Failing democracy

“Yet, after all, we may now, in these days of disunion and terror, venture to ask if our government has, after all, ever been a Republic?” -- New York Times Editorial, March 14, 1861

It’s 2017 and the democratic experiment in America is failing. I do not say this as click bait or dramatic hyperbole.  I’m stating in plain language the unavoidable truth of our current situation.

Our nation is becoming increasingly undemocratic, and we would be wise to take note of this and work to address this reality before the powder keg we are sitting on ignites.  History has taught us, from the Revolutionary War to the Arab Spring, that the combination of government that is detached from the will of the people, and attached to policies that oppress, exploit and harm, is usually explosive.  We are, in this historical moment, on the precipice.  We can choose to intentionally make our system more democratic, more responsive to the will and needs of the people, and more just, or we can risk moving from a failing to a failed democracy.  

The evidence to support this position, as I see it, is overwhelming.  

Low Turnout in Elections
A shockingly small percentage of our population turns out for elections.  Even with well beyond a billion dollars spent on the presidential campaigns alone, turnout on Nov 8th was a pathetic 55.4%. This places us towards the very bottom of a comparative list of other wealthy, western democracies.  The reasons for low turnout are plentiful, from the mess of a registration system we have, to the closing of polling locations and reductions in voting hours, to the pitiful conditions of precincts in many areas that make voting a long and costly process, to the massive efforts at voter suppression that are now in place in many states, to the low opinion people have of the available candidates, to the distrust many people have of a system where politicians are more accountable to their funders than their constituents.  No matter how you slice it, when nearly 45% of our eligible population does not participate in elections, we have a crisis on our hands.

Misrepresentation in the Senate
Among the many complexities built into our federalist system is the idea that the Senate would have equal representation for each state.  This made for a strategic compromise among the 13 colonies who thought of themselves as sovereign entities, and gave some assurance to states with no major urban areas or centers of dense population.  But today it means that the Senate is a glaringly undemocratic institution, which grants vastly disproportionate power to small, Republican leaning states, at the expense of the majority of the people in our country.  

What this looks like at the extremes is that in California, the country’s most populated state, each of their 2 Democratic Senators represents 1 vote in the Senate per 19.6 million people.  Whereas in Wyoming, the nation’s least populated state, each of their 2 Republican Senators represents 1 vote per 293,000 people.  This means that people in Wyoming are represented with 67 times the weight as each person in California.  

43% of our country lives in states that have elected 2 Democratic Senators (32% for Republicans) and a full 67% of the nation’s population lives in states that have elected at least 1 Democratic Senator.  And yet despite this decidedly Democratic lean, we see Republicans holding a 52-48 majority in the Senate (including 2 Independent Senators who caucus with Democrats).  And this does not even count the fact that the nearly 700,000 heavily Democratic leaning residents of Washington DC receive no representation in the Senate at all.  

Gerrymandering in the House of Representatives
Using presidential elections as a barometer, and since there are very few split ticket voters left in America, we would expect that representation in the House would closely mirror what we see at the top of the ticket.  On Nov 8th, Hillary Clinton received 48% of the vote (Trump 46%), and nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump overall.  We would expect then, that in the House we would see something close to a 50/50 split among Democrats and Republicans, with a likely edge to Democrats.  The reality is troublingly different.  Currently, of the 435 seats in the House, Republicans control 240 (55%) to Democrats 193 (44%).  

The discrepancy is even worse in some of the most important swing states.  In Michigan where the presidential election was a statistical tie, Republicans control 64% of the congressional seats.  In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania where there were comparable ties between Clinton and Trump, Republicans control 63% and 72% of the congressional seats respectively.  And there are other dramatically disturbing cases like this in states like Virginia, Florida, and Ohio.  This misrepresentation in congress gives the Republicans a nearly impenetrable majority on all votes, despite being the minority party nationally.   

As Republicans have taken control of state legislatures and Governors mansions across the country, they have redrawn voting districts to favor their candidates.  This is a mostly legal, but highly undemocratic practice known as gerrymandering.  It has historically been done by Democrats as well, but with modern technology, it is being wielded by Republicans to create a political map whereby Republicans with views that are strongly out of line with the people can win and hold office despite major opposition.  Currently Republicans control the governor’s office in 33 states, and control both chambers of the state legislature in 32 states.  To any observer, this level of disconnect between the views of the people and the reality of those in power suggests a rigged system that is not accountable to the people.   

