How responsive should a government be to its people? | No. 171 — November 21, 2021

Wisconsin Republicans, who hold a supermajority of legislative seats despite winning only a small majority of votes, are setting the stage to overturn the results of the next election

“The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government”
— US Constitution, Article IV Section 4

“… the vital principle of republican government is the lex majoris partis, the will of the majority”
— James Madison, 1834

“… a key characteristic of a democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.”
— Robert Dahl, Polyarchy, 1971

How democratic do we want our government to be? How responsive should it be to its people?

These questions have been animating my thinking on America and its states over the past few years — especially the last one. And I think they are ones more people should ponder.

Consider Wisconsin’s Republicans. The news on Friday was that members of the Badger-state GOP, which holds a near-supermajority (62%) of seats in the state legislature despite winning only 54% of the vote in either chamber in 2020, last week stepped up their calls for the party to take control of the state board of elections and decertify the results of the 2020 presidential election. (That is despite the fact the party designed the agency itself about half a decade ago.) US Senator from Wisconsin Ron Johnson last week echoed calls for unilateral GOP control of elections because, according to him, Democrats cheat. “Unfortunately, I probably don’t expect them to follow the rules,” Johnson said, “And other people don’t either, and that’s the problem.”

The outsized say of Republican voters in the Wisconsin state government and the party’s predisposition to counter-majoritarian, anti-democratic politics are of course related. As America’s electoral institutions have grown increasingly biased towards rural conservatives over the past 50 years — and especially the last 10 — the party has grown more dependent on them. This has, in turn, made them more opposed to the will of the majority and more likely to campaign against it. Further, the post-2020 radicalization of the party against the legitimacy of their opponents’ victories, and the ensuing bids to strip Biden of his electors, represents a key erosion of democratic norms (even if it is not, as we will discuss, in direct conflict with the US Constitution).

Of course, there are multiple causes for the GOP’s lurch towards electoral illiberalism and what scholars of comparative politics call “competitive authoritarianism.” We know that partisan elites have a big role to play here. They are able to shape the attitudes and behaviors of their supports. For example, Donald Trump’s campaign to reject the results of the 2020 presidential election was a major cause of lower levels of confidence that ballots were counted correctly, relative to past elections. (See here for some survey data.)

Still, I tend to see institutions as a major contributing factor. The primary issue is that Congress and the governments of many states are not as responsive as they ought to be to the majority. The Senate is extremely biased towards Republicans — and the state legislatures in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina (just to name a few) regularly deliver many more seats to the GOP than it would if outcomes were proportional to the popular vote. Eg, according to the math whizzes at the Campaign Legal Center’s PlanScore project, the GOP would win 62% of seats in both the Wisconsin state senate and house in a perfectly tied election. And that means they can rig redistricting maps and control the outcomes of state and federal elections they do or don’t agree with.

The rightward bias of statehouse and Congressional districts in Wisconsin (and other states) is in part due to the fact the US uses geography-based single-member districts to elect representatives — eg, when Democrats are crowded in cities, it is naturally easy to dilute their votes into different districts — but also because the Republicans there engage in racial and partisan gerrymandering to give themselves unfair advantages.

But while partisan gerrymandering is not very democratic, as it violates the principle that government should be ruled by the numerical majority, and similarly it is not republican, as it produces outcomes that are not representative of the will of the voters, it is in some ways perfectly Constitutional — as per both (1) the lack of standards for partisan fairness in the original design of our electoral systems and (2) the way the Supreme Court has interpreted attempts to clarify that design in recent years. Yet recent events are laying bare the consequences of this interpretation; In Wisconsin and elsewhere, we are seeing how factions can take control of multiple levels of government, pull multiple levers of power, and use them for anti-democratic purposes that were not previously on the political table, so to speak.

And so this brings us back to the original question. How democratic do we want our government to be? Just think about an answer for a minute.

. . .

Too often when I write (or tweet) about the many modern violations of the lex majoris partis, and the implications of those violations, I received replies about how our republic isn’t designed for majoritarian rule and partisan gerrymandering is just a fact of our great Madisonian system. Some of these people say we are “a republic, not a democracy” — the obvious rebuttal being we are, in fact, both. But even so, they fail to ask the question that naturally comes after these observations: is this how we want things to be?

Should we tolerate such severe deviations from the popular will? And should we accept that these consequences of institutionalized counter-majoritarianism are simply part and parcel of republican governments? Or do we want something better for ourselves? We are talking about self-government, after all.

Another way to think about this: If we were designing a new electoral system from scratch, would we allow parties to wield power when they won a minority of the vote? Is the implication that voters in certain areas more valuable than others a fair one? Would we give them supermajorities in legislatures when they won bare majorities? These are problems that we can solve — questions we can answer and outcomes we can avoid by way of other electoral systems.

But that is neither here nor there. For now, I just want people to reconsider the way our politics and elections work. Should the government work the way it does?

How democratic do we want our government to be? How responsive should it be to its people?


A programming note

Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate. Per the American tradition of stuffing our faces and falling asleep at 5 PM, I will be making turkey, yams, mashed potatoes, green beans, krautsalat (a German coleslaw from my family cookbook), and pecan pie. I would love to hear about your traditions and the recipes you’ll be preparing.

Despite the holiday, the blog will operate on the normal schedule. Subscribers will receive the usual posts on the usual days.

Thanks for reading

That’s it for this week. Thanks so much for reading. If you have any feedback, you can reach me at this address (or respond directly to this email if you’re reading in your inbox). I love to talk with readers and am very responsive to your messages.