Republicans Gaming the System to Create a Tyranny of the Minority
Students who had survived the Valentine’s Day shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida could be seen a week later crying in the state house balcony. They had witnessed a party line vote in which Republicans blocked an assault weapon ban that is supported by a 2–1 majority both in Florida and across the US.
Large majorities of the public find themselves increasingly at odds with the Republican Party not only on boosting gun safety, but also on ending discrimination against gays, defending abortion rights, raising the minimum wage and expanding Social Security and Medicare just to name a few of many such issues. This policy mismatch between polls and pols shows that our elections are becoming less democratic in ways that are baked in, benefit Republicans and beg our attention.
How has this happened? The Founding Fathers knew enough about the democracies in ancient Greece and medieval Italy to fear a tyranny of the majority. But three of their tools for fair governance have been gamed by Republicans to create an unforeseen tyranny of the minority.
Alexander Hamilton, writing with the prescience of Nostradmus in Federalist Papers №68, said the Founding Fathers worried that voters might choose a potential despot; one who had “talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”
To prevent that they erected the Electoral College as a firewall ideally composed of thoughtful electors “opposed to cabal, intrigue, and corruption.” Hamilton imagined that these electors would overrule voters who chose an unfit leader, especially one in whom “foreign powers,” were, “raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union.”
We see how well that worked. Donald Trump lost by nearly 3 million votes in 2016. Yet an Electoral College on autopilot foisted him on our republic. No other developed democracy puts a second place loser in charge. But that’s the case for two of our last three presidents. Is it just a coincidence that many people rank George W. Bush and Donald Trump as our worst leaders ever?
Second, to appease small states and slave states and to hopefully prevent a tyranny of the majority, our Founding Fathers gave two seats in the US Senate to each state regardless of size. Over 200 years later, this formula means that a party could win both seats from the 26 smallest states and rule the US Senate with the backing of less than a fifth of the nation’s voters. But one needn’t go that far. The Republican Party’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to a stolen seat on the Supreme Court was backed by a majority of 54 senators. But they represent only a 44% minority of the US population. To make this point another way, in the 2016 elections, despite marshalling 6 million more votes nationwide, the Democrats won fewer seats than Republicans.
Third, our Founders gave the right to draw US House district lines to state legislators. In 2012 Democratic US House candidates gathered 1.3 million more votes nationwide. But Republicans, with their thumbs on the scales of redistricting, claimed a large majority of US House seats; enough to spawn an unpopular government shutdown a year later.
No other developed democracy allows parties to draw district lines. In the 19th century we began calling this practice that undermines the concept of “one man, one vote” gerrymandering. Republican President Benjamin Harrison declared gerrymandering to be “political robbery” in 1891. But in this age of big data and minority rule that concept deserves a 21st century rebranding: “gerry-rigging.”
As the Founders did, I’m using the word “tyranny” in the figurative, rather than literal sense. Regardless of how you define the word, I think the Founding Fathers would be surprised and disappointed to see the nation mis-ruled this way. But Democrats, Independents and pro-republic Republicans can spare the nation from this poisonous tyranny of the minority with three democratic antidotes.
A constitutional amendment aimed at changing the Electoral College could, sadly, be blocked by a mere baker’s dozen of small states. But the Constitution does allow a legal workaround — an interstate compact — that can dismantle this firewall that no longer defends the republic. The details can be found at www.nationalpopularvote.com. In a nutshell, the Constitution allows states to define how their electors vote; they can in fact be instructed to support the winner of the national popular vote. Already a dozen states with 172 electors have deemed that once states with 270 electors have joined the compact, they will all back the candidate with the most votes nationwide.
The second problem of small states giving control of the US Senate to a minority party won’t be changed through an amendment either. But nothing is stopping the Democratic Party from replicating then party leader Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy that gave the country a Democratic senate backed by an actual majority of voters from 2006 to 2014. There’s no good reason for Democrats to lose, especially on economic issues, in small, rural states where campaigns are less expensive.
The third problem, gerry-rigged districts, can be solved by the kind of non-partisan redistricting commissions used in every other developed democracy. They exist now in nine states. Eight other states are striving for similar commissions. Six states only have one district, so there is no redistricting. That leaves 27 states in which defenders of democracy can enlist the late Republican president Ronald Reagan as their patron saint. He strongly argued for commissions in a 1988 interview. He said of district lines drawn by politicians, “I think maybe our Founding Fathers made something of a mistake…”
With those three solutions in place, citizens who love our republic can break the country free from this tyranny of the minority.
Frank Hyman has held two elected offices and is the policy analyst for Blue Collar Comeback.
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