The Ten Pillars of American Democracy
Has the United States Become a Pseudo-Democracy?
The fundamental pillars are of two types—preconditions and the structure of government. The preconditions are a strong middle class, a Constitutional framework supporting equal justice, a vibrant civil society, an informed citizenry, and a strong belief in democracy. The necessary governmental institutions are an independent judiciary, a legislature with integrity, a competent bureaucracy, free and fair elections, and an executive operating with civility.
According to the Mass Society Paradigm, democracy works best when the voices of the people are aggregated into coherent programs by political parties, which seek majority approval and then demand action by government to solve problems, with the information media performing an oversight over the political process and government actions. But in the United States, some individuals are so culturally desperate that they have supported politicians favoring extreme measures to end democracy by paying attention to alternative concepts of reality. If ever achieved, corrective measures will take decades.
Table Of Contents
- Advance Praise
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Chapter 1 The Dilemma of Democracy
- Chapter 2 Socioeconomic Pillar
- Chapter 3 Constitutional Pillar
- Chapter 4 Judicial Independence Pillar
- Chapter 5 Legislative Integrity Pillar
- Chapter 6 Election Integrity Pillar
- Chapter 7 Bureaucratic Independence Pillar
- Chapter 8 Presidential Civility Pillar
- Chapter 9 Civil Society Pillar
- Chapter 10 Informed Citizen Pillar
- Chapter 11 Democratic Ideology Pillar
- Chapter 12 Summary and Conclusion
- A Violation of Laws Encouraged by President Donald Trump
- B Republican Congressional Votes to Repudiate President Donald Trump
- C Active Hate Groups, 2020
- D Trump’s Hitlerian Behavior
Democracy exists to the extent that ten conditions (pillars) are maintained as a vibrant infrastructure. Hitherto, books on the backsliding of American democracy have focused on just one or two pillars. The present effort is a comprehensive assessment that for some readers will save the effort to read ten or more books on the subject while for others will open the window to more focused analyses of specific pillars.
For example, the civil society pillar is necessary so that the needs of the people can be heard by pressure groups, political parties, and the media, which in turn will transmit the will of the people to those with executive authority. When leaders in major civil society groups decreasingly espouse principles of equal justice, democracy is on the decline.
One organization of civil society is the American Political Science Association (APSA), whose members might be assumed to be ardent supporters of democracy. Yet even that perspective seemed to be fading during 2019, when someone gave a plenary address that interpreted the Constitution as a blueprint for business rather than stressing the concepts of civil and political rights and such democratic advances as Amendments 13‒15 (Smith 2019). Applying his formulation to the question of merchants denying business to gay couples, he proposed a religious exception, thereby opening the door to ←vii | viii→all sorts of Jim Crow exceptions that would undermine equal justice under the law and to coddling religions with anti-democratic premises. Meanwhile, the audience sat in silence rather than protesting. Six months later he was inaugurated as president of the American Political Science Association.
In 2016, a substantial number of Americans who were dissatisfied with their role in the United States decided to vote for Trump so that he could “shake things up” on their behalf. But his shaking amounted to an earthquake, toppling the pillars of democracy that had been falling for decades. Many democratic proponents watched almost powerless as he demonstrated that someone with an autocratic personality could get elected in the United States. Once in office, individuals relying on certain pillars tried to hold him back, whereupon he systematically sought to bring them down. Because the pillars were already teetering before he took office, they cannot be quickly restored even though he is no longer president. Had Joe Biden been defeated in 2020, the current book would have been extremely gloomy.
The present book was originally conceived as a follow-up to a book that I wrote on how and why democracies flounder and fail (Haas 2019b). When Trump was elected, I had to append a new section on Trump within that book. Similarly, the events of January 6, 2021, prompted additions to several chapters herein.
There is a more personal reason for the book. Fifty years after being adopted in Detroit, I traced the family and community of my birthmother to a town in the middle of Michigan’s lower peninsula, where the Michigan Militia are entrenched. In correspondence with my half-sister over a period of 30 years, I learned the coherent perspectives of those living in what was to become Trump country.
Before Donald Trump was inaugurated as president, my thesis was that American democracy was perilously close to extinction. Once in office, Trump merely pushed buttons at his disposal. He violated so many laws and norms on any given day that his critics did not have time to respond with precision when he did the same on the following day, and so forth as his term proceeded. The dire assessment of American democracy accelerated under his governance, and any failure to learn lessons of his presidency by the American people guarantees further decline. The president after Trump, Joe Biden, may try to reverse what he did, but cannot easily obliterate what existed beforehand or the groundswell of support that Trump tapped and cemented within the United States. Trump, having acted with impunity and support, nearly closed the quest for American democracy.←viii | ix→
The present book identifies ten fundamental pillars of democracy, a form of government defined as existing when fundamental needs and wishes of the people are satisfied by actions of government. The major theory utilized is the sociological-based Mass Society Paradigm, the main alternative to the economics-based Rational Choice Paradigm that has gripped political science and much of American politics today.
