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The big question: Is our election system working?

Two political scientists who study different democracies offer different views.

Supporters of President Barack Obama listening to his acceptance speech following re-election on Nov. 7, 2012.
REUTERS/Jason Reed

This the last story in a series comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

Democracy is messy. It supposedly puts the people in charge of their own government and provides a mechanism by which they can elect representatives who will govern them the way they wish to be governed. And if they don’t like the way it’s going, they can elect different representatives.

The many scholars and experts who helped me with this series focus on the details of how that works in other democracies, compared with how it works in the United States, and, occasionally, how it might work better. The discussion often gets down deep into the details of various systems but occasionally it’s worth pulling back and asking big questions.

Political scientist Steven L. Taylor of Troy University in Alabama is one of the editors of a new textbook in comparative democracy that specifically places the United States into the context of 31 major democracies. After a long interview in which he gave me all sorts of ideas and leads and contacts that led to a lot of interviews for this project, I asked him to pull all the way back and make some kind of large suggestion of how to judge the relative functionality of democracies and render a judgment on how the U.S. system is working.

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He said that ultimately the measure of a system of politics and elections is whether it is offering the governed a reasonable set of choices and allowing them to choose what they want and then giving them what they choose.

But in the United States at present, it seems that people aren’t getting what they think they are voting for.

“Nobody is voting for gridlock, but that’s a lot of what they are getting,” Taylor said. “Nobody wanted a government shutdown, but they got one anyway.” (Actually, two in recent years — in 1995 and 2013.)

He said the same about the now-getting-to-be-regular threats to risk the government’s credit rating every time the debt limit has to be raised.

Later, I pressed the issue with University of Texas professor Christopher Wlezien who has developed a “thermostatic” model to describe how public policy does take account of popular opinion. The metaphor suggests that the “thermostat” does not respond immediately to every change in public opinion, but over time, if public opinion (which, for the purposes of this metaphor, relates to how hot or cold it is in the house) is expressed in favor of a policy, public policy will move in the direction that public opinion supports (like the heat or the air conditioning kicking on in relation to changes in the temperature in the house).

So I asked Wlezien about Taylor’s belief something has gone wrong with the connection between what the public wants and what public policy is producing. His answer complicated my thinking — in a good way, I hope.

Yes, it’s true, he said, nobody is voting for gridlock. But there are people who want the government to do more and people who want the government to do less, and many of the people in both of those camps probably prefer gridlock to seeing the other camp get its way. So in that sense, perhaps, neither camp sees public policy moving the direction it prefers. But public opinion, filtered through the political process, may be preventing public policy from moving in a direction that either camp opposes.

Did I mention that democracy is messy? Happy Election Day tomorrow. Don’t forget to vote.