The roots of America’s democracy problem

The roots of America’s democracy problem

America has a democracy problem. Take a look at this chart. Over there on the left, that’s how many people each member of the US House represented in 1790. There’s now one representative for every
747 thousand Americans. That makes the US a crazy undemocratic outlier internationally. But it also makes us different than what we were supposed to be. The founding fathers, they wanted that number to stay small. James Madison wanted to make sure that it would never be more than one House member for 50,000 people. I bring this up because it’s one of a lot of ways in which our system has become different than what the founders intended. Which maybe is ok – I think it’s ok – but it’s also different than what we may have intended or what we may want. People ask me sometimes what I actually worry about in American politics – what makes me afraid – and it’s this: A political system needs to be legitimate to be stable. People need to feel that it’s fair. But is that true right now? Two out of the past three presidents lost the popular vote for the first term in office – two out of three. House elections are utterly warped by gerrymandering and geography. The Senate gives six hundred and twenty-three thousand people in Vermont as much power as more than 19 million people in New York. And meanwhile, five dudes in robes,
who are politically appointed, by parties looking for ideologues – they made it legal for billionaires to spend as much money buying elections as they want. And here’s where undemocratic becomes actually dangerous: The American political system was built around the fear of disunity. The fear was that the states would pull apart. We weren’t supposed to have political parties. The founding fathers thought they were bad – or at least they did before they started some. But now we do have political parties, and the competition, the core competition, the disunity in this country, is between them. We don’t worry about the political divisions between big states and small states, we worry about the ones between red states and blue states. And the particular ways in which America is undemocratic is making that core competition less fair, is making that political disunity more serious. The reason for that is not one anybody saw coming. Democrats cluster in big cities.
Republicans are more concentrated in rural areas. The average state is six points more Republican in the country as a whole. Which gives that party a huge advantage in the Senate. and in the House, well Democrats are feeling pretty good about the House right now. But to win the House, they couldn’t win by one or two or three percent. They had to win a landslide – six or seven or eight percent. Or else they’d still be in the minority because of gerrymandering and geography. And Republicans, they’re using that advantage in elections to write the rules to give themselves more advantages in elections. They’re using it to win the Supreme Court for a generation, and that Supreme Court in turn is giving them rulings on gerrymandering, on money in politics, on
unions, on voter rights that are helping them with more power. As the left realizes it’s playing a rigged game they’re already becoming determined to rewrite the rules. If you want to see where this is going, look at this book by David Faris called ‘It’s Time for Democrats to Fight Dirty.’
It’s a playbook the left can use to get more power without having to change the Constitution – and they can do a lot. He recommends statehood for DC and Puerto Rico, he recommends breaking up California into seven states in order to add at least a dozen new Democratic Senators. He tells Democrats to pack the
Supreme Court by increasing the number of justices in order to crack the
conservative majority. He wants winner-take-all elections to be replaced with ranked-choice voting in the House and to increase the number of Representatives to 870. And look – some of these ideas they’re actually just good ideas. It would make politics more representative – I mean DC and Puerto Rico should clearly be states that’s just fair. And then some, like the California thing, they’re just power grabs. But that’s the thing, as Democrats feel the right has been engaged in one long power grab, they’re starting to feel like suckers for not
grabbing more power themselves. And it’s why you see the rise of street fighter, do-anything Democrats like lawyer Michael Avenatti. When they go low I say we hit harder. Even Eric Holder, President Obama’s
former attorney general, has taken up the battle cry. When they go low we kick them. That’s what this new Democratic Party’s about. But imagine just imagine Democrats take power and run some version of the Faris playbook in 2020 or 2024. There will be an equal and opposite reaction among Republicans. Now the system will feel unfair to them. And you could just see a cycle of escalation here that destroys the basic legitimacy on which American politics rests. We need something better than that. We need more than power grabs on both sides. We need actual principles we can use to build a political system that works better. We treat our political system as if it were etched on stone tablets and carried by George Washington down from Mount Sinai. But it wasn’t. We’ve changed it a lot, but we haven’t changed it recently. It’s weird – the further we get from the founding, the more afraid we are to touch the system. There are 27 amendments to the Constitution before ’92. There have been zero since
then and there’s not like this one on the horizon. That’s not how we do things
anywhere else. States routinely amend and even rewrite their constitutions. On average each state has had three constitutions and Louisiana, they’ve had 11. It’s only at the national level that we’ve come to believe our political system should be frozen in amber. That however we’re doing things is how we should keep doing them. And puzzlingly, we’ve decided that not when we think our political system is great, but at the exact time that Americans are losing faith in our political institutions. I suspect our true belief is not that our
system of government is performing so well that it should be immune to change, but that we that we are performing so poorly that we don’t trust ourselves to change it. Which is sad, but this is our political system. We can’t run away in self loathing. It needs to work for the country we actually have. We can’t have an old compromise between states leading to a civil war between parties, but to change it we need a theory of what makes a political system legitimate in the first place and that means we need some criteria by which to judge it. Robert Dahl, one of the most respected political scientists of the 20th century, he believed the ideal US Constitution would one, maintain democracy. Two, protect fundamental rights. Three, ensure fairness among citizens Four, encourage forming consensus and five, provide a government that is effective in solving problems. I like that as criteria. I think that would make sense. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. What you need then is to come up with something better. The one thing we can’t do is just stay still. America is in an unstable equilibrium. Its current political system is producing outcomes they feel illegitimate to the left. Any effort to reform that system, feels like it would produce outcomes that feel illegitimate to the right. We need something deeper than that. We need something that would feel legitimate it to both sides and would actually work. We can’t stay right where we are, so that means the answer is simple. We must move.

