Thursday, July 19, 2018

The U.S. Senate and our increasing democracy deficit

We are living in an international moment of "democratic deficit." The term is usually used to refer to the feeling among people in the member countries of the European Union that somehow, despite elections and politicians and the paraphernalia of legislatures, the individual nations within which they live fail to enact the policies implied by their voting choices. The larger Eurosystem felt to be in the way of small "d" democratic accountability. Europeans aren't alone in this feeling.

Looking ahead beyond present alarums and the Trumpian fog, I think people in the United States need to face up to our own democratic deficit. Its obvious manifestation is that in two of the last five presidential elections (2000 and 2016), the candidate with less popular votes ended up legally elected. The federalist fudge that enabled the original 13 colonies to enact a slavery-protecting Constitution by allocating two Senators to every state regardless of population size is becoming more distorting of the popular will every decade.

This graphic representation of the projected distribution of U.S. population by 2040 means that all those little gray slivers will radically outweigh the numbers in the Senate from the few big teal blocks -- California, Texas, Florida, New York, etc. Philip Bump spelled out the political implications:

Eight states will have just under half of the total population of the country, 49.5 percent, according to the Weldon Cooper Center’s estimate. The next eight most populous states will account for an additional fifth of the population, up to 69.2 percent — meaning that the 16 most populous states will be home to about 70 percent of Americans. ... [But] 30 percent of the population of the country will control 68 percent of the seats in the U.S. Senate. Or, more starkly, half the population of the country will control 84 percent of those seats.

... The gray states on the map ... — states that make up more than two-thirds of the land area of the United States — will similarly control enough of the Senate to overcome any filibuster. The House and the Senate will be weighted to two largely different Americas.

Because the numbers of Congresscritters in the House are determined by actual proportion of national population, there are going to be a lot more states with only one representative, unless Congress decides to increase the overall number which is fixed at an already unwieldy 435. Currently there are seven states with one rep: Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. Soon enough, there will be more such states. Meanwhile growing states will get more Congresspeople. The House will continue broadly representative the democratic principle of "one person, one vote."

But then there is the Senate ... More populous states are now, or are trending toward, the Democrats, the political party whose base is urban, of color, and in one way or another a part of the 21st century economy. Yes, even Texas will turn purple if current trends continue. But the federal structure guaranteeing two seats to every state means the Senate will become less and less democratic, less representative, unless something changes.

So what's a progressive to do? Lots.
  • Democrats need to support Democratic-leaning groups in small states and help them win. New Hampshire and Maine are small states in a region where government-affirming policies are in the game. Let's win and keep them. Mississippi is home to less than 3 million people -- and 37% percent of them are Black, while the state's whites are the most conservative in the nation. But a decent and smart Democratic party can't abandon Magnolia State Black voters. (Alabama has proven that you never know what might happen.) Note that Dems currently solidly win two of the seven smallest states.
  • If/when Democrats control both houses of Congress, admit the District of Columbia as new state, ASAP. DC has more people than two existing states, Vermont and Wyoming. All statehood requires is a majority vote in Congress and a presidential signature; though admitting new states feels today like an historical curiosity, two -- Alaska and Hawaii -- have come in during my lifetime. DC voted overwhelmingly for statehood in 2016; that's not to the taste of the Republican Congress which is actively undermining the local elected government. Republicans will howl when DC becomes a state, but this is a matter on which democracy requires political hardball.
  • Are there other U.S. territories that could become states? Well maybe. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens as most of us who are not named Trump know, but the island is not a state. It is home to more people than 20 states. The place and people have been a colony since the U.S. seized it from Spain in 1898. Puerto Ricans are divided about their future. The current elected governor campaigns for statehood; it is not at all clear that a majority of Puerto Ricans agree with him. It's close to certain that Republicans would oppose Puerto Rican statehood -- you know, more Brown people.
  • Anywhere else that should be a state? Well, maybe Guam, though this would be a reach. Today, residents live in an “unincorporated territory" and have U.S. citizenship -- when they travel to the 50 states. On the island of Guam, they are subject to the U.S. Congress. You can imagine how much attention Washington pols pay to an island of 175,000 Chamorro-speaking people nearly across the Pacific.
If we hope to be a country in which popular majorities have a chance, we must understand how the Constitution's federal structure will contribute to a pervasive feeling that majorities don't fully count. That's a recipe for conflict; so conflict we must.


Rain Trueax said...

With the democratic party moving toward 'democratic socialism' which, from what I've read means government runs the things people need the most (I guess that'd mean the internet, utilities, health care, fuel, not sure what else but more and more run by government), I am concerned that it's not there for people like me who used to vote for them. I am not a fan of 'democratic socialism'. In countries that move that way, individual freedom is necessarily curtailed. Like with health care, how long before you don't get it if you don't eat right, exercise, whatever else is supposed to help? And the lady from NYC, who just won the primary to be the next representative from the Bronx, evidently thinks capitalism is a bad thing and on its way out. No surprise there and probably most 'democratic socialists' feel that way. She's being more honest about it than Obama, who doubtless also felt that way but didn't expect he could get elected running on it or doing it.

In the end though, who pays for all this without a healthy system of capitalism? Socialism by its nature has to divide up what everyone has. It earns nothing. It just distributes it more equitably. When you promise a lot to people-- like everybody gets a paycheck whether they work or not, eventually, the debts become such that it doesn't end up working and in a worse case, you have Venezuela. Communism, the pure philosophical type, not the ones we've seen in practice, hasn't been tried much as it always ends up with dictatorships.

I don't have any faith in either of our main parties as both have gone more to the extremes and if someone is on one extreme, they just think it's better than the other extreme. We stopped donating to the Democratic party years back and only donated to individual democrat candidates (have't donated to any Republican candidates that i can remember ever).

Some want to blame this all on Trump or the Russians or somebody else, but maybe it's human nature and makes it hard for us to use reasonable ideas for long that not only benefit commerce but the weakest among us who need help. There are always grifters and too often, they end up running things as humans gravitate toward charisma (i.e. Obama and Trump). Charisma easily becomes a circus or makes people forget that nothing is getting done. I am not sure with say 20% at each extreme and 60% in the middle voting with charisma too often, that we can fix this country. The hate alone would make it hard. I'd like to have hope for this working out with hard work being rewarded, solid environmental policies, fair taxation, reasonable immigration policies, etc. etc. but I am old enough to have had too many times I hoped and saw it dashed and old enough that I doubt I'll see it improved. Maybe my grandkids will. I could hope but I just don't see it happening soon and without going through a lot of pain before the country might find some balance between those two extremes.

Brandon said...

Off topic, but I see on your blogroll. Did you add it just recently?

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