John O. McGinnis: Two liberal authors think American democracy is in peril. Just sour grapes?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. McGinnis is a professor at Northwestern University's School of Law.]

If the party you prefer loses a string of elections, one response is to concede that it has the wrong policies or the wrong tactics. Another is to argue that the system itself is broken. Two new books take the second course and contend that American constitutional democracy is in deep trouble. Neither is written from what would be called a Red State perspective, which raises the question: Will a Democratic victory in today's election suddenly restore the integrity of America's political system and make the books less urgent for readers who have been feeling despair for the past couple of years?

In "Does American Democracy Still Work?" Alan Wolfe answers his own question with something equivalent to: if so, just barely and badly at that. For him, American democracy is in radical decline. Americans no longer get the information they need to make decisions properly, and politicians are no longer held accountable for the decisions they make in office. Emotional populist appeals, he believes, block out important facts. Meanwhile, "disinterested institutions," like the mainstream media and the courts, no longer do their jobs. The media feature "news items fashioned to public taste," and the courts, he argues, including the Supreme Court, are no longer nonpartisan, neutral arbiters for resolving disputes. As for the loss of accountability among elected officials, it stems from the uncompetitive nature of elections.
Such claims themselves have an unreliable, partisan feel. The rise of the Internet and of C-SPAN in recent years has generated more information than ever before--lightning-fast data on policies and their effects, on fund-raising sources, on voting records, and on the truth of campaign charges and countercharges. Emotional appeals and crude populist slogans still play a part in political debate, to be sure, but they are nothing today compared with the shrill and malicious campaign style of a half-century or century ago--and they wield less power now that Americans are better educated. That is one reason that class-warfare politics--a category particularly susceptible to demagoguery--is less potent than it was in the last century....

In "Our Undemocratic Constitution," Sanford Levinson locates the flaws of the system in America's founding document itself--the Constitution. His book is more compelling that Mr. Wolfe's because of Mr. Levinson's breadth of erudition and his willingness to propose solutions to the flaws he perceives. On discrete matters he can be especially persuasive: He is entirely correct, for instance, that the Constitution should be amended to permit the temporary appointment of members of the House in the event that a terrorist attack harms a substantial number of them. Otherwise Congress will lack a quorum, and the government will cease to function when it most needs to....

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