Wake me up when the midterms are over.

Has Too Much Democracy Ruined America?

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was chief Washington commentator for the Financial Times, a correspondent and editor for the Economist and a senior editor at the Atlantic. He previously served as an official in the British finance ministry and the Government Economic Service.
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The most striking thing about the U.S. midterm elections is how little most of the country seems to care. It isn't as though nothing will change: If the Republican Party wins control of the Senate, as the prognosticators are saying, that will have consequences. Yet, according to one recent poll, voters are even less engaged than usual and turnout next month is likely to be less than 40 percent.

Disdain for Congress is one reason, no doubt -- or perhaps just another aspect of the same condition. In September, approval of Congress dipped to a record low of 9 percent; earlier this month it recovered a bit, but what you might call the zero lower bound of democratic satisfaction remains in sight.

Here's a thought: Could the reason for America's democratic discontent be too much democracy? Francis Fukuyama discusses this possibility in his new book, "Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy." (I recommend it, but if you're pressed for time his essay for Foreign Affairs gives the flavor of his argument.) The idea is plausible, and it connects to a point I've made before about the hyper-political character of the U.S. system of government.

Fukuyama emphasizes what he calls "veto points" -- the endlessly proliferating opportunities (far more than in other democratic systems) to block action. He calls the result "vetocracy." Add polarization, a judiciary keen to insert itself in policy-making, and well-funded, highly energetic interest groups, and the result is stasis. "In fact," he writes, "these days there is too much law and too much democracy relative to American state capacity."

I agree on the substance but I'd put it a bit differently. The problem isn't too much democracy, it's too much politics. You don't measure the quality of democracy just by asking whether the politically engaged have voice, or by counting their opportunities to influence outcomes (for good or ill), important as those metrics may be. Democracy is also supposed to work for the disengaged. In that respect, this democracy is plainly failing.

America's political class -- candidates, interest groups, activists and their respective groupies in the media -- can't be faulted for lack of engagement. Boy, are they engaged. That's fine, of course. (It would be even better if they were as interested in public policy as they are in the political contest as blood sport, but that's another matter.) Outside that bubble, however, views of politics run the range from boredom to despair. And a main cause, I'd submit, is popular disgust with that very political class. More politics doesn't necessarily get you more democracy, much less better democracy.

I suspect this idea that the views of the disengaged should count may be a bit un-American. This country makes demands on its citizens. It's one of the things I like best about it. If you can't be bothered to stand up and be counted, why expect your opinion, if you can even be bothered to form one, to matter?

This zeal for political engagement is woven into the American character and system of government. Compare with Britain -- with its independent civil service, apolitical judges, and numerous public yet politically non-aligned bodies. It would never occur to you to wonder whether a prosecutor in the U.K. leaned left or right, and asking would be seen as improper. Prosecutors in the U.S. are, in many cases, actual or would-be politicians. In Britain, you might say, party politics isn't mandatory for the fully functioning citizen. In the U.S., it is.

Yet is Britain that much less democratic than the U.S.? The answer isn't obvious. It has vastly fewer veto points, as Fukuyama would say, and a much smaller domain of party-political action. Oh yes, and no written constitution. By American lights, it's a tyrannical system. On the other hand, stuff that most of the country wants to see happen actually gets done now and then, and every four or five years roughly two-thirds of the people care enough about politics to turn out and vote. So you tell me.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net