America's democratic deficit

Is the United States truly a democracy? The question may seem absurd, and almost impertinent for anyone on this side of the Atlantic to raise. The US constitution begins with the words "We the People", locating power clearly as something that flows from the bottom up, not from the top down. It would be unthinkable for Washington to curb the powers of elected state governors or city mayors. Functions that are performed in the UK by quangos or by opaque council committees - the running of schools and libraries, even sometimes the control of mosquitoes and floods - are carried out in the US by elected, autonomous bodies. Freedoms of speech and of the press are enshrined in the constitution, while freedom of information laws are the most advanced in the world. Decision-making is carried out openly to an extent unimaginable here: would a show of hands on whether to order a vote recount ever be taken in front of cameras in Britain, as happened in Palm Beach, Florida, the other day? Certainly, Britain, home of the West Lothian question, a country that routinely puts governments into office with a minority of the popular vote (even, twice since the last war, with fewer votes than the opposition) and which installs new prime ministers in mid-parliament without so much as a by-your-leave to the people, has no cause for smugness.

Yet the Schadenfreude that has followed the fiasco over the US presidential election is not entirely unjustified. This, after all, is a country which lectures the rest of the globe on democracy. Yet half its own population has so little interest in its supposedly democratic system that it rarely bothers to vote. Moreover, many millions of Americans are disenfranchised not only because they are now in prison at rates far above those in any western European country, but also because, in some states, a past conviction, even for a non-violent drugs offence, is enough to remove a person from the franchise for life. Such people, needless to say, are disproportionately poor and black, and it is richly ironic that if Bill Clinton and Al Gore had not pursued policies that caused ever-increasing numbers of poor blacks to be locked up, the latter would have won this month's election comfortably. In other respects, too, the US is less democratic than it looks. If freedom of press and information laws are stronger than in Europe, other freedoms, such as workers' rights to organise in unions, are weaker. If the safeguards against excessive political power seem admirable, we should recall that the Supreme Court blocked 12 pieces of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation before 1937 and that, as recently as 1995, it ruled that it was unconstitutional to forbid pupils from carrying handguns in school.

Far more glaring than the electoral college, which could well deny Mr Gore the presidency, is the composition of the Senate, a body which, given that it has significantly greater legislative clout, is scarcely less preposterous than our House of Lords. Because of the principle of equal state representation (two senators each), it gives the same weight to California's 32 million people as it does to Wyoming's 500,000. Since the more populous states tend to be those that contain big cities, the effect is once more to minimise the political power of blacks and other minorities.

The gravest and most fundamental flaw in America's democracy is that its politicians and parties are, by all normal standards, corrupt. This truth is largely obscured by the openness of the system; there is no real secrecy about campaign donations or interest-group lobbying and, therefore, exposes and prosecutions are rare. But a politician is no less bought for being bought openly. This is the result of a system that so constrains central power that it creates political parties that are merely the loosest of coalitions. A coherent party programme is a waste of time, because it can never be implemented. Politicians thus become freelance entrepreneurs, playing off the factions and sectional interests against one another.

Jonathan Freedland, in his book Bring Home the Revolution, enjoined the British to learn from America's attachment to liberty, law and elections. But lessons should travel the other way, too. In the US, constitutional issues are hardly ever discussed; there has been no equivalent of the public debate sparked here by Charter 88. The US written constitution has remained virtually unchanged since the 18th century. And its central inadequacy for the 21st becomes increasingly apparent: that, despite their admirably advanced principles, the founding fathers, being affluent, slave-owning property owners, distrusted not just executive power but mass democracy itself.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer