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It’s the Institutions, Stupid

The Real Roots of America’s Political Crisis

A house divided: Trump and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi before the State of the Union address, February 2019 Reuters

American democracy, most observers seem to agree, is in crisis. Some pin the blame on President Donald Trump, citing his assaults on the country’s democratic norms and institutions—the electoral system, the independent judiciary, the rule of law, and the media. “This is not normal,” former President Barack Obama declared in a September 2018 speech rebuking his successor. Others see Trump as merely the culmination of a long decline in American democracy, a story that began decades ago with growing political polarization, congressional infighting, and economic and social inequality. Whatever the precise cause, however, there is a consensus about the effect: a broken system.

Yet the real story of American democracy is not one of disrepair but one of partial repair. The problems that ail it today have been brought about not by neglect but by incomplete efforts to improve it in the context of changing political realities. The result is a democracy that is simultaneously inclusive and ineffective.

For all the talk of unresponsive politicians and apathetic voters, the democracy part of the U.S. political system may be in the best shape ever. Voter suppression remains a major problem, but other trends suggest health. The 2018 midterm elections boasted higher turnout than any midterm contest since 1966. Turnout among voters aged 18 to 29 was up by 16 percentage points compared with where it stood in the 2014 midterms. What’s more, voters sent a remarkably heterogeneous cast of politicians into power. The new Congress is the most ethnically and racially diverse ever, with many new members becoming the first of their identity group to represent their state. In Colorado, voters elected the first openly gay governor in U.S. history. The current crop of 2020 presidential hopefuls includes six women, six people of color, and one openly gay man. The types of Americans long excluded from the halls of power are entering them in greater numbers than ever before. Things are far from perfect, but they are better.

Accompanying this more inclusive political system, however,

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