After Donald Trump became the second president to win the electoral college but lose the popular vote in recent years, many Americans began complaining again that the system is outdated and does not facilitate a fair democracy.
Within that vein, Vox’s Ezra Klein argued this week that the U.S. has never truly been a democracy, and Republicans are working hard to rig the system even more in their favor as they slip further into minority status.
America is not, and never has been, a democracy. The architects of our political system feared majority rule and withheld the vote from women, African Americans, and Native Americans. They wanted representation for some, not democracy for all. And their beliefs about how a political system should work were further complicated by the compromises they made so it could work.
To be adopted, the Constitution needed to be ratified by states. The small states feared, reasonably, that entering into a political coalition with large states would lead to their domination. As protection, they demanded equal representation in the Senate, and disproportionate representation and power elsewhere.
The states are central to America’s system of governing, which both made sense and was necessary at the time of the nation’s founding.
As for now?
This is one argument you hear for the system as it exists today: America is built of compromises between big and small states, between urban centers and rural areas, between those who sought more democracy and those who feared it, and those compromises must be honored in perpetuity.
But another way of thinking about our founding compromises is to think about the fears that led to them. The threat to the United States of America has always been disunity. At the time of the founding, the strongest and most politically important identities were state identities, and the central tension was between those who feared the (white, male) public and those who trusted it, and so we built a system meant to calm those divisions.
Today, the strongest and most politically important identities are partisan identities. We don’t talk about big states and small states, but about red states and blue states. If there is a threat to American unity, it rests not in the specific concerns of Virginians or Alaskans, but in the growing enmity between Democrats and Republicans.
Klein offers an example highlighting just how absurd it is to consider big versus small states today rather than red versus blue:
A simple thought experiment reveals how the fundamental units of political competition in America have changed. Imagine a bill to make DC and Puerto Rico into full states, giving them representation in the House and Senate. Would Wyoming and Vermont vote the same way on that bill, because the inclusion of two small states would add to the power of their small-state bloc? Or would they vote differently because the inclusion of the two new states would add to the power of the blue-state bloc at the expense of the red-state bloc? The question answers itself.
He notes that the “compromises made to calm the divisions between places is exacerbating the divisions between the parties.”
The electoral college, Klein argues, no longer makes sense at all:
[The electoral college] was designed to ensure the final selection of the president would be “made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station, and acting under circumstances favorable to deliberation.” Instead, it has become a bizarre distortion of democracy where party hacks slightly warp the outcome of the popular vote. That this is the body that put Donald Trump in the White House is a supreme irony.
The reality of the situation is that by 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states, meaning 70 percent of America will be represented by just 30 senators.
The other 70 senators will represent just 30 percent of the population.
GovTrack notes that the divergence between the percentage of senators voting yes on important roll call votes and the percentage of the population they represent has spiked to record levels — a reflection of both the Senate’s composition and the hardball tactics Republicans are using to pass policy.
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.
This scenario is not nearly as far-fetched as it might sound: it’s pretty much how the political system functions today, and assumes it will continue into the future, Klein says.
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.
How long will a Democratic coalition that has more numbers but less political power accept this system? And what will happen when they fight back?