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Bednar essay explores the Constitution, democratic safeguards, and polarization

December 14, 2021

In a new essay published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jenna Bednar, professor of public policy and political science, compares the state of the U.S. democracy to the notions that existed when James Madison was writing the Constitution. She points out weaknesses that Madison did not foresee, especially concerning the threat of affective polarization. The piece, “Polarization, diversity, and democratic robustness,” argues that a lack of diverse and new ideas is the biggest threat to our democracy. 

Bednar begins by describing the democratic safeguards built into the Constitution. 

“The genius of the Constitution is that it does not leave human nature to sort itself out but instead, creates institutions to structure human interaction,” she writes. “The Madisonian Constitution is designed to accomplish two tasks, diametrically opposed: to create an ‘energetic’ government strong enough to fend off foreign invaders and domestic insurrection, while at the same time, prevent the rise of a tyrant who serves narrow interests rather than the broader public good.”

To achieve this, Madison and the other founders created a system of safeguards, including structural fragmentation, electoral accountability, judicial oversight, and federalism. Looking back on the founders’ design, Bednar argues that they did a great job of creating a robust democracy, citing three specific features: diversity, modularity, and redundancy.

“The system of safeguards was designed to channel rivalry, keeping political opponents on one playing field,” Bednar says. “It was also intentionally structured to embrace diversity of inputs; the boundaries of acceptable behavior would be set and patrolled by a diverse, redundant, and modular set of institutions.”

But, even with these safeguards, it is evident that polarization poses a real threat to our democracy. Bednar proposes three effects of polarization that negatively impact democracy. The first effect is that our preference to be near others who are similar to us and our judgement for those who differ lead to hatred. 

Second, Bednar cites how the elites stir up polarization to serve their self-interest but sometimes lose control. This eventually leads to voters prioritizing “their partisan interests over democratic principles, and electoral safeguards fail to protect democracy.”

The final, and what Bednar argues the most dangerous, effect is how polarization undermines diversity in interests and issues. As she puts it, “diversity is an asset, and polarization with conformity burns that asset. Additionally, it also undermines the supports girding our democracy against a slide towards autocracy.” Madison accounted for the first two effects, Bednar writes, but took the diversity present in his era for granted. 

“He never considered that a nation as sprawling as ours would ever lack for diversity. In a democratic system, diversity substitutes for neutrality,” she argues. “In compressing information and interests, polarization eliminates the diverse sources of failure. Without diversity, the safeguards become aligned, failing as one to prevent the rise of an autocrat.”

While this lack of diversity is a real threat to democracy, Bednar proposes two remedies. She says that multipolarity would support a complex information space and greater diversity. She blames the two-party system for the amount of affective polarization in the U.S., yet acknowledges that this is unlikely a feasible change.

But, federalism could save us. Because of its natural source of diversity, consisting of all 50 states, federalism allows diversity back into the system. 

“Federalism’s inescapable churn provides opportunities for new ideas, information, and interests to constantly bubble up. It restores dimensionality to the political space, creating the potential for cross-cutting cleavages to develop,” Bednar concludes. “It is far from a guarantee of a flourishing society, but in the face of partisan conformity that contributes to democratic decay, it does institutionalize hope.”

Read the entirety of Bednar’s essay here.