The Blog

What's Wrong with Democracy in America?

Unilateral secession was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1869, so we are unlikely to see the Independent Republic of Texas any time soon. But the petitions do signal a fundamental change in public feeling, and in particular a sharp decrease in the legitimacy of democracy in America.

In the week following the 2012 presidential election, citizens in 19 of the 50 United States put up petitions on a government website seeking the right to secede. Within just a few days, petitions for secession filed from Louisiana and Texas had received well over 10,000 signatures. According to the website's own rules, petitions that garner 25,000 signatures or more within 30 days require a response from the Obama administration.

Unilateral secession was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1869, so we are unlikely to see the Independent Republic of Texas any time soon. But the petitions do signal a fundamental change in public feeling, and in particular a sharp decrease in the legitimacy of democracy in America.

There was a time when those who voted for the losing party accepted the outcome of an election as the voice of the people. Graciously or grumpily, the losers agreed to abide the rules of the democratic game. But American politics is increasingly polarized, and when the parties are further apart it is harder to tolerate the victory of a candidate one did not vote for.

The country's electoral geography is also changing. When Jimmy Carter won the 1976 presidential election with 50.1% of the popular vote, some 26.8% of Americans were in 'landslide counties' in which Carter either won or lost by 20 percentage points or more. Over the next three decades, the proportion of Americans who lived in such landslide counties nearly doubled, rising to 48.3% when George Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004. Americans, it seems, are increasingly choosing to live among like-minded neighbors. Conservatives prefer to live near other conservatives, and liberals near liberals. Secession would simply be the logical conclusion of a historical trend that has been developing for decades.

There is something deeply worrying about this trend. Surely it's better to live in diverse communities than homogenous ones? Yet if people are happier living with like-minded neighbors, they surely have every right to do so. If democracy embodies high-minded aspirations of universal brotherhood, then perhaps democracy is not what people want.

In his book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, the economist Albert Hirschman drew a useful distinction between processes in which people express their preferences via entry or exit decisions, and those in which some form of written or verbal communication is employed. Shopping is a good example of the first process; if you don't like what's on sale in one store, you can express this by heading out the door. Voting, by contrast, is an example of the exercise of voice. In politics, it is often assumed that voice is the only acceptable way for the public to express their views; exit is not an option. At most, a citizen can abstain, but it would be disloyal to leave the polity simply because ones preferred candidate does not win.

What is the justification for this? What's so great about sticking around when a party you hate wins an election? Why can't politics be more like shopping?

According to the theory of competitive governance, it can - and it should. The world would be a better place if people were allowed to vote with their feet and move to whatever polity they found most attractive. If different sets of rules were implemented at different places, everyone could have the kind of society they wanted simply by moving there.

Those in favor of higher taxes and legalizing abortion could move to a place with high taxes and legal abortions. Those in favor of lower taxes and against abortion could move somewhere else, and so on. Socialists would never have to put up with the injustices of a free market economy. Libertarians would never have to strain under the yoke of oppressive regulation. Everyone would pay as much or as little tax as they liked. And nobody would bother trying to force their own values down their neighbor's throat. Elections would be completely unnecessary.

I'm not saying a world of competitive governance would be perfect - just that it would be better than the one we've got now. Whether it is feasible or not is another question.