Jack Paine – University of Rochester Political Science, jackpaine@rochester.edu

Constitutions and Democratic Backsliding


Contemporary American politics is characterized by gridlock and intense partisan polarization. Observers are increasingly concerned about democratic backsliding. I focus on the role of the U.S. Constitution, in particular the strategic manipulation of various oversights or outright undemocratic provisions. Frequently, politicians deliberately tilt the rules to gain a partisan advantage, such as voter suppression, gerrymandering, and changing Senate rules. They also take advantage of fixed countermajoritarian provisions, such as the malapportioned U.S. Senate. I analyze the consequences of the U.S. Constitution systematically favoring some groups of voters over others. Established legal provisions combine with recent patterns of geographical sorting to explain asymmetries in the legal leeway for politicians in the Republican and Democratic parties to manipulate the rules for partisan advantage—and, conversely, to punish the other party for transgressions. Such asymmetries have emboldened political actors to transgress norms that are essential to promoting democratic competition, hence constituting a breakdown in deterrence. Politicians can also leverage countermajoritarian institutions to entrench themselves in power. This perspective contrasts with the conventional argument that countermajoritarian institutions help to promote elite buy-in, in particular from conservatives.

Democracy by Deterrence: Norms, Constitutions, and Electoral Tilting
American Journal of Political Science, 2022, 66(2): 434–450.  (with Gretchen Helmke and Mary Kroeger)
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Countermajoritarian Institutions and Self-Subverting Democracy (with Gretchen Helmke)