By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University
Based on the state of politics, there are some key challenges that America faces today. There are big tests that American politics and government will need to confront in the coming years. The foremost challenge of current time is justice, in its various forms: racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice.
In the continuing struggle between guaranteeing a free society and protecting people’s equal rights to enjoy society, America has favored liberty over equality.
Civil liberties are enshrined in the first ten amendments of the Constitution, but they did not resolve slavery in the Constitution. Americans had to fight an incredibly bloody Civil War in order to overcome political differences over racial justice, and in many ways, America has never recovered from that trauma.
Moreover, now is the beginning stages of an environmental crisis of climate change that will displace millions of people, disrupt food supplies, and in which more and more people will come face to face with violent and extreme weather.
As Americans, and people across the globe, have unequal access to resources that can alleviate these challenges, problems of social resentment will rise. We will continue to see some groups of people accuse other groups for their plight and conditions, when blame may be more accurately placed on the inadequate political institutions that failed to help both of them.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Weak Institutional Political Parties
People create the institutions that govern them, but if we fail to reform our institutions to meet our biggest challenges, then any hope for success is low. There is one essential institution for democracy that is seriously damaged, under-appreciated, and in some cases highly dysfunctional to the point of being diseased. That institution is political parties.
American politics has very strong individual partisanship, in terms of personal identity, but very weak institutional political parties. It is known that polarization is problematic for democracy and that polarization is primarily caused by income inequality, party realignment around racial justice, and campaign finance laws.
Learn more about individual opinion and political identity.
Challenges of Income Inequality, Racial Issues, and Campaign Financing
First, income inequality will need to be addressed through statutory changes in tax law that aim to redistribute income and wealth. On balance, America’s income tax code is progressive, but not that progressive. Redistributing income would not be uncontroversial, and there are million ways to go about it, but parties could recognize the problem and lead a policy-oriented conversation about how to address it.
Second, the Democratic Party is currently viewed as the party of racial justice, and this alignment drives a wedge between the parties. If the Republican Party adopted policy priorities around some issues related to racial justice, it could go a long way to closing some of the gap between the parties.
Thirdly, political parties should take a stronger role in financing campaigns, nominating candidates, and organizing national politics. Many candidates get most of their financing from outside organizations, which are unaligned or unaffiliated with a party. Parties are motivated by winning elections, and groups are motivated by winning policies.
Democracy is much better off being funded by the groups seeking to win elections than by the groups seeking to win policies.
Role of Political Parties
Parties have incentives to engage with political adversaries, negotiate with cross-partisans, and to nominate and promote candidates who are most likely to win. Interest groups do not.
Since every congressional district in the country has Republicans and Democrats, and very few districts are truly lopsided in terms of party distribution, parties are more likely to advance moderating candidates than extremist candidates. Parties that are more powerful can be a moderating force in politics that would have the potential to deescalate polarization.
These ideas might be off-putting to some as the downside of these ideas is that they take some power away from the masses and transfer it to the few. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that these ideas are anti-democratic, or too restrictive. By empowering elites, it reduces the general public’s freedom to exercise their sovereign democratic power.
However, if we want to defend and protect democracy, we have to, in some ways, put limits on democracy. It needs to be constrained, controlled, and managed in order for it to work its magic.
Learn more about the history of political parties in the United States.
Can We Improve American Democracy?
American democracy can be improved. America has been through periods of terrible strife before: the Civil War, the World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Vietnam War. There have been plenty of moments of crisis, constitutional and otherwise, and managing those moments have led the country to where it is today.
The current moment will also be managed. There are a number of institutions in American government that are quite robust. The potential for self-correction rests in the Constitution, but it will take courage to take meaningful steps to improve and reinforce our institutions.
The Breakdown of Democratic Norms
The biggest threats to contemporary American democracy are the breakdown of democratic norms. There are two norms that help to sustain democracy and both of them have come under serious threat and degradation in recent years.
The first is the norm of mutual toleration of political opponents. Political adversaries must accept that their opponents are legitimate and have a right to engage in politics. If one political party or candidate continually articulates that their opponents are not worthy, criminal, or illegitimate, then the competitive democratic process cannot work.
The second norm that is vitally important for democratic survival is forbearance. When a political party has power, it’s important that the party does not abuse that power. If parties always use every possible legal avenue to obstruct their opponents and advocate for their agenda, then there will be no room for political compromise or negotiation.
Stronger parties and reforms that bolster political institutions that emphasize justice, and reduce polarization, can help to restore these norms.
Reformation of Norms
Norms can be harder to establish or reform than institutions. By definition, norms are not written down. They are often unspoken agreements about behavior, decorum, and the limits of what is socially acceptable. They come about through a consensus, without a vote. They are maintained by mimicry and sanction.
It’s important for America to select leaders that follow these norms and to reinforce institutions that support mutual toleration and forbearance. Democratic institutions must be nurtured and reformed to meet the needs of the society it aims to govern.
To improve American politics, political parties could work toward addressing the issues of income inequality, party realignment around racial justice, and campaign finance laws.
The Democratic Party is currently viewed as the party of racial justice.
Two norms that help to sustain democracy are the norm of mutual toleration of political opponents and the norm of forbearance.