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The United States Is Badly In Need of Democratic Reform

America’s political institutions are designed to keep democracy at bay. But evidence is mounting that Americans have had enough and want reform.

The trifecta of the Electoral College, Supreme Court, and Senate functions as a constitutionally embedded check on popular and majority rule. (Caleb Perez / Unsplash)

Socialists and progressive liberals alike find plenty to criticize about American democracy. For the socialist left, democracy is fatally compromised by both the dominance of markets and the stratification imposed by class society. While most do not extend it to a critique of capitalism itself, progressive liberals tend to agree that organized wealth enjoys a dangerous and outsize influence in twenty-first-century America — there also being consensus around the need to extend voting rights, combat gerrymandering, and fight voter suppression.

Worthy and necessary as these critiques are, there’s also a far more basic one to be mounted of what passes for “democracy” in the United States. Which is to say: even with the standard left and progressive analyses set aside, America’s political institutions are considerably less democratic and egalitarian than those of other liberal states. Measured against rudimentary principles like one person, one vote and rule by a popularly elected majority, much of the American system effectively works as a giant check against small-d democracy.

Just how antidemocratic is the United States? The Trump era has offered up some particularly striking case studies.

Thanks to the outcome of the 2016 election, which saw Donald Trump win the presidency with a record 2.8 million fewer votes than his opponent, the Electoral College is increasingly taken for the absurdity that it is. The recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and subsequent nomination of Amy Coney Barrett only underscores further the profoundly undemocratic character of American institutions, which may see a president chosen by a minority of voters place no less than three justices with lifetime appointments and the power to strike down legislation passed by Congress (Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh) onto the Supreme Court.

Undergirding it all is the body that will ultimately confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee: the Senate. Arguably the most unrepresentative legislature found anywhere in the democratic world, the principle of equal representation regardless of population gives wildly different weights to individual votes and effectively empowers a small minority to overrule the rest of the electorate. As Daniel Lazare noted in a 2014 essay, California and Wyoming both get two senators despite the former having sixty-five times the population, the upshot of which is that a voting-age Californian has about 1.5 percent the electoral clout of a voting-age Wyomingian. A majority of Americans live in just nine states and thus command only eighteen votes in the Senate, compared to eighty-two for the minority that lives in the rest of the country. Owing to filibuster rules, lawmakers representing less than 11 percent of the population can block any bill from coming to a vote on the floor.

Even putting aside the influence of billionaires and organized money, the trifecta of the Electoral College, Supreme Court, and Senate functions as a constitutionally embedded check on popular and majority rule. Antidemocratic and counter-majoritarian institutions are, of course, structural features rather than incidental bugs: the country’s founders being notably hostile to majority rule and fearful of mass democracy. As Chris Maisano put it last year:

[The founders] established a republic in which representation was a means of avoiding, not instituting, democratic control of government by filtering popular opinion through a complex of elite-dominated institutions like the Senate and the judiciary . . . This was premised, first and foremost, on the violent exclusion of indigenous people, slaves, and free African Americans from political life. But it also entailed the assumption that men of property must speak on behalf of the lower orders as a whole, even where they enjoyed the right to speak, assemble, and vote.

A corollary implication of America’s institutional design is that significant or transformative legislation proves exceptionally difficult to pass, both Congress and the executive often being radically unrepresentative of the popular will and divided control of government yielding a perennial atmosphere of stagnation.

All told, there’s mounting evidence that many Americans support electoral reform and might be a lot happier living in a parliamentary republic.

According to one September poll, some 61 percent want to see the Electoral College abolished. Congress, meanwhile, is resoundingly disliked, and at least 40 percent of Americans reportedly want a third party (among younger voters, that figure is an astounding 71 percent). Though a bit more complex to parse, a fresh Gallup study also suggests that a record number of voters now favor single-party control of the federal government. Still shy of a majority at 41 percent, the survey to some extent maps onto partisan preference — with Democrats being more likely to support one-party government when their own party is in power and vice versa.

Nevertheless, Gallup’s numbers suggest a growing frustration with the bipartisan stasis that so often defines politics in Washington — a stasis owed in considerable part to an institutional bias against majority rule. At 43 percent support, the proportion of Democrats who favor one-party control now exceeds what it was throughout much of the Obama years. Even among Independents, the group historically least likely to want single-party control of government, Gallup’s survey found a noticeable uptick.

Whether Democrats or Republicans are in power, asserting the principle of majoritarianism and advocating for small-d democratic reforms remains a critical and necessary task. Perhaps more than ever, the American electorate is crying out for both.