(When I have written longer essays, I have posted segments over multiple days thinking that readers might not read all the way through if it were all posted at once. Followers of the blog can read in its entirety as the essay goes online, but it has been pointed out to me that those who find such postings through a search engine may find only a part of the essay and have difficulty reading the essay from start to finish. Recently when I posted such a multiple-part essay, I have then posted the essay in its entirety after the segments have concluded so that it can be read from start to finish by those wishing to do so in one viewing. Almost always the blog’s content is new, but on occasion when it seems timely, I have repeated a past blog, which I am doing today. When I do so, even if it originally was posted over several days, I will post all of it at once. It is my Again project.)
(With waves passing through the states passing and considering legislation to make voting more difficult in the name of election security, it has made me think again about our “democracy.” As a result I revisited an earlier post not about such legislative activities but about anti-democratic structures built into our system of government.)
(First posted March 4, 6, and 9, 2020)
I had not heard of the Democracy Index until a friend recently mentioned that the United States was listed on it as a “flawed democracy.” I later learned that the index is produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, sister to The Economist magazine.
The EIU bases its report on sixty indicators grouped into five categories (electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties) yielding a numeric score capped at 10.00. Norway, with a score of 9.87, leads the list followed by Iceland (9.58), Sweden (9.39), New Zealand (9.39), and Finland (9.25.) Countries with scores of 8.0 to 6.0 are listed as flawed democracies, and the United States was given a 7.95 score.
This made me wonder about how I or my fellow Americans would define “democracy.” One dictionary said democracy was “government by the people, especially rule of the majority; government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” Another source said: “a system of government by the whole population of all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.” A third source: “the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves.”
These definitions raised all sorts of questions and thoughts. Democracy was government by “the people,” but what was the definition of “the people”? Is it the same as “the eligible members of a state”? The whole population cannot vote in an election. Ten-year-olds don’t get to cast a ballot. Isn’t it important to define what the “eligible members of a state” ought to be for a democracy? If the franchise is restricted to a tiny part of the society, but the leaders are picked by majority vote of that small group, is it a democracy? I guess it is, at least according to one definition.
One democracy definition emphasized majority rule, but I have heard of the “tyranny of the majority,” and wondered if we would consider a country democratic that horrendously oppressed all those not in the majority. And, if a system selects representatives with a plurality but not a majority, is it not democratic or is it a lesser form of democracy?
One democracy definition said “free elections.” That is not a self-evident phrase. I was not sure how I would define it, or if it could be defined except by negative examples.
Even though I felt as if I would know a democracy when I saw it, I was not sure that it could be defined. Part of the problem is that the definitions, like most definitions, were binary—something was either this or not this. Something was not “sort of” this or a “better or more complete version” of this. The Democracy Index, however, accepts a more inclusive notion of democracy. Many societies are democratic, but some are more democratic than others, and I probably thought along similar lines.
I did think, however, that the third definition included a component the others did not when it said a democracy was a system of government based on the belief of equality among people. For me, I realized, a facet of a better democracy is that the ability to vote is widespread, indicating equality among the people, and that all voters’ votes count the same, again indicating equality among the people. The elected representatives of the society are chosen by determining who had the most votes cast in an election where all the voters have equal access to cast ballots and all votes carry equal weight.
I also noticed an important absence in all the definitions. They had agreed that a representative democracy had the electorate picking people to represent them in government. But the definitions do not say that the people or the electorate choose the form of government in which their representatives will govern. But surely, the structure of the government has something to do with democracy. And “democratic” countries can be structured in ways that seem to make them more or less democratic. If our government is a flawed democracy as the Democracy Index asserts, part of the reason is that our governmental structure makes votes unequal. Our form of government means that some Americans count much more than others in choosing those who run the country. We are not, and cannot, be equal under our form of government. And the people of today have not chosen the structures causing inequality and a lesser form of democracy. Our forebears did that.
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. We don’t. 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 listed us as fully democratic, but 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 even 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 make our country increasingly undemocratic.