100 thoughts on “The roots of America’s democracy problem

  1. If you want more analysis and insight straight from Ezra himself, subscribe to the Ezra Klein Show podcast! New episodes each Monday:

  2. Never understood how the US calls itself democratic wen it's basically always a two party system these days. Meh. American politics makes for great late night TV comedy.
    In Canada we have at least four prominent parties. Five for the times we consider the Bloc Quebecois in the situation. Makes it harder for any current leader as they don't have just one sworn enemy to deal with.

  3. An Brazilian opinion:
    The best thing of America’s constitution is the difficulty to change it. In Brazil, in 30 yers of constitution we had 129 new amendment since the constitutional assembly. And the country is a mess.

  4. Democracy is broken in so many ways. It would work best if all involved had similar understanding of the topics that they are working on. You don't even need a high school diploma to become a senator. You can also vote even if you can barely read. I have even seen seniors with dementia vote and they don't even know what day of the week it is. These people with dementia sometimes believe Reagan is still in office and vote for his party. Politicians should be the best and brightest of are society but the reality is that they are far from it. I don't even understand why we need democracy at all. Most of the time, less than half the population votes and the country seems to manage in spite of such a low interest in this flawed system. I wonder would happen if not one person voted? I bet life would go on, without too much turmoil.

  5. Republicans can't get much more power grabby than they already are. Republicans only ever cry foul play so the other side backs off and they can use that same foul play for themselves, they live in perpetual hypocrisy.

  6. Great video guys ! I only notice maybe oke mistake at minute 1:51: the Republicans won in the state of Kentucky in 2016 , they didn't ? However this video is beautiful! 🤣🤣

  7. Way to just gloss over the fact Obama promised hope and change and gave us Drones and Guantanamo Bay. Or the Dems making the Trump presidency inevitable.

    It's not just Republican's fault that we feel like the system isn't fair, it's everyone's fault, and that's why it feels SO unfair. Even the left is waging war against poor people every time they dedicate their time to niche identity issues or impeaching the president instead of income inequality, or the rich not paying taxes, or minimum wage never increasing enough to catch up with inflation, or war spending, there's so much the Dem's could be doing to win our votes that the very obviously do not care to do.

  8. The historical perspective is very interesting.

    The conflict between the political parties masks the class struggle, which can be denied rhetorically, but not in reality. It becomes all the more implacable the longer its existence is denied by the media. Rural, industrial, and urban areas also compete for financing. The “system” is only as fair as the people who run it – and they AREN'T.

  9. This guy obviously hasn't read much history for the time period right before the ratification of the US Constitution. What he is proposing here would surely tear the country apart before fixing anything. The bit that many people seem to miss is that without the provisions in the constitution, such as the electoral college and bill of rights, there wouldn't be a United States because the colonial states would have never ratified it nor would any of the territories become part of it. Have any of you even read the Federalist Papers? This here is just another example of blaming the constitution for problems that are really only problems because politicians are not observing (defending) the constitution. If they followed the original intend of the federal government as set forth by the constitution then we wouldn't have this mess or a big monster federal government that so many people think is the solution for everything.

