Posted on October 27, 2020

End Minority Rule

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, New York Times, October 23, 2020

The Trump presidency has brought American democracy to the breaking point. The president has encouraged violent extremists; deployed law enforcement and other public institutions as weapons against rivals; and undermined the integrity of elections through false claims of fraud, attacks on mail-in voting and an apparent unwillingness to accept defeat.

In this, he has been aided and abetted by a Republican Party that has fallen into the grips of white nationalism. The Republican base and its white Christian core, facing a loss of its dominant status in society, has radicalized, encouraging party leaders to engage in voter suppression, steal a Supreme Court seat in 2016 and tolerate the president’s lawless behavior. As a result, Americans today confront the prospect of a crisis-ridden election, in which they are unsure whether they will be able to cast a ballot fairly, whether their ballots will be counted, whether the candidate favored by voters will emerge victorious and whether the vote will throw the country into violence.

Yet if American democracy is nearing a breaking point, the crisis generated by the Trump presidency could also be a prelude to a democratic breakthrough. Opposition to Trumpism has engendered a growing multiracial majority that could lay a foundation for a more democratic future. Public opinion has shifted in important ways, especially among white Americans.


Not only do most Americans disapprove of the way Mr. Trump is handling his job, but an unprecedented majority now embraces ethnic diversity and racial equality, two essential pillars of multiracial democracy.

Yet translating this new multiethnic majority into a governing majority has been difficult. Democracy is supposed to be a game of numbers: The party with the most votes wins. In our political system, however, the majority does not govern. Constitutional design and recent political geographic trends — where Democrats and Republicans live — have unintentionally conspired to produce what is effectively becoming minority rule.


Today, however, American parties are starkly divided along urban-rural lines: Democrats are concentrated in big metropolitan centers, whereas Republicans are increasingly based in sparsely populated territories. This gives the Republicans an advantage in the Electoral College, the Senate and — because the president selects Supreme Court nominees and the Senate approves them — the Supreme Court.

Recent U.S. election results fly in the face of majority rule. Republicans have won the popular vote for president only once in the last 20 years and yet have controlled the presidency for 12 of those 20 years. Democrats easily won more overall votes for the U.S. Senate in 2016 and 2018, and yet the Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats. The 45 Democratic and two independent senators who caucus with them represent more people than the 53 Republicans.

This is minority rule. An electoral majority may not be enough for the Democrats to win the presidency this year either. According to the FiveThirtyEight presidential model, if Joe Biden wins the popular vote by one to two points, there is an 80 percent chance that Mr. Trump wins the presidency again. If Mr. Biden wins by two to three points, Mr. Trump is still likely to win. Mr. Biden must win by six points or more to have a near lock on the presidency. {snip}


In America today, then, the majority does not govern. This disjuncture cries out for reform. We must double down on democracy.

This means above all defending and expanding the right to vote. HR-1 and HR-4, a package of reforms approved by the House of Representatives in 2019 but blocked by the Senate, is a good start. HR-1 would establish nationwide automatic and same-day registration, expand early and absentee voting, prohibit flawed purges that remove eligible voters from the rolls, require independent redistricting commissions to draw congressional maps, and restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time. HR-4 would fully restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by the Supreme Court’s Shelby County vs. Holder ruling in 2013.

Doubling down on democracy also means reforms that empower majorities, such as eliminating the Senate filibuster. The filibuster, which was rarely used during much of the 20th century, has turned into a routine instrument of legislative obstruction. There were more Senate filibusters over the last two decades than in the previous eight. All meaningful legislation now effectively requires 60 votes, which amounts to a permanent minority veto.

A democratic reform agenda should also include an offer of statehood to the District of Columbia and to Puerto Rico, which would provide full and equal representation to nearly four million Americans who are currently disenfranchised. And it should include elimination of the Electoral College. {snip}

Not only would ending minority rule be inherently democratic, but, importantly, it would also encourage the Republican Party to abandon its destructive course of radicalization. {snip}

Democracy requires more than majority rule. But without majority rule, there is no democracy. Either we become a truly multiracial democracy or we cease to be a democracy at all.