The status quo of American politics is mostly bleak. One of its two major political parties has been radicalizing against democracy and is poised to usher in a period of existential crisis. But even setting aside the Republican Party’s authoritarian antics, the United States has been dogged by a stale institutional framework that has only endured under political orders of a bygone era. Despite these ominous signs, the project of American democracy is still an unfinished endeavor worth defending.
I. American Democracy is Flawed
A. Malapportioned Representation
The United States Senate is a broken institution.
In 1790, about 748,000 people (about 40 percent of whom were enslaved) lived in Virginia, the largest state. Delaware, the smallest state, had 59,000 residents. The largest state at the time was therefore 12.6 times as big as the smallest state.
Today, the smallest state is Wyoming. Illinois has 22 times Wyoming’s population. Texas is 50 times as large. And California is 68 times as large.
Even though the Senate is currently split evenly 50/50 between the parties, Democrats represent 41.5 million more people than the 50 Republican senators. By 2040, if population trends continue, 70% of Americans will be represented by just 30 senators, and 30% of Americans by 70 senators. Today, states containing just 17 percent of the American population can theoretically elect a Senate majority.
This dramatically overpowers rural white states representation in the Senate. In an era of intense polarization, this means that the Republican Party is structurally advantaged by its voting bloc in a way that was not true in the past:
This geographical bias also has huge implications for the drawing of legislative districts at both the state and federal level. The phenomenon has allowed Republican controlled legislatures to precision gerrymander their voters and all but guarantee power in certain elections even in landslide elections for Democrats in a way that dwarfs similar efforts by Democratic gerrymanders:
In Wisconsin, Republicans have effectively gerrymandered a permanent legislative majority, and have a solid chance of winning a supermajority in tomorrow’s election that would effectively nullify Democratic political power statewide despite the state being a 50/50 battleground. When Democrat Tony Evers beat the incumbent Scott Walker for the Governor’s race in 2018, Walker and the gerrymandered legislature stripped powers from the governorship in the lame duck session after Walker lost, which was blessed by the Republican controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court.
By some calculations, Democrats in Wisconsin would need to win statewide by 12 percent of the vote to have a majority in the legislature, while Republicans can maintain a majority with a mere 44 percent of the vote.
Republican state legislatures efforts gerrymander the House of Representatives are equally brazen. The effort has had long term implications:
Although Republicans went into the cycle with control over drawing more districts, the number of Democratic-leaning seats actually increased as a result of redistricting. The new maps have six more Democratic-leaning seats than the old ones and the same number of Republican-leaning seats. This is due to aggressive map-drawing by Democrats in states such as Illinois as well as court decisions overturning Republican gerrymanders in states like North Carolina.
After accounting for incumbency, however, Republicans are actually the ones who have gained ground from redistricting: The GOP is positioned for a net gain of three to four seats in 2022 just thanks to the new lines alone. Republicans have benefited from their own brazen cartography in states like Florida and courts striking down Democratic gerrymanders in Maryland and New York. Republicans have also shored up their existing position by converting light-red districts into safer seats in states like Texas.
Partisanship aside, there are two other important takeaways from the 2021-22 redistricting cycle. First, the number of swing seats will continue to decline; the new maps have six fewer highly competitive districts than the old ones. And second, people of color will remain underrepresented in Congress.
Contributing to the above result is that courts in several Democratic states have struck down Democratic gerrymanders; but also, the blue leaning battleground states of Colorado, Virginia, and Michigan have independent redistricting commissions, meaning these states have admirably diluted their ability gerrymander more Democrats into congress. Republican legislatures and voters have no such delusions of disarmament.
Ohio is another great example story of Republican defiance to efforts to reign in their power grabbing. The Ohio Supreme Court struck down a congressional map skewed to favor Republicans on the basis of anti-gerrymandering language added to the constitution by voters in 2018. The map would have given Republicans 12 seats to 3 for Democrats in elections for the House of Representatives, even though the G.O.P. has lately won only about 55 percent of the statewide popular vote. Despite this, Republicans obstructed the process so hard that both congressional and legislative elections this year are being run under the maps the state Supreme Court ruled as unconstitutional.
