Minority rule is a feature of American democracy. These days, however, it is getting worse…
by Nathan Robinson Guardian edited by O Society May 24, 2019
The core democratic principle is people should have a meaningful say in political decisions that affect their lives. In Alabama, we’ve just seen what the opposite of democracy looks like: 25 white male Republicans in the state senate were able to ban almost all abortion in the state.
The consequences of this decision fall exclusively on women, who will be forced to carry all pregnancies to term if the law comes into effect. And, as happens in countries with abortion bans, poor women will be hit hardest, as the rich can afford to go elsewhere.
There is no reason to respect the legitimacy of this kind of political decision, in which those in power show no sign of having listened to the people they’re deciding on behalf of. Though plenty in the pro-life movement are female, the people who will be most affected are nowhere in the debate. Unfortunately, structural problems with the US government mean that we’re heading for an even more undemocratic future.
White men have never made up the majority of the US population, and yet from the country’s beginnings they have made up most of its political decision-makers. The constitution itself is an outrageously undemocratic document. People today are bound by a set of procedural rules that were made without the input of women, African Americans or native people. The framers quite deliberately constructed a system that would prevent what they called “tyranny of the majority” but what is more accurately called “popular democracy.”
This set of rules has been very effective at keeping the American populace from exercising power. James Madison was explicit about the function of the United States Senate – it was “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”. Indeed, this is precisely what it does.
Jamelle Bouie points out the Senate is “an affluent membership composed mostly of white men, who are about 30% of the population but hold 71 of the seats” out of 100. Though popular opinion may overwhelmingly favor universal healthcare and more progressive taxation, these policies are said to be “politically impossible” because the millionaires who populate Congress do not favor these policies.
We hear a lot about how the electoral college, the US supreme court and gerrymandered districts are undermining democratic rule. But it’s worth reflecting on just how deep the disenfranchisement really is. The supreme court is the highest branch of government, in that it can overturn the decisions of the other two branches.
It consists of just nine people, all of whom went to Harvard or Yale, and two-thirds of whom are men. Ian Samuel has pointed out the remarkable fact, thanks to the way the Senate is structured, the senators who voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the court represent 38 million fewer people than the senators who voted against him.
The implications here are extreme. It simply doesn’t matter where the people of the US stand on union dues, campaign finance reform, or abortion. What matters is the opinion of nine elites, in many cases appointed by presidents who did not win the popular vote. A constitution written by slaveholders is being interpreted by a tiny room full of elites who have been given no meaningful popular approval. When you step back and look at the situation objectively, it’s utterly farcical to call the US government democratic.
The electoral college is, of course, its own problem. It’s difficult to know how elections would have gone in its absence – after all, people would campaign differently if success were measured differently. But there is something perverse and troubling about a system in which the person who gets the most votes loses the election.
Things are only going to get worse. The good news is that America is becoming an ever-more-diverse and in many ways more progressive country. By 2045 the US will lose its white majority, and despite Trump’s efforts to whip the country into a xenophobic frenzy, the American people are becoming steadily more sympatheticto immigrants.
Most young people identify as socialists instead of capitalists, and on the whole, people want a far more progressive set of national policies on economics, foreign policy, and immigration than currently practiced.
Demographic changes do not automatically change the power structure, and it’s likely we’ll see a conservative white minority taking extreme steps to cling to power in the coming decades. This is why you see new voter ID laws and resistance to restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentence. This is why state legislatures draw districts in a way that ensures the party who gets the most votes doesn’t necessarily get the most seats.
The undemocratic nature of our institutions means conservatives might well succeed in overriding popular sentiment for many years to come. If, God forbid, Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer left the supreme court during Trump’s term in office, the radical right would be all but assured to have complete veto power over US policy for the next several decades. It’s very hard to undo gerrymandered districts or loosen campaign finance laws if the whole point of these measures is to keep the left out of power.
It’s hard to say where all of this will lead. If the court pushes too far in overturning democratic measures it will lose legitimacy and schemes like “court-packing” will come to seem more like necessary correctives than revolutionary disruptions. In a country whose electoral system still somewhat functions, there is only so much a government can do to keep people from exercising their right to rule, without resorting to totalitarian measures.
This is precisely why we see increasingly totalitarian measures, as the gap between the will of the people and the interests of the small minority in charge continues to widen. History’s bloody revolutions show us what happens when this gap becomes too large, and the government entirely ceases to effectively represent the governed.
Conservatives will continue to push unpopular policies on an unwilling United States. But it’s unclear how long people will accept having decisions made for them by a few dozen rich white men.
The exercise of political power by legislative majorities of white, male elected officials in ways that disproportionately exclude or harm women and people of color is such a familiar part of the American political landscape that it sometimes goes underremarked.
That was not the case last week after 25 white Republican men in Alabama voted for a near-total abortion ban in the state, an act that focused the national attention and sparked fears of a broader assault on women’s rights.
