The Status Quo Is Unsustainable
It appears that Trump’s coming within 80,000 odd votes of winning the presidency while Biden receives at least 6 million and potentially 8 million more votes has finally brought a little renewed focus on the ossified and anti-democratic nature of our electoral systems. That focus has intensified as the Republican party establishment, pretty much from top to bottom, supports Trump’s attempts to steal the election by tossing millions of legally cast ballots, primarily from people of color, and ignore the expressed democratic will of the majority.
Since Trump had signaled his intent to cast doubt on the results of the election if he lost since, well, 2016, his refusal to concede to Biden is entirely expected. The fact that the GOP establishment is backing Trump’s efforts is apparently a surprise for many. But it really shouldn’t be when you consider that Republicans have been maintaining power while losing elections for decades now. Republicans have spent most of this decade ensuring it is as difficult as possible for Democrats to vote. When Democrats do win power, Republican legislatures strip that power away. It is not a great leap to the next step, which is simply to declare the votes for Democrats as illegitimate. For the GOP, the transition from minority rule to authoritarian rule is both a logical and seamless result.
Upon reflection, the history of Republican minority rule over the last couple of decades is rather staggering. Because of the vagaries of our electoral system, largely a result of slavery, Republicans have obtained a built-in advantage at virtually every level of our federalist system – in the Electoral College, the Senate, the House, and state legislatures. And those advantages have allowed the party to pretty much control government policy for the last two decades despite being an almost perennial minority.
Democrats have won the popular vote for President in 7 out of the last 8 elections but will only hold the White House for 20 of the 32 years because of the Electoral College. Despite Biden’s 6 or more million vote win this year, a flip of just 45,000 votes across three states would have given Trump a second term. A system where one “winner” can lose by nearly 3 million votes and another wins by over 6 million votes but they both end up with the same Electoral College total is not really much of a system. In the Senate, the last time the GOP Senators represented a majority of Americans was in 1998, yet they have controlled that body for over 14 of those intervening 22 years. Currently, Democratic Senators represent about 20 million more Americans than Republicans and if both Ossoff and Warnock win the elections in January in Georgia, that representation will increase to 40 million more Americans, but still only provide Democrats with a 50-50 Senate. Beyond that, the Senate actually over-represents whites while massively under-representing Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians as a percentage of population.
A study by the Center for American Progress showed that partisan gerrymandering shifted an average of 59 seats in the House of Representatives in the first half of this decade. That shift equates to more representation than 22 states combined. The shift is not equally divided either and the breakdown, 39 shifted more Republican, 20 more Democratic, has given the Republicans a 19 seat advantage in each election.
Partisan gerrymandering has also allowed Republicans to maintain control of state legislatures even as they continually lose the overall popular vote in those states. Incredibly, in Michigan, Democrats have won the popular vote for the State House in every election since 2012 but never even came close to gaining a majority of the seats in that body. The closest the Republicans came to actually winning the most votes was in 2016, where they won 50% of the vote but still managed to maintain control by holding 57% of the seats. In 2018, Democrats won over 51% of the vote in the State Senate, but only won 42% of the seats. In Wisconsin in 2018, Democrats won 190,000 votes more overall, or about 54% of the total, for the State Assembly, yet only won 36% of the seats. Similar situations occurred in the North Carolina and Pennsylvania legislatures in 2018.
The knock-on effects of such a wide swath of minority rule are equally debilitating. Republican Presidents who originally lost the popular vote have installed five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court. Despite winning the popular vote in 7 or the last 8 elections, a Democrat has not had a nominee confirmed to the Court since 1994. A more representative Senate would have allowed Merrick Garland to be confirmed so we would not be facing a 6-3 conservative Court. Critical decisions that undermine our democracy such as Citizens United, Shelby v Holder, and Rucho v Common Cause would not have been handed down and the federal judiciary would not be stacked with Federalist Society hacks for the next two generations.
Additionally, as noted above, Republican minority control of state legislatures has allowed them to try and occasionally succeed in stripping power from popularly elected Democratic governors in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In Michigan and Wisconsin, the legislature has been able to restrict the governors’ power to prevent the spread of the pandemic by blocking emergency declarations and stay-at-home orders. And now we see these same minority-controlled legislatures in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania being pressured by Trump into enabling a coup by establishing their own slate of electors for the Electoral College and ignoring the democratic result of their own voters.