  10. It's not a democracy. It's a republic.

    And that's exactly the problem. The system was meant to preserve the power of the elites from the beginning.

  11. Remembering when, Patrice O’Neal presented the idea of breaking up the country. In these times, it doesn’t seem far off.

  12. this man trying to tell us it's unfair for there to be more Republicans than Democrats. And bro. There has to be some way of deciding on a close call and of course GOP will always win. ITS A DEMOCRACY.

  13. We were never planned as a Democracy but a Republic. Democrats have a hard time learning and understanding the definition. Democracy can be expressed as "Mob Rule". There is a reason that the founding fathers set up an electoral college and that is so, states like Idaho have the same say as California. Which being a Californian I would vote for a breakup of the state into several new states. The founding fathers were afraid of a low information public that was swayed by emotion and lies. Guess what, that is just exactly what we have now. The left is the most dangerous force in our nation today. It will tear the nation apart in the name of "fairness" if we allow it. There is much trouble on the horizon and I am not sure we can weather it. I am afraid the Great American experiment is failing, just as Alexis de Tocqueville predicted.

  14. "democrats cluster in big cities, republicans are more concentrated in rural areas" – exactly why we need an electoral college, which you forgot to mention is a crucial part of our DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

  15. I hope he's not ignorant of the fact that the United States was never meant to be a democracy, in fact, the word democracy isn't in the Constitution or any of the amendments but the word Republic is. We are supposed to be a limited constitutional Republic. People who claim to support the minority would be in favor of a republic over democracy. In a democracy the Mob Rules, In a Republic the minority is protected by the law.

  16. If we want any new amendments. We have to get rid of those Commiecrats and Nazipublicans! Or at least allow third parties like the Libertarian, Green, and Constitution Parties.

  17. I have an idea Reconstruction should have reconstructed literary everything. Like you can’t create a whole new society in 12 years. The Economy effects the political system so when an Economic powerhouse and America gains 4 million new citizens and not change and develop over 12 years.

  18. But the Republicans DO NOT want a more fair and representative forn of government because they know they'd LOSE ! ! ! That's why they cheat !

  19. We just need to get rid of the single district representation and move towards proportional representation on a federal level

  20. Politicians need two things to gain political power. Money to campaign, and the majority of the moves. We provide the votes, and whoever has enough wealth provide the money. So we have 1/2 the power, and the wealthy have the other 1/2. If we create a system where the money is provided in the same way the vote is – small amounts distributed across all constituents, then we get all the power. A constitutional amendment to establish this system is what we need.

  21. Republicans when the democrats win:


  22. Mandatory third party representation will solve 90% of the problems. No individual party can control more than 1/2 of the seats, and there must be a minimum of 3 parties. All votes must pass a 2/3 majority, forcing negotiation between parties. No change can be a good thing if the majority wants to rule with an iron fist over minorities, and minorities will have extra power to stop a ruling majority, as disagreeing minorities can occupy the power of two separate parties in a percentage greater than 50%

  23. usa does not have a democracy problem. because it is not a democracy.
    perhaps it has an elective aristocracy problem, but you are unlikely to think of a solution if you imagine you have democracy, and don't.

  24. Vermont has two senate votes because that way they can be equally impactful (or at least attempt to be) as New York City

  25. I am sure all democrates would agree but this video is still completely ineffectual at identifying actions that can bring about required changes. A path needs to be drawn that will allow republicans to jump on board as well.
    Maybe a new non-partisan independant president could be used to kick off a new era of US politics?

  26. The left needs to use the tactics of Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales.

    Abrasive populist rhetoric and stacking the institutional deck against right-wingers and neoliberals.

  27. Democracy and rule of law is a political system that was dreamed up by a group of devout Protestants in early American history. Without higher education level and majority of citizens being Protestant Christians, that system can fall into chaos. It was beautifully ideal and alluring for many people around the world because it upholds the dignity and equality human race deeply desires. But it is simply a recipe for disaster if the society does not have the main characteristics for it. Nowadays Americans thought it is just a political system that can be replicated or even exported! Wrong! You cannot take out major organs and demand the body to function! This political system you Americans have is not going to work for too long, since your Christian population is on the decline and your main stream ideas seem to look down on Christians.

  28. Dude. America is not a democracy… It wasn't meant to be. It's a constitutional republic. Why are you keep pushing this weird idea that the U.S. was supposed to be a democracy?

