The following essay is adapted from an episode of The Gist, a daily podcast from Slate about news, culture, and whatever else you’re discussing with your family and friends.
In the wake of the Christchurch, New Zealand, slaughter, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern immediately vowed that gun law would change, then followed up with details on how the gun laws would change. Then the gun laws were changed. To most Americans, this is a striking example of how government should respond to a crisis with policies that reflect the national consensus. It is, in a word, functional.
Is New Zealand better, nicer, kinder, or more bureaucratically nimble than the U.S.? Maybe. New Zealand is also smaller and more homogenous. It is nice to live in a country of 4.5 million basically like-minded people who can come together after a tragedy. Of course, Connecticut’s a state of 3.5 million people, with less diversity than New Zealand, and it passed stricter gun control measures after the Sandy Hook shooting.
The difference in comparing the U.S. and New Zealand rests on some of the countries’ other characteristics. New Zealand does not have the right of gun ownership written into its constitution, which, no matter how you interpret the Second Amendment, certainly is an advantage in broad gun reform. The gun culture of New Zealand is not as steeped in its foundational myths as the gun culture of the U.S. is. Lobbying is not a constitutional right in New Zealand—it’s treated as somewhere between curiosity and a potentially pernicious phenomenon. Political campaign funding has lately become an issue, but it is not the case that donors have great sway over elected officials. There’s no powerful gun lobby to influence elections because even the political party contesting the most seats in the general election spends less than NZ$3 million (a little more than $2 million).
But with all those differences noted, a major factor in American democratic dysfunction is the sheer size of its demographics. It is hard to be a government for the people and by the people when the number of people approaches a third of a billion.
The most functional countries, as rated by the Economist’s Democracy Index, are places like New Zealand, which came in fourth after Norway, Iceland, and Sweden as having the most freedom, pluralism, openness, liberty, and participation. If you go down the list, you’ll see Denmark, Ireland, Canada, Finland, Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands in the Top 11. All of the countries except Canada are less populous than California, Texas, Florida, or New York, and it’s worth noting that they all are less heterogeneous. Of the 20 most populous countries in the world, only Germany is considered a “full democracy.”
For all of our poorly thought-out and implemented systems of governance, for the bad faith on the right, for the hyper-religiosity driving our values, for our substandard public education system, and taking into account the legacy of slavery, it can’t be overstated just how much size matters and conspires to get in the way of progress in America. Democracy is a pact by which you, the individual, give over some of your rights and powers to the collective. When that collective is immense and from vastly divergent cultures, you’re going to get policy preferences and values that are far apart from your own. Is it right that I, a college-educated Brooklynite, would never tell a farmer in Texas which type of rifle to use to shoot a predator threatening livestock, yet that farmer can support open-carry laws on my city’s streets? Some of the rules that I live by exist because of the wants and desires of people with whom I have nothing in common, and vice versa. That is part of living in a powerful and very large democracy.
America was bound to get some things wrong. We were the bleeding edge, as the saying goes. New Zealand essentially wrote its constitution in 1986. It had the benefit of learning from some of our mistakes. It’s nice to have a shared system of beliefs and values, and I think America does, but the definition of those things can’t be terribly specific in a country this large. Perhaps consensus was easier before all information was siloed, but America just keeps growing in size as our niches keep atomizing. Inertia becomes less and less possible to overcome. I do not believe this is a death sentence for America; I’m just trying to describe why things seem so difficult to change and why it’s such a frustrating exercise to compare ourselves to smaller countries that can sensibly come together when circumstances demand it.
On the plus side, our enormity and our strength do mean that when we get something right, even a little right, the benefits to us and to the world can be enormous. We’re like a huge conglomerate that might have a profit margin of only 1 percent, but we make up for it in volume. Then again, when we get it wrong, even when we get it a little wrong, even when the question is tough, it reverberates far and wide. Think of the Arab Spring. It was a legitimately tough call to decide which rulers to back, which insurgencies to oppose, whom to topple, whom to grudgingly support in the name of stability, and whom to attempt to weaken in the name of freedom. The U.S. certainly misstepped along the way, all hard-to-avoid errors that have far greater consequence than anything Sweden, Norway, Iceland, or New Zealand ever has the opportunity to accomplish.
The way I think about this is to not get frustrated or depressed. The U.S. is still on balance more democratic than not, more wise than foolish, and more liable to elect competent leaders than buffoons. It might not seem like it now, but I still do think this is true, and this is the upside to sharing your democracy—which means ceding some of your individual power—with some of those nearly 330 million other people. On occasion, we do get the big things right, and when we do, we can’t help but shape the world, if ever so slightly for the better.