“We the people” have gotten a bad reputation in the annals of democratic theory. Thinkers from Alexander Hamilton to Alexis de Tocqueville have identified an excess of democracy as the greatest threat to U.S. democracy. As recently as 2019, the Harvard scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt fretted about “an overreliance on the ‘will of the people’”—a Hamilton phrase—in their bestseller, How Democracies Die. They appealed to U.S. political elites to be the “guardrails of democracy,” warning that only their “norms of toleration and restraint” will ensure that Americans “avoid the kind of partisan fight to the death that has destroyed democracies elsewhere.”

The sentiment is a nice one, but the will of the elite has hardly proved more reliable than that of the rabble. One result of the founders’ misplaced faith in the goodwill of politicians was the notorious U.S. Electoral College. Men of “discernment,” chosen by the states, would meet in a “college,” deliberate rationally, and select a president, Hamilton explained. This process would afford “a moral certainty, that the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

The fallacy of Hamilton’s assurance revealed itself as early as 1800. The partisan rivalry that wasn’t supposed to happen gripped these men of discernment in that year’s enormously bitter presidential election. The Electoral College failed to reach a decision, and the election went to the House of Representatives. After 35 stalemated votes, Thomas Jefferson emerged victorious, but not before political elites had steered the nation close to disaster. Other elite power struggles followed—the Civil War, the polarized 1890s, and a string of corrupt bargains. “Crackpots, extremists, sociopaths, and malcontents” can always emerge in political circles, noted the late Nelson W. Polsby of the University of California, Berkeley. But when establishment Republicans of the early 1950s gave traction to Senator Joseph McCarthy, the anticommunist crusader and witch-hunter, out of desperation to win elections at a time when their popularity was at a low ebb, they put the political system in peril.

Political elites turn out to make poor guardrails for democracy, not least because the top line in their job description is pursuing power. Only angels could be relied on to never abandon norms of toleration and restraint in that pursuit, and even politicians’ most fervent admirers have never called them that. In the United States in recent decades, Republican leaders have abandoned democratic norms particularly egregiously, but Democrats have pitched right in. What’s to stop them?

“We the people,” it turns out. A citizenry with less interest in power than in preserving democracy is the safeguard of last resort. Appearances to the contrary, the problem of polarization in the United States began not with voters but with political elites who drove their bases to extremes. The more directly responsive government can be made to the people, the safer democracy will be.

TOP-DOWN DIVISION

Americans hear a lot about increasing ideological polarization as the source of the country’s political troubles. They have their party elites to thank for this problem. Most voters in both parties now overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, and an equal role for women in politics and business—issues that once angrily split the nation. On issues citizens do disagree about, such as immigration, Americans are not further apart overall but have “sorted” into opposing Democratic and Republican camps. Political elites—politicians and their retinues, interest groups, campaign donors, and media that stir up readers by applauding one side—orchestrated this process. Elites polarized earlier, faster, and in a more extreme way than most voters. For example, in 2016, more than half of Republican voters supported policies to slow climate change—as they still do—but only one Republican presidential hopeful out of 13 did. That was Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, before his turn to Trumpism. Ideological polarization in Congress began in the 1950s with Democrats trending left, and it took off in the 1970s with Republicans taking a sharp right. But among regular voters, the portion who identified as strongly partisan in American National Election Studies polls declined steadily from the 1950s through the 1970s, beginning to rise only in the 1980s.

Partisan polarization isn’t necessarily a problem, but it becomes one when political leaders enlist it in a struggle for power. Republican politicians have treated their side of the competition as such for decades, taking a scorched-earth approach to politics widely traced to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Gingrich does bear plenty of blame, but the story has two sides, and it’s a story of factions, not individuals.

Democrats controlled Congress throughout the 1970s. For much of this time, committee chairs negotiated bills with their Republican counterparts, in part in order to break through factional stalemates within the Democratic Party. But after reforms that allowed the Democratic caucus to depose committee chairs it disliked, such bipartisanship became a political liability. Democrats increasingly shut Republican House leaders out of decision-making, and young Republican representatives lost hope of any significant future in the House.

The problem of polarization in the United States began not with voters but with political elites.

Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide turned the Senate Republican—and the Democratic House irascibly partisan. In one incident, in 1985, Indiana certified the election of a Republican representative in a narrow vote, but Democrats refused to seat him, forced a recount, and finally declared that the Democrat had won. Republicans exploded. Elected Speaker two years later, Jim Wright of Texas demanded loyalty from all Democrats, threatened those who balked, and excluded Republicans from committee negotiations. When a 1987 budget bill was defeated and, according to the rules, couldn’t be voted on again the same day, he adjourned the House at 3:05 PM, then reconvened it at 3:15 PM and declared it a new day.

As far back as 1978, Gingrich had told supporters that they were fighting “a war for power.” He wielded accusations of corruption much the way McCarthy had brandished allegations of communist sympathies. Trashing Democrats, Congress, and government itself as corrupt attracted the media spotlight, catalyzed Gingrich’s career, and boosted Republicans toward power. Just as in McCarthy’s era, the Republican leadership warmed to this manipulation. House Minority Leader Robert Michel of Illinois initially recoiled at Gingrich’s pugilistic approach, but as the newcomer notched victories, Michel told colleagues that he supported “guerrilla warfare” against Democrats. Then Gingrich’s gambit to impeach President Bill Clinton backfired, costing Republicans votes, and Gingrich became expendable. He was forced to resign as Speaker. His methods, however, have outlasted him.

