When the Senate voted to acquit President Trump by a vote of 52-48, many progressives noticed the 52 Senators represent 152 million people while the 48 represent 170 million. This week’s leftist outrage is another example of their over dedication to democracy. Robert Reich captured the progressive sentiment well, “An autocratic executive elected with a minority of the vote was just acquitted by a Senate also elected by a minority & a judiciary appointed by two presidents who, you guessed it, were elected by a minority of the vote. It’s safe to say the US no longer qualifies as a democracy.” Reich makes a clear point, America isn’t very democratic. And that’s true– but so what? No large country is as democratic as his idealized utopia is.
Let’s focus on the 7 exceptionally large countries — Russia, Canada, China, America, Brazil, and Australia– and analyze how democratic they are. It’s not a given that democracy scales up well. As we’ll see, every large democracy has significant limitations. That’s because while democracy is a fantastic ideal that we should value, it’s efficacy among large diverse polities leaves much to be desired.
Whenever a country is large, there are bound to be many large and small subgroups– geographic, language, religious, racial, and ethnic. The danger democracy runs into in practice is a large group takes and holds control– through legitimate means– locking out the out-groups. Democracy needs the consent of the governed but when who holds power isn’t fluid that consent is lost and nations break down.
Because Russia and China are one party dictatorships we can remove them from the list. Similarly, Brazil’s bona fides as a democracy are questionable. For the sake of length, I’ll focus only on the other two large and unquestionable democracies– Australia and Canada.
In Canada, the head of government is the Prime Minister. Like in the US, they are not directly elected but rather voted into office by proxies (electors in the US and members of parliament in Canada). That’s why Justin Trudeau can become Prime Minister even though the conservative party received more votes in the 2019 election– as also happened in the 1979, 1957, 1926, and 1896 elections. Like the US, the Canadian parliament is bicameral– a Senate and House of Commons. The Canadian Senate breaks up most of the country up into four regions. Each region is assured 24 Senators. There are four additional regions, one of which is given six Senators and the other three each has one. In the House of Commons, members are elected from districts– meaning the House of Commons may not represent the popular vote.
Similar to Canada, the Australian head of government is the Prime Minister. Like in Canada and the US, they are not directly elected but rather voted into office by the legislature. Like in the Canada and the US, the Prime Minister of Australia tends to be the leader of the party who won the popular vote in the election but the 2010, 1998, and 1987 election showed that’s not always the case. Again, like Canada and the US, the Australian parliament is bicameral– a Senate and House of Representatives. The Canadian Senate provides equal representation– 12 senators– to each of the original states plus 2 to the Capital Territory and 2 to the Northern Territory. In the House of Commons, members are also elected from districts.
When progressives say we should be more democratic, ask who we should aspire to be like. A country smaller than New York? If we look at other large democracies we see a clear trend:
1. A bicameral legislature
2. One house with generally equal allocations between political sub-units
3. One house elected from local districts
4. Indirect elections for head of government.
5. Unelected High Court.
But even more to the point, the democratic limitations America has are good. The fact our modern politics is so fluid a single party has held the Presidency for more than back to back terms only once is a good thing. Progressives view the 2000 and 2016 Republican victories as failures of democracy– and maybe they are– but they are victories of the system and for the country. Assume for a moment Democrats won both those elections and everything else was equal, a single party would have held the White House 6 of the last 7 terms. Entire swaths of the country would have been locked out of the White House. How do you think half the country would feel about not having a say for nearly three decades? As toxic as our political culture is now, imagine where it would be. Instead, every state and every side has been on the winning side of a Presidential election at least 3 times in the last 7 elections. That may not be good for democracy but it’s good for the country.