Democrats Need To Realize That We Do Not Live In A Real Democracy
It is time for Democrats to realize that we do not live in a democracy as we generally envision it. We have never lived in the democracy that we all convince ourselves exists. The structural obstacles to the current Democratic coalition on a national level are enormous and they are built into the system.
The House of Representatives probably comes closest to the vision of democracy that most of us have. Congressional districts are comprised of areas that are nearly equal in population, currently a little over 700,000 constituents per district. But even here, there is some skewing because less than a handful of states have less population than the standard district but still receive a full seat in the House. In addition, clever gerrymandering can pack one party’s voters into one district while building other districts where that party has just a slight minority of voters. This is how Republicans have created their largest majority in the House in nearly a century. Computing the total number of national congressional votes for each party is not really an appropriate measure but, in general, the winner of that vote has almost always become the majority in the House. In 2012, Democrats won 50.59% of the congressional vote but only held 46% of the seats in the House. Much of this is due to successful gerrymandering. Similar results have occurred in state legislatures across the country, again due to successful gerrymandering.
As we have seen this year and also in 2000, the Electoral College clearly does not reflect the vision of democracy that most of us have. Here is where we see begin to see how the power of rural states vastly outweighs the population they hold. California has 80 times more people than Wyoming but only has 18 times more electoral votes. Projections are that Clinton will win the popular vote by about 1.5 million votes if not more and some projections have her winning the popular vote by 2%. If you factor in the successful suppression of voting rights since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act as well as the restriction of convicted felons from voting, it is quite possible that Clinton’s popular vote lead would be almost twice as high. Trump will end up with around 47% of the popular vote but will win 54% of the Electoral College. That will be the largest discrepancy between the popular vote percentage and the Electoral College percentage in our history in a primarily two-party race.
But by far the most undemocratic institution around is the US Senate. Take the case of California and Wyoming again. California, with a population 80 times larger, has the exact same representation in the Senate as Wyoming, just two votes. The “greatest deliberative body in the world”, as the Senate loves to call itself, is also one of the most undemocratic.
In 2004, John Judis and Ray Teixeira wrote a book called “The Emerging Democratic Majority” that explored how demographics were going to create an almost insurmountable majority for Democrats. And after every Democratic election defeat since then, Democrats wonder where that majority went. But, as this election shows, the majority is clearly there but the structural barriers in our supposed democracy make it more difficult for that majority to win national elections.
One of the factors that would normally mitigate these “discrepancies” in our democracy were certain norms of governance that were adhered to by both parties. But, beginning with Newt Gingrich in the mid 1990s, the Republican party has destroyed those norms on a continual basis, both in the House and Senate. Impeachment, government shutdowns, changing votes in the House after the vote had closed, aggressive and mid-decade gerrymandering, restricting voting rights, filibustering judicial appointees and most legislation, refusing to even give a hearing to a Supreme Court nominee, and many more that I haven’t mentioned. And it is quite possible that now, with control of all three branches, the GOP, as a minority ruling as a majority, will eliminate the filibuster which was supposed to be used as a last-resort measure for the minority to protect itself from truly egregious legislation. As a result, Democrats will have a majority across the country but will have absolutely none of the protections that have protected Republicans in the past.
Even worse, as the country divides between the rural and the urban, the possibility of a disconnect between the majority of the popular vote and the actual winner of the election will probably keep on increasing as will the differential for the popular vote loser in those cases. Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the last seven elections, but have only managed to win the Presidency in four. I am almost certain that Democrats will win the popular vote in 2020 and 2024. I have far less certainty that they will win those elections.
Yes, the election is contested under the rules of the Electoral College. We all knew what those rules were and we lost. But the demonstrations we are seeing today after Trump’s victory will be nothing compared to what we might see if Democrats continue to win the popular vote and lose elections. We have all seen how quickly countries that are ruled by a minority can collapse when the majority finally turns against them. The situation is just not healthy for a country that calls itself a democracy and the damage of a continuation of this kind of Electoral College result will be incredible damaging to the country.
Do I have a solution to this problem? Unfortunately, I don’t. Perhaps expanding the House of Representatives from the current 435 will force smaller Congressional districts and make the aggressive gerrymandering we see today more difficult. Of course, abolishing the Electoral College would be preferable but it is hard to see how that could be accomplished. And I have no clue on how to fix the Senate. But these are issues that Democrats need to think about and perhaps come up with some creative answers. and we need to be ready to implement these hoped-for solutions if and when we next get the chance. Because these are not just questions for Democrats but for a functioning democracy in this country.