But the furore around Alabama’s move was exceptional. Elsewhere white, male legislative majorities have enacted controversial policies without drawing such a spotlight, by stopping minimum wage increases, voting down paid sick leave, blocking bans on fracking, defeating gun safety measures, purging voter rolls, upholding discriminatory criminal justice measures and barring free choice in marriage.
Neither race nor gender nor any other demographic distinction is purely predictive of political outlook, and each of the causes listed above has had champions and opponents of all kinds.
But as when 11 white men on the Senate judiciary committee last year had to recruit a female lawyer to question Dr Christine Blasey Ford about her sexual assault claims against judge Brett Kavanaugh, the Alabama abortion ban has prompted new questions about why America’s elected officials don’t look more like America. It is also reinvigorating the debate about what that discrepancy is costing the country.
“It’s pretty clear that what’s happening in Alabama is not a reflection of what most people in Alabama want,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society and former director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. “And so the ultimate question is: How is it happening that the state legislature is passing bills that the people don’t support?
A 2018 poll showed that the Alabama ban was supported by only 31% of people in the state.
“It is a reflection of a failure of democracy, of a democracy that has been hijacked by special interests, and in particular by white conservative men who have an agenda. It’s an economic agenda but it’s also a social agenda,” Fredrickson said.
The white male grip on political power in the United States is strong. Seven out of 10 US senators are white men, a group that makes up only about 30% of the US population. White men hold 65% of elected seats nationally, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign. About half of all federal judges (but more than 70% of Donald Trump nominees) are white men.
The white male grip on power is also deeply entrenched, and well-insulated by historical design. It was written into the constitution, secured by the enslavement of African Americans and an economy and society built on slavery, and promulgated by generations of reinforcement and denial.
Many contemporary structures still prop it up. The US Senate, already badly underrepresentative, will become more so as city populations grow and rural populations shrink, swinging an even greater proportion of power to less populated, and more conservative, states. Federal courts have been rendered more conservative for at least a generation owing to a record number of lifetime appointments made by Trump. Voter suppression laws, dark money in politics and gerrymandering all reinforce a white male grip on power.
The proliferation of racially discriminatory voter suppression, half a century after the civil rights movement, is “shameful”, wrote Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and founder of the voting rights group Fair Fight Action, in a New York Times op-ed last week.
The impact of this dynamic on American life goes deeper, analysts say, than the fact that many citizens simply don’t see themselves in their elected representatives: white men are not creating the same America, through legislation, that a more representative group of lawmakers would.
The proportion of women serving in state legislatures stagnated for more than a decade around 25% in the lead-up to the 2018 election, said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
But when women are elected, they tend to advance a different agenda from men.
“There’s research that shows that female elected officials are more likely to make the governing process more transparent, they’re more likely to build consensus,” Sinzdak said. “They are also more likely to carry the water on issues like health and education. They’re more likely to bring previously marginalized groups into the policymaking process.”
The 2018 election saw a distinct uptick in the proportion of women in state legislatures, Sinzdak said, and the 2020 election could see the trend continue.
The current disproportionate representation in government of conservatives, in particular, has been achieved through a deliberate plan to seize the levers of power, Fredrickson explains in her recently published The Democracy Fix: How to Win the Fight for Fair Rules, Fair Courts and Fair Elections.
Progressives must mount a comparable effort in reply, Fredrickson says, describing part of the challenge as demanding that Democratic officials treat the confirmation of judges like the political process it is.
“We can’t complain about voting rights and gerrymandering and a whole set of other bad court decisions that are issued, and not actually have put in any energy to making sure that the courts are fair and representative,” Fredrickson said.
Another task is to confront voter suppression and the gerrymander, she said – and not in a way that simply results in a reciprocal Democratic gerrymander. An enforcement of “one person, one vote” and of fair districting benefits progressives “because progressives are the majority in this country,” she said.
“Because the country is becoming more and more demographically diverse and socially progressive, [fair districting] is actually going to produce outcomes that are more favorable to our values,” she said. “Which is why the right is fighting so hard against democracy in this country, because they know they’re outnumbered.”
The numbers only count when people show up to vote, and the men who enacted the Alabama abortion ban (and the woman governor who signed it) represent one of the country’s most reliable voting blocs: white evangelical Christians.
In his book The End of White Christian America, Robert P Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), writes that the influence of white evangelical Christians in US politics is diminished, but persistent, owing to voter turnout patterns.
“White evangelicals over the last decade have dropped from about 21% of the population down to only 15% of the population, but both in the 2018 midterms and the 2016 election, they made up 26% of voters, according to the exit polls,” Jones told the Guardian. “And that’s because they turn out to vote at higher rates than nonwhite, non-Christian voters do. So basically they’re overrepresented at the ballot box.”
That could change with new voting patterns, Jones said. “If we ever got anywhere near parity of turnout, we’d see a dramatically different political landscape. At the end of the day, it really is about who shows up.”