Conveniently, Republican efforts to tilt the legislative fields in their favor have the added benefit of aligning with their efforts to win the presidency with the electoral college, an antiquated system that is made even worse by the fact that delegates are now effectively rubber stamps. Electors are often prevented by law from voting contrary to a state’s popular vote. But even worse, the haphazard addition and growth of states has the same unintended consequence of the US Senate in that the popular vote of the nation as a whole can produce grossly lopsided results:
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by approximately 3 million, but lost in the Electoral College 304–227. Sixteen years earlier, Al Gore won 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush nationwide, but Bush prevailed in the Electoral College 271–266 after the Supreme Court functionally awarded him Florida’s electoral votes. And even without Trump’s machinations, the 2020 election came dangerously close to producing yet again a president who did not win the national popular vote. Joe Biden won approximately 7 million more votes than Trump, and prevailed in the Electoral College 306–232, but just 44,000 additional Trump votes in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin could have resulted in a 269–269 tie in the Electoral College. If that had happened, the House, voting by state delegation, would almost certainly have anointed Trump president despite his second popular-vote loss.
B. Stacking the Deck
Our current system and political alignment greatly advantages Republicans. Republicans in turn are working tirelessly to use that power to insulate themselves from accountability or the will of the voters as much as possible.
i. The Senate
The skewing of power towards the Republican Party has coincided with an explosion of partisanship. Party affiliation used to not a clear indicator of support for a particular bill or position. In the immediate post-war era, for instance, polarization was low (and black people didn’t have civil rights, but I digress). This was lamented by political scientists at the time, who believed that increasing polarization would be good for politics because it would create competition and give voters a clearer idea of election stakes.
There is a tedious history of a procedure in the Senate called the “filibuster.” Long story short, it is a rule that in modern times effectively changes the 51 vote majority threshold of the chamber to a 60 vote threshold. Votes passing the senate with less than 60 votes used to be common. But as partisanship has increased, both parties, but especially the Republican Party, have made the filibuster now the de facto rule to do anything in terms of legislation, with few exceptions.
There is a haphazard carve out to get around the filibuster with a simple majority known as budget reconciliation. The process can only be used once per year, and is limited in scope. It is now the only mechanism by which major legislation can feasibly pass the Senate.
The filibuster makes a terrible legislative body unbearably worse. It makes the Senate a convoluted chamber of obstruction even for immensely popular bills. The two seat per state setup of the Senate might be what was established in 1789 with a mere 13 states, but with the huge disparity of the number of people that each senator now represents, that means that a dwindling minority of the population (as little as 17 percent of the population for a majority) wield enough power to make or break the law making process. Add the ability of 41 senators to filibuster anything, and the situation becomes absurd.
The filibuster benefits politicians seeking to dodge tough votes, and gives them an easy excuse to point to for why progress is stalled. Simply put, the Senate is terrible by design, but a supermajority requirement for an already dysfunctional legislative process is asinine and thwarts popular will. This is a body that cannot function as it has and maintain legitimacy. It should obviously be reworked to eliminate the filibuster and bring back the majority rule vote.
ii. The House of Representatives
The House of Representatives is obviously a worse body because of partisanship and gerrymandering. As pointed out by The Cook Political Report, the number of truly competitive seats is dwindling. Out of 435 seats total, a mere 35 of these are “toss ups”. That’s 8% of seats. That alone breeds a stagnant political body that is more concerned with criticism from their own party running primary campaigns against them than they are with the general public that puts them in office.
But the House is made even worse because of the Hastert Rule, an informal rule both parties follow where the Speaker of the House will not bring any legislation to the floor of the House of Representatives unless the party that has the majority supports it. So not only is the House gerrymandered, but popular bills that have bipartisan support are never given the chance to be voted on, and House leadership arbitrarily stymies legislative activity in and out of their ranks.
iii. The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is an unusual body out of our contemporary peers because nine unelected judges can serve for life on the court. As the modern political system’s capabilities have grinded to a halt, the Court has been a central focus on both parties, but especially the Republican Party, as the key body with which to make de facto policy through without having to answer to voters. This focus has created an increasingly partisan court that is much more predictable in its votes based on the president that appointed them. The Court’s conservative majority in 2000 is quite literally the only reason George Bush won the presidency in 2000.
