Last month, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s refusal to protect its previously articulated principle of “one person, one vote” by limiting the degree to which Congressional districts can be dishonestly drawn, Talking Points Memo published an essay about the GOP’s embrace of an explicitly anti-democratic philosophy.
Josh Marshall identified the issue, and emphasized that it is separate from the Founders’ well-documented concern about the “passions of the majority.”
Much of American constitutionalism is bound up with protecting the rights of minorities against untrammeled majorities. Here though, I’m focused on something distinct and separate: the creation of anti-majoritarian ideologies, fully articulated arguments for why democratic majorities should not in fact, as a matter of principle, hold political power.
Marshall quotes Scott Walker, the former (sleazy) governor of Wisconsin, who now heads up a GOP committee defending gerrymandering (because of course he does); Walker claims that what Democrats call “fair” maps aren’t really fair because they advantage urban areas where more voters live. He argues that counting each vote equally gives urban areas “too large an influence.”
This is a bracingly candid statement of the position: We need to reevaluate how we define “fair”. Because if “fair” means whoever gets the most votes (i.e., proportional representation) then Republicans are at an inherent disadvantage “because of their national popular vote edge.” I don’t think my explication really goes beyond Walker’s statement really at all: what Democrats call “fair” is the candidate with the most votes winning.
As Marshall says,
Beyond the opportunism and the fact that city vs non-city has a deeply racial dimension, at a basic level Walker wants to see city and non-city as two contending entities which deserve to contend on equal terms. But of course these concepts, city and non-city or city and rural areas have no existence in American law. Nor does the idea even have a factual grounding. There are plenty of Republicans in cities and Democrats outside the cities. It is simply a broad brush way of capturing a political division in American society which Walker – and a growing number of Republicans – has formalized to explain why laws and districts should be changed to ensure that his preferred candidates win even when they get fewer votes.
Given the fact that twice in the last 16 years, the candidate who lost the popular vote–in the case of Trump, massively–became President, Americans have increasingly focused on the anti-democratic elements of our Constitutional system.
Thanks to the Electoral College, and population shifts over time, it currently takes four urban votes to equal three rural votes.
The composition of the Senate is equally undemocratic: every state has two Senators, irrespective of the state’s population. Today, a majority of Americans live in nine states that collectively have 18 votes in the Senate. The rest of the country–with a minority of the population– has 82.
These anti-democratic elements have been around a long time. What’s new, as Marshall points out, is that “the big state/small state divide has seldom lined up so clearly with the broader partisan division in the country.
All of this is part of the central dynamic of our time: Republicans increasingly turning against majority rule and a widely shared franchise because majorities, when not sliced up into gerrymandered districts or state borders, increasingly favor Democrats. That’s why we have voter ID laws. It’s why we have resistance to early voting, felon voting and basically everything else that doesn’t keep the voting electorate as small as old and as white as possible. Most of these strategies have focused on things like election security, or cost or convenience or whipped up fears about voter fraud. But that’s starting to change. The explicit embrace of special advantages for Republicans outside major urban concentrations, the explicit embrace of majority rule not being the essence of electoral fairness, is coming to the fore.
Defenders of anti-majoritarianism protest that we are not and never have been a democracy; we are a representative republic. That’s accurate as far as it goes. Certainly, as Marshall notes, the Founders had a well-grounded concern that minority rights would suffer if popular majorities were left unrestrained. Even if we must close our eyes to some of the less laudable concerns that prompted creation of the Electoral College and the composition of the Senate, the protection of minority opinion justifies a degree of anti-majoritarianism.
The question is: how much?
The tension between individual rights and majority passions–the need to find the proper balance between the two– has been a constant theme throughout American history.
Too much majoritarianism threatens individual rights. Too little–as when a minority is empowered to elect candidates rejected by the majority– threatens government legitimacy.
Persistent rule by the minority is an invitation to revolution.