The increasingly zero-sum battle for court appointments reflects this devolution in legislative politics. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the Democratic Senate used the filibuster to block judicial appointments. When the Republicans did the same under Barack Obama, Democrats changed the rules to let a majority confirm appointments, except to the Supreme Court. Under Donald Trump, Republicans changed the rules again to allow their majority to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. In general, to judge from the number of cloture motions to end filibusters, which have risen from zero or one per Congress in the 1950s to 328 in the most recent one, congressional elites have scored a new record in mutual antagonism.

The U.S. Senate, April 2020
The U.S. Senate, April 2020
Tom Brenner / Reuters

Pleading with political elites to observe norms of what Levitsky and Ziblatt term “toleration and restraint” works until it doesn’t. By definition, norms are not enforceable: once a power struggle takes root, they crumble one after another, sucking elite politics into a destructive vortex. No political system that lets small groups vie for power is immune from this dynamic.

It is true that animosity between nonelite Democrats and Republicans—a far more serious problem than ideological difference—has dangerously worsened. In a poll of 500 Democrats, Republicans, and independents, the Boston Globe columnist Diane Hessan found that Democrats ridicule Republicans as racist, uneducated, misogynistic, and deplorable, while Republicans pillory Democrats as hateful, radical, hysterical, crazy, and extreme.

But elites necessarily drive such animosities. Private beliefs, no matter how spiteful, do little civic damage as long as they remain private. They become publicly damaging only when elites give followers permission to shout them and act on them. There would have been no attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6—or it would have just fizzled—had then President Donald Trump not promoted it.

DEMOCRACY’S MANY DEATHS

Attacks on cooperative norms have crippled or destroyed democracy in such nations as Venezuela, Hungary, Russia, and Turkey—but not, or at least not yet, in the United States. Why should that be?

According to Adam Przeworski, a scholar of democracy who grew up in communist Poland, there’s good reason why transitional democracies in poor nations repeatedly fail but developed democracies in rich nations survive. In comparatively wealthy and more egalitarian nations, the middle classes—and, it should be added, those aspiring to join them—support democracy against authoritarian challenges because they are less interested in seizing power than in ensuring an already secure existence into the future. Overturning the rule of law threatens that existence and offers the middle classes no conceivable gains worth the price. In poorer countries, where economic and political stakes are higher, dueling factions may so deeply fear their opponents that they care more about grabbing power today than preserving democracy tomorrow.

Thus, in 2020, most Americans saw their interests better served by preserving democracy than by sweeping it away out of fear or animus. Democratic primary voters rushed to then candidate Joe Biden because they believed he anchored the rule of law, and for the same reason, moderate and independent voters swung toward him by 15 percentage points in the general election. Likewise, election officials in 10,500 voting jurisdictions, whether in red states or blue, counted votes fairly and accurately under horrendous circumstances, and judges dismissed Trump’s ungrounded complaints about election fraud. The same concern for the rule of law led 489 retired generals, admirals, and security officials—nonpoliticians all—to warn the public about the dangers of reelecting Trump and brought government officials to testify to his wrongdoing at considerable personal risk.

Strengthening democracy requires letting the people shape policy proposals.

The legitimacy of democracies depends on belief in the political system itself. In the United States, that belief has survived, but it has also taken a beating, mainly because so many Americans perceive their government as unresponsive and unaccountable. Both young voters Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont inspired on the left and older ones who flocked to Trump on the right were angry because decades of neoliberal government had promoted a form of globalization and deregulation that created exorbitant wealth at the top and hurt many others. These groups felt not only harmed economically but marginalized politically.

In most European nations, proportional-representation voting systems, which allot parties seats in parliament in rough proportion to the votes they receive, have somewhat defused this anger by giving minorities more voice. These systems offer political avenues for class or identity groups to advocate more effectively than in a two-party system, notably for better health care, schools, routes to advancement, and pensions. The advanced democracies with the angriest radical-right movements—the United States, the United Kingdom, and, to a lesser degree, France—are those in which the winner takes all. Thus, in a three-way race, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a huge parliamentary majority in 2019 with only 43.6 percent of the vote.

The solution to U.S. democracy’s discontents is not for political elites to exercise more control over the system they have successfully driven to extremes. Rather, it is more and better democracy. To that end, the country might abolish its Electoral College in a hundred years or so. In the shorter term, ranked-choice voting would go a long way toward making government more responsive, and it would just require ordinary legislation. Citizens could then choose from a variety of parties and list them in order of preference. If one’s first choice loses, one’s vote would not be wasted but would go to one’s second choice. The two main parties would be forced to compete with, for example, Democratic Socialists, Greens, Libertarians—even a MAGA party—and to work toward constructive compromise in Congress.

Strengthening democracy and countering destructive elite power struggles requires letting the people shape policy proposals, not just choose between prepackaged partisan offerings. When politicians in predominately Catholic Ireland failed to resolve the toxic issue of abortion, they resorted to convoking an assembly of 99 randomly selected citizens to discuss the issue and propose a solution. One who participated told The Guardian, “The Citizens’ Assembly took the debate out of this realm of fearful self-interested calculation and into a forum where evidence and experience could take centre stage.” The assembly recommended revoking the constitutional prohibition on abortion and proposed a law to replace it. In a referendum, voters approved the change by 66.6 percent. Such assemblies are now a mainstay of Irish political life; and the name of the organization that started it all? We the Citizens.

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  • JONATHAN SCHLEFER is a Senior Researcher at Harvard Business School and the author of Palace Politics: How the Ruling Party Brought Crisis to Mexico.
  • More By Jonathan Schlefer