Minority rule

I first wanted to write this post a couple weeks ago, but didn’t get around to it, but now there’s plenty more good stuff I can add.  And let’s just start with this Norm Ornstein tweet in response to a Paul Waldman column:

Think about that.  And be like Ornstein and use that stat every chance you get.  And ask yourself what Brendan Nyhan always asks, “what would you say if you saw this in another country.”  Exactly.  Not much of a democracy.

The Chait post that got me thinking of this a couple weeks ago:

Over the last generation, the Republican Party has moved rapidly rightward, while the center of public opinion has not. It is almost impossible to find a substantive basis in public opinion for Republican government. On health care, taxes, immigration, guns, the GOP has left America behind in its race to the far right. But the Supreme Court underscores its ability to counteract the undertow of its deepening, unpopular extremism by marshaling countermajoritiarian power.

The story really begins in December 2000. George W. Bush had a tenuous hold on the Electoral College, despite having half a million fewer votes nationwide. But his edge depended on a narrow margin in Florida, which was attributable to the fact that voting machines in Democratic counties failed to register a higher percentage of votes than machines in Republican counties. A recount would threaten that outcome (and in fact, a hand count that included every kind of missed vote, including ballots that both wrote and checked in the name “Al Gore,” would have given Democrats the presidency). But Bush’s brother controlled the state’s government, and it doggedly refused to allow the recount to which the trailing candidate was entitled. In the end, five Republican Supreme Court justices narrowly ended the recount and gave Bush the presidency…

And yet that trick underscores the Republican Party’s legislative competitiveness. The House has a massive Republican tilt, requiring Democrats to win the national vote by six or seven points in order to secure a likely majority. The Senate has an even more pronounced tilt, overrepresenting residents of small states, which tend to be white and rural. George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016 each won 30 states while losing the national vote. Since each of these states has equal representation in the Senate, the chamber gives Republicans an innate advantage. If every state’s Senate vote reflected its national orientation, Republicans would have a natural supermajority. Merely attaining parity in an evenly divided country requires Democrats to win at least ten seats in Republican-leaning states.

The Electoral College reflects the same overall bias. By reducing the power of voters who live in states that vote heavily for one candidate or the other, and magnifying the power of voters who live in closely balanced states, it gives disproportionate influence to white voters

The central drama of the Trump era is a struggle to defend American democracy against an authoritarian leader. The Republican Party’s comfort with the crude authoritarianism of its president, though, did not spring out of nowhere. It is the culmination of a party increasingly comfortable with, and reliant on, countermajoritarian power.

And Paul Waldman:

That [Supreme Court nomination] vote will be a vivid reminder that we are living in an age of minority rule. In fact, that is one of the central features of this political era. The Republican Party represents a minority of the American electorate, yet it controls not only all three branches of the federal government but also most state governments, as well.

Why do I say that a vote in Kavanaugh’s favor is an example of minority rule? Because the body that will confirm him is built in its current formation  to almost guarantee Republican control, despite the fact that most American voters selected Democrats to represent them there.

Using Dave Leip’s invaluable election atlas, I added up all the votes cast for Democrats and Republicans in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 Senate elections, which put the current Senate in place. I didn’t bother with the few special elections since 2012, which in total wouldn’t change the results much, but I did include Bernie Sanders’s and Angus King’s last elections, since they are nominally independent but caucus with the Democrats. Here are the results:

Republican votes: 102.3 million

Democratic votes: 117.4 million

In the elections that determined the current Senate, there were 15 millionmore votes cast for Democrats than for Republicans. Yet Republicans maintain control and therefore get to confirm President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

Well, that’s just how it is, you might say. Blame the framers. And that’s true: They set up a system in which Wyoming’s 580,000 residents get two senators and California’s 40 million residents also get two senators.

