Last month the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that Americans are losing faith in their system of government. Only one-fifth of adults surveyed believe democracy is working “very well” in the United States, while two-thirds say “significant changes” are needed to governmental “design and structure.”
The 2016 election is one explanation for these findings. Something is not right in a country where Donald Trump is able to win the presidency.
But here’s another possibility: What if trust in American democracy is eroding because the nation has become too big to be effectively governed through traditional means? With a population of more than 325 million and an enormously complex society, perhaps this country has passed a point where — no matter whom we elect — it risks becoming permanently dissatisfied with legislative and governmental performance.
Political thinkers, worried about the problem of size, have long advocated small republics. Plato and Aristotle admired the city-state because they thought reason and virtue could prevail only when a polis was small enough that citizens could be acquaintances. Montesquieu, the 18th-century French political philosopher, picked up where the ancient Greeks left off, arguing for the benefits of small territories. “In a large republic,” he wrote, “the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations,” whereas in a smaller one the common good “is more strongly felt, better known, and closer to each citizen.”
The framers of the United States Constitution were keenly aware of these arguments. As the political scientists Robert Dahl and Edward Tufte noted in their 1973 book, “Size and Democracy,” the framers embraced federalism partly because they thought that states were closer in scale to the classical ideal. Ultimately, however, a counterargument advanced by James Madison won the day: Larger republics better protected democracy, he claimed, because their natural political diversity made it difficult for any supersized faction to form and dominate.
Two and a half centuries later, the accumulated social science suggests that Madison’s optimism was misplaced. Smaller, it seems, is better.
There are clear economic and military advantages to being a large country. But when it comes to democracy, the benefits of largeness — defined by population or geographic area — are hard to find. Examining data on the world’s nations from the 19th century until today, the political scientists John Gerring and Wouter Veenendaal recently discovered that although size is correlated with electoral competition (in line with the Madisonian argument), there is no