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Democracy in America Died

2021 may be the year that democracy in America finally died. And sadly, too few Americans seem to be taking notice.

The year began with the infamous January 6th insurrection at the Capitol, a violent attempt to overturn a democratic election that was encouraged by the White House and many federal lawmakers, despite there being literally no evidence that the election result was fraudulent.

But what has occurred since January 6th is perhaps even more damaging. The insurrection did not end that day. Instead, it is now hiding behind the mantle of law, as Republicans use legislation and other legal processes to destroy democracy and lock-in minority rule, potentially for decades to come. As in Hungary and Poland, legal process is being used to upend constitutional democracies and cement authoritarianism. 

To see the scope of the problem we face, we need to understand the confluence of three trends:

  • demographic change and residential segregation, which has increasingly placed more racially diverse Democratic Party voters in cities and suburbs, while rural areas have become more White and Republican;
  • a constitutional structure—the Electoral College, the composition of the Senate, and the use of small, winner-take-all legislative districts—that gives disproportionate representation to rural populations; and
  • the willingness of this rural Republican minority to use its disproportionate power to further entrench counter-majoritarian structures, whether through extreme partisan gerrymandering, increased voter suppression efforts, court-packing, rigging the counting of votes, or outright rebellion against the results of democratic elections.

Americans are effectively being held hostage by a radical minority fringe party bent on wielding as much power as possible without a democratic check.

Together these trends pose an existential threat to democracy. Indeed, the very viability of the Republican Party as a national political force now depends almost completely on counter-majoritarian structures. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections and easily won the popular vote in the 2020 election by more than seven million votes. Yet, Donald Trump came within 45,000 votes in three states of winning the electoral college anyway.

In the Senate, the 50 Republican Senators collectively received 41.5 million votes fewer than the 50 Democratic Senators, and a vote in Wyoming is worth over three times more than a vote in California in the Electoral College. Further, one demographic study predicts that by 2040, 70 percent of the population will reside in only fifteen states, which will permit only 30 percent of the population to elect 70 out of the 100 senators.

Meanwhile, for the first time in history, a majority of the US Supreme Court justices were appointed by presidents who did not win the popular vote and were confirmed by Senators who themselves did not represent a majority of the popular votes cast for Senate.

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Finally, Republicans are using gerrymandered majorities in state legislatures to create new rules making it harder to vote, to restrict the use of popular referenda, and to change state court elections so that judges are elected based on legislative district so as to extend their gerrymandered advantage to judicial elections as well. 

Thus, we face the very real prospect that for the foreseeable future a mostly white rural Republican minority wields disproportionate, structurally locked-in, power over a more diverse urban and suburban Democratic majority. A democracy cannot survive long under those conditions. Indeed, it is perhaps not surprising that Republicans appear to be less and less committed to majoritarian democracy altogether.

The results of these corrupt efforts to lock-in minority rule are everywhere. In state after state, Republicans have drawn districts so that even if Democrats win a vast majority of votes, state legislatures remain overwhelmingly in Republican control. Then, those manufactured Republican-controlled legislatures are passing laws taking the power to count votes away from non-partisan election officials and instead stacking the vote certification process with believers in the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. And even if the vote count goes to the Democratic candidate, those legislatures are passing laws allowing them to overturn the results anyway.

You might think all this would violate the federal Voting Rights Act, but the US Supreme Court (including many of those justices who were themselves appointed and confirmed by people who didn’t win the popular vote) has decided two cases in the past decade completely gutting the Act and rendering it nearly powerless. 

Thus, an anti-democratic Supreme Court is systematically allowing an anti-democratic set of state legislatures to lock in disproportionate electoral power, while an anti-democratic Senate thwarts any prospect of reform. And while of course democratic majorities should never be allowed to deny rights to the minority, this is different because it is in fact the minority that is wielding out-sized power and denying the voice of the majority from being heard.

The result of all this is that Americans are effectively being held hostage by a radical minority fringe party bent on wielding as much power as possible without a democratic check. These anti-democratic mechanisms also create a vicious feedback loop. Usually, if a party loses the popular vote seven out of eight times, that party moderates its message or its policies in order to appeal to a broader cross-section of the electorate. Instead Republicans have gamed the system so that they can win without appealing to a broad cross-section of the electorate. That’s why policies with broad popular appeal—combatting climate change, reforming immigration, sensible gun regulation, increased support for childcare, and so on—languish. 

Combatting this slow-moving coup requires an all-out response. That includes:

  • adding more judges to the US Supreme Court and other federal courts to help undo the Republican packing of the courts in recent years,
  • adding states to the Union to begin to right the balance of the Senate,
  • insisting on independent redistricting commissions tasked with drawing competitive districts in order to favor consensus candidates,
  • instituting proportional representation systems and ranked choice voting,
  • passing the interstate compact that awards state electoral votes to the candidate who wins the national popular vote,
  • enacting a new federal voting rights act to render state voter suppression efforts illegal, and so on.

And if Republicans overturn the vote, either at the precinct, state, or congressional level, people must be prepared for mass action to save the democracy.

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Without more urgency, it will be too late, as it already is in many states. A minority party will have cemented its rule in perpetuity without actually commanding the support of the people. And then there will literally be nothing stopping that party from changing the entire American system of rights, liberties, and government, short of civil war or revolution.

The America we carry in our hearts is waiting for us, but we need to act now before the American promise—imperfect as it always has been—will be dead forever.

Paul Schiff Berman