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Posted on Fri, Sep 21, 2012 : 9:30 a.m.

U.S. & the world: How’s our democracy?

By Wayne Baker

0921 ov Electoral College showing winner take all states.jpg

Editor's note: This post is part of a series by Dr. Baker on Our Values about core American values. This week Dr. Baker is discussing America's ranking in the world.

When Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was asked what kind of government had been created. “A republic, madam — if you can keep it.”

How well have we kept it? How vital is our democracy?

All week, we’ve discussed the key findings from Howard Steven Friedman’s new book, " The Measure of a Nation." We’ve talked about health, equality, safety and education. We end the week by considering Friedman’s findings about the vitality of our democracy. As we know from our discussion this week, he compares the U.S. with a set of large, rich nations around the globe. (See Monday’s post for the list.) We also know that the U.S. doesn’t fare well in the comparisons all week.

So what about our democracy?

Here, too, the comparisons reveal a gap between our perceptions and reality. America had the first modern design for democracy, but, as Friedman notes, we haven’t fixed problems that have existed from the beginning. Perhaps the most glaring is the Electoral College system, which can allow one candidate to be elected president even though another candidate won the popular vote. This effect can be produced due to the state-by-state winner-take-all policies on the Electoral College, shown in the map above. That’s not very democratic.

Voting in free elections is a critical aspiration for many people around the world. We have free elections, but also the lowest voter turnout rate of any large, rich nation. Some nations have high turnouts because they have compulsory voting laws — Australia, for example. Most democracies don’t, yet their voters still show up at the polls.

Our two-party system tends to stifle minority voices. America has never had a viable third party, but multi-party systems are the norm in democracies elsewhere. Multiple party systems often require building coalitions to run a country, leading to broader representation, inclusiveness, and compromise. Our two-party system leads to political polarization. So, the case can be made that America isn’t the best among democracies in the health of our political system.

Overall, Friedman’s fact-based analysis shows that America doesn’t rank favorably with other large, rich nations. There’s a big gap between the perception of our nation as Number One and the reality shown in these comparisons. Now, of course, we can argue with the facts and perhaps come up with reasons why we are still the best.

Or, we can take Friedman’s book as a wake-up call to do better.

Despite the impression given in election-year media, Americans actually share many core values. This is one of the main findings from my own research, which we’ve highlight over the years on OurValues.org. Values are ideals. Our core values mean that we share these ideals. Our best course is to take Friedman’s book at face value and strive to make the improvements we need to live up to the ideals of our nation.

Do you plan to vote in the November elections?

How do you feel about Friedman's critical evaluation?

To close the gap between ideals and reality, where would you start?

Dr. Wayne E. Baker is a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. Baker blogs daily at Our Values and can be reached at ourvaluesproject@gmail.com or on Facebook.