Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University, where she is also the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
What we witnessed at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was not something breaking — it had been broken for a while. It was dry tinder set ablaze.
For me, the first alarm for the fracturing of our democratic institutions came in 2012, when a poll revealed that public approval of Congress had dropped to just 9%. I’m a student of the early modern design of constitutional democracies, and one of the first principles established by theorists from that period was that the legislature is the first and rightly predominant branch of government. Neither the executive nor judicial branch gets that pride of place. This is because the legislature has the job of articulating the voice of the people.
If the people approved of their own voice at a rate of just 9%, that’s a sign that our democracy is broken. The question, then, is what we can do about it.
When Democracy Can’t Govern
Our democratic crisis is not merely about popular attachment to traditions or institutions. It’s also about performance, as the handling of the coronavirus pandemic — much worse than in other countries — makes abundantly clear. Approval and legitimacy fall away when performance falls away.
Just how bad has the coronavirus response been? A network of scholars recently produced a study sorting the performance of governments around the globe during the pandemic into three categories: “control” countries like China or South Korea, where strong centralization and health authorities managed the situation aggressively and quickly; “consensus” countries like Germany and Australia, constitutional democracies with sturdy roots of solidarity and effective governance that enabled them to avoid political polarization; and “chaos” countries like the U.S. or Brazil, huge and multicultural democracies in the throes of populist politics.
In the “chaos” countries, political polarization inhibited effective decision-making and communication. In the U.S. in particular, we were unable to execute a known playbook for how to deal with such a pandemic. If the U.S. had the same mortality level as Australia, we would have had only about 15,000 COVID deaths at this point. Our chaotic response revealed an absence of effective governance, a signal of the breakage of our democracy.
There are other signs. One is that barely 30% of Americans under 40 consider it essential to live in a democracy. For the cohort born before World War II, about 70% consider it essential to live in a democracy. I remember on the day after the 2016 election, at my class on ancient and medieval political philosophy, a student stood up and shouted, “You have abandoned us! With this election result, your generation has just abandoned us!”
At some fundamental level, we are failing at a project of generational succession and transition, failing to hand down an appreciation for and understanding of democracy, a sense of it having value in our lives. From climate change to racial injustice to widening inequality, young people, in particular, see our institutions of governance failing to respond to these threats, and they see a broken system being handed to them just as those problems have become most dire. Their disaffection is not irrational. Their experience is connected to a sense of disempowerment and abandonment, if not downright betrayal, by elites and institutions.
Deadly Fight Over Voting Rights
In the presidential primaries in 2016, institutionalists (Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush) faced off against insurrectionists (Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump). The case the insurrectionists made was that the whole system is broken, more or less, and that it needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. What both Sanders and Trump represented was the widespread experience of disempowerment and the demand for dramatic change. They demanded we recognize that the technocratic management of the economy and society over the last few decades has left a lot of people feeling that the government is ineffective in responding to their needs. In the face of that demand, the institutionalist response was, to put it mildly, uncertain and problematic. As a result, we got Trump as president.
Unfortunately, this dynamic between the institutionalists and insurrectionists hasn’t yet generated a productive vision for how to reform our politics, nor shown us how to ensure that our institutions can both deliver effective governance and empower people. Instead, what we’ve gotten is a knock-down-drag-out fight between two parties for control over our broken institutions.
Fast forward to last year, at the beginning of the pandemic. The technical knowledge of how to succeed at COVID suppression was available in the U.S. It was delivered to the White House and Congress by all kinds of public health professionals and policymakers. In fact, the Democrats in the House put a well-considered pandemic policy of testing, contact tracing and support for quarantine and isolation in the HEROES Act, which they passed in May. Yet the HEROES Act didn’t move in the Senate: It just sat and sat, with Senate Republicans unwilling to move it forward.
Why did the Senate GOP delay the bill, allowing the COVID crisis to unfold into a national disaster? It wasn’t because they were against the public health measures included in it. What they opposed was the package of election security and integrity measures that the Democrats had included in the legislation. Those measures would ensure that mail-in voting, which was long overdue but suddenly urgent because of the pandemic, could be done in the most robust and secure fashion possible.
Those voting innovations were incredibly important for ensuring the continuity of our electoral system in a moment of crisis. For people on the right, however, they were equivalent to changing the rules in the middle of the game. This was a bare-knuckle calculation about votes. The policy was good and right, but it was presumed that it would bring electoral advantage to Democrats and not Republicans.
Let’s be clear what this means: During our pandemic year, when we urgently needed a quick response to a rapidly spreading virus, the United States had one of the biggest fights over voting rights that we’ve ever had. And it was a fight that cost us half a million lives.
