An anti-democratic faction and minoritarian electoral institutions are destroying our republic. What can be done? 📊 May 30, 2021

Shot of rewriting the Constitution, electoral reform. Short of that, not much.

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An anti-democratic faction and minoritarian electoral institutions are destroying our republic. What can be done?

In hindsight, it is easy to see how norms and institutions that empower minorities to dominate the majority would lead to a party endorsing anti-democratic policies and actions. Actually, the framers warned this might happen, too. That only makes our current moment all the more frustrating.

On Friday, the US Senate voted 54-35 in favor of proceeding to a limited debate over a House-passed bill to establish a commission to investigate the causes and events of the January 6th invasion of the US Capitol. That is just a wordy way of saying that the vote to establish the commission failed, even though a majority of senators supported it. That vote “failed” because it did not meet the 60-vote threshold for “cloture,” or stopping debate, meaning any further consideration of the bill could have been filibustered by Republicans and halted the business of the Senate indefinitely. So they did not get to vote on a commission, which likely would have had the same majority consent from the chamber.

I see this as little less than a fundamental betrayal of the principles of our democratic republic. It is even more concerning given two additional factors.

First, that the filibuster requirement is insanely anti-democratic compared to the policies you would get if the public were represented proportionally. One poll from The Economist and YouGov released last week found that 56% of adults approve of the House passing the bill that would create the January 6th commission. 29% opposed it. Some additional numbers here are that the 54 Senators who voted yes on cloture represent 189 million Americans, or 58% of the population. The 35 who voted no represent 104 million Americans, or 32% of the population. Credit for those stats goes to Jeffery Lazarus, who added “When 32% of voters get to dictate policy, that's not democracy.” No kidding.

Second, this anti-democratic vote is made all the worse given the substance of the bill and the broader historical context surrounding this moment in American history. A bipartisan majority in the Senate was overruled by a minority composed completely of Republicans, whose voters were the ones responsible for the insurrection the commission would have investigated. The anti-democratic institutions are enabling Republican complacency about an assault on our democracy from an increasingly anti-democratic party, egged on by an anti-democratic former president who wields prophet-like influence over his followers. That same party is pursuing new laws in most states to make voting harder and objecting to elections easier, which would make it easier to impose their minority will over the population. The party has also opposed redistricting reform in Congress, opting instead for more partisan gerrymandering.

One naturally wonders how we have gotten here. There are many explanations — from the peculiarities and whims of a demagogue and his party to the factionalization of the media ecosystem (driven larger by the political right) and the devolution of power over electoral rules and voting procedures to the states, among others. But perhaps the biggest is our minoritarian legislative institutions and the way we elect the leaders that fill them.

The single biggest reason Republicans can pursue anti-democracy positions is that they can win control of federal and state governments with minorities of the vote. The US Senate, the Electoral College, and plurality single-winner electoral districts are the biggest problems here. The first is almost guaranteed to stay unless we rewrite the Constitution, which we should consider. The electoral college can be circumvented with the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which binds member state legislatures to send slates of electors to the winner of the national popular vote. That probably won’t happen either.

But the last factor — plurality-winner single-member districts — can be eliminated with a simple act of Congress and consent from the president, at least for federal elections. That could go a long way to reducing the incentives towards shrinking pools of voters and overturning elections that Republicans currently have today. For example, a CBS News poll released earlier this month found that 53% of Republicans said the party should focus on messaging to expand its appeal to win more elections. In contrast, 47% said the party should focus on changing voting rules to try to win with the voters it has, and make voting harder for citizens aligned with the opposition.

If you read a lot of political science, as I do, you have to connect the dots between that type of mentality and zero-sum two-party politics, where any vote for a different party is a vote against your own. That mentality is largely a product of the rules that govern our elections: single-member districts with plurality winners.

But it doesn’t have to be like this! Congress can enact a system of proportional representation for House elections very easily. There are many options. You could do ranked-choice voting with multi-member districts, where states with more than a certain number of seats elect a number of candidates on an at-large basis. Each voter ranks candidates, and all that pass a certain threshold of cumulative votes, usually equal to `total_votes / (num_seats + 1)`). You can read more about the tabulation process for such a system here, in Don Beyer’s Fair Representation Act.

You could also establish a more complex, but fairer, system of proportional representation called “one-vote open list proportional representation” (OLPR). This is the system preferred by voting systems experts like Jack Santucci and Matthew Shugart. They are smart and we should take their prescription seriously.

Alternatively, we could also amend the Constitution and make the system more democratic and proportional from the get-go. The point is not that the minutiae of these voting reforms meaningfully sets one apart from the other, but that we must take immediate steps towards making our electoral system more proportional and representative. Such steps change the incentives for lawmakers from conflict to cooperation, and could very well decrease the strength of partisan identities and make individual voters more likely to accept their opponents as legitimate partners in government.

I could say more, but the point is this: we are now firmly situated within an emergency for majoritarian democracy and popular sovereignty in America. A government where the 32% can overrule the 56% (especially on legislation that would hold insurrectionists and anti-democrats to account) is not a legitimate government.

What is “legitimate” if our Constitutional order is not? To quote James Madison in Federalist #58:

In all cases where justice or the general good might require new laws to be passed, or active measures to be pursued, the fundamental principle of free government would be reversed. It would be no longer the majority that would rule: the power would be transferred to the minority. Were the defensive privilege limited to particular cases, an interested minority might take advantage of it to screen themselves from equitable sacrifices to the general weal, or, in particular emergencies, to extort unreasonable indulgences. Lastly, it would facilitate and foster the baneful practice of secessions; a practice which has shown itself even in States where a majority only is required; a practice subversive of all the principles of order and regular government; a practice which leads more directly to public convulsions, and the ruin of popular governments, than any other which has yet been displayed among us.

It is time for people to take seriously the idea that we must change voting rules, add new states to offset the power of rural voters in the Senate and Electoral College, or agree on a new Constitution altogether. Otherwise, I fear the age of Madisonian democracy is coming to an end. (And not in the way we want it to.)


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Links to what I’m reading and writing

  • In this piece, I write about our new poll from The Economist and YouGov that finds broad approval for (a) a Congressional commission to investigate the causes of the January 6th insurrection and (b) prosecuting Donald Trump's supporters who participated “in the takeover of the Capitol building”. I also cover a new poll from UMASS Amherst that found a plurality of Republicans blame Antifa and The Democratic Party for the riot.

  • This is a nice article from The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson making the case to wait out the crazy-inflated housing market and buy a home later. Personally, I have no choice, since all the houses on the market around us are now way too expensive. But I would disagree with his advice and tell y’all to go ahead and buy now, that way there’s less demand for me later. Suckers!

  • Here is Kaleigh Rogers, technology and politics report at FiveThirtyEight, calling the Republican-led ballot “recount” in Arizona a “partisan inquisition.” Obviously, I agree. I will note again in this newsletter that I am pleased to see “data journalism” websites taking principled stances on normative issues, especially in headlines. Good for them. This is a recent development and I am happy to see it.


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