In recognition of the critical importance of stacking the court, Mitch McConnell stole a SCOTUS seat from President Obama in 2016 when he refused to consider any nominee to replace Justice Scalia on the laughable pretense that it was February of an election year. Further proof of the disingenuousness of this logic is that when Justice Ginsburg died in late September of 2020, McConnell then stole a second SCOTUS seat by rapidly moving to fill her seat a few weeks before the election to get ahead of the GOP’s thumping that year.
SCOTUS is now thoroughly stacked with a majority of extremely conservative justices who have issued a host of embarrassingly partisan decisions that dramatically upend longstanding precedent and lurch the nation’s judiciary to the right. These members have lifetime tenure, are appointed by an increasingly illegitimate election system, and there is no chance of its power being checked by the other branches, because of, among other things, the filibuster in the Senate. The rest of the federal judiciary is similarly at risk of being rubber partisan stamps. Given the aforementioned skew of the Senate, and the likelihood that the Senate is retaken by Republicans in 2022 or subsequent election cycles, McConnell style usurping of Supreme Court appointments is sure to continue if a Democrat is in the White House.
iv. The Insidious Effects
The result of the Republican Party consistently engineering minority rule wherever it possibly can is that uncompetitive elections can breed endemic corruption, a lack of ability to effectively govern, malfeasance, and extremist political positions (the Republican Party is the only conservative party in the modern world that denies climate change). If a political party has essentially no chance of being thrown out of power, then its candidates can take wildly unpopular positions out of sync with the electorate. A candidate whose party is in no danger of losing a district has only to be concerned with a primary challenge for being insufficiently conformist to the party doctrine.
The average person does not understand or care to understand the minutiae of the dynamics of an increasingly complicated political system. They know what party controls congress or the white house, and the tendency to is to blame dysfunction, turmoil, and calamity on that party as the presumptive status quo. But if the party “in power” can never actually govern because of endless hurdles, then the electorate is often left in a position of not knowing who is responsible for the lack of progress. A convoluted counter-majoritarian system with lots of excessive choke points on popular opinion will necessarily breed disaffection and nihilism. Worst of all, it leads to the egregiously stupid and ill-informed belief professed by intelligent people that “both sides” can be blamed for any given issue.
Polarization means this can manifest in the public imagination however it fits a partisan narrative, even among persons interested in politics. I’ve talked to conservatives who are adamant that the broken immigration system is the result of Democrats, despite the fact that it was the Republican Party that killed reform in both 2014 and 2007, and that the party still dooms any such prospects. I’ve talked to liberals who are disgusted with the Obama administration for failing to pass more expansive health reform provisions like a public option, despite the fact that this is almost single handedly the fault of former Senator Joe Lieberman who refused to give the Democrats a 60th vote in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster on such key elements. There are major elements of the Democratic Party today that continue to be frustrated by a lack of more transformative government from the Biden administration despite the fact that Democrats “only” have 50 seats.
For historical reference, Medicare, the extremely popular and sweeping health care provided by the government to Seniors, passed in 1965 with 57 bipartisan votes and no filibuster. Such a massive change of government policy is now literally unthinkable in today’s legislative reality, not even taking judicial challenges to such policy into account.
This inability to do anything benefits the status quo, and in particular the Republican Party’s legislative agenda, which is currently only capable of mustering a serious effort when trying to deliver tax cuts for the overwhelming benefit of the wealthy. The GOP has otherwise abandoned its function as a serious policymaking organ. Trump’s ascension to its head represents the ultimate nihilism; policy does not matter in today’s Republican Party so much as fealty to reactionary culture. Trump is merely a character in this product, not the creator of it.
II. American Democracy is Primed to Fail
A. The Erosion of Government
The decay of governmental institutions described in the preceding section is itself an existential threat to the continued existence of the republic. If Republicans continue to engineer perpetual minority rule, they can warp US domestic and foreign policy with little fear of backlash. A counter majoritarian political structure generates nihilism beneath a farcical guise of democracy with votes that mean little. While the current political order benefits the Republican Party, any political party in the future may find themselves under similar benefit from archaic procedures to the detriment of the country.