This fight over voting rights — whether or not we make voting as easy as possible — is the fundamental battle in our politics right now. It is happening against a backdrop of a world in which both the left and right have experienced disempowerment. On the left, the narrative is that disempowerment flows from corporate greed. On the right, the narrative points to the domination of liberal media, liberal universities, liberal technology companies and liberal global capital.
The fire that was lit on Jan. 6 was possible because of the problems of disempowerment flowing from our failures of governance and from our institutionalists and their technocratic approach to politics. So yes, on Jan. 6, we saw white supremacists in action, but they were taking advantage of a more widely spread disaffection that doesn’t necessarily merit description in terms of white supremacy. We can only understand that moment by thinking more broadly about the experiences of disempowerment and alienation that characterize our population across political boundaries.
Recommitting To Universal Suffrage
In June last year, a bipartisan commission at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report that was the culmination of two years of research, including listening sessions held all over the country. Everywhere we turned, we heard Americans convey an experience of non-responsive political institutions, of feeling as if they didn’t have an equal say or an equal vote. What we heard was that there is a vicious cycle in our national life. Because our institutions are non-responsive or don’t provide equal representation, people are left feeling disempowered, which they respond to by withdrawing from participation.
As they withdraw, they stop participating in the other organizations of civil society that pull people into the political process. When that happens, people get less exposure to others who are different, who have different views. This, in turn, makes Americans feel increasingly distant and alienated from each other — a fact borne out by polling that shows Americans’ distrust has increased not just in our institutions, but also in one another. This decline in trust has then further fed a general erosion of a culture of mutual commitment to each other and to our shared constitutional democracy.
One of our report’s recommendations is to increase the size of the House of Representatives. Before the 1920s, the size of Congress had always grown in parallel with the size of the national population. However, when the 1920 census showed for the first time that the majority of the population lived in cities (which were filled with immigrants), Congress (which then, as now, gave disproportionate weight to native-born rural voters) refused to reapportion representation on that basis. Eventually, a “compromise” was struck in 1929 that permitted reapportionment after the 1930 election but capped the House at 435 seats.
That resulted in a fundamental erosion of the legitimacy of our electoral system, because the Electoral College is constituted of a combination of the number of seats in Congress and the Senate. Allowing Congress to grow (which, unlike abolishing the Electoral College, does not require a Constitutional amendment) would allow us to get back to a place where the relative weight of highly populous and less populous places gives us a reasonable mechanism for decision-making. That would minimize the risk of a president being elected with a minority of the popular vote.
In addition to addressing the legitimacy crisis of the Electoral College, increasing the size of the House would also reduce the size of each representative’s constituencies, enabling members of Congress to be more responsive to their voters. While some people might fear a larger Congress would be more unwieldly, it’s worth noting that both the British Parliament and the German Bundestag are bigger than our Congress, even though their populations are both less than a third the size of America’s. It is indeed possible to be bigger and remain functional.
A second recommendation from our report is to shift to universal voting — to treat voting in the same way that we treat jury service: as not just a right, but a duty. In Australia, voting has been mandatory for almost a century, with a minor fine applied to anyone who fails to vote without an excuse. “Mandatory” in Australia does not mean that Australians are obliged to vote for one of the candidates on the ballot. They’re free to submit an empty ballot. The goal is to create an ethos, a sense of a duty to participate in civic life that is reinforced structurally.
Increasing the size of the House doesn’t clearly advantage either party, so this reform could potentially get through as a good government reform that could appeal to both sides. It received support from both sides of the political spectrum in our commission work. Universal voting via a federal decision might be challenging at the moment, but states could introduce this and start setting a new standard for how we approach voting in the country.
Universal voting would be valuable for a number of reasons. When voting is mandatory, candidates don’t have an incentive to campaign with the goal of demoralizing their opponents’ voters so that those voters won’t turn out. Right now, our elections are full of negative campaigning, partly because one of the purposes of negative ads is to try to discourage your opponent’s voters from even going to the polls. But with mandatory voting, that incentive falls away.
But here’s the more important point about universal voting. Part of the reason for the botched COVID response is that it got caught up in a fundamental fight about voting rights. Universal voting would bypass controversies over voter suppression and assert our commitment to universal suffrage. As with jury duty, we would no longer fight over who is or is not going to participate, only over how to make sure that everybody can fulfill their duty.
Universal voting would put an end to the most bitter, deep and profoundly important political fight in our country right now. It’s how we move on from the insurrection on Jan. 6. It addresses the fundamental sense of disempowerment that propelled the riot by improving the effectiveness and empowerment of our governance. Then we can get back to the job of governing on behalf of everybody.