A Veterans Day Lesson On Our “Democracy”

I will acknowledge from the start that I know why we have the political system we have today. I can read history books (or Wikipedia), too.

But on this Veterans Day, a day celebrating those who actually defend what we often call a democracy, it is worth taking a look at just how un- or anti-democratic our system really is, a system first constructed from a blueprint in west point first black graduateour Constitution, and modified by court decisions, amendments, and evolving practices.  And of course I know there will be no constitutional convention to alter our system of governance or no new and radical amendments to a document that is damned hard to amend under the best of circumstances. All that being said, we owe it to ourselves now and then to note just how we fail to govern ourselves democratically in some important respects and why we have failed from the beginning.

1. To start with, the  successful attempt by Republicans to suppress voter turnout among Democrats by enacting needlessly burdensome voting laws, which disproportionately affect African-Americans and other minorities, is as shameful as anything one can think of for people who live in a democracy. But the right-wing “patriots” who engage in such voter suppression are beyond shaming. Winning will only produce more attempts to skew the vote their way and undermine the principles of democratic government. But there’s more to the story of why they are doing such nasty things to our system, which I will get to at the end.

2. Next, we have the issue of money and politics. Theoretically, we all have the ability to influence the electoral process by making contributions to partisan candidates, or on behalf of or in opposition to ballot initiatives. Yes, we are all free to inject into the process a million or ten million or a hundred million dollars, right? Of course not. But people with real money can and do buy votes and people without real money can and do suffer because of it. Undemocratic or anti-democratic? You pick. Either way it is also a shameful aspect of our system.

3. Another people-unfriendly flaw in our electoral schemata was illustrated just 14 years ago. Everyone remembers that Al Gore, former Vice President of the country, actually got over 500,000 more votes than George W. Bush did in the presidential election of 2000. Yet there was no President Al Gore. The Constitution, in all its compromising glory, denied him the office, by virtue of a partisan Supreme Court decision that prematurely settled a messy election in Florida, which then led to Gore’s subsequent defeat in the very weird and anti-democratic electoral college.

Al Gore’s I-won-the-popular-vote-but-I-lost-the-election misfortune (and the country’s misfortune, given what happened on 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, which has set part of the world on fire), though, is a relatively rare event. Such an outcome is not a regular occurrence even under our Constitution. Before the 2000 election, the last time a candidate won a presidential election without at least a plurality of the vote was in 1888. But still it happened and its consequences were costly and catastrophic, and given the trends in our electorate, it may happen more frequently in the future.

4. A more regular anti-democratic feature of our system is gerrymandering, a process of manipulating demographics in order to achieve lopsided outcomes by drawing up Ebola-looking congressional districts. For instance, here’s Maryland’s 3rd District and North Carolina’s 12th District, two of the most gerrymandered House districts in the country:

gerrmandered districts

The most recent beneficiary of this form of voter manipulation is, of course, the Republican Party. After that Democrat-shellacking 2010 election, right-wingers got to draw boundaries for a larger number of congressional districts than Democrats did. After the 2012 election, the results were in: Democrats outpolled Republicans by about 1.4 million votes nationally in House races, but were under-represented by 18 seats. We saw the effect here in Missouri again this year, where even last Tuesday’s pitiful statewide electoral performance by Democrats (they only received 36% of the vote in all U.S. House races) would, under a more people-friendly system, have entitled them to an additional representative in Congress.

Consider the following analysis of the 2012 election done by Sam Wang, who founded the Princeton Election Consortium:

In the seven states where Republicans redrew the districts, 16.7 million votes were cast for Republicans and 16.4 million votes were cast for Democrats. This elected 73 Republicans and 34 Democrats. Given the average percentage of the vote it takes to elect representatives elsewhere in the country, that combination would normally require only 14.7 million Democratic votes. Or put another way, 1.7 million votes (16.4 minus 14.7) were effectively packed into Democratic districts and wasted.

5. Another regular anti-democratic feature of our strange electoral system is what happened last Tuesday relative to the U.S. Senate, which, as some political scientists claim, “may be the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation.” Let’s look at Louisiana. There were eight candidates in the Senate race. Here are the top three finishers:

Democrat Mary Landrieu: 618,840  42.1%
Republican Bill Cassidy:    602,439  41.0%
Republican Rob Maness:   202,413  13.8%

Rob Maness is a typical Tea Party wingnut Republican. As far as I’m concerned, Maness shouldn’t be allowed to decide whether to buy a new street sweeper for the city of Baton Rouge, let alone make reactionary whoopee with Mitch McConnell in Washington, D.C.  But Maness did manage to get over 200,000 votes in a multi-candidate race. Compare that to fairly-liberal Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware. He won his race by almost 16 points, yet he received only 130,645 votes. Coons will be a U.S. Senator and Maness will not, thank God and, in this limited case, the Founding Fathers.

