There should be little doubt in anyone’s mind that the Congress and our political system are in the throes of some pretty awful disabilities right now.
A new book The Tyranny of the Minority by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (available at the Clark County Public Library) provides good historical insight as to how we have arrived at this point, as well as potential solutions to the dilemma.
At the beginning of the book, the authors describe four factors which define a true democrat (the term used here to describe someone dedicated to true democracy, not as a member of a political party).
Those four factors are:
- They expel antidemocratic extremists from their own ranks even at the risk of antagonizing their own party.
- They sever all ties – public and private – with allied groups that engage in antidemocratic behavior.
- They unambiguously condemn political violence and other antidemocratic behavior, even that committed by allies or ideologically proximate groups.
- They join forces with rival pro-democratic parties to isolate and defeat antidemocratic extremists.
Reading just these four factors should illuminate the problem facing America today as a sizeable proportion of the Republican party routinely violates some or all of these principles.
Consider how many Republicans consistently refuse to acknowledge that the 2020 election was fair and that President Biden is the rightful officeholder. Those same Republicans continue to eulogize former President Trump while refusing to acknowledge any complicity on his part in the January 6 attempt to overthrow a valid election.
And these principles illustrate the reference to minority since those who violate them are definitely a minority portion of our elected officials.
The American political process if rife with opportunities for minorities to upset the legitimate operation of democracy. And our Constitution is largely responsible for allowing this to happen.
Consider, for example, the uneven representation built into the U.S. Senate. The founders set up this unique bicameral system as a compromise to the demands of the then-thirteen states who feared that the smaller states would be overwhelmed by strict population representation proposed for the House of Representatives.
The system was skewed then and is even more so now. As an example of this unfair representation, two senators serve each state. So, in California each senator represents 19.6 million people, but in Wyoming each represents only 290,000 people and in Vermont 323,000. So the residents of Wyoming are getting representation which is 68 times greater than California and Vermont 60 times greater.
To compound the disparities in our democratic system, the electoral college allows one to achieve the presidency even though he may receive a minority of the popular vote (1824, 1876, 1888, 2000, 2016).
Since 1800 there have been over 700 attempts to either modify or do away with the electoral college so there has, for a very long time, been a recognition of this basically non-democratic institution.
Levitsky and Ziblatt take note several factors which make America what they describe as a “uniquely counter-majoritarian democracy at the dawn of the 21st century.”
- America is the only presidential democracy in the world in which the president is elected via an electoral college rather than directly by the voters.
- America is one of the few remaining democracies that retains a bicameral legislature with a powerful upper chamber. Only Argentina and Brazil are worse with severely malapportioned upper chambers.
- America is the world’s only democracy with both a strong, malapportioned senate and a legislative minority veto (the filibuster, which incidentally can only be overcome with a 3⁄5 vote).
- America is one of only five established democracies in which the presidency can be attained with a minority of the popular vote (via the Electoral College).
- America is the only democracy in the world with lifetime tenure for supreme court justices; all others have either term limits, mandatory retirement age, or both.
- The U.S. Constitution is, among democracies, the hardest in the world to change, requiring approval of 2⁄3 of both houses plus 3⁄4 of the states.
It is obvious that the founders were not perfect, nor was the document they constructed. Most of them even knew it at the time and wrote about it. The fact that our constitution has been amended 27 times is testament to its imperfection. The fact that there have been more than 11,000 attempts to amend it attests to the difficulty of doing so, as does the fact that the 19th Amendment was passed by a single vote in the Tennessee legislature.
Democracy is hard. Ours is one of the longest-lived in the world. It is also one that is excruciatingly difficult to adjust to the changing vagaries of the times. And it works best when governed by majorities without the restraint of non-democratic extremist minorities.