But that doesn’t mean it’s fair or right or that Democrats shouldn’t be livid in cases like this where it leads to such an antidemocratic outcome. And the GOP’s built-in advantages combine to make the country much more hostile to the policies the majority actually wants… [emphases mine]

There’s a related situation in the House, where most analysts believe that in order to take control Democrats will have to not just win the popular vote, but win it by a huge margin of 6 or 7 points. And all this is why enormously popular policies like minimum wage increases, greater funding for education, and universal health coverage never see the light of day, while our national legislature eagerly cuts taxes for the wealthy and corporations whether that’s what the public wants or not. And one of the things you can absolutely count on from the newly (even more) conservative Supreme Court is that they will approve every step Republicans take to suppress the votes of those inclined to oppose them, making their continued hold on power all the more likely…

In other words, our entire political system is built to give the Republican Party a series of advantages, even when they represent a minority of the public, as they now do. In some cases that’s by their design, and in some cases it’s a happy accident, but it all points in the same direction. And when Republicans have power, they work ceaselessly to make the system even less democratic and more rigged in their favor.

And Ron Brownstein:

Kavanaugh could be confirmed by a narrow Senate Republican majority rooted in the nation’s smaller states over the virtually unified objections of a Democratic Senate minority strongest in the largest states. Kavanaugh in turn could cement a Republican-appointed Supreme Court majority that would control America’s legal framework for years — regardless of how much of the nation’s future population and economic growth flows into the largest states.

The Senate’s bias toward small states isn’t new: An extended standoff over the issue nearly derailed the convention that wrote the Constitution. Yet the small-state bias may now be more relevant than ever, because it aligns more precisely than at earlier points in American history with the tectonic forces separating the two parties, including urbanization, racial and religious diversity, and the transition to an information-based economy. As small and large states separate even further along those dimensions in the years ahead, the constitutional compromise that provided each state two senators — in a narrow vote held 231 years ago next week — could provoke growing tension…
David Shor, a senior analyst at Civis Analytics, a Democratic-oriented data consulting firm, has quantified how the Senate has increasingly diluted the electoral impact of minority voters over time. Using a statistical technique that compares the minority share of the population in each state to the minority share of the nation’s overall population, he found that minority voters are more underrepresented in the Senate today than at any point since 1870. Projections by Robert Griffin of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute show that minority underrepresentation is on track to widen further for at least the next 40 years as the nation grows more diverse.

The reason for this growing gap, Shor explains, is that the minority population, particularly immigrants and their children, are concentrating in the largest states already disadvantaged by the Senate’s structure, while the predominantly white and smaller states that gain under the rules are diversifying much more slowly. “The issue at a high level is that most growth in the nonwhite population has been concentrated in large states like California, New York and Florida,” Shor says.

That means the racial implications of the Senate’s small state bias will only grow as the US continues its transition into a majority nonwhite nation through the next quarter century or so. Because that growing nonwhite population is concentrated in relatively fewer states, their influence in the Senate will be enduringly constrained. “The Senate is the last redoubt of white voting power,” Shor says. “You have a small group of white rural states … that are going to have an enormous amount of power, not just over judges, but over vetoing legislation.”

Okay, I didn’t want to be overly provacative and title this post Apartheid America, but, damn, that would not have been entirely unfair.  Again, what would you say if you saw this situation in another country?

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

4 Responses to Minority rule

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    While all this is going on, the large states are forced to send money to all those smaller states, exacerbated by the new tax laws. The large state taxpayers are paying the costs of the very state governments that are keeping the Constitution from being updated to keep the country a democracy.

  2. homeys44 says:

    Of the 15 smallest states, 8 are Republican leaning and 7 are Democrat (and really white). Thats hardly a problem so I’d hold off on using Ornstein’s stats much. Just more divisiveness and sour grapes.

    • Nicole K. says:

      I’m now I’m wasting my time pointing out that half of the US population lives in 9 states, so focusing on the 15 smallest states is really kind of arbitrary and doesn’t actually argue anything useful.

      • Nicole K. says:

        if you count how many of the states with low populations are staunchly Republican, it’s not hard to see how each state having two senators absolutely distributes way more power to low-population states than states where a lot of people live. You’re really quick to just dismiss things without even actually looking at what is actually being argued. I’m beginning to wish these comments had a mute function because you are basically just trolling.

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