But there is something about that 130,645 vote total in Delaware that should unsettle us all, at least those of us who value representative democracy. And there is something unsettling about Mike Rounds’ U.S. Senate victory in South Dakota. He got 140,721 votes. Republican Senator Mike Enzi was reelected in Wyoming with a whopping 72% of the vote, but he got a total of 119, 534 votes. In Alaska’s U.S. Senate race, Republican challenger Dan Sullivan is leading with 110,203 votes. Compare all those totals with what Republican Senator John Cornyn received in his Texas race: 2,855,068. That far exceeds the vote totals of 12 U.S. Senate winners, Republicans and Democrats, last Tuesday. Think about that. There were 36 Senate seats up for grabs and John Cornyn got more votes than one-third of the winners put together. Yet Cornyn, who represents 26.5 million people, will have only one vote, and those 12 other Senators, including Mike Enzi from a population-poor state like Wyoming—583,000—will each have a vote that counts as much as Cornyn’s. In effect, Wyoming citizens enjoy 46 times more representation than do Texans—and 66 times more than Californians!

Put another way on this Veterans Day, an American soldier from Texas or California who is fighting on behalf of the country’s democratic values, is getting considerably shortchanged. Those soldiers from Wyoming or Delaware have, democratically speaking, more to fight for and more to lose. And the small-state advantage is not only big, but it is increasing because of the population growth in large cities in the larger states. Because of the nature of that population growth—African-Americans and Latinos tend to live in the largest states—the smaller states with the lopsided representation make the country’s governance much more whiter and conservative than it would or should be. As The New York Times pointed out,

Among the nation’s five smallest states, only Vermont tilts liberal, while Alaska, Wyoming and the Dakotas have each voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968.

The Times reports another disturbing feature of our political life related to the anti-democratic Senate:

In the last few years, 41 senators representing as little as a third of the nation’s population have frequently blocked legislation, as the filibuster (or the threat of it) has become a routine part of Senate business.

Given that reality, even when Democrats do manage to control a majority of Senate seats, they are still fairly powerless to do anything. One-third of the country’s people can stop two-thirds. It’s hard to see how that is anyone’s idea of representative government.

As I said, there isn’t going to be any mad rush to change any of these flaws in our system. We’re stuck with it, as far as the eye can see. But I do want to point out a dark and disturbing connection between all of the items on my list of anti-democratic elements in our political system, starting with voter suppression efforts by Republicans and ending with the very anti-democratic U.S. Senate.

It is well established that conservatives in our country, whether they have called themselves Democrats or Republicans historically, have always had a problem recognizing the citizenship-legitimacy of African-Americans. The obvious attempts by conservative Republicans today to discourage black people (and other minorities, to be sure) from voting is just another manifestation of institutional discrimination that has bedeviled our democracy since its founding. From the Times:

Robert A. Dahl, the Yale political scientist, who is 97 and has been studying American government for more than 70 years, has argued that slavery survived thanks to the disproportionate influence of small-population Southern states. The House passed eight antislavery measures between 1800 and 1860; all died in the Senate. The civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, he added, was slowed by senators representing small-population states.

Related to that excellent Times article, professor of political science and author Corey Robin wrote,

…for all the justified disgust with Emory University President James Wagner’s recent celebration of the 3/5 Clause, virtually no one ever criticizes the Senate, even though its contribution to the maintenance of white supremacy, over the long course of American history, has been far greater than the 3/5 Clause, which was nullified by the 14th Amendment.

Now you can see why we have had, and continue to have, such an anti-democratic system. The causes are rooted in white supremacy, and we see a manifestation of that same spirit in the Republican-led defense against what they Gordon, scourged back, colored slide 2.pngperceive as threats to white Western culture. The voter suppression of minorities is part of that defense. The big money that controls our politics is part of it (how many black billionaires do you know?). The Electoral College system, which is directly related to the issue of slavery, is another part. Gerrymandering, where minority voting power is diluted by packing voters into often-convoluted districts, is still another part. And, finally, the Senate is part of it, too, a place where, as Corey Robin wrote, “democracy goes to die.”

So, the next time you hear a Republican talk about voter fraud and the need for stricter ID laws, or talk about how money equals free speech, or how the Electoral College “keeps the values of traditional America relevant,” or how gerrymandering “isn’t really about race,” or how the U. S. Senate balances rural interests against big-city interests, you will know what that Republican is really saying: white might makes right.



  1. I do appreciate this fresh perspective on democracy, Duane. However, in reading it I found myself pondering something disturbing: the wisdom of the common man. We all know why the founders created the senate as they did, to provide the stability of a 6-year tenure to encourage a more-deliberate thought process. They knew a pure democracy, small d, wouldn’t work because busy people in their daily lives would be too reactive, too volatile, to make important decisions. The recent ebola scare is a prime example, and even that was too much for some 30 state legislatures to handle.

    I see in the morning headlines another mini-scandal the GOP is sure to make maxi, an assertion by an architect of the ACA referring to voters as “stupid”. He has apologized, as he should, but it’s too late. Voters aren’t stupid, of course, but they are disengaged and distracted by the busy process of living. I consider myself an educated and open-minded person, but it has only been in retirement that I found the time and interest to dive beneath the surface of politics and understand what has been going on.