The Electoral College
A core principle of any democratic society (technically we mean a republic) is that the people will elect their representatives directly.  We do this for every elected office in this country, from local school boards, to members of congress.  The only elected position we don’t elect directly is the most powerful of them all, president of the United States.  The Electoral College is offensive to democracy on its face.  Its origins are reflective of the strong distrust of the masses that James Madison and our founding fathers had.  That today we preserve this unnecessary institution is laughable.  If any other nation on earth had such an institution, we would call their elections a sham, and perhaps suggest UN monitors be put in place.   That twice in the last 17 years, the Electoral College has placed a president in power who did not carry the popular vote is shameful.  No democracy can sustain itself when its single most important elected office is regularly given to a person and a party that does not reflect the will of the people.  

Voter Suppression
2016 saw the first presidential election take place in more than 50 years without the Voting Rights Act in place.  That the story of the systematic suppression of voting rights of African Americans, the elderly, the poor, college students, and other minority groups got little to no coverage during the campaign illustrates a media that was complicit in the Republicans’ return to Jim Crow style politics, and an unforgiveable failure of the Democrats to fight for some of their most loyal constituents.   Following the horrific Supreme Court ruling stripping the Voting Rights Act of all meaningful power, 14 states enacted voter suppression laws, including many of the swing sates that decided Trump’s Electoral College victory.  The measures they enacted varied from voter ID laws, to closing of polling places, to restrictions on early voting, to purging of voter rolls of thousands of registered voters of color.  In a democratic system with abysmally low turnout already, that states would be putting into place intentional measures to suppress the vote is as strong a signal as there can be to the people that our votes are not valued.  

The aggregate effect of these realities in our political system is extremely dangerous.  From the right, we see the escalating fight to preserve power via an unrepresentative, and unjust system.  Currently this manifests in a strong surge towards authoritarian rule, with leadership and support from some of the most virulent hate groups among us.  And from the left it is fueling a potentially explosive combination of a majority that recognizes the need to protest and oppose those in power, while there is very little aspect of government that is responsive to their demands.  If we continue to persist in this status quo, I fear we will come to face one of two outcomes, some version of corporate authoritarian rule, or violent revolution to prevent it.   

So what can be done to take a different path?  I would argue that there are some specific policies we could enact that would make our political system fundamentally more democratic and allow for a representative democracy that is responsive to the people, rather than corporate interests and wealthy funders.  First, we must remove money from elections.  Citizens United has been disastrous at accelerating the legalized corruption of politicians, but we must go further than overturning that decision.  As long as politicians can be bought and sold through campaign contributions, dark money, and can use their office to personally enrich themselves, nothing will change.  We need public funding of elections, stronger limits on individual contributions, and greater transparency around where any money in the system comes from.  

Second, we must address gerrymandering with non-partisan commissions that draw districts equitably.  Third, we need states to pass legislation stating that their electors in the Electoral College will cast their votes with the winner of the national popular vote.  In the near future, it’s inconceivable that we would have a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, but we could have a critical mass of states adopt this type of law.  Even if a few states, like Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio did this, it would revolutionize presidential campaigns and essentially guarantee the presidency to the winner of the popular vote.  

Fourth, we need the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act with even stronger provisions to ensure that states act affirmatively to expand voter participation.  This should include more polling locations, longer hours, more early voting, weekend voting, transportation for those who need it, automatic voter registration, enfranchisement for those convicted of felonies, and pre-clearance for any law impacting voting from any state with documented history of voter suppression.  

Wiser people than I have said that sometimes, when in a crisis, the only way out is through.  It is going to be difficult for us to avoid the perils of authoritarian rule, and the unpredictability of violent revolution.  But we have the choice to save what is left of our democracy and build upon it something new and better.  I hope, for all of us, that we decide it’s worth saving. 

Jeff Garrett is an educator, who has worked with historically underserved schools in New York City and Los Angeles, and is a passionate advocate for social justice.