As we well know, democracy is not a stable thing. It is fragile and easily threatened, yet idealized and strived for all around the world. In one moment it can be strong as ever, and in the next, it can be crumbling before our eyes. This thought is an unsettling one, but democratic backsliding occurs all around the world, and while its effects vary, backsliding poses a threat to the people and the country’s stability. While it is easy to picture democratic backsliding in the form of a coup, major resistance from the people, or even a hostile takeover, backsliding is more common in smaller, yet substantial actions. For example, democratic backsliding has been underway for many years in the Massachusetts General Court, also known as the State House, but until recently it has gone unnoticed.
Slowly but surely, the State House, comprised of representatives elected by the people for the people, has taken power from the people and made decisions behind closed doors to prevent any intervention. The voters in Massachusetts have consistently placed their trust in their elected representatives. They trust that their opinions and needs will be taken into account when voting on a certain bill occurs, and they trust that their representatives are hard at work. What most Massachusetts residents don’t know is that they live in one of the least transparent states in the country. This means that even though they trust their representatives, there is no way for the voters to ensure the representatives are voting in their best interest, or that their representatives are working effectively. Massachusetts voters are ultimately forced to place their trust in the hands of representatives that have unchecked power and believe that the representative democracy that they live in will work in their favor.
The truth is, Massachusetts was given an overall F and D+ by the Open State Projects and Center for Public Integrity respectively. Each organization researched the ways in which Massachusetts’ government was failing to operate a truly representative democracy, and in both cases, they revealed that the people are kept atrociously out of the loop. Essentially, voters have very little power beyond the voting booth and have no ability to make sure their representatives are truly working for the people.
The people of Massachusetts vote each year during general elections on ballot questions that are intended to inform representatives how to vote during legislative periods. Year after year supported legislation and important issues are ignored and shot down despite obvious public support, while legislation lacking public support is passed in secret. An example of this is the Safe Communities Act, an act aiming to protect immigrant populations in Massachusetts from exclusive and xenophobic policies, which was widely supported across the state, was ultimately killed in the legislature with no record of committee votes or explanation. The people were forced to let go of an important and beneficial bill, but could not hold their representatives accountable because they are unsure of how they voted. In theory, after the people recognize that their wishes and needs are not being met by a representative they can vote them out. This process is made extremely difficult because the people don’t know how their representatives voted, thus making it impossible for the people to decide which representatives to vote for and which to vote out of office. There is no way to check the power of representatives, and this is inherently anti-democratic.
Massachusetts is not as democratic or representative of the people as it seems. There is a deep-rooted issue that needs to be dealt with in order to ensure that democracy survives. To begin, any and all voting that occurs within the Massachusetts General Court needs to be made public to the people whether or not it is a roll call. Access to upcoming bills that are to be voted on needs to become more readily available, and Representatives must become more responsive to their constituents. These changes are necessary in order for the representative democracy in Massachusetts to be returned to its former glory, and for the people to feel comfortable with the decisions that their representatives are making. Without these changes, democratic backsliding in the Massachusetts state house will only continue, and at a certain point the people’s votes, which are already less valuable than before, will cease to have any purpose.
The Safe Communities Act being killed by the legislature without any explanation is one of many examples, but the main takeaway is that voters in Massachusetts don’t have a say in how their state is run, and how their representatives vote. This backsliding has had detrimental effects on personal autonomy within the state and has ultimately led to an evident disconnect between the Massachusetts legislatures in Beacon Hill and the people they represent across the state. This disconnect stems from a lack of transparency within the state house that restricts voters from knowing what legislatures are working on, how they vote, and why they make certain decisions. The people of Massachusetts have been led to believe that they live in a fully representative democracy, but democratic backsliding has proved this to be false, and this goes to show that backsliding can occur in any branch of government, can occur at any rate, and can occur in even the “most democratic” country or state in the world.
This blog post brings state level institutions into the conversation about democratic erosion, noting that the Massachusetts legislature has received low scores from the Open State Project and the Center for Public Integrity, which presents a challenge for Massachusetts residents being effectively represented by their elected officials. For example, the Safe Communities Act to protect immigrants in Massachusetts was killed by the legislature without public vote records or explanation despite high public support.
While the legislature does not appear to have become less democratic over time, its failure to update its practices to increase transparency could present a problem for political engagement in Massachusetts tied to the broader theme of democratic erosion. The problem is mainly transparency of the legislature, especially in terms of publicly available information. A 2021 Boston Globe article discusses recent stymied efforts to increase transparency in the state legislature –an amendment to the legislature’s rules proposing that the legislature post their votes online, publicize testimony, and make public which lawmakers vote no on a bill in committee was turned down. Sheri Berman argues in her article “Populism is a Problem. Elitist Technocrats Aren’t the Solution,” that party engagement is eroding at the local level in the US, making politicians less able to transmit voter preferences into policies, and contributing to a decline in the strength of US democracy. The failure of the state legislature to update its practices could contribute to increased alienation from politics at the state level. This discussion opens avenues for further elaboration on how transparency and engagement in state level institutions can have implications for the strength of US democracy, and how the practices of state legislatures can strengthen or weaken political engagement between citizens and elected officials to increase democratic engagement rather than erosion.