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 in 2016. (I have previously written about the electoral college including on April 10, 2019, and on October 28, 2020 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 will, therefore, account for 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 [and with the results of the 2020 census in, has now lost a seat in the House], 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.
You might also say that the increasingly undemocratic representation in the Senate is what the founders of the country created. Yes, of course, those who wrote and adopted the Constitution mandated that all states, big or small or in between, would get two seats in the upper house. And perhaps that provision was necessary to get the thirteen states to meld into one country, but that, of course, does not mean that it is right for today. Those founders, unless they were on substances much different from the copious amounts of cider they drank, could not have imagined states with populations approaching 40 million.
The Constitutional framers did not create a Senate with hopes that a small portion of the population would control the Senate. A national census had not been undertaken when the Constitution was drafted, but the drafters’ views of the relative populations of the states can be seen in the Constitution’s Section 2 of Article I where the document prescribed the allocation of Representatives for the original House. New Hampshire would have three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode Island one, Connecticut five, New York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three, for a total of sixty-five.
The framers thought that the three largest states (this calculation included the infamous three-fifths clause) would have twenty-six representatives, indicating the belief that Virginia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania had 40% of the population. Both Maryland and New York were allocated six Representatives. These five states, the framers believed, had about 57% of the population. Together, of course, they had ten seats in the twenty-six-person Senate, or about 38% of the Senators, while the states with 43% of the population would have 62% of the Senators. This, of course, was an imbalance, but it was nothing like the coming disparity where 50% of the population is expected to live in just eight states by 2040. They will only have 16% of the Senators, and, thus, a minority of the population will have 84% of the Senators.
Whether or not two-Senators-per-state is a good provision today, it is what we have because of what happened in 1787. It is not because we today have determined it is the best policy for our governing structure. But even if almost all of us concluded that we should have some other way of allocating Senators, it wouldn’t be changed. Of course, the Constitution can be amended, which requires approval from two-thirds of each house of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states. The states are treated equally, and the lack of approval from thirteen states, no matter what portion of the population they contain, would doom an amendment. The amendment process in general is difficult, but in reality it is impossible for changing the Senate’s composition. The Constitution’s amendment provision, Article V, says that “no State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” I don’t think that I am being overly cynical by concluding that Alaska and Wyoming and other states would not willingly give up their “equal” Senatorial representation.
There is another possibility for ameliorating the increasingly undemocratic governmental structure. Large states such as Texas or California could divide themselves into four or six separate states, each with two Senators. The Constitution’s Section 3 of Article IV, however, says that such division can only be done with the consent of Congress. Again, I don’t think that I am being overly cynical by concluding that the Senate, where the overwhelming majority of Senators will come from the smallest states, is not going to approve the admission of such new states into the Union.
So . . . a smaller and smaller minority of the population will select a majority in the Senate. What, if in addition, the electoral college deviates further and further from the majority’s vote? Will “the people” see their government as legitimate? With these governmental structures unchangeable within our Constitutional confines, what will then happen?
The famed philosophers John Lennon and Paul McCartney seemed to advocate a mind change instead of a revolution when change might be desirable but difficult: “You say you want a revolution/ . . . But when you talk about destruction/ Don’t you know that you can count me out/ . . . You say you’ll change the constitution/Well, you know/We all want to change your head/You tell me it’s the institution/Well, you know/You better free your mind instead. . . .” But at least for me, I don’t think I can change my mind so that rule by an increasingly small minority in my country will really be all right. I don’t want to live in the equivalent of a banana republic.
But, then, what’s left? With no constitutional method for change, perhaps only the words of Jefferson show the path to a better democracy: “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. . . . It is medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”
Or perhaps we should contemplate the words of Robert Kennedy: “A revolution is coming—a revolution which will be peaceful if we are wise enough; compassionate if we care enough; successful if we are fortunate enough—but a revolution which is coming whether we will it or not. We can affect its character; we cannot alter its inevitability.”
We should start considering the extra-constitutional changes we are assuredly going to face.