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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




American Dysfunction in Comparative Perspective: Three Questions for Larry Diamond 

March 27, 2014 — By Daniel Stid

I recently participated in a workshop on electoral systems reform sponsored by Stanford University’s Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) and its new Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective. This session brought together scholars and advocates of electoral reform from the US and abroad to consider the potential of electoral innovations like proportional representation, ranked-choice voting, and mandatory voting to address political dysfunction in the US. I subsequently caught up with Larry Diamond, who leads the CDDRL, to pose a few questions on his aspirations for this new program and what he's taking away from its initial workshop.
 
Daniel Stid: The mission of the CDDRL is to “understand how countries can overcome poverty, instability, and abusive rule to become prosperous, just, democratic, and well-governed states.” It traditionally has focused on problems of democracy and governance in the developing world. What prompted you to create the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective?


Larry Diamond: We often take for granted that the United States is a country with well-established rule of law, effective governance, and free and fair elections. American democracy is not under threat the way that it is in many places around the world. That said, the United States fares poorer on many democratic outcomes, including inequality, political participation, and trust in government institutions, relative to its democratic counterparts. Additionally, American democracy seems increasingly dysfunctional, and unable to address the core policy challenges confronting the country. 

We created the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective to investigate problems that have gained increasing public and scholarly attention. These include polarization, gridlock, income inequality, capture of the policymaking process by special interests, and prohibitively costly elections. We are looking to the experience of other advanced democracies for insight into the contemporary American experience. This comparative approach allows us to move beyond the fixity that many American organizations adopt. Ultimately, the Program on American Democracy will produce policy-relevant research that offers ways to improve the quality of democracy in the United States. 

Daniel Stid: You have been working to advance democracy around the world throughout your career. A recent Economist cover story on the problems facing this form of government observed that “The United States has become a byword for gridlock, so obsessed with partisan point-scoring….that America’s image – and by extension that of democracy itself – has taken a terrible battering.” Would you agree with that claim? Are the problems of democracy in the US materially undermining its progress elsewhere in the world?

Larry Diamond: Citizens around the world who are fighting for liberal democracy still see the United States as a model; our civil liberties protections are sorely lacking in many other countries. However, we are not immune from democratic backsliding. Gridlock, partisan discord, and problematic election administration have gotten particularly worse in recent years. This calls into question whether or not democratic institutions are better for governance, and over time could affect our credibility in promoting democratic values. 

However, I do think that a coherent reform agenda can improve the quality and functionality of American democracy. There is a groundswell of public opinion showing that American voters are fed up with status quo politics. The frustrations of the engaged public can be channeled into reforms that foster compromise, coalition-building, and improved democratic performance. I am hopeful that the democratic process itself can be used to improve American government, and to help restore democracy's public image around the world.

Daniel Stid: What struck you as the most important themes coming out of the workshop on electoral systems and the challenges and opportunities facing reformers in the US?

Larry Diamond: One of the reasons we focused on electoral systems—that is, the rules and methods by which we elect political representatives -- is that they are relatively easy to change. Many longstanding democracies, including Australia, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, and Italy, have reformed their electoral systems in response to political crises. In the United States, we have "winner-take-all" elections which are actually quite rare among advanced democracies. In the workshop, we discussed alternatives such as ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and compulsory voting. We also considered reforms to primary elections and the electoral college.

One of the most important themes coming out of the workshop was that different electoral systems can produce quite different outcomes. By changing the rules, you change politicians' incentives—they might be less likely to attack their opponents, to spend exorbitant campaign sums, and to advocate extreme ideological positions. These reforms may therefore well be worth seeking. However, another important theme was that electoral systems reforms might have a limited impact. Institutional change can only go so far in reducing polarization and gridlock among the national parties. So these reforms need to be seen as part of a larger agenda to make institutions more effective.