A systems framework for remedying dysfunction in U.S. democracy
8 Pages Posted: 2 Apr 2021 Last revised: 11 Aug 2021
Date Written: August 10, 2021
Democracy often fails to meet its ideals, and electoral institutions can intensify the failures. Unwanted outcomes include polarized institutions, unresponsive representatives, and the ability of a faction of voters to gain power at the expense of the majority. Various reforms have been proposed to address these problems, but their effectiveness is difficult to predict against a backdrop of complex interactions. Here we outline a path for systems-level modeling to help understand and optimize repairs to U.S. democracy. Following the tradition of engineering and biology, models of systems include mechanisms with dynamical properties that include nonlinearities and amplification (voting rules), positive feedback mechanisms (single-party control, gerrymandering), negative feedback (checks and balances), integration over time (lifetime judicial appointments), and low dimensionality (polarization). To illustrate a systems-level approach we analyze three emergent phenomena: low dimensionality, elite polarization, and anti-majoritarianism in legislatures. In each case, long-standing rules now contribute to undesirable outcomes as a consequence of changes in the political environment. Theoretical understanding at a general level will also help evaluate whether a proposed reform’s benefits will materialize and be lasting, especially as conditions change again. In this way, rigorous modeling may not only shape new lines of research, but aid in the design of effective and lasting reform.
Keywords: democracy; complex systems; voting rights
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