A growing number of Americans, as well as foreign observers, see democracy in the United States as dysfunctional – unable to address the core policy changes confronting the country. Analysts warn of serious and mounting threats to American democracy, including partisan polarization, congressional gridlock, income inequality, capture of policy-making by special interests, and prohibitively costly elections. The United States fares worse on many indicators of democracy – such as political participation, electoral competitiveness, and trust in government institutions – than its democratic counterparts.

The goal of the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective at Stanford's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) is to discover what policy initiatives and institutional reforms have the greatest potential to address those features of American democracy that are most impairing its performance.

While CDDRL has traditionally focused attention on democracy abroad, the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective turns our attention to democracy at home. We promote research that investigates the nature, scope and causes of poor democratic performance in the United States, and we seek to assess potential policy responses and institutional reforms that could improve the quality of American democracy. An important and distinctive feature of our work is to study these problems in comparative perspective, with particular attention to the structure and functioning of other established democracies.

By looking at American democracy with a comparative lens, we can assess whether the polarization and paralysis that we see in Washington is exceptional or is indicative of a deeper crisis facing many advanced democracies in the world. From a prescriptive perspective, knowledge of democratic institutions and practices elsewhere may yield lessons and remedies for America’s politics of gridlock.

For too long, the study of American politics has been separated from comparative politics and treated as a stand alone subfield of political science. Such segregation detracts from understanding American democratic practice. A comparative approach can ask new questions relevant to American politics:

  • Is the Tea Party an anti-system political party, and if so, how have other democracies overcome such anti-system parties?
  • Has the United States effectively become a supermajority democracy, and if so, what do we know about the experience of supermajority democracies elsewhere? Are there practices, norms or rules that can help supermajority democracies overcome paralysis, and if so are they importable to the United States?
  • How do other advanced democracies cope with the challenge of economic inequality? Are there democratic solutions to mitigating the contemporary sources of inequality that can be applied to the United States?
  • How do other advanced democracies create norms, rules and frameworks to better protect their budgeting processes from overly partisan political interference?

The analytic work of the Program on American Democracy falls into two broad categories: first, an investigation of threats and challenges to the democratic process; and second, an evaluation of policy outcomes and governance. The former category examines the inputs to democracy – elite polarization, uncompetitive electoral districts, primaries that advantage extreme candidates, barriers to participation in elections, unfettered political finance, and the rise of the lobbying industry and corresponding capture of key legislation. The latter category looks at the outputs of democracy. How effectively do different institutions, including Congress and bureaucratic agencies, provide public services and craft effective policy? Has political polarization and paralysis resulted in poorer quality government in the United States? And how does the United States do compared to other developed democracies on these dimensions?

The initial research of the program consists of several activities:

  1. A compilation of existing diagnoses of and prescriptions for what ails American democracy;
  2. A review of the state of democratic practice and quality of government across developed democracies;
  3. A series of targeted workshops that look comparatively at such topics as: democratic budgeting, supermajoritarianism, political finance and lobbying, electoral integrity and electoral system reform, and the effects of anti-system political parties.

Updated: October 2013