A systems framework for remedying dysfunction in US democracy

Samuel S.H. Wang, Jonathan Cervas, Bernard Grofman, Keena Lipsitz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Democracy often fails to meet its ideals, and these failures may be made worse by electoral institutions. Unwanted outcomes include elite polarization, unresponsive representatives, and the ability of a faction of voters to gain power at the expense of the majority. Various reforms have been proposed to address these problems, but their effectiveness is difficult to predict against a backdrop of complex interactions. Here we outline a path for systems-level modeling to help understand and optimize repairs to US democracy. Following the tradition of engineering and biology, models of systems include mechanisms with dynamical properties that include nonlinearities and amplification (voting rules), positive feedback mechanisms (single-party control, gerrymandering), negative feedback (checks and balances), integration over time (lifetime judicial appointments), and low dimensionality (polarization). To illustrate a systems-level approach, we analyze three emergent phenomena: low dimensionality, elite polarization, and antimajoritarianism in legislatures. In each case, long-standing rules now contribute to undesirable outcomes as a consequence of changes in the political environment. Theoretical understanding at a general level will also help evaluate whether a proposed reform’s benefits will materialize and be lasting, especially as conditions change again. In this way, rigorous modeling may not only shape new lines of research but aid in the design of effective and lasting reform.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2102154118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number50
StatePublished - Dec 14 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Complex systems
  • Democracy
  • Political polarization
  • Reform
  • Representation


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