The United States: a Flawed Democracy?

On March 4th, 1789 the US constitution came into effect, making the United States of America the oldest democracy in the world, but perhaps not the most perfect. In 2021, just over 230 years after this event, the US scored only 7.851 on the democracy index placing it in 26th place behind mostly European countries like Norway (1st), Germany (15th), the UK (18th) and Spain (24th). Any score in the democracy index below 8.01 is considered to be a ‘flawed democracy’ which is where the US stands as of 2021. So why is the oldest democracy in the world not as democratic as one would expect? In order to find out why the USA has fallen behind European countries when it comes to democracy we must analyze the differences in some of the key democratic pillars such as campaign finance, political pluralism and electoral representation that play into modern politics in both the US and Europe.

Campaign finance The US has a long tradition of lobbying, which is another word people use to describe the practice through which individuals and private entities, typically those in subsidized industries,2 can ‘donate’ money to fund the needs of political parties or candidates prior to an election in exchange for favorable laws benefiting their interests. This practice falls in the category of campaign finance. Lobbying exists in many democracies and is exerted to very different degrees. The more unregulated campaign finance is in a country, the easier it is for powerful individuals and companies to influence politicians through the use of economic means . This puts democracy in danger as the interests of the few can override the interests of the many. To prevent this many democracies have regulatory bodies to ensure there is a balance to this practice. Campaign financing in the USA is managed by the Federal Election Commission or FEC, an independent organization funded by the government. Campaign finance in the US is extremely unregulated compared to the restrictions put in place in countries like the UK. In 2010, the U.S Supreme Court ruled a decision which, according to campaign finance lawyers, allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of political candidates without disclosing any of the information previously required3. Essentially, this allows lobbying to reach a grander scale where political candidates and private firms have no need to disclose any economic transactions between them. Essentially, this can be seen as the equivalent of allowing companies to bribe politicians without anyone knowing.


This happened in 2010 when the US scored 8.18 on the democracy index, achieving a ‘full democracy status’. It is no coincidence that ever since this ruling occurred the United States has consistently scored less on the same index, even being demoted to a ‘flawed democracy’ (as mentioned earlier) in 2016, around the same time the presidential elections were taking place. The relationship between campaign finance and how democratic a country is boils down to transparency. Prior to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling, firms had to declare any donations to political candidates and had limits on how much they could spend. Removing this legal barrier for firms has taken a toll on democracy in the US, and it is precisely because of this lack of transparency that the USA is falling behind European democracies. Many underestimate the power of ‘anonymous’ donations, which are usually anonymous only to the public; those on the receiving end of the donation know where the money is coming from. Demanding changes to a political agenda is illegal in most places, including the USA. However, donations towards specific candidates inherently imply that certain policies should be pushed forward by the politician in question. It is therefore no surprise that donations are typically made by subsidized industries. Now that anonymous donations are permitted in the United States, one can only imagine the power private firms and trade unions have. Furthermore, the anonymity of financial contributions makes it hard to determine whether a politician is acting in the interest of its donors, as the public does not know who these are. European countries tackle campaign finance in a more restrictive manner, making their democracies highly transparent, which contributes to why they have more successful democracies than the USA. These strong regulations in Europe allow for two things in particular: the transparency of funds and the integrity of politicians, both of which ensure that their political agendas are not subject to donations and level the competition between political candidates,4 leading to fairer elections. Restrictions on campaign finance are essential in politics if one is trying to achieve the ‘full democracy’ status that many European countries currently have. The UK is the perfect example of this: according to the UK law on campaign finance, any donation above £500 must be declared, and anonymous donations are not allowed5. The UK ensures transparency is maintained when it comes to elections, which guarantees that politicians serve voters and firms who have made generous contributions to political campaigns. Spain is another notable example that has no true limit on the amount of money an entity can donate. However, it does not allow donations from private corporations6.

The culture of lobbying in the USA is a result of poor campaign finance regulation, if any, which has serious consequences on American democracy. A country cannot be considered a democracy if its politicians serve the interests of large corporations rather than its people. In the US there are 716 billionaires7, second only to China. The influence billionaires can have on the politics of the country is also worth considering. Europe ensures elections are taken seriously and that power lies in the hands of the people; as it stands today this doesn't seem to be the case for the United States. The US is a country where politics is heavily influenced by money, and where the issue of inequality is worsened by the fact that those with less money can make little impact on the country’s politics compared to richer Americans. Taking this information into account, it is not surprising that they consistently rank poorly on the democracy index.

Two Party System Political pluralism is key to ensuring proper representation in any democracy . Oppression of third parties in the USA has been an ongoing issue since the 1850s, when the Republican party became significant. Ever since, restrictions have been put in place that make it nearly impossible for third parties to have a chance at making the slightest impact on an election. If democracy is about representation,the US seems to be undermining the values that democracy stands for. There is clear evidence that the US has imposed restrictions to create difficulties for third party candidates. Whilst the two major parties and their candidates receive public funding through the FEC (whose shortcomings have already been discussed), third party candidates can only receive funding from this organization once the elections are over, and the money they receive depends on their performance in the elections8. The problem arises when the performance of these third party candidates depends on the campaign effort which, again, is limited by the amount of financing it receives, creating a self-fulfilling problem. Significant restrictions are also put in place to limit the ballot access of the third party candidates - these restrictions are a combination of rules like having to write down the candidate name rather than ticking a box next to the already-written name. These restrictions have been proven through natural experiments that, when lowered, pose a much larger threat to the two largest parties in the country than when the restrictions were left in place9.


