Seeing the World through Star Spangled Lenses

Final exams are wrapping up, and I had one last extra credit assignment for my Democratization students.  This time – 3 lessons about democracy that they learned over the course of the semester.  While a lot of students submitted some interesting, thoughtful, and even funny answers, here is our top submission:

Growing up the United States, democracy is one of those things that is taken for granted, especially when you are little. I have very salient memories of learning all about the United States and our government’s structure, being politically socialized with what makes that structure work. It was always portrayed as a perfect balance, a revered exemplification of American democracy. As I have gotten older, some of the romanticism has been removed, as no system is perfect. There is a certain expectation that is common in Americans that our system is the best system for democracy. Over the course of this past semester, three of most interesting things that I learned about democracy revolve around our system not being nearly as great for the rest of the world as it has been for us, showcasing its various flaws, breaking some of that sacred American Uncle Sam democratic perfection illusion that so many Americans perceive.

Lesson 1: Presidents aren’t always the best idea

Institutional design is a major portion of making a democracy work. American’s have always had presidents, so the fault in that position rarely occurs to US citizens, at least in that there better systems out there for democracies. Presidentialism comes with some major drawbacks. Term limits lock out losing parties for a long period of time, often resulting in a non-representative government. This can create a major stumbling block for a country attempting to establish democracy, especially with the potential for the president having the capability to turn into a dictator if the democracy does succeed quickly.

Lesson 2: Our Election System has Some Major Problems, and it isn’t All Florida’s Fault

The United States utilizes what is called a First Past the Post electoral system, which basically means that the first candidate to get a certain percentage wins. This too, is a problematic system, especially for growing democracies. It lacks inclusivity, with winners taking entire districts and minorities getting locked out of a lot power, often representing majorities, as minorities may be more dispersed.  Egypt possesses a similar electoral system – despite electing two candidates rather than one from each district – and some argue that electoral rules was part of the reason that the attempted post-Mubarak government election was “doomed.”

Lesson 3: The Supreme Court is the Pony Express of Judiciaries

The legal system in United States is remarkably slow, with cases having to work their way up an incredibly long chain of court cases to be even considered for evaluation. This presents an interesting issue when it comes to the constitutionality of laws. The case has to make it to the Supreme Court before it can be evaluated, meaning that the law could likely have been in place for quite some time. Other Judiciaries are more integrated, while not being complicit or controlled by the executive. The German Judiciary can rule on the constitutionality of a bill while it is still being debated. This would save a lot of time that is wasted over the course of a bill being over turned in the American system.


The United States is an exception, not the rule when it comes to democracies. The democracy in the US works, and while there may be more efficient systems, it works for our nation. However, the dangerous part of the American expectation is the application of it to other nations, especially blooming democracies. It is important to consider the specific nation and its ability to cope with the flaws that our system inherently has, otherwise the other nation may have a less than easy time consolidating its democracy. This class has helped me realize that when designing democratic institutions, it is vital to remove one’s star spangled lenses.



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