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Thinking about democracy from two sides of the pond

Published on 8/27/2022
Until this past twelve months, I hadn’t traveled much outside of the USA, but in October, I had the opportunity to go Rome. I took students to Greece in March. Then I spent most of two months in Scotland, Ireland, England, and Iceland. At some point in every country, someone from that area ventured a timid version of the following question: “Is America okay?”  

In Rome, our tour guide pointed out what we all couldn’t overlook, the trash overflowing out of every dumpster and she faulted the city’s mayor. “But elections are next week,” she assured us. She steered us away from a protest in one square and explained that people were unhappy with the prime minister but “elections were coming.” As I strode next to her, asking how Italians felt after the pandemic, she turned the tables on me. “What do Americans think about your government? Are you okay?” I didn’t know how to answer.
In Greece’s National Gardens, another guide probed, “Your 2016 election surprised people in Greece.” She said, “What happened?” 

When we landed in Glasgow in late May, the taxi driver’s accent made it hard to read his angle when he asked, “How is America doing?” Uber drivers, taxi drivers, strangers in pubs, even a monk all asked then ventured opinions.

Why were they probing for my perspective? Each had their own motivation, perhaps pinging my responses to compare to what they saw in the news or to their own government. Maybe it’s because what happens in America affects them. I’m not sure how much they look to the US as a safeguard of democracy. At least one driver seemed amused that the former president insists he won the last election in spite of what the courts and local officials say. I couldn’t help but ask what they thought of Boris Johnson. 

Great Britain was gussied up for the Queen’s Jubilee Weekend when I landed. Flowers cascaded down storefronts celebrating her. Though the monarch opens Parliament and has the mandate to govern, neither she nor any other monarch has intervened in Parliament matters for 300 years. While in Scotland in June, we spent a morning watching BBC as members of Boris Johnson’s party called for a no-confidence vote regarding Johnson. The former prime minister Theresa May dressed up in a ballgown to cast hers. Johnson survived though we learned that Scottish members of Parliament, called MPs, had voted against him.

The taxi driver in Glasgow among others said that though they disliked Johnson, they thought he was a proven leader. A few weeks later, while we were in Dublin, Johnson was forced to resign. Too many of his lies caught up with him. On top of his denials that he attended office parties during the lockdown, Johnson denied knowing that one of his appointees had assaulted associates. Yet Dubliners and Londoners both decried his resignation as a shame, citing his staunch support of Ukraine. 

It’s worth noting that the BBC sounded awfully partisan in its reporting about Johnson, as if wishing him out of office. I know a lot of Americans who think the media did that to Donald Trump. Rory Stewart, a former UK Secretary of State for International Development and Conservative Party MP - that’s the same party Johnson headed - told Yale News on July 12 that Johnson was “doing extraordinary damage to our government and our unwritten constitution.” I was this many years old when I learned that some democracies don’t have written, codified constitutions. Five in fact: the UK, Israel, Canada, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia.

In conversation, my British acquaintances compared their prime minister to our recent presidents. In my head, I had assumed our democracies were more alike, but I soon learned democracies come in all stripes - the Pew Research Center reported in 2019 that about 57% of the world’s nations were democracies of some kind, though about 28% have slid backwards into blend of democracy and autocracy. 

The most stable democracies have five qualities that most of us learned first in high school: checks and balances to prevent one person or group from being too powerful; freedom of speech and association because we have different views and the point of democracy is to air these, to form coalitions or parties, and work out differences without resorting to violence; free and fair elections where all adult citizens can vote for who they want and can trust the outcome of elections; transparency and openness so people know who is responsible for decisions and can hold them accountable; finally, active participation by the public so elected officials truly represent their constituents. 

That brings us to two kinds of democracy: representative, like our federal government, or direct democracy. More on that later. Both the UK and USA are representative and balance powers with two houses in their legislatures. The UK House of Commons and House of Lords make up its legislature. It has a prime minister, and a figurehead in the monarch. 

The UK has more representatives for its population than the USA. The House of Commons has 650 representatives so every MP (Member of Parliament) represents about 100,000 constituents. (There are just under 67.5 million people in the UK this year.) That said, the US House of Representatives has 435 members for all 330+ million Americans. That means each of our representatives have to do their best by about 764,000 people.

We have 100 senators in our upper chamber to their 760 members of the House of Lords. Notably, until 1913 neither Americans nor the British elected members of their upper chamber. We started directly electing senators after the passage of the 17th Amendment. The British MPs in the House of Lords are appointed or simply inherit their membership. Our Senate was designed to have two members equally represent each state to counterbalance populism and to give equity to the voices of less populous states.

The takeaway is that there are loads more of us for every US Congressperson which underscores how critical our active participation is. You’ve heard the adage to be a smart consumer because businesses don’t look out for the little guy. Advocate for yourself and do your research. When it comes to representation, we might apply similar strategies. Advocate for your perspective. Speak up. Speak loud. Speak often, or they won’t hear.

It might be different if we lived in a direct democracy, but the Founding Fathers figured that would fail. James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper 55, “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates; every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.” In short, not even a country run by the wisest could govern themselves peaceably. We all just see the world in different ways. We need democracy to work out how to live together.

Interestingly, some New England towns like Switzerland govern by direct democracy, and 27 of our states have options for limited direct democracy. For example, the recent Kansas’ vote on an amendment that would have further regulated abortion was decided by the people. An overwhelming majority of Kansans came out to vote against it. In contrast, Hoosier representatives debated, wrote, and passed the new law restricting most abortions in our state.

This is how direct and representative democracy can play out. When legislation is mitigated by representatives, then voters are trusting people who have various philosophies on how to do their job. Some legislators believe they have a duty to represent the views of the people who elected them, setting aside their personal judgment or beliefs. Some believe that their party’s manifesto is the mandate they must follow, so they usually vote with the party. Others believe it is their responsibility to trust their own best judgement or moral/ethical framework to do what is best for the people, regardless of what polls say a majority wants. 

Each of these has a name, and each may have a value, but what is critical is that representatives are humans, just like us. We’ve given them certain powers with their position, but we should never give up our own agency and power. That’s why active participation matters. We might think our letter is just one drop of water in an ocean, but our calls, letters, and votes add up.