Tag Archives: minority rule

Majority Rule?

Humans have a lot of trouble communicating, and language–which developed to facilitate that communication–frequently gets in the way. (A quote attributed to Talleyrand seems apt: he supposedly opined that “language was given man to conceal his thoughts…”)

Take the word “democracy.” These days, virtually every opinion column, every political speech or tweet or meme centers on threats to American democracy, but a recent New York Times column by Jamelle Bouie reminded me that Republicans and Democrats have rather different approaches to what the term means in American governance.

Bouie’s column didn’t address that longstanding difference–he was talking about how far Congress is from the dictionary definition, which is “majority rule.” He began by pointing out that a Senate majority favors raising the debt limit, protecting citizens’ right to vote, reforming policing…measures that are widely popular and that need to get done.

With a simple majority, in other words, Democrats could secure the full faith and credit of the United States, restore to strength the most important voting rights law in U.S. history and make progress on a critical issue for millions of Americans. They might also, if they have the votes, make it easier for workers to organize a union and, separately, codify Roe v. Wade into federal law.

Of course, the Senate does not run on 51 votes. Instead, members must assemble a supermajority to do anything other than appoint judges, confirm nominees and pass certain spending bills. Pretty much everything else must go through a protracted and convoluted process that makes a mockery of the Senate’s reputation for debate and deliberation.

It would be easy for me to write another jeremiad against the filibuster. I can’t say I’m not tempted. But I also have nothing left to say. Its problems are as well documented as anything could be, and the main argument in its favor — that a counter-majoritarian chamber already structured by equal state representation needs an additional supermajority requirement to protect the “rights” of a partisan minority — does not withstand serious scrutiny.

Of course, Bouie is absolutely correct–if the matters he lists are supposed to reflect majority opinion, as most Americans suppose. As I used to tell my students, the Bill of Rights prohibits American government from invading fundamental liberties, even when a majority approves of that invasion–but other matters, policy matters, are supposed to reflect the will of the majority.

Actually, even before the GOP lost its mind, Republican political orthodoxy rejected that explanation. I can’t count the number of times I heard  that “The United States isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic,” as if those were diametrically-different systems. That we are a republic is technically true: we elect Representatives and Senators to make decisions on our behalf. But this repeated insistence that we are not a democracy but a republic wasn’t evidence of a desire for grammatical precision–it was thinly-veiled paternalism. What those delivering that lecture meant was that we vote to select our “betters,” who are thus empowered to decide what’s best, irrespective of the expressed desires of those voters.

There is, again, a measure of truth to this. We hope that the people we elect will inform themselves of the nuances of policies and support those they believe are in the national interest, especially when their constituents lack sufficient context or technical knowledge to inform their preferences. But as I look back on those discussions, there was a strong whiff of “father knows best” to them. The electoral process–properly crafted (!!)–would put superior people (okay, white Christian males) in office, and they’d run things. Their way.

After all, America isn’t really a democracy…

Not all Republicans believed this, of course. The party once had  thoughtful, responsible people in it. Bouie quoted the very Republican Henry Cabot Lodge who wrote the following in 1890:

“If a minority can prevent action, the majority, which is entitled to rule and is entrusted with power, is at once divested of all responsibility, the great safeguard of free representative institutions.”

Democracy or democratic republic, in all but a few areas where fundamental liberties are at stake, the majority is entitled to rule. And right now, thanks to gerrymandering, the filibuster, vote suppression and demography, a distinct and shrinking minority continues to prevent actions desired by significant majorities.

We’ve suffered a (mostly) bloodless coup.

 

City And State

In the wake of John Kerry’s 2004 electoral defeat,  the editors of The Stranger, an alternative newspaper published in Seattle, published a wonderful rant. The editors looked at the red and blue election map, and pointed to the (visually obvious) fact that even in the reddest states, cities were bright blue. America’s urban areas comprised what they called an “urban archipelago” that reflected political values and attitudes vastly different from those of rural America.

Academic researchers have since confirmed that observation: virtually every major city (100,000 plus) in the United States of America has a political culture starkly different from that of the less populous areas surrounding it. As I wrote in a post back then, the problem is, the people who live in densely populated cities have demonstrably less political voice than their country cousins. Most states don’t really have “one person one vote” and the result is that rural voters are vastly overrepresented. State taxes paid by city dwellers go disproportionately to rural areas, and the people who populate state legislatures  have gerrymandered voting districts to keep things that way.

Representative government wasn’t genuinely representative then, and in 2021, the situation hasn’t improved.

Earlier this month, Governing Magazine noted the same problem, in an article titled “Why Cities Have More People But Less Clout.”

Gun violence is on the rise in Philadelphia. In January, homicides jumped by a third over the same month in 2020, which itself had been the deadliest in three decades. Non-fatal shootings increased last month by 71 percent.

City officials, wanting to address the issue, have repeatedly come up with gun control measures they believe will save lives. Their efforts, however, have gone nowhere. Pennsylvania, along with more than 40 other states, blocks localities from passing their own firearms regulations.

Last fall, Philadelphia sued the state to end its gun pre-emption law. “If the Pennsylvania General Assembly refuses to do anything to help us protect our citizens,” said Darrell Clarke, the president of the Philadelphia city council, “then they should not have the right to prevent us from taking the kinds of actions we know we need to keep our residents safe from harm.”