The system of authoritarian government that Republicans are working towards is inherently antithetical to any conception of liberty and democracy. A minority faction that self-perpetuates its rule is the definition of tyranny. If Republicans come to consistently lose the popular vote in presidential, Senate, House, and local elections but nonetheless dominate those political bodies, what is the reasonable way for the majority to achieve representation? More to the point, the question of governmental collapse and revolution becomes more a question of when, not if. When change becomes impossible by legitimate means for a majority, then the forces unleashed by that failure are as unpredictable as they can be justified.
The embarrassing dysfunction and factionalism of the current political order is not sustainable. Any number and combination of future crises can and will exacerbate the stress on the system. Climate change and a litany of correlated effects, geopolitical frictions, pandemics, famines, and economic crises have the potential to make any political order break. Histories greatest dictatorships and revolutions go hand in hand with these.
The mere nod by many politicians and academics that the current system is “intended” in any sense by our representative forebears is not a serious intellectual argument. If the governing systems of the United States continue to bend to the Republican Party’s authoritarianism and minority rule, then it will cease to be reasonably considered a democracy. Where democracy fails, so too does liberty and effective government. What any founder of such a system might believe is moot.
B. The Draw of Authoritarianism
The scarier possibility is that authoritarianism can be popular. The public consciousness of terms like fascism and authoritarianism is one of hyperbolic imagination steeped in historical precedent. No doubt that describing the collapse of American democracy conjures images of a military junta, violent revolution, or the declaration of a dictatorship. Mussolini and Hitler’s overt dismantling of their respective governments are the benchmarks of the death of democracy, made all the more unmistakable because of the World War they unleashed and the Allied resolve to fight their tyranny.
But this clear cut image obfuscates just how banal and popular authoritarianism can be, and how the United States could be an authoritarian paradise for those on the right side of the regime. Indeed, such systems can be stable and prosperous. Modern China’s Communist Party abandoned hardcore socialist doctrine in the 1980’s in favor of a mixed model of capitalist neo-liberalization that created a massive economic boom that dramatically improved the livelihoods of Chinese citizens and made it a global power. It has banked on prosperity, stability, and national prestige being an effective deterrent to internal dissent and unrest.
The potential administrative benefits for unilaterally implementing policy quickly are undeniable. Democracy is pesky in that decision making and policy can be stymied at local, state, and national levels by deliberation, veto points with checks and balances, and popular opinion. China has shown a relentless dedication making its brand of totalitarianism as functional and stable as possible, even as it employs an Orwellian police state.
Many desire a strongman in times of crisis. Those famous to history like Cesar, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, and countless others at one time or another enjoyed popular support, prestige, and national and international admiration. Prior to the United States entering the Second World War, for instance, there was a thriving fascist movement, including dozens of politicians, that admired Hitler. It is only the failure, destruction, and disaster of authoritarian figures that brings historical retrospection and repression of opinion to the glory of them.
The downsides of course can be endless: the deprivation of political and human rights, war, genocide, lack of individual autonomy, etc. Not to mention that authoritarianism and dictatorships, for all their efficiencies, can themselves have blind spots and pitfalls that lead their nations astray. See Generally the boondoggle of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But our species has the downside of short memories and short lives that repeatedly push for tragedies to become farces.
The worst case scenario of some reactionary style dictatorship orchestrated by Republicans is therefore not necessarily doomed to fail by its own definition. Indeed, such has the real potential to be popular if the conditions are right.
B. The Authoritarian Bend of the Republican Party
A great phrase from Mike Duncan’s great Revolutions podcast is “revolutionary potential,” the physics-like quality of a nation being primed for radical change. Looking at the two political poles in this country, notwithstanding what Fox News might say, the appetite for authoritarianism and reactionary revolution is palpable in the right wing of this country. For a lot of complicated reasons worthy of a separate post, that potential is not currently in the left wing of this country.
To quell any potential groans of a conservative person reading this, I submit to you that in 2020, an election with fervent anti-Trump energy and widespread anger in the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party overwhelmingly nominated Joseph R. Biden over Bernie fricken Sanders. Those wondering what might make the left wing gain true revolutionary potential may consider the long term implications of section I. of this post.
