Tag Archives: republic

Republicans Ask: Should The Majority Rule?

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.

 

 

 

Tyranny Of The Minority

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post revisited what has become an interminable discussion: why, when poll after poll shows a majority of Americans in favor of stricter gun laws, has Congress not responded? When it comes to guns, why are our Representatives so unrepresentative?

The authors–E.J. Dionne,— acknowledge the outsized influence of the NRA, but then they make a crucial point about American governance today.

But something else is at work here. As we argue in our book, “One Nation After Trump,” the United States is now a non-majoritarian democracy. If that sounds like a contradiction in terms, that’s because it is. Claims that our republic is democratic are undermined by a system that vastly overrepresents the interests of rural areas and small states. This leaves the large share of Americans in metropolitan areas with limited influence over national policy. Nowhere is the imbalance more dramatic or destructive than on the issue of gun control.

Michelle Goldberg made much the same point in a recent column for the New York Times, titled “Tyranny of the Minority.”

The Republican Party has essentially become a majority party through minority rule. Accounts of the growing resistance to Trump often ignore the ways in which Republicans have shaped the rules of the game in their favor (you could almost called it “rigged,” to use one of the president’s favorite words). The authors write: “Our system is now biased against the American majority because of partisan redistricting (which distorts the outcome of legislative elections), the nature of representation in the United States Senate (which vastly underrepresents residents of larger states), the growing role of money in politics (which empowers a very small economic elite), the workings of the Electoral College (which is increasingly out of sync with the distribution of our population) and the ability of legislatures to use a variety of measures, from voter ID laws to the disenfranchisement of former felons, to obstruct the path of millions of Americans to the ballot box.”

The vast over-representation of rural areas and small states would be less troubling if there were not a substantial and growing divide between the political preferences and social attitudes of rural and urban Americans. That divide–illustrated by political maps showing blue cities in red states–means that the over-representation of rural Americans gives Republicans an unwarranted and unearned electoral advantage.

There’s a famous anecdote (probably apocryphal) in which a woman asks Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the founders had created, and Franklin responds “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

America’s founders were (rightly) concerned with the tyranny of the majority; they worried about the effect of “popular passions” on the exercise of individual rights. Those concerns were– and remain–valid. What they failed to foresee was the situation accurately described by these and other writers, a time when–thanks to urbanization, technology and rabid partisanship– the United States would be neither a democracy nor a republic.