The Mass Society Paradigm has its roots in sociology. Sociologist Émile Durkheim (1893, 1897) argued that the Industrial Revolution so alienated members of the working class from one another and the larger power structure that some were prone to strike, while others felt that suicide was their only option. He thereby anticipated how both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany rose on the world stage by capitalizing on how individuals can react when overwhelmed by forces beyond their control. Next, William Kornhauser (1959) demonstrated how the main goal of autocratic rulers is to destroy the independence of civil society; he did so by contrasting Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union from Western democracies. An even more comprehensive theory came from sociologist Jürgen Habermas (1981a, b), who reflected on the failure of German democracy that led to Hitler. Combining elements of the philosophical traditions of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and American philosopher Charles Peirce, Habermas conceived of ideal democracy as existing when an independent civil society (pressure groups, political parties, and the media) represents the people before governmental institutions, ensures that governments carry out the wishes of the people, and acts to stop undemocratic tendencies. In so doing, he converted the Mass Society Paradigm into a paragon of democracy.
Previously, I wrote an historical study of how Habermasian democracy has been achieved in Hawaiˋi by upending five types of racism in How to Demolish Racism (2016). My Why Democracies Flounder and Fail (2019b) applied the Mass Society Paradigm to four cases—the coup that ended the French Fourth Republic, how Singapore was transformed from a democracy into a semi-totalitarian state, why American democracy has been on the precipice of failure, and the role of global interest groups in bringing about democratic global governance. My next effort was to assess the Trump presidency in Donald Trump’s Hidden Agenda for America (2019a), a book that assessed his policies, actions, and fitness for office. Some information in that book is repeated herein.
The present effort is to uncouple elements of the Mass Society Paradigm into separate pillars that uphold democracy so that readers can understand ←ix | x→why the American political system as a whole has been moving away from democracy. I regret the pessimism, but the fact is that a substantial number of persons, including politicians, view politics as a game to be won, not a way to fulfill the goals of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
I have coined a new term “pseudo-democracy” to refer to a political system that has the forms of democracy (free and fair elections, competitive political parties, independent courts, and a functioning legislature) but lacks the substance (implementing reforms based on the overwhelming will of the people). Elsewhere, I have listed several dozen different forms of democracy, including the self-contradictory term “illiberal democracy” (Haas 2019b, AppB). Had Donald Trump won in 2020, the United States would doubtless slipped into “anocracy,” a term referring to a political system part-democratic and part-autocratic (Seawright and Collier 2014). A similar term, proposed by Walter Lippmann (1922), is “semi-democracy,” which refers to an autocracy that allows some democratic reforms, such as “guided democracies” or “managed democracies” that have a strong executive who proclaims a desire to gradually create a democracy and then retires (Wolin 2008). Indonesia under Sukarno was often described as a “guided democracy” (van der Kroef 1957).
In preparing the manuscript, I am extraordinarily indebted to the reviewer of the draft that I submitted to the publisher. The review proposed so many excellent corrections and suggestions that I realized more than before that the book fulfills a very important need in the world of scholarship.
Critics may argue that I am cherrypicking the worst developments, ignoring many times when democracy appears to work. My response is that problems cannot be solved until they are identified. They should realize that the Constitution’s chief theorist, James Madison, opposed democracy. From the time of Abraham Lincoln, there has indeed been a quest for democracy. But the contrary trend has often surged in response. Today, officeholders seek electoral victory in a fractionated political system where superficial elements of democracy exist, albeit without much substance. Reforms to restore democracy must take all ten pillars into account, a task that might take at least a half century.
The United States has long been regarded as a paragon of democracy. But the Declaration of Independence trumpeted “consent of the governed” as the basis of what became the republic of the United States, and the original Constitution allowed slavery and other undemocratic features. For the founders, the proper role of the property-owning elite was to watch what governments did and then vote from time to time, either keeping or replacing them.
Abraham Lincoln’s effort to bring about “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” aimed at creating a true democracy. Thereafter, democracy increased in baby steps: In 1917, Woodrow Wilson wanted to make the world “safe for democracy,” one of the most eloquent declarations that American democracy could serve as a model for the world.
Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, provides perhaps the clearest definition of democracy: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.”
Yet today the Democracy Index of The Economist (2019) ranks the United States below most countries of Europe. An essay on the role of women in politics around the world puts the United States, where only about 25 percent of legislators are female, in the second of four tiers in the Democracy Index ranking (Abouzeid 2020, 124). Under President Donald Trump, the ←1 | 2→indices have fallen, but erosion of American democracy began much earlier and will doubtless continue indefinitely until serious attention is paid to the problem. That the United States is in many respects a “pseudo-democracy” has yet to be fully understood.
