seats for a single two-year term from a lottery in each state among all eligible adults? Arguably, such a system would be more “democratic” (in terms of a legitimate “rule of the people”) than the system we currently use for determining who receives positions in government. Thus, it is clear that earning the label of “democracy” doesn’t necessarily require that a single ballot be cast. To be sure, a democracy of this sort wasn’t the kind envisioned by the founders of American democracy…but that doesn’t make it any less democratic.
What, then, are the essential characteristics of a true democracy? I argue there are four. The first is that the methods for the selection of candidates for office must be fair and cannot allow any particular class of citizens to have significant advantages in earning an appointment to a government position. Secondly, people in leadership positions must recognize an obligation to respond to public concerns in ways that mirror the preferences of their constituents, and they must prioritize their efforts at governance in accord with the most urgent concerns of the public. Third, a very large majority of citizens must have faith that the methods for selecting who will hold public office are fair and uncorrupted. Finally, the core non-governmental institutions that wield enormous power in the public sphere must not use that power to deliberately manipulate public opinion or decisions about politics and the direction of society. I’ll discuss each of these in turn.
Democracies Grant Real Political Power to Average Citizens
In order for the people to rule, the typical citizen must not only be allowed to seek public office, her prospects for winning the position must not be compromised by the enduring advantages of a particular caste of citizens. Any campaign for an American political office is so costly that the typical citizen has virtually no chance at winning. A successful candidacy virtually requires personal wealth, established connections to a donor class, or the formal blessing of the one of two ruling political parties. Certainly, there are exceptions like the truck driver in New Jersey who won the position of New Jersey State Senate President on a self-funded campaign with a few hundred dollars, or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez whose aggressive door-knocking managed to surprise and unseat a congressional dinosaur. These are exceptions that prove the rule.
Some might argue that the typical citizen does have real prospects to serve – beginning in lower-level local offices, and then working up to state-level or national positions. But this rebuttal is underpinned by the assumption that one can only access real political power if one has devoted oneself to a career in politics. And this is to say nothing of the substantial advantages that incumbents have in winning elections – advantages that allow for career politicians to exist in the first place. These advantages of money, connections, name recognition, and incumbency – which work together to limit the access of regular Americans to win office – could easily be offset by a variety of means, from campaign-finance reform to term limits. That our current officials have no appetite to level this playing field highlights the antidemocratic aspects of our existing system. Structural advantages of this sort create and perpetuate what is properly called a “ruling class,” which is a feature of an oligarchy, not a democracy.
Democratic Leaders Heed the Will of the Public
The second essential characteristic of a democracy is that leaders heed the will of the majority of their constituents. In other words, they should not enact policies that are not supported by a majority of the people they represent, even if the official personally believes they would benefit the public. If political representatives do not reliably implement the will of the public, then they are not “representing” them with any degree of fidelity. And without this kind of faithful representation, there are no grounds to support the claim that the people rule. Consider: 80% of Americans believe we should require photographic identification for voters. Who believes that such a policy could get through Congress? Another example: the recent Virginia governor’s race, where the (losing) Democratic candidate openly claimed that parents should not have a say in what is taught in the public schools.
Skeptics will say that it is important that those in political positions do not always yield to the will of the majority: sometimes the majority is wrong, and it is well-established in American governance that there is no formal obligation to heed the will of the people. All of this is true. But it should be rare that representatives of the public defy the will of the majority. In today’s America, there is open refusal to even reckon with pressing issues for Americans. Consider the problem of illegal immigration: it’s not that Congress has created laws at odds with the public will – it’s that they have studiously avoided addressing the issue in any meaningful way at all. Certainly, there will be rare occasions where a democratic representative does not heed the will of the people. But we are now in a situation where our leaders routinely ignore the voice of popular majorities. And the advantages of incumbency often ensure that they pay no price for doing so.
Democracies have Free and Fair Methods for Choosing Leaders
As discussed above, a democracy does not necessarily require that elections are held at all. But in any society that does hold elections, an overwhelming majority of citizens must be confident that the electoral procedures are fair and uncorrupted – if such a society is to be accurately called a democracy. Recent polling shows that roughly half of the country believes there was significant fraud and manipulation in the 2020 presidential election. Significant evidence exists that shows that they are correct. But that doesn’t really matter. If half the public believes elections aren’t fair, then such a society cannot function as a true democracy, if for no other reason than that such beliefs actually change voting behaviors.
2020 remains a touchy subject for everyone, but there have been doubts about the legitimacy of at least 6 of the presidential elections in the last 60 years. It is widely held that Kennedy’s 1960 win was illegitimate. In 1992, Clinton won a mere 43% of the popular vote to win the office. Since 2000, when the Supreme Court stepped in to stop endless recounts in Florida to give G.W. Bush the presidency, leftists have insisted that election was “stolen.” Democrats even suggested Bush’s 2004 victory was illegitimate. Obama’s decisive victories likely wouldn’t have been possible without being anointed by the corporate press, who then worked overtime to defend him and manipulate public opinion to his political advantage. In 2016, the left claimed that Russia was responsible for Trump’s victory – a fiction that they leveraged to poison his administration from Day 1. All of this, in addition to the myriad of deliberate procedural abuses that were implemented across the country to generate a Biden “victory.” Whether you are left, right, or independent, chances are that you believe at least one presidential outcome in your lifetime wasn’t on the up and up. This is a feature of societies that we dismissively label as “banana republics.”