European governments, on the other hand, are mostly ruled by multi-party systems which vary in size and importance of the parties in them. Spain is a relatively young democracy, it has had this political system since 1978 and in the last elections that took place in 2019, the most voted party received 28% of the national vote10. Although it is true that no third party has officially won any elections in Spain since its constitution was signed, there are no fatal barriers that prevent third parties from making a significant impact in congress. Today, Spain’s government is formed by a coalition between the winning party and some third parties. This allows more people and views to be represented, as opposed to the US where 320 million people are forced to pick one of two sides when election day comes. This is yet another reason why European countries tend to be ‘full democracies’: their multi party systems are linked with better representation of peoples’ political views, and their systems allow for third parties to become involved if that’s what they and the voters want, making for a healthier democracy. The US can fix this; however, many restrictions would have to be lifted and an overall reform of politics would be necessary, which has been done in the past. The United Kingdom’s two largest parties obtained over 96% of the national vote just over 60 years ago, today, the two largest parties accounted for less than two thirds of the national vote11. The UK today is one of the most democratic countries in both Europe and the world, and an example the US should follow if it wants to get rid of its two-party system.

Electoral College Democracy states that one person is equal to one vote, but the electoral college system on which the US bases its elections would strongly disagree. The electoral college is a system through which Americans vote for the state representatives who then vote for the President. Take California, for instance, the largest state by population and by state representatives (55). An article published by the New York times explains that if the democrats win by at least one vote, all 55 representatives will vote for the democratic candidate; a sort of winner-takes-all rule12. For the hypothetical 51% of Californians who voted democrat this would be good news, however the other 49% of Californians’ votes would have been disregarded as if they had not voted at all. The 2016 election was the 5th in US history that saw the winning party lose the popular vote and be saved by the electoral college system: in other words the winning party is not the most voted one, as it arguably should be.


This happens in every single state, where the losing portion of the population is ignored and unrepresented in the House of Representatives. The same article explains that part of the reasoning behind the electoral college systems is a result of the then ‘slave states’ pushing for the system. Sincethe slave population was taken into account when distributing the representatives in every state, it played in their favour. Fortunately for all, slavery doesn’t exist but the system put in place at a time when it did still does. The United States continues to ignore large portions of the population as a result. It is primarily because of the electoral college that one American does not equate to one vote, and if we strictly follow the definition of democracy we cannot consider the United States to be one. In Europe, the electoral college is only something people hear about when the US is having an election. It is a concept that does not exist in countries like Spain, which we will use as an example. Legislative or congress elections, as they are called in Spain, take place as one would expect: the people vote for the political party they wish to see in congress or government and the seats are awarded proportionally to the amount of votes they received in the election. Although the United States has a flawed system used to elect the most important political figure in the country, talks about reform have been arising recently. Some states, including California, have begun talks about awarding representatives in proportion to the percentage of votes received for each candidate, rather than the current winner-takes-all system. The same article mentions other states like Michigan joining in on this reform. This reform seems plausible, but until then Europe has the upper hand when it comes to electing political representatives.

Conclusion What was once considered the best democracy in the world has now become outdated and flawed. The US has managed to maintain a democratic system for centuries, but has failed to to reform its campaign finance, electoral college, and bipartisan systems. If the US wishes to restore its status as the ‘beacon of democracy,’ it must begin by giving the vote to the people rather than the highest bidder or the state representatives. For this to happen, extensive reform is needed, and the US should take note from today’s European democracies that have successfully adapted and evolved to modern standards and consistently lead the democracy index.



End Notes

1 “Democracy Index 2021: The China Challenge.” Economist Intelligence Unit. Accessed May 9, 2022. https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2021/. 2 “Graph Analysis of FEC Donation Data.pdf.” Google Drive. Google. Accessed May 9, 2022. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1K1KY40X1kkILTiBXpi11qDYGMlbVLqrM/view. 3 Palmer, Griff. “Decision Could Allow Anonymous Political Contributions by Businesses.” The New York Times. The New York Times, February 27, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/us/28donate.html.

4 Jones, Samuel. “European Elections and Campaign Finance: Show Us the Money - Opendemocracy.” OpenDemocracy, May 20, 2014. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/european-elections-and-campaign-finance-show-us-money/. 5 “Regulation of Election Campaign Finances - House of Commons Library.” Accessed May 9, 2022. 6 “Spain Public Accountability Index.” europam.eu. Accessed May 9, 2022. https://europam.eu/?module=country-profile&country=Spain#info_PF.

7 Published by M. Szmigiera, and Apr 6. “Countries with the Most Billionaires 2019.” Statista, April 6, 2022. https://www.statista.com/statistics/299513/billionaires-top-countries/. 8 Hubert, David. “Chapter 44: Why Do We Have a Two-Party System?” Attenuated Democracy. Accessed May 10, 2022. https://slcc.pressbooks.pub/attenuateddemocracy/chapter/chapter-44/. 9Marcus Drometer and Johannes Rincke, “The Impact of Ballot Access Restrictions on Electoral Competition: Evidence from a Natural Experiment,” Public Choice. September 25, 2008. Pages 461-474.

10 “Elecciones Generales 28 De Abril De 2019.” Elecciones Generales 2015. Elecciones al Congreso y Senado 2015, 2019. https://www.historiaelectoral.com/e2019.html. 11 Fredrick, Y., 2022. How America fractured. [online] Edition.cnn.com. Available at: <https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2019/11/opinions/fractured-states-of-america/part-two-fredrick/> [Accessed 5 May 2022]. 12 Gonchar, Michael, and Nicole Daniels. “Is the Electoral College a Problem? Does It Need to Be Fixed?” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 9, 2020.