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theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer
Friday, December 9, 2016
NO, America Isn't 'RULED By a MINORITY'
Liberal Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne's newest entry complains that America's constitutional electoral system is out of date, imposing the "rule" of the minority onto the "disempowered" majority. I characterize his tone as "complaining" because he acknowledges that changes to the current, lasting design are extremely unlikely, and he only fleetingly even references any 'reforms' that he'd like to see implemented. His bottom line argument boils down to: People who live in small states have too much power due to the apportionment of Senate seats, and undemocratic disconnects between the popular vote and electoral college winners in presidential contests are becoming more frequent. A few responses:
(1) On the first point, the equality of representation in the upper house of a bicameral federal legislature was a crucial element of the Connecticut compromise, forged at the 1787 constitutional convention. The whole idea then, as it remains now, was to make sure that smaller states didn't get short shrift in the governance of a republic operating under a federalist system. The Senate was deliberately set up to be different from the House, a majoritarian body in which large, population-based delegations wield more power. California has just as many Senate seats as Wyoming, but it has 52 more House seats.
That's a lot of representation. Also, if I recall correctly, Dionne wasn't whinging about how unfair the concept of the Senate was back when Democrats built a filibuster-proof majority over the 2006 and 2008 cycles. His preferred party lost said majority not due to an insurrection of tiny states over abstruse issues, but because of bad, unpopular policies -- so bad and unpopular, in fact, that the people of deep blue Massachusetts sent a Republican to the Senate in a fruitless attempt to block the passage of Obamacare. Since the Democratic wave year of 2008, the GOP has won Senate seats in states as disparate and diverse as Florida, Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New Hampshire, Colorado, Ohio, North Carolina, and Montana. They've turned a 20-seat disadvantage into an outright majority.
And they stand to gain further in 2018 -- although that's no sure bet because when the American people are unhappy with the party in power, they tend to send very clear electoral signals. Just ask any Republican alumni of the 2006 and 2008 cycles, or their Democratic counterparts from 2010 and 2014. Dionne's observation that the gap between the largest and smallest states by population has grown much wider today (67-to-1) than it was in 1790 (13-to-1) isn't very compelling. Each census impacts the size of every state's Congressional delegation; the Senate stays the same, and the House shifts. As designed.
(2) Dionne advances the notion that there's an escalating trend of divergent electoral college and popular vote winners in presidential elections. He mentions that prior to 2000, this outcome only occurred three times, yet it's happened twice in the last five elections. But Al Gore's narrow popular vote win in 2000 is forever tainted by the media's recklessly premature calls that he'd won the decisively important state of Florida very early in the evening, while polls were still open across large swaths of the country, in multiple time zones (polls were still open in parts of Florida, for crying out loud). It's impossible to quantify how many voters decided not to bother voting that afternoon and evening because the election appeared to be over.
So remove that black swan electoral 'perfect storm' from the equation, and there's no evidence left that any such "trend" exists at all. It also bears repeating that the outcome of the national popular vote may be interesting trivia, but it's useless as a determinative data point. There is no way of knowing how the popular vote would have turned out if both major candidates had tailored their campaign strategy to a popular-vote-wins template. Clinton and Trump campaigned and focused their messaging and resources to win the electoral college, which Trump accomplished.
(3) As Dionne oh-so-briefly notes, the "national popular vote" of House races went to the GOP -- by millions of votes, he might have added, but didn't. Such details don't lend themselves to "minority rule" hyperventilating, alas. He also refers to House Republicans' plurality, perhaps to underscore that they didn't secure a majority of the overall vote nationwide; it's therefore worth pointing out that the GOP attracted a significantly larger plurality (49.6 percent) than Mrs. Clinton did (48.1 percent). Both popular vote pluralities are exactly equal, however, in their irrelevancy to the final outcomes. Because that's not how either system works.
(4) But the weakest link in Dionne's "minority rule" panic, aside from barely acknowledging Republicans' historically large House majority, was exposed by an otherwise-sympathetic Ron Fournier:
Indeed. Totally unaddressed in this column is that fact that the Republicans -- that nasty "minority party" that has somehow hijacked the reins of power by exploiting an arcane framework -- will control fully two-thirds of America's governorships in 2017. This includes places like New Hampshire, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Illinois, and even Vermont. Only 16 of 50 states will have a Democratic chief executive. And since Dionne chooses to cite population percentages to diminish the legitimacy of the Senate, I'll mention that the 33 states with Republican leaders represent a large majority of the US population -- nearly 200 million people, in total.
Furthermore, the GOP will hold majorities in a staggering, sweeping 68 of America's 99 state legislative bodies (Nebraska's legislature is nonpartisan and unicameral). That all-time high represents complete dominance, left unremarked upon in an extended harangue about minority rule. Maybe Dionne ignored these figures because, like many liberals, he's myopically fixated on the power of the federal government. But our founders vested enormous power in the states, just as they designed a Senate that would serve as a backstop against sheer nationwide majoritarianism. It may therefore be worthwhile for left-leaning columnists to spend less time whining about Wyoming and more time examining how Democrats must expand their appeal beyond coastal liberals and urban dwellers.