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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Report says American democracy declines in the face of inequality, partisanship and special interests

George Washington appears in the 1856 painting “George Washington Addressing the Constitutional Convention,” depicting a climactic moment at the end of the convention on May 25, 1787.  (AP)
By Riley Utley For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What is the form of government of the United States?

Democracy is deeply associated with the United States. Even though this country’s government has democratic elements, however, it’s not a democracy. The form of government in the U.S. is a republic, constitution-based federal republic or a representative democracy.

“This means that our government is elected by citizens. Here, citizens vote for their government officials. These officials represent the citizens’ ideas and concerns in government,” the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services wrote in its Government and You handout.

By having a representative democracy, the people of this country have the right to vote on who is elected and have some say in laws that get passed. They do not make every decision and do not write the laws. Recently, these democratic elements have been in decline.

The founders of this country intentionally decided not to make the United States a full-fledged democracy, despite their overall liberal beliefs. Blaine Garvin, a professor of political science at Gonzaga University, said the founders were influenced by political thinkers like John Locke and Montesquieu.

“This means that they believed in government by the consent of the governed and the principle that all people are born free and equal,” Garvin said in an email. “All people, in other words, had a natural right to life, liberty and property.”

Garvin said the founders did not trust direct democracy, which can be seen in James Madison’s Federalist Paper No. 10. They also knew they could not trust kings or aristocrats to run the country by themselves. Instead, they took all three forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and democracy – and created one single government allowing for checks and balances.

“Now, the Framers for good reason didn’t want a king or a nobility,” Garvin said. “So, they fashioned substitutes: the president and the Senate. The House of Representatives was the one and only place in the government that would respond directly to the wishes of the people. The Senate would check the whims of the House, the president would veto bad laws, and the Court would ensure legality.”

Over time, the government did become more democratic with the passage of the 15th, 19th and 26th amendments, which made it harder to deny people the right to vote based on race, gender and age, respectively.

“There are still undemocratic elements in the design of our government,” Garvin said. “Federal judges aren’t elected, though judges in many states are. Unequal representation is built into the U.S. Senate and can’t be gotten rid of. But there has been progress in other places. Malapportionment – legislative districts of unequal population – have been unconstitutional since the 1960s.”

Multiple studies released last year show the United States is declining democratically. The Global State of Democracy 2021 Report and the Freedom House report “From Crisis to Reform: A Call to Strengthen America’s Battered Democracy” explain how the United States has suffered democratically over the past few years, but especially in 2020.

Both reports and Garvin said the questioning of the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election results was a major turning point in the decline of democracy in the U.S.

Freedom House said there are three points that have caused this problem: unequal treatment of people of color, the outsized influence of special interests in politics and partisan polarization. These three problems are not new. Freedom House said unequal treatment of people of color stems from this country’s constant struggle with its legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws. Polarization has created a distorted political discourse that has encouraged extremism and led to dysfunction in the government.

There were a few bright spots in the data: Voter turnout was at an all-time high during the 2020 election, and more people of color and women were elected to office.

People can get involved in the government by participating at a local level first and staying informed, Garvin said. He said Alexis de Tocqueville, a political thinker who wrote “Democracy in America,” believed “the heart of democratic freedom in America was to be found in local politics.”

“The first step is to pay attention,” Garvin said. “Read your newspaper. Go to a meeting if you are so moved.

“But be in the right mood. Cooperation, not confrontation, is the proper method for a healthy democracy.