‘Republic’: The Sobering State of Democracy

Posted July 9, 2007 at 3:38pm

Political parties are killing American democracy — at least according to University of British Columbia professor Paul Quirk.

Quirk sees a government that is hurdling toward Britain’s parliamentary system and backing away from the three equal branches of American democracy, with the presidency gathering more power and Democrats and Republicans constantly battling over ideology in Congress.

“I think you could describe us as being at a fork in the road,” he said, “where we can either try to restore the constitutional system or take the path of least resistance and effect something more like a party system.”

Quirk (who, despite working in Canada, is American) explains this theory and others in one chapter of “A Republic Divided,” the last book in a six-book series on the health of American democracy. Nine academics, including Quirk, worked with the Annenberg Foundation to analyze research on public schools, the press and the three branches of government. Their findings aren’t exactly uplifting.

In one survey, respondents without a college education were as likely as not to agree that the Founding Fathers intended to give the president “the final say.” In another, 46 percent of the public said Congress should look at how a Supreme Court nominee votes — in other words, his or her political slant. And in a third survey, 75 percent of Congressional staff respondents agreed that “policies are distorted by pressure from special interests.”

The book’s editors rely heavily on several surveys conducted by the Annenberg Foundation that look at the views of both the public and insiders on different aspects of public schools, the media and government. All were taken in 2004-05, ensuring consistency of opinion, though some have error margins as high as 10 percentage points. Still, the editors mesh those findings with other theories and research, making for an interesting read on the condition of American democracy.

The good news is that a majority of Americans still understand the basic tenets of the nation’s democracy, said Mark Peterson, a UCLA professor who wrote a chapter on checks and balances. Peterson is more worried that the arguments going on in Congress sometimes put those basic tenets into question — specifically when Members disagree over the interaction of the legislative and executive branches.

“There ought to be division between the two major parties on issues on environment, on economy, on abortion and on a whole list of things,” he said. “There really shouldn’t be a division on the institution of government.”

Instead of debating and compromising on legislative issues, the parties constantly battle for the next elections, Peterson said. And they argue about how to handle the executive branch. Should President Bush have unchecked powers? Is Vice President Cheney part of the executive branch? Is it unconstitutional for Bush to sign statements saying he will not enforce parts of approved legislation?

The editors of “A Republic Divided” mostly stay away from answering such questions and instead focus on how the public and insiders view government and its roles. Each chapter is written by a different editor, making the book uneven in its written approach but informative and diverse on the issues. Quirk’s chapter on the legislative branch is perhaps the most strongly worded, concluding that the current “Partisan Congress” will hop between unified and divided party control, “acting with minimal deliberation on an extreme ideological agenda in one Congress, to being mired in partisan warfare in the next.”

When Republicans previously controlled Congress, for example, unity with a Republican president resulted in sparse deliberation on important decisions, Quirk said.

“I think it’d be quite easy to argue that we might not have had the war in Iraq if Republican leaders in Congress had been more inclined to demand careful consideration of evidence,” he said.

The book also explores the role of both unbiased and partisan journalists, accepting both as possible parts of a healthy democracy. But the media still gets mediocre marks, particularly because of its focus on the horse race of elections rather than the important issues.

“If you offer an electorate a superficial discussion predicated on accentuating claims that may even be false … then you’re not going to get an electorate that’s going to be informed about the issues,” Peterson said. “It’s very hard to be informed about the issues.”

But can anything be done about an uninformed electorate? And what about American democracy — is it salvageable?

The editors conclude that while the institutions of democracy are “falling short,” such claims have been made throughout history. If America can’t keep its democracy, then perhaps it can at least become “a republic divided.”