Donald Trump fomented a mass delusion in the Republican Party that the 2020 election that he got trounced out on was the result of fraudulent votes. This is despite the fact that more than 50 courts threw out his challenges; every state election audit that was conducted confirmed and re-confirmed Biden’s win; Trump’s own Department of Justice and intelligence agencies found no evidence of systemic fraud; his Attorney General Bill Barr called Trump’s claims “bullshit.” Trump’s own advisors knew that his claims were wrong and explicitly told him so.
Trump nonetheless pressured the DOJ and installed cronies there to attempt to challenge the results of the election. He orchestrated a multi-state effort to try overturn the election via the electoral college. He then pressured Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election as a last ditch hope despite Pence not having that authority.
Trump summoned thousands of his supporters to Washington and then directed them to the capitol where the election was being certified on January 6. Trump knew many of these people were armed. Some of the people in this group were also right wing militia members currently on trial for sedition for their efforts that day. This group broke in and stormed the capital, violently assaulting hundreds of police officers in pursuit of access to members of congress and Mike Pence, whom the crowd was chanting that they wanted to hang. This crowd did what it did because the President of the United States lied through his teeth despite knowing what he was saying was false.
Trump has a long history of claiming fraud in his short political career, with no evidence. He claimed he lost the Iowa Caucuses because of fraud. He claimed that he only lost the popular vote in 2016 because of fraud. For the months leading up to the 2020 election, Trump hinted that the only way he would lose would be because of fraud, and that he would not accept the results. His coup against the United States to overturn the 2020 election was unequivocally a fascist betrayal of the very foundations of this country. The meek cowardice of the Republican Party to hold him the slightest accountable fares little better.
A majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to challenge the electoral college results of 2020. More than 370 Republicans during this election, a vast majority of those on the ballot, have questioned or denied the results of the 2020 election despite the overwhelming evidence.
The entire conservative movement is now defined by its raw contempt for democracy and elections. Wisconsin Republican candidate for governor Tim Michels told supporters in a recent campaign stop that if he were elected, Republicans would “never lose another election” in the state.
The Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania has plainly stated that he believes the state’s Republican controlled legislature should be able to overturn the presidential vote in that state to allocate electoral college votes as it sees fit. This garbage legal theory is currently being pushed in a case at SCOTUS.
Around the country, fringe Republicans and activists at every level of government are casting doubt on election integrity and using their power to undermine contests and well established process, laying the foundation to overturn results in the future.
This radical extremism of the Republican Party is unparalleled in modern American history even as the Republican Party’s flirtation with conspiracy on the subject is not. It is accompanied by a massive rise of violent right wing activities. This includes an attempted kidnapping and torture of Nancy Pelosi, and the attempted kidnapping of the Democratic governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer. This extremism is fed by the rampant conspiracy ecosystem of conservative media that has no parallel on the left, and such violence is sure to continue.
A political movement incensed and defined by what it perceives as illegitimate elections, despite having literally not a single piece of evidence in support, is not one that can coexist with democracy. It’s why most Republican politicians are positioning themselves to make voting more difficult, challenge ballots in Democratic strongholds, to make the ability to unseat Republican power harder, and to make election results they don’t like easier to overturn.
This dream of power on the right, coined by political scientists as competitive authoritarianism, is best described as a “heads I win, tails you lose” system. The only legitimate exercise of voting is one that produces Republican victory. The only way a Democrat could win is by cheating and fraud. It’s why Republicans are so enamored with the results of Wisconsin’s gerrymander, and conservative intellectuals fawn over the results of Victor Orban’s of Hungary. It has the pretense of democracy without all the pesky uncertainty of ever really losing power.
The only logical conclusion of an ideology that demands fealty to the principle of stolen elections by Democrats is one of violence. For if one seriously believes that political power itself is being constantly usurped by “those people” illegally voting, how is revolt not the answer? The constant lying by Republican officials who spoon-feed their supporters bullshit cannot peacefully coexistence with the public or government at large. They will not take no for an answer. January 6 was a natural and expected result, one whose lack of condemnation or acknowledgment within the Republican Party portends ill for the future.
One might hope potential Republican victories in 2022 and 2024 help release the fascist steam brewing in their camp. Of course, that also comes with the real possibility that those wins form the foundation of decades of “heads I win, tails you lose” restructuring regime change.
