A Good Night for Small “d” Democracy

By Archon Fung

Source: Flickr

Like tens of millions of other Americans, I voted yesterday and then stayed up late to see how all of my fellow citizens voted. Whatever your particular partisan persuasion and despite the enormous stresses on our political system, I thought it was a pretty good night for small “d” democracy in several ways.

First, voter turnout was very high for a mid-term election. The New York Times estimates that 114 million people voted in the 2018 elections which is much, much higher than the 83 million that voted in the last 2014 mid-term elections. Because voting is the first, fundamental form of participation in a representative democracy, this high level of engagement is good for democracy. On the other hand, many people turned out as much because they fear the other side as they support what their candidates stand for. Our citizens and our leaders are deeply divided against one another, and that is not good for democracy.

Second, we will have divided government for a while. The Democrats will control the House, and Republicans will control the Senate and Presidency. Divided government makes it hard to get things done — to pass major legislation or sometimes even to keep government’s lights on. But at this moment in our history when the country is so polarized, divided government is a good thing. Without divided government, if one party controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency, the huge chunk of America that favored the “out” party would feel alienated, powerless, and even angry and terrified because the divisions among Americans are so deep.

From a democracy perspective, the results of the Senate votes are striking. A little over 45 million people voted for Democratic candidates for the Senate, and 33 million voted for Republican candidates. But the Democratic Party lost two seats in the Senate and the Republicans gained two seats as of Wednesday morning. This disproportionality comes from the strength of Republicans in many rural areas and the relative concentration of Democrats in states with bigger cities. As the alignment between rural=Republican and urban=Democrat intensifies, this the disproportionate strength of less populous states in the Senate becomes a big problem for democracy and political equality.

Third, the biggest gains for democracy have largely escaped attention from the reporters and commentators. Voters in many states voted to strengthen their democracy through “direct democracy” ballot question. Many of these democracy measures were approved overwhelmingly. In Florida, for example, voters approved by 2–1 an amendment to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons who have served their sentences. Republican and Democratic gerrymandering is a huge insult to our democracy. Voters in Colorado (71% — 29%), Michigan (61%-39%), Missouri (62%-38%), and Utah (50.3% — 49.7%) approved measures to create redistricting commissions against gerrymandering. The Utah vote is still too close to call, but these anti-Gerrymandering measures passed overwhelmingly in the other three states.

With so much poison and division in national politics, the best hope for democracy might lie in our states — which Justice Brandeis called “laboratories of democracy” — for the next few years.

Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government at Harvard Kennedy School