Electoral Politics in an Increasingly Non-Democratic US

In lieu of a movement—or, much better if possible, in conjunction with a movement—the left needs to win elections.  One big problem of the Obama years was the down-ballot devastation of the Democrats, in Congress, in state legislatures, and in governorships.

Elections, of course, are the heart and soul of democratic politics, the privileged means by which democracies avoid violence by allowing for the non-violent transfer of power.  But it has become increasingly difficult to call the US democratic.  So it seems naïve to place one’s faith in elections.  And that’s even before we consider all the inadequacies of the Democratic Party as the left’s representative in the electoral sweepstakes.

There is no reason for me to do more here than list the features that make the US non-democratic: voter suppression, gerrymandering, the role of money in politics, the Electoral College and the Senate (both of which give minorities from small states disproportionate power.)  The work of Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels has made it clear we live in a plutocracy.  The health care bill (more like a health destruction bill) the Republicans are about to pass demonstrates quite clearly just how plutocratic our system is.

I just want to mention my three deepest fears about non-democracy.

  1. Senate nullification.  When the Senate refused to even consider Merrick Garland for a Supreme Court seat, it assumed its right to simply block presidential prerogatives.  The right has stacked the judiciary by refusing to ratify Democratic nominations for the federal bench.
  2. Supreme Court nullification. Hope for any Supreme Court action to curb voter suppression and gerrymandering is most likely misplaced.  Andrew Kennedy is a slim reed on which to place such high hopes.  Democracy, unfortunately, is not a constitutional value.  Nothing in that document makes a law or practice invalid by virtue of its being undemocratic.
  3. The Electoral College. The Democrats have now won the popular vote twice in 20 years and still lost the presidency.  If this pattern holds, we are going to have both a president and a Senate elected by the minority time and again.  How long can that be sustained?  How long do California and New York have to tolerate being governed by Wyoming and Idaho and Kansas and Texas?


The process of amending the Constitution (as was done in the progressive era) is now so far beyond the reach of possibility as to be off the table.  Yet several Constitutional amendments are desperately needed: a right to vote (those showing up to vote should be presumed innocent until proven guilty; multiple days to vote; Election Day a national holiday; equal distribution of polling places—i.e. one for every 75,000 citizens—to avoid the long lines in urban areas compared to voting taking 10 minutes in rural areas and the suburbs; same day registration etc. etc.); popular election of the president; ten year terms for Supreme Court justices, with one possible renewal (i.e. 20 years on the court at most); the filibuster abolished, but also the various ways in which the Senate can block presidential nominations through inaction and other inanities; some kind of system like the Brits have for “first” and “second” reading of legislative bills to avoid the skullduggery of the current legislative process; creation of independent districting commissions for legislative and Congressional districts; some solution—either strict spending limits or public financing or limiting contributions to in-district contributors—to the money in politics swamp, including strict disclosure rules about who is giving money, with a ban on all corporate contributions another possibility; the prohibition of outside groups from writing legislation, i.e. laws are to be written by legislators not lobbyists.

I am sure there are more reforms needed.  But that list is daunting enough.

The system is currently so corrupt and so dysfunctional and so blatantly gives power to a small minority that a) it makes counting on elections seem absurd, suggesting that more direct and disruptive tactics are required and b) making me (at least) wonder how long it can stagger along.  A system so broken and so unresponsive must (it would seem) generate massive unrest.  Yet, yet, yet . . .  Its stability is both astounding and rock solid.

That solidity is, in part, the unthinkability of violence coupled with the despairing realization that anything short of violence won’t do the trick.  But, also in part, people’s lives are not intolerable enough.  They have just enough to not want to risk what they have.  There is plenty of fear (insecurity about employment and the costs of medical care, education, and old age is rampant) and outrage (although that outrage spills off into two very different directions, either against the shameless privileged or against the maligned poor and immigrants) out there, but not enough (apparently) to spur a mass movement—and certainly well short of creating sustained violence.

Those are my dark thoughts.  We live in a deeply undemocratic society in which the plutocrats have consolidated their power over the past forty years—and yet their abuses have not stirred anything like a sustained counter-movement while they have rendered electoral politics almost completely irrelevant, no serious threat to their agenda.

2 thoughts on “Electoral Politics in an Increasingly Non-Democratic US

  1. , The National Popular Vote bill is 61% of the way to guaranteeing the majority of Electoral College votes and the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country, by changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes.

    All voters would be valued equally in presidential elections, no matter where they live.
    Candidates, as in other elections, would allocate their time, money, polling, organizing, and ad buys roughly in proportion to the population

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.
    No more distorting, crude, and divisive and red and blue state maps of predictable outcomes, that don’t represent any minority party voters within each state.
    No more handful of ‘battleground’ states (where the two major political parties happen to have similar levels of support) where voters and policies are more important than those of the voters in 38+ predictable states that have just been ‘spectators’ and ignored after the conventions.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    In 2017, the bill has passed the New Mexico Senate and Oregon House.
    The bill was approved in 2016 by a unanimous bipartisan House committee vote in both Georgia (16 electoral votes) and Missouri (10).
    Since 2006, the bill has passed 35 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the way to guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate with the most popular votes in the country



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