    It really comes down to leadership, I think. People hitch their wagons to political stars, trusting in their wisdom. That works just great when the star is Ike or Franklin or Abe or George Washington. Not so great when it’s Ted Cruz. We are on a bad trajectory.


    • I agree with you on the “pure democracy” issue. I wasn’t arguing for that. I want a better representative Democracy, something that won’t happen in even my grandchild’s grandchildren’s lifetime I suppose, if ever.

      And I couldn’t agree more with what you said:

      Voters aren’t stupid, of course, but they are disengaged and distracted by the busy process of living.

      We all know there are some dumb voters out there, dumb voters on both sides. But most people are just ignorant, some willfully so, but ignorant nonetheless. I am convinced that if most people really understood what was going on–as your testimony indicates–that we would have a much better country, one that wasn’t manipulated by moneyed interests.

      Finally, yes, we are in many ways on a bad trajectory, in terms of where our politics is headed. But maybe it will bottom out–if the GOP gets even uglier–and things will start to look up again. Hope against hope, my friend.



  2. ansonburlingame

     /  November 12, 2014

    Duane and Jim.

    As I recall from learning a little Constitutional history that a huge concern by the Founders was big states steamrolling smaller states. North vs. South was the essence of that concern, as I recall, with BIG NY and PA dominating little ole SC or Georgia, and Delaware having no say at all with the big guys.

    No doubt today Dems look at the red and blue map of today’s political America and they see many, many smaller red states and a few large blue ones. Thus your blog, in essence.

    I think I read in your concerns that Wymoing has an equal vote in the Senate over say CA or NY, or even Texas I suppose. It seems to be your view that is “unfair”, I think.

    No doubt that the Founders very much worried about the consequences of a pure democracy. About the same time they put the Constitution in place they were seeing the French Revolution going on. They collectively did not want to see that happen in America, and it hasn’t happened. Nor has a mass revolution of the Russian sort, or Chinese sort happened as well, thank God.

    Bring such issues down to just Missouri, a swing state. After a statewide election for national offices is held the map of Missouri would be dominated by red districts, with Dem power isolated to KC and St. Louis, generally speaking. Is that “fair”, letting two big cities dominate the politics of a whole state? I’m not sure, Are You? to coin a phrase. I for one am sure glad our public schools in Joplin do not face the issues of public education in KC. Aren’t you as well?

    I do suspect this point however. If a pure popular national vote was held to select national leaders, why would anyone campaign in Wyoming? Why would anyone in Wyoming bother to vote, even? Wyoming can’t compete with CA or NY or TX, etc. so why bother with worrying about Wyoming, unless one lives there?

    The Founders worried about “masses”, greedy white men (which they were NOT) that they were and a lot of them slave owners as well. The result was a representative republic, not a pure democracy. I for one am not ready to tinker with that fundamental approach to how we the people, through representatives, govern America.

    Does “mass” turnout by evangelicals concern you? Such seems to be the case. How about mass “redneck” voting. Does massive “block voting” by minorities concern me? Yes it does, the “unthinking mass” part of of each of those blocs.

    Kissinger addressed this issue, world-wide in his recent book. Do you or anyone else want the “average Joe (or Jane)” dictating foreign policy for America? That average person MAY have a HS diploma and could not pass a test on the principles of government, political philosophy, etc. Is that the best way to select our “governors”?

    Asked another way, is a pure democracy safe for the whole world? Go hold a vote in Saudi Arabia and figure that one out. Look what happened in Iraq as well. Egypt too with voting in the Muslim Brotherhood, for a short while. Workers of the World unite did not work very well it seems around the turn of the 20th Century, for Russia, China or the world at large. I doubt you liked the purges by Stalin or Mao during those harsh times. I also hope to hell they never happen in America in the 21st Century or thereafter.

    Now we await the outcome in Ferguson as well, right here in America, a microcosm of American politics of the mass sort, it seems to me. I would much prefer the rule of law but that takes “smart” people to do so, rule by law, not masses.



    • Anson,

      You wrote,

      If a pure popular national vote was held to select national leaders, why would anyone campaign in Wyoming?

      Okay. Now, let me ask you the last time you saw a presidential candidate campaign in Wyoming? They don’t go there now, Anson.

      You talk about a “pure democracy” as if I advocated for one. I did not, as the piece makes clear. I am for a representative democracy, call it what you will. It’s just a matter of how we choose our representatives. I don’t think 600,000 folks in Wyoming (or 900,000 folks in Delaware) should get two senators while almost 40 million people in California (and 26 million in Texas) also get two. Doesn’t make any real sense to me, even though I understand how such an anti-democratic situation came to be.

      So, no, I don’t want to turn over to direct democracy the running of the country. What I want is a fairer spread of representation across the nation, knowing that such will never happen, at least as far as my eyes can see.



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