Last Thursday, I participated in a (virtual) presentation for my university’s Senior Academy. The focus was upon the election, and since most of us are laser-focused on November 3d, I thought I’d share my remarks, which followed a colleague’s presentation on partisanship and political psychology.
Like most of you, I’ve followed the ways in which partisanship and our incommensurate realities have affected our elections, but since 2016, I’ve been obsessed with a different question: How did we get here? What explains our current tribalism? What explains the 35 or 40 percent of Americans who continue to support Donald Trump?
I’ve concluded that the answer is deceptively—and depressingly—simple: the central motivation is racism (with a fair amount of misogyny and religious bigotry thrown in.) The tools that Mitch McConnell and his ilk use—tools that allow a minority of American citizens to effectively dominate the majority—are elements of our legal and electoral structures that have outlived whatever usefulness they may once have had.
There’s growing awareness of several of those structural defects: both parties gerrymander, for example, although the Republicans are much better at it; the Electoral College, which has given us a President who lost the popular vote twice since 2000; the filibuster, which as currently used effectively requires a Senate super-majority to pass anything; and the dubious legality of a variety of thinly-veiled vote suppression tactics.
There are other systemic flaws that we are only beginning to recognize, especially the degree to which population movement and demographic change have turned the U.S. Senate into a massively unrepresentative body. Currently, over half the U.S. population lives in just nine states. As a result, fewer than half of the population chooses 82 percent of the country’s Senators.
Republicans currently hold a Senate majority while Senate Democrats represent well over half of the American population.
Recently, Nate Silver sorted the country into four categories—or as he called them, “buckets”– those with fewer than 25,000 people living within 5 miles were classified as rural; those falling between 25,000 and 100,000 were exurban; between 100,000 and 250,000 were suburban or small city; and over 250,000 were urban.
Silver found that these “buckets” were almost even: 25 percent were rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.
Silver then looked at the Senate, and found a major skew to rural areas in that chamber’s representation. It turns out that the Senate has “two or three times as much rural representation as urban core representation … even though there are actually about an equal number of voters in each bucket nationwide.”
Since rural areas tend to be whiter, it means the Senate represents a whiter population, too. Silver says it’s almost as if the Senate has turned the clock back by 20 years as far as the racial demographics of the country goes. Rural residents also tend to be more Christian, more socially conservative and less tolerant of diversity than residents of urban areas. Don’t get me wrong; these folks deserve representation. But they don’t deserve wildly disproportionate representation.
When we connect the dots, we realize that the dominance of rural interests at both the state and federal level owes a lot to gerrymandering. Since rural folks tend to be Republican and urban areas these days are solidly Democratic, when Republicans draw the district maps—as they do in Indiana—they cut up urban areas and put the pieces in districts that are largely rural. It’s been estimated that for purposes of the Electoral College, each rural vote is worth 1 and a third of each urban vote.
This isn’t the way a small-d democratic republic is supposed to work.
One reason we’ve gotten to this point is because we’ve neglected civic education, and have ignored the importance of informed civic engagement.
So long as most Americans don’t understand the rules we already have, or the reasons we have them–so long as they fail to recognize the profound effect legal structure exerts on the mechanics of government, we are ignoring one of the most dangerous threats to ethical and constitutional governance: widespread civic ignorance.
Too many Americans vote for presidents and governors and mayors without understanding either the skills required for those jobs or–even more importantly–the constraints applicable to those positions. They evidently assume that they are electing temporary kings and queens–people who will take office, issue decrees, and change reality. (Trump’s base, for example, evidently thinks his constant stream of “Executive Orders” all have legal effect, although many don’t.)
Worse, they fail to recognize the ways in which structures that were useful (or at least, less harmful) in the past have distorted the exercise of the franchise and given us a system in which rural minorities and thinly populated states dominate an overwhelmingly urban country.
When you don’t understand how a system works–or why it is no longer working properly–you can’t make informed choices at the ballot box. We desperately need a voting public that understands why America’s systems aren’t functioning properly–and that recognition requires knowing what “properly” looks like.
We actually are fortunate that Donald Trump is so visibly incompetent and corrupt that even an electorate that is constitutionally-illiterate can see it. If the polls are right and the monumental turnout we are already seeing is as anti-Trump as it seems, we will have narrowly escaped an existential threat.
Still–over a third of the voting public is more concerned with protecting white privilege than repairing our democracy.
We have our work cut out for us.