  29. The 2 problem for democracy is corrupt official and lack of knowledge when it comes economy. Without strong economy services from government is impossible.

  30. I don't agree with one assessment: that if the Democrats will go for a power grab it will unfair to Republicans. Firstly, Republicans will consider any system that doesn't favour them as unfair. Secondly, right wingers everywhere, be it in UK, France, Germany or Poland don't and never did care about "fairness" they only cared about having power, by whatever means – look no further than Nixon or Trump. They don't care about the rules, about civility, about the law or basic decency. So in all honesty – f**k them and how they feel. You can't win the fight if your opponent keeps punching you in the nuts and the judge turns a blind eye to it. You need to punch faster and harder and kick the referee in the nuts so he knows his place.

  31. Meh, my only issue is that a lot of these 'problems' fall completely within what should be the control of the state, thus not something that should be considered on a federal level at all. If people want their state to count their votes differently, then do it in your state first and prove it is successful so other state populations will seek to adopt it. All I see right now are people whining and not doing anything, because they think making elections more 'fair' where they hold power will inherently help the opposing party in the short run.

  32. 5 seconds in: "Take a look at this chart." Chart isn't properly labelled with anything on the left side to tell me how much anything has increased.

  33. You guys need to get people to vote on things rather than their representatives. We’re in an age where you can gather useful data on specific ways that voters feel. And the actual opinions of each voter on each topic is attainable. Granted referendums can backfire if there isn’t enough info and education(brexit anyone?). But why would the machines in power give up absolute power…

  34. Good video but why does this guy keep leaning towards me. Paired with that weird lighting, I feel like I'm about to be beat up.

  35. Ezra you're so full of manure it's coming out of your ears! Democratic presidents appoint just as extreme Supreme Court justices as any Republican ever has.
    And YOU quoted America's #1 scumbag Michael Avennatti!!!!

  36. Thousands of $20 bills flew across eight lanes of traffic in
    Indianapolis after they fell off a Brinks armored truck when the rear
    door flew open Wednesday. A highway camera shows traffic on I-70 in
    Indianapolis at a complete standstill as an estimated $600,000 in cash
    littered the highway. Jasmine Cooper was driving her grandmother to the
    airport when she saw the cash flying all over the place. “I was in shock
    at first, I’ve never seen anything like this,” she told Inside Edition.

  37. Thousands of $20 bills flew across eight lanes of traffic in
    Indianapolis after they fell off a Brinks armored truck when the rear
    door flew open Wednesday. A highway camera shows traffic on I-70 in
    Indianapolis at a complete standstill as an estimated $600,000 in cash
    littered the highway. Jasmine Cooper was driving her grandmother to the
    airport when she saw the cash flying all over the place. “I was in shock
    at first, I’ve never seen anything like this,” she told Inside Edition.

  38. Thousands of $20 bills flew across eight lanes of traffic in
    Indianapolis after they fell off a Brinks armored truck when the rear
    door flew open Wednesday. A highway camera shows traffic on I-70 in
    Indianapolis at a complete standstill as an estimated $600,000 in cash
    littered the highway. Jasmine Cooper was driving her grandmother to the
    airport when she saw the cash flying all over the place. “I was in shock
    at first, I’ve never seen anything like this,” she told Inside Edition.

  39. The problem with this, Ezra, is that instead of thinking about how to increase democracy, both sides increase authoritarianism. It's easier (in the short term) to force people to your position than to win them, especially if your opponent is eager to do the same to you.

  40. It's not about self-loathing: we don't want to open the Constitution to change because we're scared the other side will–as usual–grab the reins and make everything a lot worse than it is now.

  41. A "Two Party" system will always be a self perpetuating problem. "Them-and-us", my turn to be in power, right v. wrong, your idea does not fit with our party, etc. etc.. This is also a UK problem and the solution is to change the system. This is not going to happen as "Turkeys don't vote for Christmas" . (see above). Ranked voting/single transferable vote, all this does is give power to the voter. The rich and powerful have always had the power and they will not want to change.

  42. So you wanna change the system because the republicans went extreme?! The republicans are the problem they need to change!

  43. The ancient Greeks were onto something: select legislators by lottery. No campaigning. No elections. No fund-raising. Actual democracy. Anyone willing to serve in a town council, a state assembly or the national legislature would have to pass a civil service examination to confirm competency. Then, their name would go into the lottery to fill vacancies as terms of office expire.

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