Late Democracy

We hear the term “late capitalism” a lot, but not “late democracy“. Why? Capitalism (the relevant feature of which is markets populated by profit-seeking agents accumulating capital) is much more organic and consistent with the competitive state of nature than democracy, defined by one-person, one-vote.

Late capitalism, recognizing different authors mean different things, implies that, since this is a late-stage of the capitalist economic system, our capitalistic-ish economy will eventually give way to a socialist system of some form, due to capitalism’s internal contradictions. Time will tell.

Late democracy, in contrast, does not warrant a Wikipedia article, yet. The rise of authoritarianism, nationalism, xenophobia, and the like, seem consistent with a rollback of democracy, the end state of which is no real voting system (aside from sham elections) for a majority of adults.

It appears today that the early modern democratic states, like the US and the UK, are doing democracy especially poorly, at least in large part to their early (US) or unwritten (UK) constitutions. While there was a large uptick in democracy following the end of the Cold War, the global situation is now worsening according to Freedom House. The world is still better than it was in 1987, and 1997, but not where it was in 2007.


Late democracy implies that the political system will eventually revert to authoritarian dictatorships (strong-man or monarchical) covering various territories. Democracy has numerous internal contradictions, not the least of which is that a minority of the population can elect leaders in a first-past-the-post system and electoral districts (as per the US Congress and Presidency).

The general problem is the majority of those elected (not a majority of the population) can enshrine their temporary majority by changing the rules in a way to the detriment of freedom. These methods include gerrymandering and disenfranchisement, leaving aside blatant corruption and vote-fixing. While some rules (Constitutions) might require supermajorities, others do not. And as power simply flows from those who others believe hold power, even those supermajoritarian changes can be affected should enough people simply assent to those with power.

Some problems emerging with democracy include

  • Dishonest leadership
  • Poor leadership
  • Rise of  demagogues leading to tyranny
  • Weaponizing loyalty tests (Australia’s Section 44, e.g.)
  • Influence of money (bribery, revolving doors, advertising)
  • Corruption / emoluments
  • Vote stealing
  • Foreign influence/social media

These problems have long been with us, but appear to be getting worse. The mechanisms to fight these dysfunctions are not being deployed effectively.

The figure below shows that at least one rating agency (Freedom House again) believes the US is slipping in its Democratic Standards. While there has been a large downturn with the current administration, the slippage began earlier.

FitW9_820px_United_States_Trajectory-croppedThere are numerous reforms to democratic systems like that in the US to make it more resilient, for instance, Elizabeth Warren’s “plan to strengthen our democracy” is a good start, but I have little expectation those will be implemented, even after she is elected, in the absence of a Democratic supermajority in Congress (despite her goal to eliminate Filibuster), and the last time that happened, (2009) these issues were not seriously raised or addressed (despite the fiasco of the 2000 election, and for that matter, the Al Franken long count in Minnesota). There are reforms to  US-style democracy that could be implemented by establishing federal standards for federal elections with federal funding, without difficult Constitutional reforms:

  • Mandatory voting. Where in-person voting is either a holiday or a weekend, and easy to do before election day, and where everyone is automatically enrolled, rather than having a cumbersome registration process.
  • Compact political districts to avoid gerrymandering.
  • Multi-seat districts to provide more representation for minority opinions, or just elect parties directly.
  • Ranked-choice voting. Maine just adopted it for the Presidential election
  • Publicly-funded elections (though denying people the right to endorse the candidate of their choice seems to me (and the US Supreme Court) to violate free speech), but lack of funding doesn’t seem a problem for the major parties these days. Immediate transparency on paid political speech (tv, radio, social-media ads), even if by third parties. While speech can be anonymous to protect individuals at risk, paid speech by large well-funded organizations should not be.
  • Secure voting machines with a paper trail for auditing.
  • Consistent poll opening and closing times nationally, so announcements of vote tallies don’t affect outcomes.

Reforms that benefit democracy as a whole would have principled support from all those who care about the system producing fair and stable outcomes, more than their particular ranking in it, as well as at least potentially cynical support from the currently-out groups that would benefit from the change. But most politicians care more about their relative position than the fairness or stability of the democratic system.

There are other reforms that do require some Constitutional Amendment:

  • No electoral colleges. The existing system is  imperfect, obviously, with the two Senate seats added to the pool necessary to convince the small states to adopt the new Constitution, but its existence as such is not  the core of the problem, rather it is an implementation wherein the states are all-or-nothing, rather than apportioned by (non-gerrymandered) Congressional District in their electors. I personally would go farther, and make the US more Parliamentary by having the newly-elected House of Representatives constitute the Electoral College (so for at least the first 2 years of the Presidency, the President and House are from the same Party or Coalition, and the Party would have a stronger say in electing the leader), but that is a more radical change.

I don’t believe the downturn in the US is independent of the downturn globally. The inward turn of the US and UK cannot help democrats outside the US. A stronger, more democratic United States whose political leadership cared about Democracy as a value in and of itself, rather than a means to power, would lead to a more democratic world.