Good luck with that. Courts have repeatedly upheld Pennsylvania’s power to block local gun control laws. Across the country, states have consistently pre-empted localities on a broad range of issues, from minimum wage increases and paid sick leave requirements to bans on plastic bags or removal of Confederate monuments.

Sounds pretty familiar to us Hoosiers…

The article reports what most of us know–that the majority of the nation’s economic growth has been concentrated in major cities that are the primary economic engines of their states. You would think that would make them deserving of support– but state officials pretty consistently opt to keep money flowing from those cities to rural, less prosperous areas of the state. Cities send far more tax dollars to the state that they receive back in spending.

As cities are prospering (or at least were, before the pandemic and the great migration out of downtown offices), they have been moving in an increasingly progressive direction. Only three of the nation’s 25 largest cities have Republican mayors. Meanwhile, a majority of state legislatures are controlled by the GOP. That creates a disconnect that leads to frequent pre-emption, particularly in Republican states in the South, Southwest and Midwest.

It isn’t just a partisan political gap; the urban/rural divide “reflects and is reinforced by other overlapping differences, including cultural attitudes, education levels, class and race.”

Democrats can compete and win statewide in states including Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin — and now Arizona and Georgia — but they’re shut out of power at the legislative level in all those places. Pennsylvania falls into this category as well.

The article acknowledges the a long tradition of outstate resentment of the dominant city–a resentment made stronger by the partisan split.

“They don’t have any reason to take into account the interest of the urban population in making legislation, and they have a lot of interest in not doing so,” says Schragger, the UVA law professor. “Particularly on cultural issues and fiscal issues, it pays for these legislators to resist giving cities more home-rule powers, because their constituents tend to be opposed even to local policies that are contrary to national conservative positions.”

The article is further evidence of America’s undemocratic move to minority rule, buttressed by giving every state two senators, irrespective of population count (the recent Republican Senate majority, which refused to rein in Trump’s abuses after his first impeachment, was elected with 20 million fewer votes than the Democratic minority), and
by the anti-majoritarian operation of the Electoral College.

How we give America’s urban majority at least an equal say with its rural minority is an increasingly critical question.

 

FIXING it

Yesterday’s post focused on legal reforms aimed at official corruption. Important as those are, they aren’t the only reforms we need to make.

We need to fix our elections.

Even those of us who follow politics closely and who are familiar with the country’s legal framework often miss the way in which demographic shifts have upended America’s electoral system and shifted power to an unrepresentative minority of voters– aided and abetted by America’s minority party.

Over the last few years, more people have come to recognize the inequities caused by gerrymandering and the Electoral College, but beyond that, our comfort with “the way it is” has blinded us to the equally troubling consequences of equal Senate representation, for example. Currently, over half the U.S. population lives in just nine states. The result is  that less than half of the population chooses 82 percent of the country’s Senators. And that means that the Republicans hold their current Senate majority despite the fact that the Democratic Senate minority represents more than half of the American people.

A recent article from Vox, which led off with that example of distorted representation,  offered eleven proposals to fix what has evolved into an unfair and unequal system. The article began with a recitation of several of the most egregious elements of our decidedly undemocratic reality.

Intentional efforts to make it harder to vote, such as voter ID laws, are increasingly common throughout the states — and the Supreme Court frequently approaches such voter suppression with indifference. Gerrymandering renders many legislative elections irrelevant — in 2018, Republicans won nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Wisconsin state assembly, even though Democratic candidates received 54 percent of the popular vote. Wealthy donors flood elections with money, as lawmakers spend thousands of hours on “call time,”dialing the rich to fund the next campaign.

And looming over all of this is the problem of race. In some states, Republican lawmakers write voter suppression laws that target voters of color with, in the word of one federal appeals court, “almost surgical precision,” knowing that a law that targets minority votes will primarily disenfranchise Democrats.

After the Democrats took the House in 2019, the first bill they passed was the “For the People Act.” If that act passed the Senate– which did not happen and will not happen so long as Mitch McConnell is in charge of that body–Vox says it would be the most significant voting rights legislation since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (A companion bill, HR 4, would strengthen that original Voting Rights Act by restoring sections of the law that were eviscertated by the Supreme Court.)

That said, as the article correctly noted, even if those measures are enacted, they would still fall short of addressing the major and troubling challenges facing Americans’ electoral system. They wouldn’t address Senate malapportionment or the Electoral College –both systems that hand control of the government to an unrepresentative, predominantly rural minority of our citizens.

The eleven “fixes” identified by Vox include much-discussed measures like eliminating the filibuster and revitalizing the Voting Rights Act, but also less-often suggested changes like eliminating advance registration in favor of same-day voter registration. (A number of states are moving in that direction, which has the benefit of also eliminating flawed and partisan purges.)

Then there are the changes that would make it easier to vote: more early voting, no-excuse absentee voting and other measures that would actually facilitate the process of casting a ballot. What if we emulated Australia, for example?

In Australia, over 90 percent of eligible voters typically cast a ballot in federal elections. The nation achieves this feat by turning Election Day into a celebration, where voters gather at community barbecues to eat what are often referred to as “democracy sausages.” But Australia also uses a stick to encourage voting — nonvoters can be fined about $80 Australian dollars (about $60 in US currency) if they do not cast a ballot.

You really need to read the whole article, but even those who disagree with some of its specific recommendations will find it hard to argue with the proposition that it is past time for lawmakers and citizens alike to focus on the numerous, fundamentally unfair elements of the way we choose America’s leaders.