It is true that the disastrous 2010 elections for Democrats, combined with a pliant Supreme Court, enabled the kind of partisan gerrymandering that provides Republicans with an advantage in the House and state legislatures. But, despite some real steps toward progress, it will not get much better in the 2020s. In New Mexico, Nevada, Maine, and Oregon, Democrats will now control gerrymandering as opposed to Republicans in 2010. In Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, Democratic governors will now have a say in redistricting. And Virginia, Colorado, and Michigan will now rely on independent or shared-power commissions for redistricting. Finally, Alaska appears to have adopted top-four open primaries and ranked choice voting which can also mitigate the effects of gerrymandering.
Even with all these changes, Republicans will dominate House gerrymandered districts, primarily because good-government Democrats insist on independent commissions in states they control. According to Nathaniel Rakich and Elena Mejía, “Republicans are set to control the redistricting of 188 congressional seats — or 43 percent of the entire House of Representatives. By contrast, Democrats will control the redistricting of, at most, 73 seats, or 17 percent”. These numbers might actually be worse if the Trump administration is able to report census numbers for redistricting that exclude undocumented immigrants and potentially even children. If Democrats really want to eliminate this GOP advantage in the House, they have to abandon their principles and fight fire with fire. That means gerrymandering California, New York, and Virginia in as partisan a manner as Republicans do in the states they control.
The idea of abolishing the Electoral College, while finally getting some mainstream attention in the media, is still just a pipe dream. This year, Colorado voted to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, bringing the number of electoral votes controlled by the Compact to 196, still far short of the 270 needed. Reforming or simply abolishing the Senate looks like even more remote possibility, especially as the urban and college educated versus rural with high school or some college divide grows. Even adding DC and Puerto Rico as states, additions that we now know are years away if ever, will not overcome the current small state bias of the Senate.
Ezra Klein writes, under current conditions, “To reliably win the Electoral College, Democrats need to win the popular vote by 3 or 4 percentage points. To reliably win the Senate, they need to run 6 or 7 points ahead of Republicans. To reliably win the House, they need to win the vote by 3 or 4 points”. By 2040, it is estimated that 70 percent of the population will live in just 16 states, leaving a supermajority of 68 Senate seats to be held by just 30 percent of the population. David Rothkopf notes that in this election, Biden won 477 districts in total which account for 70% of total GDP and won around 90% of the most populous counties in the country. Of the 20 states most dependent on the federal government, Trump won 16. Those numbers also match up with polling that shows the best predictor of voter behavior in 2016 and probably again in 2020 was educational attainment.
Trump’s attempted coup is just the logical extension of Republican minority rule, that the voters really don’t matter. And the almost universal support for the coup among the Republican establishment is probably less of a belief in its ultimate success but rather yet another attempt to strip power away from a democratically elected Democratic executive. The current coup attempt will strip Biden of the substantial mandate that he actually won and the delay in transition will essentially strip Biden of the ability to effectively govern for the first couple of months of his term. And if the coup succeeds, all the better. All of this has become standard operating procedure for an anti-democratic, counter-majoritarian Republican party.
The bigger question going forward is whether the country can survive the results of the current dysfunction of our electoral systems. Currently, it appears that we may not. As Jay Rosen writes, “A counter-majoritarian party has to be counterfactual, or it cannot live. To satisfy its core supporters it wrecks institutions. The fuel source is destruction. Biden is not ready. His party is not ready. The press is not ready”. Democrats need to recognize that the dam has been breached and there is no going back to “normal”. Counterintuitively, it will require some of the same abuses of power that Trump and the Republicans have engaged in in order to restore some semblance of normal government.
But while today we realize that we came within a few thousand votes of autocratic rule and worry about post-election right-wing violence, the more likely future involves an eventual majoritarian backlash. It seems inconceivable that 70% of the population that produces 70% or more of the economic output of the nation will continue to allow a reactionary minority to rule over them, indeed a minority that increasingly relies on the beneficence of the majority. The current media labeling of the Republican party as anti-democratic and counter-majoritarian is the initial phase of this backlash.
Despite our romantic visions of the past, populist revolutions in America usually fail. Real American revolutions, like the original American Revolution itself, are led by the elites. Slave revolts did not end slavery. Instead, the end began when the Southern white elites decided to secede. Similarly, the New Deal was essentially an elite response to the threat of socialism and communism. The Trump era has ushered in another probably decades-long period of instability and radical change. It appears that the GOP-supported Trump coup has finally awoken a sleeping majority. The fight against minority rule will be messy, chaotic, and perhaps even violent. But the majoritarian backlash has begun.