What if Detroit’s most infamous citizen, Eminem, hadn’t tweeted the words “one opportunity” on the morning of Nov. 2 to accompany a special Joe Biden-dedicated version of his ballad “Lose Yourself”? What if there had been no Covid-19 pandemic? Who would be the next president of the United States?
History sometimes turns on arbitrary whims or coincidences. But when we accept things as inevitable that could have gone better, we undermine our ability to improve improvable situations. American democracy has become a battlefield of daily political and legal skirmishes, with few offering a deeper vision or demonstrating the willpower necessary to design a more robust system appropriate for the 21st century. Let’s not pretend that removing Donald Trump alone is nearly enough.
When it comes to elections, this is hardly the first time the need for an overhaul has become apparent. Weren’t the Votomatic “hanging chads” in Florida during the 2000 election a sufficient reminder that the nation’s fate should not dangle on antiquated processes? In 2016, of course, the popular vote was again denied by the archaic Electoral College. Even though Trump has failed to manipulate the legal system and media to challenge the legitimacy of this election, his efforts have been too close for comfort. American democracy is far from idiot-proof.
Exit ramps that could have insulated the process from flagrant abuse have been missed: abolishing the Electoral College, making voting mandatory and passing more comprehensive campaign finance reform.
Along the way, exit ramps that could have insulated the process from flagrant abuse have been missed: abolishing the Electoral College, making voting mandatory and passing more comprehensive campaign finance reform, among others. Deeper institutional fixes have also been sidelined: congressional term limits, eliminating the filibuster, a single fixed term for Supreme Court justices, a new constitutional convention to facilitate ratifying amendments (such as banning the president from making recess appointments) and more. All of this suggests that America’s politicians are both unwilling and unable to punch out of the paper bag in which the country is suffocating.
The same is true of the citizenry. Democracy expert Larry Diamond recently wrote, “Come January, American democracy will still be in serious trouble. And only the American people can fix it.” But with the electorate as divided as the branches of government, no consensus will emerge anytime soon.
This leaves only the bureaucracy — what’s left of it — to save democracy from itself. The so-called deep state — or at least, the deep state as Trump himself has defined it — must fight back. It must fix itself so that better governance becomes easier than the current path of partisanship driving democracy into further decay.
One obvious place to start is the way elections are conducted. The Election Assistance Commission, which was created after the Florida debacle of 2000, helped ensure that more than 100 million early votes were cast, with 60 million more on Election Day. Imagine an America with compulsory voting for all 240 million eligible citizens, something two dozen democracies such as Australia and Costa Rica have.
Wouldn’t it make sense to implement a fully online election system like what Switzerland already enjoys? India’s electorate is nearly four times larger than America’s, yet despite its multiple socioeconomic problems, more than 500 million ballots were cast in its 2019 elections using electronic voting machines, and the country is planning even more secure biometric and blockchain procedures for its next election.
Currently, only a handful of U.S. states use electronic voting for primaries, while others restrict electronic voting to people with special needs. Instead, the EAC should contract a consortium of big tech companies to develop (pro bono) a secure system requiring nothing more than a registered ID, phone number and SMS functionality. It’s a win-win. The opportunity would burnish Silicon Valley’s image at a time when tech companies are increasingly under fire. But even better, digitization would enable more inclusive elections and more frequent referenda, both hallmarks of more stable democracies.
The EAC is just one of many government agencies whose director is appointed by the president. Shortly after the election, Ben Hovland publicly broke with Trump over his allegations of voter fraud. But why is any “independent” agency headed by political appointees rather than professionals? The General Services Administration also grabbed headlines when it delayed the release of financial support for the Biden transition team. After Michigan certified its election results, Trump tweeted that he had notified the GSA chief, Emily Murphy, whom he appointed, to “do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols.” But why does the sitting president have any influence whatsoever over what this agency does?
“Bipartisan” is not a synonym for independent; either an agency is independent or it is politicized. Both Republicans and Democrats have shown a callous disregard for the idea of truly independent federal institutions. Presidential privilege in appointing agency executives has been the order of the day for decades. On the flip side, presidents also have the authority to sack supposedly independent bureaucrats. Trump is currently on a firing spree, exterminating the civil service professionals that are the beating heart of government.
While Biden has been urged to “hire scientists,” the very phrase misses the point that the U.S. government already employs tens of thousands of people with doctorates. Being hired by an administration all but denotes a political agenda, whereas career government professionals are the ones who build the institutional knowledge that strengthens a nation’s governance.
By contrast, better governed and less corrupt states such as Canada, Germany and Singapore go out of their way to recruit top minds to government careers. Rather than the American revolving door of wealthy corporate executives or academics doing stints in government mainly to burnish their reputations, these nations reward professionals to refresh and collect new ideas.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato famously proclaimed democracy to be the penultimate form of government before tyranny. Trump’s defeat diminishes the threat of authoritarian hijacking, but not of mob rule. Though turbulent years lie ahead in American politics, governance need not be a false choice between populism and competence. If the Biden administration can restore the dignity of government professionals and let them do what they do better than politicians, his greatest legacy will have been achieved: He will make America boring again.