Even if there are historically outstanding election results for Democrats on Tuesday, of which there are possible signs, the result would still likely produce Republican majorities in the House and Senate. The best case scenarios consist of razor thin majorities for Democrats. A lot of this is thermostatic public opinion in midterm elections: The party that wins the presidency usually racks up losses in the following midterms. History is against the Democrats, and they do not have the numbers in their majorities to cushion much loss.
Cook Political Report, for instance, estimates that Democrats need to win more than 80% of the most competitive seats in House of Representatives districts. Fivethirtyeight‘s model puts the Senate at slightly more competitive and basically a toss up.
III. American Democracy is Forever Worth Fighting For
What is to be done with the possibilities outlined above? Most of the outcomes we should most fear are hopefully tail risks. But the most essential reforms to the constitution or by government policy are simply not feasible in a partisan environment. The United States could never rewrite its constitutional framework and still come together as a collective body unless at gunpoint. So should the faithful resign themselves to despair?
There are no easy answers. The best possibility to end all this doom and gloom is that things will adjust and change naturally to avoid calamity. Perhaps a demographic shift, a changing political coalition, or piecemeal reform staves off catastrophe and saves democracy. Maybe the Republican Party itself will find itself changing and adapting to popular pressure under the weight of actually having to govern because of rigging so much power in its favor. But what I am trying to impress is that these winds of change are not inevitable, predictable, or necessarily in alignment with the urgency of a given moment. The more insular a minority government is, the less flexible and adaptable it is to crisis. Conversely, the more entrenched an authoritarian system is, the more able it is to withstand shocks to maintain its position even as it fails in its governing.
This country was founded with a constitution poisoned by slavery. It flirted with democracy for all men regardless of skin color after a bloody civil war before being thrown into the throes of Jim Crow white supremacy, which dominated the South in a brutal authoritarian system. Women were only granted the ability to vote in 1920, and still did not enjoy truly equal status for decades after. After a long fought civil rights movement, Jim Crow and legal discrimination was abolished in 1965 with the Civil Rights Act, although it would be decades before the full effect of that was felt. The United states has only truly had democracy since 1965, and a tenuous one at that. And yet despite the odds, it has still managed produced that tenuous democracy, and by its language, prosperity, and power had encouraged the same elsewhere.
Most of human history is filled with despotism and war. Within the past hundred years, even among an unprecedented flourishing of economic growth and liberty, unbelievable repression has been suffered and resisted in every corner of the world. Imagine the conditions of a pro-democracy activist in China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia; at a minimum, such a dissenter would be severely reprimanded and imprisoned, losing their livelihood and risking their family and friend’s livelihoods. Many have been killed for such effort.
Or think of some of the impossible odds stared down by the average person in any number of global cataclysms: a German watching the rise of Nazism; Ukrainian citizens facing the brutality of Stalin and later Putin; a Chinese scientist persecuted in the Cultural Revolution. The examples are infinite and those above are only some of the most recent. The point is that millions of people on any given date have suffered far worse as a matter of standard course. It is against human nature not to forge ahead in the face of the worst chaos. Through the rise and fall of empires, war, and famine, our species endures because we know nothing but to continue until we physically cannot. This applies to the daunting challenges of climate change as well.
In a nation such as ours with such a rich history of potential for liberty, democracy, and multiculturalism, despondent resignation to the forces of reactionary politics, authoritarianism, and fascism is simply unacceptable. If people in Hong Kong, Moscow, and Tehran can stand up to the overwhelming force of their repressive regimes at the very real risk of torture, imprisonment, and death, then we have no excuse not to. If freed slaves and their descendants in this country could labor for liberty in the face of Jim Crow and lynching, then submitting defeat to today’s thugs is not an option.
Democracy does not survive by accident. It is the product of a relentless drive of those who understand the past and seek to avoid a retreat into it at the expense of the future. If we recognize that democracy is the only system in which the rule of law and human progress can truly thrive, then it is against every moral fiber in our souls to not persevere against threats to it, and to relentlessly work to improve it even when it fails us. It is, as Churchill once opined, the worst form of government – except for all the others.