A “pseudo-democracy” has the structural appearance of a democracy without the substance: Today there is still a Constitution, but there are so many loopholes in the governing document that executives can ignore legislative intent behind the passage of laws. The courts are packed with partisan judges screened to render decisions favorable to one or the other political party. The legislature, tied up in gridlock, concedes power to the executive. The right to vote is so restricted by various requirements that the will of the people is not reflected in election outcomes. The rich buy elections as well as persuading voters to vote against their own self-interest. Moderates of political parties are silenced by extremes in both parties, narrowing the possibility of compromise. Pressure groups fund officeholders to carry out their will. The media are more interested in “breaking news” and “horse race” elections than in informing the public about issues of the day as well as how democracy is seriously threatened. Most members of the public are ill informed, swayed by clever propaganda. And the meaning of “democracy” is largely unknown to the public. In a pseudo-democracy, voting is a procedural exercise with little substance.
For several decades, the United States has been creeping along into a pseudo-democracy that cannot be fixed because the pillars have fallen and cannot be raised until the pervasiveness of the problem is recognized—and even then, the work required to resurrect the pillars may take decades, even a half century. But few officeholders or voters demonstrate interest in preserving democracy; they believe or pretend that there is no problem. In a pseudo-democracy the pillars superficially appear to exist but lack substantive meaning.
Democracy was endangered long before Trump was elected president. What he has done is to expose how democracy had been sliding downward for decades. That someone with authoritarian ambitions could be elected president is indisputable evidence of that decline. More serious is the fact that members of the public and his own party eagerly accepted his authoritarianism. Senator Mike Lee of Utah let the cat out of the bag when he publicly declared opposition to democracy on October 8, 2020, proclaiming loyalty to the original undemocratic Constitution (Chait 2020; Davidson 2020). Then on the exact same day, members of the Wolverine Watchmen were ←2 | 3→arrested for seeking the overthrow of the Michigan government (Snell and Burke 2020). And three months later an insurrection sought to install Donald Trump as lifetime president.
When a president refuses to allow elected representatives to monitor how government is conducted, thereby disrespecting the foundations of constitutional democracy, he has declared an end to checks and balances at the foundation of the Constitution. Donald Trump did so during his time in office, when the fear was expressed that a monarchy was being created or at least an elected authoritarian president with almost unlimited powers. With Trump’s loss of the 2020 election, the reign of Donald I stopped, but eagerness for his return is an unfulfilled quest in many quarters to end American democracy.
Accordingly, this book seeks to assess why the ten pillars of democracy have fallen. To do so, democracy must be defined and each pillar identified. Most contemporary analyses of the United States have fallen short because they focus on only one of the ten pillars of democracy (e.g., Roberts 2016; Lamoreaux and Novak 2017; Levitsy and Ziblatt 2018; Rahman and Gilman 2019; Runciman 2019; Mettler and Lieberman 2020). The present volume assembles the entire picture, and the canvas is dark.
According to the Greek etymological origin, a democracy exists when government decisions are made by the population being governed. In the Athenian version, however, four groups were restricted from having a say in decision-making—foreigners, minors, slaves, and women. But Athenian democracy is not a goal today.
Although more than two dozen definitions of “democracy” now vie for acceptance (Haas 2019, app), the contemporary definition is “rule by the people,” though more poetically is Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Yet another view is that democracy exists when citizens control both the amount they are taxed by government and how the revenue is spent within the framework of legal rules that ensure equal justice.
American government was originally founded on several principles, including rule of law, representative legislatures, separation of powers, and checks and balances within three branches of government. The United States began as a republic and evolved toward becoming a formal representative democracy in fits and starts. While members of Congress are elected on election days, only members of an Electoral College chosen by the states cast actual votes for president. The assertion of judicial power to rule laws ←3 | 4→unconstitutional added a new check-and-balance in 1803. States ended property ownership as a voting requirement in about 1820. Slavery was abolished along with equality before the law in Amendments 13‒15 after the Civil War. States were first required to hold popular votes to select senators in 1913, thereby taking power from state legislatures. Women were granted the franchise in 1920. Nevertheless, Native Americans were considered wards of the state until granted American citizenship by law in 1924; even so, their voting rights were not fully recognized until 1962 (Dunphy 2019). And the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971 to undo the disparity between being required to fight in war without a right to vote. All along, non-Whites have had to struggle to maintain their rights.
As president, Donald Trump refused a full briefing on the Constitution and even referred to one clause as “phony” (Collins, Jackson, Subramanian 2019). He invited foreign interference in elections. He refused to cooperate with Congress by supplying information relevant to ongoing legislative concerns. He issued executive orders as if they were laws, only to find many challenged and overturned in court while he awaited permission by his appointees on the Supreme Court. On at least 20 occasions, he openly urged others to violate laws (Appendix A).
Consequently, Trump openly challenged American democracy and the rule of law. His approval rating varied from 35 to 46 percent (Gallup 2019). Yet his startling moves were accepted because efforts to undermine basic democratic principles were already being undermined before he ran for office. The trend toward undemocratic rule accelerated to the point that some believed that democracy would end if he continued in office beyond 2020. After two months of disputing election results as well as court rulings that denied the disputes, on January 6, 2021, he incited a mob to try to shut down Congress. In short, his anti-democratic impulses came in full view along with followers who wanted him to be a tyrant.
- XIV, 322
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- 2021 (October)
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XIV, 322 pp., 1 table.