While the Democracy Index lists the United States as a flawed democracy, that categorization will be difficult for many of us to accept. Meanwhile, many who might entertain the idea of that limitation will assume that we are placed in the defective bin because of Trump’s election and his autocratic actions. The Democracy Index, first published in 2006, however, initially listed the United States as a flawed democracy in 2016 before Donald J. Trump became president. Trump may be the result, but he is not the cause, of a flawed democracy.
And although we may mouth those Fourth-of-July words—government of the people, by the people, and for the people—a little reflection shows that we don’t really believe them. Just look at the polls about confidence in Congress, for example. If we thought that government is of, by, and for us, we should have great confidence in our governing officials and bodies. That is not so. If the U.S. were truly a good and strong democracy, would approval polls for Congress hover around the twenty percent mark?
Perhaps the surprising aspect of the Democracy Index is that before 2016 it had us in the fully democratic category, for we have always had important problems that conflicted with a fully functioning democracy. We often repeat Lincoln’s of, by, and for formulation, but if our government was so good, how was it that when he uttered them, he was speaking at a cemetery that represented the ongoing slaughter of a civil war? And, of course, the “people” then did not include women, blacks, or Native Americans.
We have progressed, but our democracy has never been close to perfect. Our Constitution has served us well in many respects. It formed separate states into one nation that has endured, but that does not mean that the Constitution is without flaws. It permits governments to take actions to undercut democratic values, perhaps something that this blog will explore more in the future, but it also created a structure with anti-democratic features, structures that increasingly make our country less democratic.
We certainly are aware that our method of selecting our president is not fully democratic. If democracy requires that all votes be counted equally and the person with the most votes wins, then the candidate with three million fewer votes than the rival would not become president, but under our semi-democracy, that was the result. (I previously explored the electoral college on April 10, 2019 on this blog. https://ajsdad.blog/?s=electoral.)
The electoral college, however, is at least roughly democratic in that each state’s electoral votes roughly mirror its population size. The Senate is another story.
Within each state, the election for Senator is democratic. Every vote in Texas, for example, counts equally in choosing Ted Cruz as Senator, but within the country, votes for Senators are not equal. The Constitution allots Texas two senators. It also gives Wyoming two Senators even though the population of Texas is about fifty times the size of Wyoming’s. In other words, each Wyoming vote for a Senator counts as much as fifty voters in Texas. Hardly democratic.
And the Senate will be increasingly undemocratic. I don’t know the initial source of this statistic, but I have seen it in several publications: By 2040, 70% of the population will live in the fifteen largest states and therefore collectively have thirty Senators while 30% of Americans will have 70% of the Senate.
Of course, even though an ever smaller minority of the population will control the Senate, that does not mean that that minority will be able to legislate for the rest of us. The House of Representatives, even with partisan gerrymandering, more accurately reflects the population trends of the country. (Unrestrained gerrymandering is something for future consideration here.) Senators representing a small portion of the population, however, will be able to stop legislation, and that minority will be able to confirm judges, cabinet officers, and other federal officials. The majority of the country will have even less power than it does now as the Senate becomes more skewed, or we might say, the cracks in our democracy will become chasms.
You might question whether the population trends reflected in that 2040 prediction will continue. People are leaving high-cost-of-living states and moving elsewhere. It is true that California out-migration has exceeded its in-migration. That does not mean, however, that its population has declined. Instead, while the rate of its growth has slowed to a trickle, it still grew by 141,300 from 2018 to 2019, a 0.35% growth rate. However, Wyoming, the state with the smallest population, has fewer than 600,000 residents. Even if miraculously Wyoming grew by 20%, it would add fewer people to its population than California now does. Wyoming would continue to fall behind in this population race, but it will still have the same senatorial representation as California.
It is true that New York, with the fourth largest state population, has lost residents, but so have the small states of West Virginia and Alaska. The New Yorkers who leave do not get in their modern Conestoga wagons and go to these small states. Significant numbers are not heading to West Virginia, Alaska, or even Nebraska, whose growth rate from 2017 to 2018 was only slightly above California’s at 0.6%.
The population disparities among the states will only increase. At the end of the coming generation perhaps 20% of the population will select the Senate’s majority.
(Concluded March 9, 2020)