American Decline

Why the US Is a Failed Democratic State

By Lawrence Lessig, New York Review of Books

The self-governing republic works only if it expresses the will of the majority. But one party is now committed to minoritarian rule by any means.

The State Department is hosting a democracy summit this week. Representatives from around the world will assemble, virtually, “to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal.” For the United States, the webpage declares, “the summit will offer an opportunity to listen, learn, and engage with a diverse range of” democratic actors. America will also, the page continues, in what is certainly the money quote of the whole conference, “showcase one of democracy’s unique strengths: the ability to acknowledge its imperfections and confront them openly and transparently, so that we may, as the United States Constitution puts it, ‘form a more perfect union.’”

I’m not certain who precisely is going to be showcasing our own “imperfections.” The agenda online is incomplete. But it is right that we “confront” these “imperfections” “openly and transparently.” Because what’s most striking about America’s understanding of our own democracy is our ability to see what’s just not there. We are not a model for the world to copy. The United States is instead a failed democratic state.

At every level, the institutions that the US has evolved for implementing our democracy betray the basic commitment of a representative democracy: that it be, at its core, fair and majoritarian. Instead, that commitment is now corrupted in America. And every aspiring democracy around the world should understand the specifics of that corruption—if only to avoid the same in its own land.


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