I’m old enough to remember the 60s slogan “Power to the People!” And I’ve lived long enough to see “the people”–at least the people who vote– overpowered.
I’ve written periodically about the various ways in which America’s systems have become undemocratic–about gerrymandering, vote suppression, the Electoral College–but Ezra Klein puts it all together in a truly chilling essay for Vox.
Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court by an unpopular president who won 3 million fewer votes than the runner-up. He was confirmed by a Senate majority that represents a minority of the country. He was confirmed despite most Americans telling pollster after pollster they did not want him seated on the Supreme Court.
As Klein points out, a constitutional system built in America’s founding era, structured to address the issues of that era, is currently making the country both less democratic and less Democratic.
Since 2000, fully 40 percent of presidential elections have been won by the loser of the popular vote. Republicans control the US Senate despite winning fewer votes than Democrats, and it’s understood that House Democrats need to beat Republicans by as much as 7 or 8 points in the popular vote to hold a majority in the chamber. Next year, it’s possible that Republicans will control the presidency and both chambers of Congress despite having received fewer votes for the White House in 2016 and for the House and Senate in 2018.
Kavanaugh now serves on a Supreme Court where four of the nine justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote in his initial run for office, and where the 5-4 conservative majority owes its existence to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s extraordinary decision to deny Merrick Garland a hearing. This Court will rule on the constitutionality of gerrymandering, voter ID laws, union dues, campaign finance, Obamacare, and more; that is to say, they will rule on cases that will shape who holds, and who can effectively wield, political power in the future.
When it is all put together, it amounts to a bloodless coup. (“Bloodless” in the sense that the GOP has taken power without force of arms. Not so bloodless if you think of people who are dying for lack of access to medical care although majorities favor Medicare-for-All, or consider the rising suicide rate being attributed to despair, or factor in the deaths that will occur as a consequence of ignoring climate change.)
Sandy Levenson teaches Constitutional law at the University of Texas, and has been warning about waning democracy and American government’s lack of legitimacy for several years. The article quotes him warning “At some point, people will get so angry that they will either talk about secession or start engaging in more direct measures, whether it takes the form of rioting or violence.”
Klein’s article goes into some detail about the original reasons for our unrepresentative systems–the compromises that were “baked into” the Constitution in order to get it ratified. As he points out, any free political system must determine how to ensure that different interests can engage in balanced competition. The problem in our system is that what we balanced for–large and small states– is no longer what’s competing.
The compromises made to calm the divisions between places is exacerbating the divisions between the parties, as Republicans dominate rural areas while Democrats cluster in urban centers.
By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.
It is not difficult to imagine an America where Republicans consistently win the presidency despite rarely winning the popular vote, where they control both the House and the Senate despite rarely winning more votes than the Democrats, where their dominance of the Supreme Court is unquestioned, and where all this power is used to buttress a system of partisan gerrymandering and pro-corporate campaign finance laws and strict voter ID requirements and anti-union legislation that further weakens Democrats’ electoral performance.
For those inclined to dismiss this analysis as overheated, Klein says
If this seems outlandish, well, it simply describes the world we live in now, and assumes it continues forward. Look at North Carolina, where Republican legislators are trying to change the state Constitution to gain power over both elections and courts. Look at Wisconsin, where state Republicans gerrymandered the seats to make Democratic control a near impossibility. Look at Citizens United, which research finds gave Republicans a 5 percentage point boost in elections for state legislators. Look at Georgia, where the GOP candidate for governor currently serves as secretary of state and is executing a voter purge designed to help him win office.
Klein references a number of changes that are being proposed, but whatever we might think of those changes, they won’t even be considered unless Democrats can overcome the odds and win control of both the House and Senate.
Pundits are always insisting that whatever election is imminent is “the most important of our lifetime.”
This one is.