Nathan Robinson, The Guardian, May 20, 2019
The core democratic principle is that 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 that decision fall exclusively on women, who will be forced to carry all pregnancies to term if the law comes into effect. And, as has happened in other countries with abortion bans, poor women will be hit hardest of all – the rich can usually 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”.
That 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, that’s precisely what it does. As Jamelle Bouie points out, the Senate has “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 them.
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 that, 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 sympathetic to 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 are currently being practiced.
But demographic changes do not automatically change the power structure, and it’s likely that we’ll see a conservative white minority taking extreme steps to cling to power in the coming decades. That’s why you see new voter ID laws and resistance to restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentence. That’s why state legislatures draw districts in a way that ensures the party that gets the most votes doesn’t necessarily get the most seats.
The undemocratic nature of our institutions means that 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.
But that’s precisely why we may 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.