Institutional Neutrality and Public Life
Finally, as Jefferson and other founders observed, a free press is a prerequisite for functional democratic governance. The Athenian democracy had a place called the agora – a location that functioned as the heart of the public sphere. Athens was small enough that citizens didn’t need mediated ways to share information: the people could gather at the agora to deliberate political issues in real time and space. But in a nation of 350 million people, in a land that spreads from one ocean to another, citizens have no way to meet and engage in direct deliberation this way. We need mediated techniques for information sharing. This is the political function of a free press: if a democracy is to be ruled (and ruled effectively) by “the people,” then the people need to be well-informed of current events and public affairs.
But having a free press is not sufficient to support democratic governance. You also need a press that stridently avoids the business of shaping public opinions. The media’s job is to report events, not to serve as arbitrators of what information should (or shouldn’t) be shared with the public, and not to condition or manipulate the public’s response to certain events. If information is strategically withheld from the people, or if the information is supplied but “spun” in an attempt to control the effects of making it public, citizens are either uninformed, partially informed, or misinformed. None of these conditions can support a democracy.
Sadly, American mainstream media has very little interest in simply notifying people of events. Instead, almost all of their efforts are directed toward the forms of manipulation and opinion-shaping that I have described above. This development alone would be enough to disqualify the democratic credentials of a society. But it’s worse. Not only is the media committed to disseminating carefully-curated propaganda in an effort to remove the power of the demos (and consolidate social, economic, and political power for themselves) – virtually all major media outlets share the same ideological predispositions and the same political aspirations. This means that any “reporting” that is done is part of a larger effort to advance the prospects of left-progressive politics and undermine the prospects of American conservatives and other opponents.
Our media will do anything to further this effort. They routinely withhold or censor information that may have negative results for the left’s agenda. They deliberately amplify (and even create!) stories that will hurt their political rivals. On the rare occasions when alternative sources of information succeed in bringing to light news events that present obstacles for the left’s political aspirations, mainstream media and other institutions work together to discredit such reporting, labelling it as “misinformation, “disinformation,” or “baseless conspiracy theories.”
On its own, the coordinated, collusive left ideology that exists across the media would be enough to ensure that no serious person would confuse America for a democracy. But there are other institutions that wield significant power to influence political deliberations, and all of them – every single one – share the same political biases of the corporate media and work just as stridently to put a finger on the scale of “democratic” governance. Hollywood, Big Tech, corporate America, public K-12 schooling, colleges and universities – all of these spheres do whatever they can to propagandize the public so they will be receptive to the ideas, values, biases, candidates, and gods of the progressive left. The one institution that might be an exception is churches and synagogues. But attending religious services isn’t something that most (or even many) Americans do anymore, and beyond that, American churches are getting woker by the second – often in a last-ditch effort to stay culturally “relevant,” or merely to avoid being crushed.
Our Current Oligarchy and Our Future Democracy
In sum, almost every defining characteristic of democracies can no longer be attributed to the United States. But if America is not a democracy, then what is it? It is an oligarchy: a polity that is ruled by a small, empowered minority that is almost entirely unaccountable to the demos. Our ruling class is made up of politicians, celebrities, the professors of elite universities, and the executives of corporate America. Informally, our oligarchy is a hereditary one: that is, political power is passed from one generation of the ruling class to the next. This is achieved through elite schooling and ideological indoctrination. New people don’t (usually) enter positions of power because of who their father was. But the elders of the ruling class do breed their children to be the particular sort of person who will be granted access to oligarchic power. The children will grow up to be well-credentialed (if not necessarily well-educated), cosmopolitan, secular, philosophically-subjectivist, statists of a leftist bent who will zealously guard the oligarchy’s sole possession of political power.
Of course, our oligarchy still goes through the motions of democracy. Our leaders unequivocally express their undying devotion to democratic governance and the sacred status of “Our Democracy.” We hold elections. The baton of the executive is passed from one sitting public servant oligarch to the next. But most of this is just for show. After all, those in power must extol the virtues of democracy: most Americans still believe that the nation is (and should be) a democracy. Silence about the existence of the oligarchy is essential to maintaining it. And those elections? They are so utterly choreographed, so brazenly manipulated by the media’s power to shape opinion, so thoroughly dependent on vast amounts of capital, that they do not embody any transfer of real democratic power.
America is not a democracy. But it used to be. Perhaps it could be again. We should hope and pray that it will be again. But that won’t be enough. We will have to create it anew. We will have to achieve a new founding. This work can’t begin until the oligarchy we have now is dismantled. And we won’t have power to dismantle it until enough Americans recognize that it exists – and that it has stolen our political inheritance. It hurts to say that our country is not a democracy. But it is true. And our old democracy was founded on “self-evident” truths. The sooner we begin speaking and believing in these truths again, the sooner America’s democratic power can be reborn.