If American Democracy Collapsed, You Almost Certainly Wouldn’t Notice It

Let’s warm up with a question. Why don’t powerful people just seize the reins of authority in American politics? You may think that the answer is because our system of laws says that they may not. We have a Constitution, after all, that says that presidents and members of Congress are elected. The rules say that powerful people cannot just seize power. If you want to have the authority to make laws, you have to win elections.

But that answer is wrong. What constrains the powerful is not the Constitution, nor the system of laws, regulations, and bureaucracies that govern political competition. What constrains them is the practice that American politicians seek power through elections and that everyone agrees to accept that method.

That difference is subtle. It may even seem tautological—didn’t I just say that powerful people don’t seize power because they don’t? But it is essential for understanding what sustains democracy, and what undermines it. Democracy is a political regime, which O’Donnell and Schmitter define as

the ensemble of patterns, explicit or not, that determines and channels of access to principal governmental positions, the characteristics of the actors who are admitted and excluded from such access, and the resources or strategies that they can use to gain access.

Democracy is nothing other than a particular pattern of behavior that reveals how, within some community, people access positions of political authority.

Constitutions and laws, like other so-called “parchment institutions,” help to provide a structure for politics. Given that there are many ways to have elections, our Constitution generates public, common expectations about how they might be conducted (see Carey [PDF]). But laws do not constrain on their own. They constrain—and this is the essential bit—if people behave as if they are constrained by them.

Working from these two points—democracy is a pattern of behavior, and laws only constrain if people behave as if they are constrained—it follows that we would be correct to say that democracy has collapsed if the explicit or implicit patterns of behavior that govern access to political authority no longer operated. And we would not look to the passage of a law, or necessarily even the outcome of an election, to determine if democracy had collapsed.

Democracy, in fact, makes it particularly challenging to know if democracy has collapsed. That is because when democracy functions, challenges to it are usually hidden, and when they emerge in the open, they are processed through a system that presumes that challenges can be handled democratically. Political actors invoke laws and Constitutions as if they were binding constraints. Stresses that pose questions about the stability of the regime over time, therefore, are fundamentally ambiguous. They may be regime-altering, or not. And the responses to them by those who hold power may be regime-altering. Or not.

And that is why, if American democracy were to collapse, you almost certainly wouldn’t notice it. Not right away, at least.

This question of democratic collapse is a different phenomenon than the suite of problems frequently labeled “democratic decline” or “democratic erosion” or “democratic dysfunction.” It may be that governments perform poorly, or govern in illiberal or biased ways, or that citizens are apathetic, demobilized, “hunkering down” and turning to blind obedience and loyalty rather than embracing rights and exercising voice. But what I mean by collapse is that it no longer is the case that one follows widely-accepted practices for securing political authority by prevailing in competitive elections that enfranchise most people. It is an open question whether or not the symptoms of decline and dysfunction predict the illness of collapse.

That is an unsettling conclusion, but it is an important one, because it lays out the stakes for defending democracy. Indeed, there aren’t very many differences between everyday life under most forms of authoritarianism and everyday life under democracy. For most people, in most cases, life is basically the same. And because most people, in most cases, are not motivated primarily by their politics in going about their everyday life, the functioning of national politics is not a first-order concern for them.* Democracies usually do not go out with a bang. They just cease to be.**

The issues may be clarified with the following thought experiment. What is to stop a national political party from challenging the results of, say, the presidential election in the state of Massachusetts on the grounds that that state’s government did not oversee a legitimate electoral process? The implication being, that Massachusetts’s Electoral College votes should not be counted. What is to stop that? Or put more accurately: who is to stop that?


* This, incidentally, is a challenge to any literature—academic, policy-focused, journalistic—that proposes that people’s values have any affect at all on things like democratic stability or democratic competitiveness.

** Something something “The Hollow Men” something.